by Eric Ginsburg
Dozens of residents turn out to five district meetings to learn about what proposals will be on the ballot this month in Greensboro’s first participatory budgeting process.
If you know how much it covers, $90,000 isn’t that high a price to pay for an app like this.
At least that’s what North Carolina A&T University student Hassan Black said —standing behind a poster advertising his idea for an app that would allow transit riders to track when their bus would be arriving — at Griffin Recreation Center on April 1.
The phone app, which would be custom-designed for the Greensboro Transit Authority’s bus system, might cost more up front to cover hardware like transmitters for each bus, building a database and creating the phone software, but Black said that in the long run the price tag makes it much cheaper than similar commodities a large company might offer.
“$90,000 is actually a really good price for this kind of software,” he said.
Plus, he added, it would provide GTA with all sorts of incredibly useful data about its fleet, making it an asset to the city and bus riders. Several larger cities already benefit from comprehensive public transit apps, Black said, and building one for Greensboro is exactly the kind of work he hopes to pursue after graduating.
[pullquote]To learn more about when you can vote, visit greensboro-nc.gov/pb
[/pullquote]Around Black, similar tri-fold posters were stacked atop tables in the side room at the rec center in west Greensboro, each making the case for capital projects the city of Greensboro could undertake to enhance the city. Most cost far less than Black’s proposal — like a $10,000 mural of the A&T Four — though a few such as a skate spot at Lake Daniel Park or upgrading Hester Park soccer fields hit $100,000.
Greensboro’s participatory budgeting project — the first of its kind in the region and one of only several in the nation — allocates $100,000 to each of the five city council districts for the first time for the next budget year. The idea is to empower voters to decide how a portion of the city budget is spent, voting directly for proposals at a series of meetings later this month.
Last week, the city and the nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project held a meeting every night of the week, one in each district, to allow residents to see the proposals before them, ranging from new chess tables to crosswalks. Some, like Black’s, aren’t district specific, and would require support across the city to win, while others like pet-waste baskets at Benbow Park in District 1 could be accomplished with an estimated $300.
Ideas were collected through a public input process and then fleshed out by volunteer committees who helped assess feasibility and cost, project assistant Erica Lindenberg with the Participatory Budgeting Project said at the District 1 meeting on March 31.
A few residents who attended the District 1 community expo at Hayes-Taylor YMCA said they wished more community outreach had been done to solicit ideas, arguing that some of the proposals — including $40,000 for artistic bus wraps and $10,000 for chess tables — didn’t align with the real needs of a city with high poverty rates.
“The community outreach just was not there,” Tarshia C. Donnell said.
Standing next to her in the corner of the room, Sandra Isley agreed. Too many of the ideas didn’t reflect the real needs of the community, she said, quickly offering one of her own: some way to help single mothers like her afford summer camps and community programs this summer. Without the help, Isley said she’d need to find someone to care for her daughter while she’s at work after school lets out for the year.
Timothy X, an activist who also runs Cash Money Photography, said he liked Isley’s idea and concurred about the need for greater outreach. But, he added, several of the ideas put forward are more agreeable.
And therein lies the significance of participatory budgeting — residents can vote directly on the proposals, and some ideas will rise to the top while others will fade into the background.
But the concern that more outreach may have been needed or that the inaugural attempt at participatory budgeting in Greensboro is a little shaky isn’t without merit. By the fourth district meeting last week, organizers said that some aspects about the process — like how many votes each person will get — are still being worked out. And at the fifth meeting, for District 5, attendees and organizers talked about how a plan for Hester Park’s soccer fields might be split into smaller components so that the district’s entire $100,000 allocation wouldn’t necessarily be eaten up by one project if approved by voters.
There isn’t much time to sort out those kind of details — the first vote will be held for District 4 on April 11.
Each district will have two opportunities to vote, and with the exception of District 3, there are different polling places each time in an attempt to maximize accessibility. For example, District 2 residents can vote on April 14 at McGirt-Horton Library from 4 to 8 p.m., or from noon to 4 p.m. at Windsor Rec Center on April 18. The pattern is similar for each district, though each of the 10 voting times is held on a different day over a two-week span, which might add to some confusion among residents. The full schedule and additional information about participatory budgeting is available at greensboro-nc.gov/pb.
The site doesn’t include a detailed list of what ideas residents will be able to vote on, though Lindenberg said the posters would be up at voting sites and residents could browse or ask questions before making a decision. That will help, because while some ideas are self explanatory — a bus shelter at the intersection of Vandalia Road and Lakefield Drive in District 1, or a Latham Park emergency call box in District 3 — others, like Black’s, benefit from a deeper explanation.