Beginning May 1, Durham will ask residents age thirteen and older to vote on how the city should spend $2.4 million. 

The vote will mark the culmination of a nearly yearlong exercise in direct democracy—a process designed to ask all city residents, no matter their citizenship status or criminal background, to decide what projects they want the city to spend money on in their own neighborhoods. Each of the city’s three wards will have $800,000 to allocate on ideas that originated within these communities. 

Durham is the second North Carolina city to embrace what’s known as participatory budgeting, after Greensboro. Over the last fourteen years, twenty-nine cities in the U.S. and Canada have used participatory budgeting to spend more than $300 million, according to the nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project. 

“The goal is to involve people who are traditionally not involved in local government or budget processes,” says Robin Baker, the city’s budget engagement coordinator. “We felt, as a city, that it was important that everyone would be eligible, not only to submit an idea, but also vote in the elections.”

Last July, the city council appointed a fifteen-member steering committee tasked with drafting the rulebook, establishing goals and measures of success, creating timelines, and developing outreach strategies. As part of the initial idea collection phase, the steering committee attended more than fifty events (including Spanish-only and youth-focused events), ten festivals, and thirty community meetings, meeting with more than two thousand residents. During the proposal development phase, the city enlisted more than a hundred residents as budget delegates to work with city staffers and the steering committee to vet and develop the ideas into proposals.

“I am excited about the civic education that has been able to happen with those we brought into the steering committee and the folks who were budget delegates,” says council member Jillian Johnson, who spearheaded the initiative. “They got to work with city staff to learn and ask [questions like], ‘We want to build a sidewalk. How does that actually happen? What are the requirements? What is the cost? Does the city build it, or does it get outsourced?’”

Most projects on the ballot will address infrastructure needs, such as improving streets and sidewalks. The second largest category is parks and recreation projects, followed by projects related to safety and the environment. 

Ward 1, which covers the areas surrounding downtown and a little north, has twenty projects on the ballot, the most of the three wards. Three of these projects—an LGBTQ youth center, bus shelters with reclaimed art and solar panels, and Wi-Fi picnic tables—are citywide, meaning they’ll also appear on the ballot in Wards 2 and 3. (Funding for citywide projects will be split equally among the wards that vote for them.) 

The rest are specific to the area, and underline the infrastructure deficiencies in some neighborhoods: play equipment in Carroll Park, more street trees and bus shelters, a sidewalk along Carroll Street, and sidewalk repairs on Gray Avenue, as well as historic monuments along the Fayetteville Street Corridor, according to the city’s mock ballot. 

Ward 2, which includes southern and eastern Durham, will vote on expanding El Futuro’s bilingual mental health clinic as well as improvements to parks and sidewalks. Ward 3, in the city’s wealthier western enclaves, will vote on art displays on East Chapel Hill Street buildings, new projectors for Jordan High School and three middle schools, and a solar electric vehicle charging station in the Lakewood Shopping Center, among other things. 

The city will ask voters to rank up to ten projects in their ward from their highest priority to their lowest. With the exception of the school projectors in Ward 3 and the sidewalk projects in Wards 1 and 3, none of the projects listed on the city’s mock ballot—which includes expected costs—approaches $800,000. That means there are likely to be multiple winners awarded at least some money in each ward. 

The steering committee set a goal of turning out at least 10,000 voters, compared with 36,427 in the 2017 municipal election. Johnson says she’s optimistic the city can meet the target, especially by encouraging participation in public schools. Durham middle and high schools will have voting sites and incorporate lessons about the initiative in U.S. history, civics, and social studies courses. 

Johnson hopes this will get young people interested in city politics. 

“There are so many fewer barriers to getting involved in [participatory budgeting], and we hope that it gets people more engaged in the city overall, to learn more about what is happening in the city, to get more engaged in their community, or to get more involved in municipal elections,” Johnson says. 

Voting continues through May 31. The winning projects will be announced in June and implemented within three years. 

Residents can vote online at pbdurham.org or in person at a participatory budget voting site or pop-up. (Visit the website’s events page to find the voting location closest to you.)


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