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What does city-wide participatory budgeting look like in Wisconsin? Eau Claire is figuring that out

Empower Eau Claire is the city's new participatory budgeting program. Residents can provide ideas and vote on projects they think would best serve the community.
City of Eau Claire
Empower Eau Claire is the city's new participatory budgeting program. Residents can provide ideas and vote on projects they think would best serve the community.

The City of Milwaukee is in the final stages of the budgeting process for 2022. This year, city officials made an effort to get more community input. The city hosted two public hearings on the budget, but several local organizations say that isn’t enough.

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Organizers have called on city officials to build a participatory budgeting process. This process, which can be done by neighborhoods or the entire city, allows community members to decide on projects and how to spend resources.

Participatory budgeting started in Porto Alegre, Brazil and has expanded to cities such as Chicago and Seattle. But what does it look like in practice? Eau Claire is the first city in Wisconsin to incorporate participatory budgeting. The city has allocated $300,000 of the city's budget for residents to vote on projects they feel are most important to them. Any resident over the age of twelve is able to cast their vote.

This is the first year Eau Claire is implementing this new method. Ned Noel, a senior planner for the City of Eau Claire, says the change comes as the community began taking an interest in civic democracy. In 2007 and 2008, community members made a program called Clear Vision Eau Claire to advocate for this process.

"[Clear Vision Eau Claire] organized and rallied around key issues that not just local government alone could solve, and created a plan with different issue areas like sustainability, or economic development, or the arts," Noel says.

The Eau Claire City Council hired a consultant in 2018 from the Participatory Budgeting Project, who provided recommendations for launching the program. Earlier this year, a committee was formed to work with city council to get the word out.

Mai Xiong, the co-chair for the participatory budget committee, emphasized the need to be intentional in outreach within communities of color. She says the first step is to build relationships with partners already working within the communities.

"Avenues of communication look very different in communities of color," Xiong says.

With kickoff and outreach events, she is working to share more about the participatory budgeting process with the community.

"This is a great opportunity for us to really get those communities who are interested, but have never really gotten the opportunity to really engage," Xiong says.

Noel says this is a chance to move issues outside of city hall and into the neighborhoods. "This program is really meant to be intentional to reach audiences that have been historically underserved."

Noel emphasizes that participatory budgeting can be done in other cities and a variety of community spaces.

"This can work in a small community, in the neighborhood level or within school districts," Noel says. "We're excited to lead the way here in our state."

Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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