For the first time, Lexington residents have the opportunity to submit their own ideas for municipal spending – and vote directly on which ideas to fund – in a process called participatory budgeting.
The Town’s inaugural participatory budgeting process has been months in the making. In February, the Select Board unanimously approved setting aside $500,000 of the Town’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding for projects submitted and selected by residents through participatory budgeting (or PB). After Town staff developed a detailed proposal for PB communication and outreach, submissions opened in July, and community members still have one week left to submit ideas, which are due Sept. 16. Residents are allowed to submit more than one idea.
“The ARPA funding presented an unprecedented opportunity for the Town to embark on this initiative,” Public Information Officer Sean Dugan wrote in an email to LexObserver.
To qualify as participatory budgeting projects, submissions must meet four key criteria: They must benefit the public; represent a one-time expenditure, rather than a recurring expense that would require additional funding through the Town’s regular budget in future years; be a capital project – something that can be “bought or built” – and they must be implemented by the Town on Town property. As long as submissions meet these criteria, “all ideas are welcome and encouraged,” Dugan wrote.
The $500,000 can be spent either on a single large project or multiple smaller projects. In November, residents will have the opportunity to vote for more than one project as long as those projects do not have a collective price tag exceeding $500,000: “They could choose one project that is $500,000, or they could choose four $125,000 projects, as long as they don’t exceed $500,000,” Dugan explained.
At their July 18 meeting, multiple Select Board members expressed concern that many community members might not find out about participatory budgeting during the six-week submission period concentrated in the dead of summer. Yet as of this week, the Town has received “roughly 95 submissions,” according to Dugan. However, this includes some incomplete submissions missing contact information, which is necessary for the Town to follow up with submitters in the next stages of the PB process.
The Town has “received a wide variety of project ideas, including adding sidewalks, trees, and recreational amenities,” Dugan wrote. “We’ve seen people of all ages contribute project ideas that would improve our community, and they aren’t coming from just those who serve on Town boards and committees.”
As part of its efforts to reach community members, the Town held an Aug. 2 virtual information session attended by close to 30 people. The Town has also conducted other digital and non-digital outreach in formats ranging from social media and Town newsletters to physical postcards and outreach to community groups. Mandarin, Hindi and Korean translation services are available to further increase accessibility. Residents appear to have found out about participatory budgeting from a range of channels, Dugan wrote, including word of mouth.
The ongoing submission period is the first of four phases of the Town’s participatory budgeting cycle. After Sept. 16, staff will vet ideas for cost and feasibility over roughly six weeks. In November, residents will vote on proposals using a digital platform called BalancingAct. From December onward, the Town will implement the projects selected.
This timeline was developed based on PB phases successfully implemented in other communities, and will allow the Town to use ARPA funding for at least one additional cycle of participatory budgeting in the next couple of years. The Town was originally allocated nearly $10 million in ARPA funding, which must all be spent by 2026 and committed by 2024, as previously reported.
At the Select Board’s July 18 meeting, Town Manager Jim Malloy said that if resident interest in PB remains high over the next couple of years, Lexington could potentially incorporate participatory budgeting funding into the Town’s annual budget in the long term, even after ARPA funding is exhausted.
Some nearby communities have longstanding participatory budgeting processes. Cambridge, for instance, has practiced participatory budgeting for almost a decade. The city has an impressive range of successful projects to show for it, from water fountains to bike repair stations to tree planting.
You can submit an idea before next Friday’s deadline by filling out Lexington’s participatory budgeting form here, or call the Town Manager’s Office at 781-698-4540 to speak with Town staff about the process.