Atlanta may let residents decide which projects get tax dollars

Atlanta residents could get a more direct say in how to spend some of their tax dollars under a new “participatory budgeting” plan.

Under the proposal being developed, residents could cast votes to determine how up to 2% of the city’s annual budget — roughly $13 million currently — is spent. The program is modeled after similar ones in Seattle, New York, and Durham, N.C.

At a work session Tuesday, Councilman Amir Farokhi said he proposed it to build trust in City Hall, which has been the center of a federal corruption investigation since January 2017.

“This is not money for council members to set aside and do as they please in their districts,” Farokhi said at the work session.

The plan would give each of the city’s 12 districts $1 million for projects residents choose. The remaining $1 million balance would go into another for citywide projects.


The city would partner with local groups and agencies such as MARTA, libraries and neighborhood associations to collect ideas in July and August. A committee of residents would sort through their district’s ideas and create a short list, which city officials would vet for feasibility and legality. Following that, residents would vote in January for their three favorite projects. Anyone over 13 would get to vote.

More than one project could be done if they don’t cost more than the allotted $1 million. An evaluation process is also built in to track project goals and make needed adjustments.

Farokhi’s office looked at several cities, including Durham and New York, that do participatory budgeting. At Tuesday’s work session, Durham’s Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson and New York Councilman Carlos Menchaca said residents have been receptive, but there have been drawbacks.

Menchaca said in eight years since New York City began participatory budgeting, 700 projects have been approvedbut 136 have been completed. "We're trying to figure out how we retool resources and work with agencies on how we get these projects done," he said.

For both cities, a challenge has been reaching out to underserved communities, such as low-income residents and people of color. Menchaca said some residents have complained that the process is skewed to give too much clout to parents and children.

“Seniors often feel like ‘what about us,’ ” he said. “It’s required us as council members to engage seniors in a different way and look at spaces that feel invisible.”

Atlanta’s program could be approved in time for the fiscal year 2021 budget, but Farokhi hopes to start a one-year pilot program in District 2, which includes Downtown, Midtown, Old Fourth Ward and Inman Park and District 11, which covers much of southwest Atlanta including the Greenbriar Mall, Princeton Lakes, and Ben Hill communities.

District 2 sits in a vibrant area with many developments centered in Midtown; District 11 is a predominantly black community with roughly a 27 percent poverty rate. If the pilot program is approved, the districts will each get $250,000 for their projects and $100,000 would cover administrative costs.

“We want to engage as many residents as possible including kids and seniors,” Farokhi said.

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