Participatory budgeting program launched in Candler Park, part of PB pilot program

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Ava Smith

As part of a pilot program for implementing the participatory budgeting model for development across Atlanta, Councilman Amir Farokhi has launched a PB project in Candler Park focused on improving arts, culture and green space.

Ava Smith

Atlanta City councilman Amir Farokhi has launched a new program to enhance Candler Park’s green spaces, art and culture and improve trust in local government. 

The participatory budgeting (PB) project, named “Candler Park Decides!”, allows people to submit proposals and vote for how money should be used to improve the parks and the arts and culture scene in Candler Park. With a budget of $45,000, “Candler Park Decides!” is part of a pilot program Farokhi’s office has been interested in since he was elected in 2017. 

“Starting in 2018, the first year Amir was in office, we started looking into this idea called participatory budgeting, which is becoming increasingly prevalent around the world,” Anthony Lucadamo, Farokhi’s legislative director, said. “I thought it was a really cool idea. The basic principle is that a certain portion of the government’s budget is set aside for people to propose ideas on how they would spend it within certain parameters … They get to vote on how they want to spend their own tax dollars.”  

Farokhi was not available to comment. 

With a participatory budgeting model, constituents can be directly involved in deciding how tax dollars are used in their community. According to Lucadamo, PB programs are important for establishing a relationship between local government and the city’s residents.

“Atlanta, at times, struggles a little bit with trust in government and interest in civic institutions; I think [Atlanta struggles with] engagement with institutions as well, outside of the electoral process,” Lucadamo said. “I think this is a really neat way to give people a voice, to get them active in government outside of just feeling like politicians are calling them to get their vote, but actually soliciting their feedback on something completely different and unique.” 

Candler Park resident Mark Martin says the PB project is a great way for neighborhoods to bring awareness of local issues to their city government. 

“I think it’s a good idea because it lets residents have a very active role both in which projects get proposed but then also, which gets funded,” Martin said. “Sometimes, I think really little things in our parks can make such a big difference in the experience, and not all city council members are experiencing public spaces in the same way as the residents. So, I think it’s a really good way for people to bring small ideas that can have a big difference to the awareness of the government.”  

The original $600,000 proposed to the City Council for the pilot program was split 12 ways across Atlanta’s districts, leaving about $45,000 for Farokhi’s district, District 2. However, Farokhi’s predecessor Kwanza Hall had allotted TSPLOST (Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) money to the Atlanta downtown area, which was combined with an additional contribution from Central Atlanta Progress’s board to fund a total of a $1,000,000 participatory budgeting program for Downtown Atlanta. The project became known as “Downtown Decides!”

“It’s been surprising to see how many people got involved and the variety of projects that were presented,” said Wesley Brown, Director of Planning & Capital Projects at Central Atlanta Progress. “I say that because some of the projects were as inexpensive as $1,000, and that’s really not something that city government, especially, handles really well. I think the City of Atlanta does big projects really well, but some of the small stuff is just harder to tackle because it’s usually seen as maintenance… So, to see stakeholders want such little things was interesting. It’s not always the big million dollar project that the community wants to see, but some of the two or three smaller ones are just as valuable in their eyes.” 

After the votes came in, residents of Downtown Atlanta selected 17 projects to be completed in their area. In addition to supplementing some of the cost for “Downtown Decides!”, Brown said the partnership between Central Atlanta Progress and Farokhi is beneficial because of the focus of the organization on the downtown area specifically.

“The city has a city to run, and I think that to some degree, my organization and I are really fortunate not to have to think about things that happen in four corners of the city,” Brown said. “We also get to focus on what we’re doing and don’t have to spread our attention too thin, and so, we have been able to accomplish many of the projects … we’re able to deliver the products on an accelerated timeline.”  

According to Lucadamo, the success of “Downtown Decides!” was part of what prompted the “Candler Park Decides!” project. 

“The feedback was certainly really positive,” Lucadamo said. “They were happy with the site; they were happy with the whole process; they were happy everything ran smoothly, so overall, it was a success. And when asked, there was a demand to expand into other neighborhoods in the district and other types of projects. So, there was, to us, a clear demand to keep growing to have that program and to do it elsewhere.” 

Because the program is still in its trial phase, Lucadamo said Candler Park was picked as the next area for a project to show the versatility of the participatory budget model. 

“There was an opportunity to show people that you can use PB in more ways than one,” Lucadamo said. “Candler Park is pretty different from downtown, and then we also want to show people that it doesn’t have to be transportation.”

Martin, who also voted in the “Downtown Decides!” project, submitted a proposal for “Candler Park Decides!”. His proposal would turn parking spaces on McLendon Avenue into parklets with benches and tables where people can gather. 

“Those parking spots that exist kind of cause a lot of traffic congestion … and it makes that intersection kind of a mess and kind of not that welcoming to pedestrians,” Martin said. “I think that increasing the public space in that area would be a really nice way to make it more friendly and welcoming for people.” 

Proposals for “Candler Park Decides!” can be submitted through the end of April before all the proposals go through a vetting process. Lucadamo said this process is not to “put a thumb on the scale,” but rather to ensure all proposals are legal and doable within the budget. In July, Candler Park residents can vote for as many proposals as they would like as long as the total falls under budget. Once the vote comes in, the city will start working on implementing the projects. Lucadamo says one of the most important things for a PB project is execution.

“[Timely execution] is ultimately kind of the most important thing about PB, making sure you, in the end, can deliver everything you said you were gonna do for people,” Lucadamo said. “Otherwise, you’ve caused more harm than good, if you got people excited and got them engaged and then, have to come back to and say, ‘Sorry, you voted for this thing, but we never get around to doing it.’” So, that’s the biggest part, especially when we’re in a pilot program phase.” 

Lucadamo explains that because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the city has a projected loss of revenue and the budget will be tight already, making it hard to add new PB funding. The short-term goal is to focus on building a successful pilot program, but there is hope that this pilot program can be expanded city-wide in the future. 

“We would probably have to have just a collaborative conversation with the other council offices to figure out what scaling citywide looks like,” Lucadamo said. “It could be something that rotates annually to different parts of the city [or] you could do the whole city at once. The kind of details of exactly how you’d space the money out what types of projects would be eligible, that’s the kind of thing we’d want to work out with the mayor, the administration and the rest of the City Council, to make sure everyone had input in that.”  

While the Candler Park PB project is only the second of its kind in Atlanta, after “Downtown Decides!”, Brown said the uniqueness of the PB model has the potential to help increase equity in Atlanta. 

“The fundamental of PB is that everyone gets a voice,” Brown said. “This is a genuine, ‘Hey, I have this idea.’ It doesn’t matter where you live or what means you come from or what race you are, but, if other people like your idea, if you can rally the troops, so to speak, behind your idea to get enough votes to get it through, then your ideas get brought forth … In a traditional model … without the time that many people don’t have or the interest in local politics, then your ideas often remain in your head.” 

Martin encourages people to participate in the program to make it as effective as possible for the community. 

“I just hope that more people get involved in proposing projects and also in the voting process once it gets to that stage,” Martin said. “I think it’s really exciting, and I’m not really sure how [widely] known it is so the more people that are involved, the better it is for everybody.”

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