A sign welcomes motorists to Rockland in this Sept. 7, 2021, file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine — Through a unique budgeting process, Rockland will let the public decide how to spend $30,000 in federal pandemic relief funds the city has received.

The process, called participatory budgeting, involves creating a steering committee to field ideas and develop proposals for how an amount of funding should be spent and ultimately a public vote is held to pick the winning project.

“It’s been used by thousands of places around the world at this point,” Rockland City Councilor Nate Davis, who proposed using the process locally, said. “The general idea is that participatory budgeting is a democratic process by which ordinary people decide how to spend a portion of a public budget.”

This would likely be the first time it’s been used by a municipality in Maine.

Rockland city councilors will vote next week to establish an ad-hoc committee that will be tasked with developing and overseeing the participatory budgeting process for the city. Last month, city councilors approved earmarking $30,000 of the approximately $756,000 Rockland received through the American Rescue Plan Act for this type of budgeting.

It will ultimately be up to the committee to delineate what the process will look like in Rockland, Davis said. Generally, he said the process begins with the formation of a committee, which then holds public meetings and other forums to solicit project ideas from the public. The committee forms these ideas into proposals that would then go out to a public vote for the final decision on which project to allocate funding to.

During its annual budget process, the city council hears feedback from residents. But in the end, only councilors get a vote. Davis and fellow city councilor Sarah Austin said even with a small amount of funding, participatory budgeting could allow for better public engagement when it comes to deciding how to spend the city’s money.

“It excites me because it feels like it really creates the potential for creativity and engagement in a way that might make people think more carefully about the community around them and how they can improve it,” Austin said. “It’s a way we can be more responsive to folks in the community who might not otherwise think that they could really make a difference in how we spend money that comes to us.”

This budgeting process was first used in the late 1980s in Porto Alegre, Brazil, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project, an organization that works with communities to facilitate this type of public spending model.

It does not appear the idea has caught on in Maine. A  tracker published by the Participatory Budgeting Project does not identify any projects that have occurred in Maine through this process.

The idea has been floated by city councilors and community members in Portland, though it has not been formally implemented, according to a city spokesperson.

“This is both exciting and novel,” Neal Goldberg, a legislative analyst with the Maine Municipal Association, said.

Goldberg wasn’t aware of other Maine towns or cities using ARPA funds in this way, but he cautions that the projects ultimately awarded funding must be in keeping with federal spending guidelines attached to ARPA.

Davis does not feel these guidelines will be overly limiting the scope of possible projects.

“ARPA funds throughout the country have been spent really for kind of a dizzying array of projects. There are definitely guidelines, federal guidelines, that projects have to follow and the committee will need to vet whatever proposals we get and massage them into projects that meet the funding guidelines. But there is quite an array of ways to spend the money,” Davis said.

Another aspect of this process that Davis finds exciting is that the final vote could be expanded beyond municipal election rules, potentially opening the decision making process up to Rockland stakeholders who wouldn’t traditionally get a vote ― like people who work or own businesses in the city but do not live there.

“The committee can design whatever voting process it wants. It could invite young people, students … I would love it if we got like, a big turnout by high school students,” Davis said.

The committee will be tasked with bringing at least three proposals to a public vote by September.

“I can imagine if [the process] goes well and there is a lot of enthusiasm that it could actually be built into the regular city budget as a more permanent feature, but we will see how it goes,” Davis said.