Will the People Have a Say in 2018 Budget? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Will the People Have a Say in 2018 Budget?

At the participatory budgeting People’s Assembly on April 10,  Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba engaged as a citizen, rather than as the mayor.

At the participatory budgeting People’s Assembly on April 10, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba engaged as a citizen, rather than as the mayor. Photo by Stephen Wilson.

— With the tax deadline not too far in the rearview mirror, finances are still at the foreground of many people's minds, including Jackson officials as they work on the budget for the next fiscal year.

In keeping with the tone of Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba's people-focused campaign pledges, his staff is planning to handle the City's debt without tax increases. At the same time, the mayor's close associates are teaching citizens how to express what they want officials to make room for in the budget through the process of participatory budgeting—the topic of the first people's assembly of the year on April 10.

Managing Debt, Saving Money

At the City's inaugural weekly press briefing on April 10, Director of Finance and Administration Charles Hatcher shared his plan for managing Jackson's debt obligations over the next few years. Hatcher said the general obligation debts, or money required to cover interest and repay money borrowed in previous administrations, is around $9.8 million. In the next fiscal year, that debt is expected to increase by $5.5 million to $15.3 million based on bonds issued to the City between 2003 and 2016.

Hatcher does not believe the City could sustain this kind of increase by using property and sales taxes to repay bonds primarily. Instead, he hopes to rearrange the debt payments to even them out over time, which could save Jackson as much as 
$4.5 million right now.

"We're not talking about increasing our debt load; we're talking about rearranging it so that we have level payments over time," Hatcher said last week.

That $4.5 million in savings would come from settling for a $1-million increase in debt obligations, instead of a potential $5.5-million increase should the Lumumba administration do nothing to level payments, Hatcher said.

The City will still owe money until the year 2036, but Hatcher said this will make payments more predictable, instead of "lumpy," he said, pointing to a peaking and plummeting graph mapping the city's debt obligations for the next two decades.

Mayor Lumumba praised Hatcher's department for coming up with a "compassionate" strategy for a more consistent pay schedule, especially after last budget cycle when the City Council approved a 2-millage tax increase that led $20 more a year homes with a market value of $100,000. Lumumba said this meant they would not have to resort to closing early-childhood development centers or furlough city employees as the City has done in the past.

"What this budget reflects is an opportunity where we don't have to make as severe choices over what we provide to the community," Lumumba said.

The mayor added that this restructure would also help align the way the City spends money with the way the City receives funds.

"While our payments and our debt is spiking, the money that the City receives is not at this time," Lumumba said.

"This provides relief to the citizens that we won't be asking them to ... make up the difference (by) raising taxes again. We're tasked with meeting the needs and desires of the citizens, and money is a critical component of that."

A People's Budget?

Some Jacksonians hope that compassion stretches to fund a City project that the people decide on through a process called participatory budgeting. Boiled down, participatory budgeting would allow Jacksonians to directly decide how public money is spent.

At the M.W. Stringer Grand Lodge in west Jackson, a Masonic temple that hosted civil-rights planning sessions for decades, at least 100 people filled the auditorium for the first people's assembly of the year on April 10.

People's assemblies invite the community to share what they want to see change or take place around them, and Lumumba had campaigned on the promise to implement them in his administration.

While the mayor supports this process, the people's assembly works independently of the mayor's office, with his sister, Rukia Lumumba, and Akil Bakari chairing the group.

Attendees received a letter or a number that led them to break off into small groups. The mayor, Ward 2 Councilman Melvin Priester Jr., City Council President Charles Tillman of Ward 5 and several officers from the Jackson Police Department participated in the group sessions as "civilians," so to speak.

Jumbo-sized Post-it notes were tacked onto the walls of the auditorium with questions about economic justice and participating in local government written on them. The groups rotated through all of the sheets, responding to the question at hand in what was called a "gallery walk."

Attendees considered some of the biggest economic issues facing Jackson to be the Environmental Protection Agency's consent decree with the City over wastewater, infrastructure, potholes, wage gaps, blight, crime, violence and misappropriation of funds. Many of those common threads appeared on other Post-its asking about economic injustice in people's neighborhoods and families.

Robert Blaine, the City's chief administrative officer, gave a presentation on the budget in Hatcher's absence about the importance of increasing revenue.

"One of the things that I often hear people say is, 'Well, the City of Jackson has a whole lot of money, you all have hundreds of millions of dollars.' But ... the discretionary part of the budget is actually quite small," Blaine said.

He encouraged the room to spend money in the City to increase the amount of sales tax coming in. In Jackson, the low tax revenue coming into the City is a systemic problem related to brain drain and flight of the tax base, as well as Jacksonians spending money outside the city limits. Blaine said that in studying other majority-minority cities similarly sized to Jackson in the South, this city is the outlier on the bottom with per-capita income.

But Jackson is also at the top of cities with high-income, high-wage, high-technology jobs with four major hospitals and seven institutions of higher learning.

"Jackson, Mississippi, has no problem creating wealth. We have a serious problem in retaining wealth," Blaine said.

Money Necessary

Valerie Warren of Our City Our Voice, a nonprofit organization that does participatory budgeting workshops, walked people through the framework of participatory budgeting, a multi-step process that began with last week's introductory meeting. Then comes an idea-collection phase, as well as a proposal-development process, which Warren said takes the longest. Next is voting and the building phase that brings a project to life such as a playground, a community center or whatever the people decide they want. Warren told the Jackson Free Press it is critical for the City to commit funds at the beginning.

"What that does is it makes it concrete—we all know that nothing is going to happen without money," Warren told the Jackson Free Press.

She added that knowing the amount of money allocated makes it better for outreach and getting citizens involved because you can ask them, "What do you want to do with this money?"

Warren emphasized that the participatory budgeting process is not a one-off event, but also that people can get involved at any point in the process. Participatory budgeting began in the 1980s in Brazil and has since branched out to different places around the world. The idea is to get people of all creeds involved with the governing process through direct impact.

Attendees like JJ Townsend, who launched a local community crowd-funding nonprofit called Citizenville, said he and the other people at his table thought they would be voting on a project at the assembly that night.

"Anything that is going to get people engaged and involved with what's going on in the government in the City, I'm for, and I'm going to attend every single event they have for this.

"... But I was thinking that the gallery walk was going to be our ideas, and we vote at the end, and a final four would be chosen, and the City would do something with it," Townsend said. He added that by the end of the evening, he understood the importance of the education piece.

The next people's assembly is planned for June to continue the discussion on participatory budgeting among other things, with more details forthcoming.

Email city reporter Ko Bragg at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @keaux_ for breaking news.

Support our reporting -- Follow the MFP.