Durham County

How should Durham spend your money? You will actually get to decide

City of Durham

UPDATE: Durham City Council voted 5-2 at its meeting on May 21 to spend $2.4 million on participatory budgeting projects in FY19-20. Mayor Steve Schewel and Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton voted no, as Schewel thought $1 million was enough and Middleton wanted the city staff-recommended $750,000.

Durham residents could soon have a bigger say in how their tax dollars are spent. But first the City Council needs to decide exactly how much they're willing to let residents spend.

It's called participatory budgeting, and it has been a priority of Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, who introduced the idea to the Council.

On May 21, the council will take its first vote on how much money residents will get to spend on projects of their choosing. It could range from $750,000 to $2.5 million.

The city's 2017-18 budget is $429.4 million, so $1 million would be 0.23 percent of that budget. On May 21, the city manager will present his proposed budget for 2018-19 to the Council.

This coming fiscal year, a steering committee will lead the process with help from city staff, who recommend $750,000 to spend on the community's ideas. The council may start accepting applications in April 2019, with projects to be completed in the 2019-20 budget year.

Council members Mark-Anthony Middleton and DeDreana Freeman support spending $750,000 total on projects, which will be voted on by residents ages 13 and older, though the process for voting still has to be decided.

Middleton said he was prepared to make a case for spending between $500,000 and $600,000.

"I think the $2.5 million is just not workable the first year, but I'm inclined to go with the staff recommendation for $750,000," he said. "Participatory budgeting is just not what I hear from the masses of the people."

Middleton said that when he was running for his Ward 2 council seat this past fall, he heard about jobs, housing and safety from residents the most.

"I do not think crossing the million-dollar threshold in the first year is going to fly with a lot of people, at least not people I talk to," he said.

Council member Vernetta Alston, however, wants the city to spend $2.5 million, she said.

"One of the things that made me excited about participatory budgeting is the potential for it to help us move forward on our goals for housing, and jobs and public safety," she said. Alston said the project can help residents understand how the city spends money and builds engagement for generations.

The City of Greensboro has just closed its second cycle of participatory budgeting. It lets residents decide how to spend $500,000 in projects, with each of the five council districts getting $100,000 to spend. The winning projects for this coming fiscal year include a bus shelters, solar charging stations and playground improvements.

Durham has not decided yet how to divvy up the money, but is leaning toward using the ward system. The Durham City Council has three ward seats and three at-large seats, plus the mayor.

Council member Javiera Caballero said her concern is that if they don’t put enough money toward it, it's going to fail.

"Is half a million dollars going to be enough to complete a project? I don’t know," Caballero said.

Freeman wants to go low on funding the first year.

"This is a work in progress," she said.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563; @dawnbvaughan