A partnership between the City of Lansing’s Finance Department and its Department of Neighborhoods & Citizen Engagement might not seem like the most obvious of partnerships. According to the City Charter, the mission of the Finance Department is to “develop and control the financial management functions of the City. This includes accounting, assessment, income tax, and treasury functions.” With the exception of collecting income taxes, much of that responsibility would appear to be internal to the City’s functioning. However, helping residents to understand how their tax dollars are spent is equally as important as the accounting and assessment that the Finance Department does. When residents understand what a millage is, where their tax dollars go (hint: it doesn’t all go to the City!), and how that money is spent they will be better prepared to engage civically and voice their opinions with city leaders.
When Mayor Schor came to office in January 2018, he decided that transparency and neighborhood outreach would be a cornerstone of his administration. He created the Department of Neighborhoods & Citizen Engagement (DNCE) which is charged with supporting neighborhoods by convening community dialogues, delivering capacity building training, and connecting civic organizations to resources. With an understanding that engaging citizens means empowering residents to be well informed about city decisions, in fall 2018, the DNCE worked together with Finance Director Angela Bennett to plan four Participatory Budget Nights which would be phase one of a longer PB process within the city.
On Tuesday, November 13th, Lett’s Community Center hosted the first PB Night. To start the event, participants were given an opportunity to think about what they value in their community. They wrote ideas on sticky notes and then worked with table partners to group everyone’s sticky notes into common themes and reported out to the room what community values their group shared.
Next, Director Bennett talked about the life cycle of a tax dollar. To her, it was important for participants to understand that not all tax dollars come to the City of Lansing, but rather, are spread out across some 10 different receiving entities. She also talked about the other revenue sources that the city collects and how fluctuations in things like the State Shared Revenues can have a huge impact on the City’s budget.
Transitioning to the Expenditures side of the budget, Director Bennett began by expelling another common myth—that the entirety of the City’s budget is discretionary. In reality, $66 million of the City’s $134 million budget is reserved for legacy costs (e.g. pensions); facilities, technology, and fleet maintenance; legal obligations; and utilities. To allow participants a more hands-on way to learn about the city’s budget and create their own budget, city staff passed out different colored Legos representing different categories of spending and instructed participants to fill in their $68 million dollar discretionary budget with their spending priorities. Of course, each participant built their budget differently—one expanded the Parks and Recreation budget while cutting funding to Police and Fire. Another cut Community Development spending in favor of increases to General Government. Mayor Schor, who was in attendance at the event, was also able to answer specific questions about why the City’s budget looks the way it does.
Participatory Budgeting, a new engagement tool that has emerged over the past few years in places like Rio de Janeiro and New York City, is an important exercise because it allows residents to think about the challenges and opportunities that exist in their community and the many ways that the City’s budget is allocated to address those challenges. For example, public safety can be addressed through police and fire, but it can also be addressed by funding parks programming or funding homelessness support programs. While the personal budgets created at this event will not go directly to the Mayor’s desk, this event serves as an important opportunity for Lansing residents to learn about the City’s budget, think about how their values are reflected in the budget, and petition decision-makers to allocate the budget in different ways.
Interested in attending an upcoming PB Night? See the flyer for dates and locations.