By Bruce Checefsky


In the summer of 2021, the City of Cleveland launched a website to solicit ideas from residents on ways to spend $511.7 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

PB CLE, a grassroots coalition of individuals and groups, asked the city to set aside $30.8 million of ARPA funding to spend in direct consultation with the residents of Cleveland through participatory budgeting practices. PB CLE came up with $30.8 million based on the poverty rate of Cleveland, which is 30.8%, the highest poverty rate of any big city in the United States. Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget.

Participatory Budgeting (PB) started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in response to the rapid growth and inability to provide services to its city residents. In 1989, a newly elected Workers Party inverted the decision-making process so that citizens decided how a portion of the budget gets spent. By 1997, sewer and water connections went up from 75 percent to 98 percent; health and education budgets increased from 13 percent to 40 percent; the number of schools quadrupled, and road building in poor neighborhoods increased five-fold, according to the World Resource Institute, a global research non-profit organization established in 1982 with funding from the MacArthur Foundation.

PB CLE coalition recently held a Zoom meeting to discuss strategies to bring participatory budgeting to Cleveland. Jennifer Lumpkin, assisting in the process as a grassroots organizer, hosted the meeting and said the mission of PB is to empower residents to get involved in how to spend public funds.

“While we work with the mayor and city council, we want to empower residents to decide where to spend public dollars,” said Lumpkin.

Joe Gaston, a resident of Cleveland, said that social issues such as mental health and poverty need to be a priority. Millions of dollars are pumped into the system every year. Yet those dollars do not help the most vulnerable residents. The money usually benefits home and business owners, he added.

“There is no real priority in addressing homelessness. I have not heard talk about increasing addiction services,” said Gaston. “The ideas we have tend to be lofty. I am shocked that we have not addressed our social ills. I have a problem with us ignoring these issues.”

Despite reservations, Cleveland City Council Finance, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee voted 7-2 in favor of the $1.8 billion annual budget proposed by Mayor Bibb. The budget includes a 25% increase from $2.7 million to $3.6 million in the Office of the Mayor. Top officials and staff members will earn between $140,000 and $190,000 a year under the new budget. The Community Police Commission budget is $2.1 million, or 75% more than last year. That increase includes more than $1 million for community grants, as required by Issue 24. The Cleveland Division of Police was increased by 6% to $223 million.

Ward 8 Cleveland City Councilman Michael D. Polensek, who has served the Collinwood neighborhood consecutively since 1978, voted against the budget.

“We should not be spending money like a drunken Russian sailor,” said Polensek. “I have been around long enough to know that we have to be mindful of expenses. I represent people that cannot afford to pay their property taxes. Why are we paying city executives $190,000 a year and lifeguards $10 an hour?”