Councilman Sam Liccardo Suggests Participatory Budgeting for Districts

A form of fiscal democracy called “participatory budgeting” that started in Brazil and is slowly gaining traction in the U.S. may soon take hold in San Jose.

Councilman Sam Liccardo submitted a proposal to the city Wednesday that asks to set aside $1.05 million from the Essential Services Reserve to fund a pilot program, which would give each of the 10 City Council districts $100,000 for residents to decide how to spend. The remaining $50,000 would pay for staff time to attend public meetings and take care of other administrative duties associated with implementing the plan.

If the council OKs the idea, it could get wrapped up in the city’s 2013-14 budget. This process allows residents to identify spending priorities and work with their neighbors to develop and vote on specific budget proposals.

When the Redevelopment Agency (RDA) was still a thing, about a quarter of the city had money on hand to fix blighted neighborhoods, Liccardo explains. The cash on hand got a bunch of residents to participate in public spending, as they saw opportunities to finance their ideas with a pretty quick return on their civic involvement.

When redevelopment cash disappeared, so did some of the especially active community members, Liccardo says. Even though anyone is welcome to weigh on the city’s larger budget process, from the priority setting meetings in January to the May and June hearings to final adoption, the lack of money directly allocated for a specific district has taken a toll on the number of people stepping up to get involved, according to Liccardo.

“People saw that they no longer had input,” Liccardo says.

Now, he hopes to use $100,000 per district to create more incentives to speak up.

“At its core, San Jose is a community of great neighborhoods with engaged, passionate residents, and we should be actively engaging our residents to improve the city,” Liccardo says. “Participatory budgeting gives people a chance to step up, identify problems in their communities and fix them.

“Their perspective deserves to be directly injected into the budgeting process.”

But critics could argue that the reason we have elected officials is to make these types of budget decisions. And there are also opinions that participatory budgeting is not always effective.

Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Vallejo are some of the cities that have all introduced this method of budgeting in their communities. The Knight Foundation offered to help get the program going here in San Jose, Liccardo says.

Liccardo’s proposal would have council districts host community forums where residents would come up with project ideas. If a councilmember chooses to opt out of the pilot, some of the sum would go back to the essential services fund and the rest to “cost out” participants’ funding proposals.

For residents who want to weigh in on the idea, there will be a public meeting at 6:30pm on June 4. For more details, contact Liccardo’s chief of staff Ragan Henninger at [email protected].

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. Why would a councilmember have the option to opt out? Isn’t the point to see what residents and not a council office determine to be priorities?

  2. A cleverly designed “feel good” program that only allows the council member to kick the can to someone else. For crying out loud, this city is screaming for a leader! In this trying time, you seriously think that wasting a million dollars right now is the best idea???

    When the citizens vote to plant trees and paint curbs, and essential city services, which call me crazy are what the essential city services reserve fund is for, go lacking, I can see it now. Geee (insert reporters name here) I really wanted to help the firemen, public works, sewage plant, cops and libraries, but “The people” voted for other things.

    All this program creates is a fast track to blaming others instead of standing up and taking responsibility for your actions and votes! We (the people) pay you to make budget decisions! Get a clue man!

  3. Essential Services Reserve,

    please tell me more about other hidden reserves we don’t know about.  How much more money is the city hiding from the general fund?

    And lets set aside another 50K for staff time?  Tell me more.  How about we get this city back on track first.  Like public works and public safety.

    Going to get a lot worse before it ever gets better.

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