SARATOGA SPRINGS–The nine-member Participatory Budgeting Committee announced this week by Saratoga Springs’ Commissioner of Finance Minita Sanghvi includes JoAnne Kiernan, the Republican candidate who ran against Sanghvi last year.
“We’re excited to have her,” Sanghvi said. “It’s wonderful to have bipartisan support for something like this. We’ve tried to get as much diversity as possible.”
The committee members – who are divided between the east and west sides of the city, according to Sanghvi – will oversee the city’s participatory budgeting process that Sanghvi unveiled earlier this year.
Kiernan said she got involved after going to a workshop that Sanghvi hosted on the concept. At that workshop, Sanghvi suggested that Kiernan, who has professional experience as a CPA and volunteer experience that includes serving on the Saratoga Springs City School District Board of Education, would make a good Participatory Budgeting Committee member.
Kiernan said she is glad to be part of the bipartisan committee, and she wants to be optimistic about the participatory budgeting idea.
“I hope everybody can work past politics for the betterment of the city,” Kiernan said. “It’ll be good to work together for a common goal.”
The 2022 participatory budgeting pilot program offers residents the chance to propose projects, with total funding for all projects making up 0.25% of the city’s general fund – or about $135,000. City residents ages 18 and over can cast votes for the strongest project in two categories – individual projects and organizational projects.
The city has already received project ideas ranging from developing curling and mountain bike sites to creating a mobile bike repair unit, Sanghvi said.
Committee members Norah Brennan, Jeff Altamari, Kiernan, Tim Holmes, Devin Del Pos, Douglas Gerhardt, Maryann Ryckman, Hal Rose and Jonathan Jeerapaet bring backgrounds in accounting and finance, municipal government, law, business development and community organizing. The committee’s primary job is to help individuals and organizations develop proposals that are financially and legally feasible. The committee will also tally the public votes, and make funding recommendations to Sanghvi, who will seek the Saratoga Springs City Council’s approval to fund and complete projects during 2023.
Sanghvi had originally planned an 11-person committee.
“I guess people don’t seem to find budgeting as exciting as I do,” Sanghvi said with a chuckle.
Participatory budgeting is a process that lets citizens decide how to spend part of a municipality’s budget. Started in Brazil in 1989, participatory budgeting has been used in more than 7,000 cities around the world and has funded more than 1,630 projects, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project. Cities using it include Chicago and New York City, said Elizabeth Crews, director of Democracy Beyond Elections. Saratoga’s initiative is the first for a city in the region – though Rochester currently employs the practice, Crews said.
The initiative in Saratoga is part of Sanghvi’s plan to make good on campaign promises of inclusion.
“Right from the get-go, I’ve been talking about making Saratoga Springs more inclusive and having more people at the table,” Sanghvi said. “I had promised everybody that if I get elected I am going to expand the table and reimagine the table. This is our way of doing it.”
But some cities who have implemented the practice have found it to be challenging.
Greensboro, N.C., a city of about 300,000 people, has been doing participatory budgeting for a few years, according to Karen Kixmiller, senior budget & management analyst for the city. The city’s participatory budget is $500,000 – less than 1% of the total budget.
“It’s a challenge to get ideas that are going to be feasible and doable in the community,” Kixmiller said.
Finding and keeping volunteers can also be difficult, she said. “Politically, it’s a win for the elected officials, and it’s a win for those that are typically engaged in their community to feel more connected and even better educated about different city processes. We draw some new people in, certainly, but it’s not a huge number. It might be very impactful for a small number of people, but it has less impact broadly on the community at large.”
Still, Kixmiller said participatory budgeting has led to several meaningful projects in the city, such as raising a bridge railing that had been deemed unsafe and installing solar lighting.
“Anything a city does to help engage the population is important and valid, and anything that helps create good will and information exchange is a positive. PB is a driver of that, for sure,” Kixmiller said.
Committee member Altamari, whose volunteer experience includes serving on the Saratoga Arts Board of Directors and whose professional background is as a financial officer for a global oil and gas company in Texas, said participatory budgeting has a lot of upside.
“This is more transparency, more citizen participation, and it’s more democratic,” Altamari said. “I encourage all of that, especially when you consider the horrendous political climate we see nationally.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.
A line on each board member:
Jeff Altamari, senior financial executive and Saratoga Arts board member
Norah Brennan, business development and product management expertise, community organizer
Devin DalPos, member of the Saratoga County Planning Board, and past president of the Southwest Neighborhood Association
Douglas Gerhardt, attorney/advisor to public sector organizations, past board president of Saratoga Center for the Family
Timothy Holmes, former Republican candidate for mayor of Saratoga Springs, and entrepreneur with expertise in public-private partnerships
Jonathan Jeerapaet, CPA with expertise in auditing and financial reporting
JoAnne Kiernan, CPA and past president of Saratoga Springs City School District Board of Education
Hal Rose, IT consultant with expertise in business applications
Mary Estelle Ryckman, former Senior Policy Advisor for the Office of the US Trade Representative