A new activist group, the People’s Budget Athens, is demanding “drastic” changes to the Athens-Clarke County budget to be decided through directly democratic “People’s Assemblies.”
Imani Scott-Blackwell, founder of People’s Budget Athens, made the case for defunding the ACC police and reinvesting the money in other community priorities during a drive-in People’s Assembly on Saturday. In support for this idea, she referenced a survey collected by her group in which 83.9% of people picked policing as a top priority for divestment. This survey had over 1,300 responses, although it was not a scientific sample of residents.
At their assembly on Saturday, People’s Budget Athens members examined the ACC budget and discussed ways they’d like to see it changed. For example, they’d like to create “participatory budgeting” mechanisms within the local government, in addition to divesting from policing. Participatory budgeting is a democratic process integrated into the regular county budget cycle that would allow average people to decide how a certain portion of their tax dollars are spent.
Some cities in the southeast have already experimented with participatory budgeting. For example, Durham, NC allocated $2.4 million to the program in 2018, meaning each of the city’s three wards were given $800,000 to spend as they pleased.
A representative from Durham gave a presentation on participatory budgeting to the ACC Mayor and Commission at their retreat on September 10. It was received favorably by commissioners, according to Commissioner Jesse Houle who was in attendance.
Houle actually campaigned on this idea during the last election and has advocated for it for years. “I’m really excited that there’s so much energy around looking at the budget,” they said in a comment to APN. Other commissioners such as Tim Denson and Mariah Parker have also spoken in favor of the idea in the past.
Planning the next steps
While the commission is exploring various options for how to implement participatory budgeting, it appears unlikely that such a program would be ready in time to make an impact for next year. This is due in part to the tight timeline for budget discussions, which have already begun within the local government, but also because of the complexities inherent in democracy itself.
“The logistics of making participatory budgeting work are actually pretty complicated,” Houle said. “You don’t want to have it be just whoever shows up one time. The participatory element takes a lot of time and energy. Right now what I’m pushing for is to help get more public understanding of our existing budgeting process.”
Once it’s complete and ready to go, Athens’ participatory budgeting program could be part of the next SPLOST or TSPLOST, it could be part of the county’s yearly budgeting process or it could be present in both. Houle says there could be legal issues with having a participatory element in SPLOST, but all options are currently on the table and being explored.
Houle was careful to clarify that a participatory budgeting process like Durham’s, by itself, would not mean that the money would be taken from policing, for example, or from anything else the people decide. Regular people wouldn’t have the option to reduce funding in any area with this program, they would only get to choose how to spend a certain amount of money.
While the commission slowly develops a plan to allow a bit more democracy within the ACC government, Scott-Blackwell will continue building power from the bottom-up through people’s assemblies, sights set on a more fundamental transformation. If you’re interested in helping, you can join the People’s Budget Athens Google group here. You can also follow them on Facebook.
Or you could review the ACC budget yourself here.