A community budgeting process set in motion by Seattle leaders during racial justice protests three years ago yielded results this month as participants given the chance to allocate more than $27 million selected six projects, including a proposal to bolster the city’s supply of 24-hour public restrooms.
The “participatory budgeting” process administered by a city consultant used ranked-choice voting to choose six winners from 18 proposals. The proposals were developed by community “budget delegates” and support staff after members of the public submitted almost 500 ideas, with outreach focused on youth, people of color and people experiencing homelessness, among others.
About 4,300 people voted between Oct. 10 and Nov. 12, making their choices through the effort’s website and at in-person events. The voting was open to anyone over age 15 who “lives, works or plays” in Seattle.
The winning projects promised to address a range of the city’s social and economic challenges, including homelessness and housing struggles, racial inequity, street-level mental health crises and an inadequate supply of clean, safe and accessible public restrooms.
As the voting took place last month, a Seattle Times series called attention to the toilet crisis, describing how people from many neighborhoods and walks of life are affected. Mayor Bruce Harrell had no comment on the series, and he and City Council members added no concrete, new solutions in the 2024 budget they passed Tuesday. But participatory-budgeting voters saw a need.
The winning proposals were:
• Additional 24-hour public restrooms and hygiene facilities ($7.2 million)
• A community center with a focus on Native youth ($7.2 million)
• Support for urban farming and food production ($7 million)
• Nonpolice responders to assist marginalized people in crisis ($2 million)
• Housing navigation and assistance ($2 million)
• Supportive housing, rental assistance and outreach for youth ($1.85 million)
“It’s been said that the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution but the furthest away from resources and power. (Participatory budgeting) gets more people into decision-making spaces,” Derrick Wheeler-Smith, director of the Seattle Office of Civil Rights, said in a statement.
It’s not clear yet how exactly the projects will be executed. The Office of Civil Rights, which is overseeing the participatory-budgeting process, is working on an implementation plan in conjunction with an interdepartmental team, according to a Nov. 17 memo. Outcomes may be constrained by the one-time nature of the expenditures, the memo noted. Once an implementation plan is ready next year, legislation will be sent to the City Council, the memo said.
That will mark the endpoint of a process that started in 2020, when Black Lives Matter protesters and racial justice advocates pressed Seattle leaders to divest from policing and invest in community-led health and safety initiatives focused on Black people and others. As part of their response, the City Council and then-Mayor Jenny Durkan set aside almost $30 million for projects selected via participatory budgeting.
The city had experimented with participatory budgeting on a smaller scale before, but the Seattle effort now wrapping up is the nation’s largest such investment, according to the Office of Civil Rights. The effort was bumpy early on, when groups engaged in a $3 million research project broke up and when that project’s no-bid contract drew concerns from the state auditor. But researchers for that project ultimately completed a report that recommended a number of participatory-budgeting strategies.