Campaign pushes for more public say in Cleveland's federal stimulus spending

 Cleveland City Council members stand at the start of a meeting in March 2022.
Cleveland City Council members stand at the start of a meeting in March 2022. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]

UPDATE: May 13, 2022 at 4:48 P.M.

Activists in Cleveland hope to build momentum for their campaign to let the public decide how to spend a share of the city’s federal stimulus dollars.

Participatory Budgeting Cleveland, or PB CLE, wants the public to come up with ideas — and ultimately vote — on ways to spend almost $31 million from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act coronavirus relief allocation.

The group has been lobbying Cleveland City Council members and has hired field staff to mount a grassroots effort across city neighborhoods, according to organizer Molly Martin. A meeting is planned for this weekend to update allies on the campaign’s progress and to build support.

“Over the next few months, we really want to make some noise and show the Bibb administration and city council that this is something that residents want, and something that we think could be transformative in the way that we’re talking about democracy building in the future,” she said.

Mayor Justin Bibb has indicated that he’s open to the participatory budgeting process. He met with the PB CLE campaign before taking office and included the process in his transition report recommendations released in February.

So far, the administration has not introduced legislation to council to use the process for ARPA money. But on Friday, Bibb announced a slat of priorities for spending federal aid, including a "civic participation fund" in which the city's 17 wards could advocate for local projects.

Cleveland is slated to receive a total of $512 million in federal aid, the first half of which arrived last year. The Bibb administration expects to receive the final portion of the federal funds in June, according to a city spokeswoman.

The city has allocated about $271 million so far, according to an analysis by think tank The Center for Community Solutions. Of that, $109 million went toward stabilizing the city’s budget. Other uses include public safety purchases, community development, vacant home demolition and broadband.

Advocates of participatory budgeting hope that Cleveland adopts the practice for other spending decisions, too, Martin said.

“We kind of see ourselves as this advocacy watchdog, and our vision is that PB is a process that exists in Cleveland for years to come,” she said, “and that ARPA would be an excellent pilot, an investment to create the infrastructure of a new civic engagement process.”

This story has been updated to include new information regarding Mayor Justin Bibb's Friday announcement of federal aid spending priorities.

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