San Francisco residents 16 years and older could soon vote on how The City should spend some $1 million of taxpayer money.
The idea is part of the growing trend of "participatory budgeting" in which residents can directly decide how a portion of government money is spent, such as on park improvements, purchasing books for the public library or road repaving.
"We are always looking for ways to improve our budget process," said Board of Supervisors President David Chiu. He has proposed a form of participatory budgeting as part of Mayor Ed Lee's $7.9 billion city and county budget proposal. The budget is currently under review by a board committee, which will hold hearings and make changes before the end of the fiscal year June 30.
Chiu said the existing process consumes an "incredible amount of time" for a relatively small dollar amount. Last year, the board made $20.5 million in funding changes, representing 0.3 percent of the entire budget.
San Francisco's first experience with participatory budgeting was this year when Chiu used the model to determine how to spend $100,000 on projects in his District 3, which includes North Beach and Chinatown. The mayor's budget for the current fiscal year included $100,000 for each of the 11 supervisors to spend on district needs.
Lee's budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1 does not include the $100,000 per supervisor. But Chiu said Lee has included $500,000 for a participatory budgeting process that would be available if the board, during its budget review, adds at least an additional $500,000 to the pot. Administrative costs are estimated at 10 to 15 percent of the total funding.
As supervisors discuss the budget, details of the participatory budgeting process are expected to be hashed out, such as what project types are valid and whether it should be one citywide process or split up among the 11 supervisor districts.
Supervisor Scott Wiener said the process could work well in some cases but there are some pitfalls to consider.
"This process could easily become nonrepresentative," Wiener said, "in terms of who comes to meetings, who participates, who is able to turn out people to vote."
Participatory budgeting began in 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Since then it has expanded in one form or another to 1,500 cities worldwide. It first came to the U.S. in the 49th Ward of Chicago in 2009 when Alderman Joe Ward had residents decide how to spend $1.3 million.
Vallejo has become the first city to use a citywide model, and residents there recently voted on how to spend $3.2 million, or 1.6 percent of its $200 million overall budget, on 12 public projects.