News & Opinion

Residents Decide County Projects in Participatory Budgeting Pilot

Parks, environment, education and literacy programs among improvements

A bird's eye view of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners meeting
The Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners heard a presentation Sept. 7 on the final participatory budgeting projects in each district.

Mecklenburg County will soon get to work implementing dozens of community projects recommended by residents that range from upgrades to county parks and greenways to environmental improvements to education and literacy initiatives.

The county set aside $3 million — $500,000 for each of the six county commission districts — in its FY2023 budget for one-time projects pitched by residents through a participatory budgeting pilot program called PB Meck.

In an effort spearheaded by local firm Civility Localized, community volunteers representing each district have worked with residents since November 2021 to come up with ideas for projects, which were then vetted by county staff for cost and feasibility. The final list was voted on by residents from May 16 to June 24, with the top projects funded in the budget and implemented within the next 18 months. 

On Sept. 7, Budget Director Adrian Cox revealed the final projects to the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners. Here’s a breakdown of what’s being funded in each district:

District 1 – $485,000

  • Classroom supplies for teachers – $125,000
  • Pollinator gardens in parks and greenways – $10,000
  • Partnership with local food pantries to provide fridges  – $15,000
  • A grant for innovative food security programs – $120,000
  • Manufacturing job training program for students – $125,000
  • Expand farmers markets in the district – $25,000
  • Personal finance and homeownership classes at high schools – $15,000
  • Replace mowed areas at county facilities with wildflower meadows – 50,000

District 2 – $475,000

  • Home repairs for elders and disabled – $125,000
  • Fruit trees and hedges in parks and corridors – $30,000
  • Computers and furniture to create learning spaces at county recreation centers – $90,000
  • Community gardens at various county-owned properties – $50,000
  • Fitness equipment upgrades for outdoor parks – $80,000
  • Let’s Get LITeracy Expo+, a one-time literacy-focused community event – $100,000

District 3 – $380,000

  • Home repairs for elders and disabled – $125,000
  • Indoor play spaces at Methodist Home, Sugaw Creek and Reedy Creek centers – $30,000
  • Activities at Sugaw Creek Center for students during teacher workdays – $15,000
  • Additional benches on greenways – $80,000
  • Little Free Libraries (free book sharing boxes) at various locations – $5,000
  • Indoor digital kiosks for community updates and resources in county facilities – $125,000

District 4 – $500,000

  • Big Belly “smart trash cans” in parks – $75,000
  • Revitalization of old outdoor stages and seating areas at Grier Heights Park – $50,000
  • Sponsor summer camp tuition for district youth – $125,000
  • Revitalization of basketball courts at Mason Wallace Park – $50,000
  • A playground a McAlpine Park – $125,000
  • A community art workshop series in parks – $75,000

District 5 – $453,000

  • Plant native trees along paths and roadways – $10,000 
  • Amenities such as picnic tables and landscaping at Ramblewood, Archdale, Oakhurst and Carmel Road parks – $120,000
  • Butterfly gardens – $10,000
  • Public water fountains and bottle fillers in parks – $48,000
  • Install GPS-coded greenway location markers – $120,000
  • Murals in parks by local artists of color – $30,000
  • Educational seminars focusing on mental health – $30,000
  • Reading nooks at county recreation centers – $35,000
  • Bicycle repair stations and air pumps on greenways – $50,000

District 6 – $475,000

  • Connect streets to district greenways – $100,000
  • Infrastructure funding for farmers’ markets/pop-up markets – $25,000
  • Install GPS-coded greenway location markers – $125,000
  • Plant pollinators and native plants in parks – $50,000 
  • Solar trees (structures resembling trees that generate solar energy) at park facilities – $125,000 
  • How ART Thou? greenway art project – $50,000
County commissioner George Dunlap sits at the dais wearing a suit a bow tie
County Commissioner George Dunlap says residents in District 3 felt left out of the participatory budgeting process.

Commissioners voice concerns

Many of the winning projects in the first round of participatory budgeting are related to park and environmental improvements, including new educational and literacy initiatives in county recreation centers.

That worried District 1 Commissioner Elaine Powell, who wondered how the county’s parks and recreation department would take on the extra workload associated with implementing these projects in the next 18 months.

“This is awesome. This is wonderful feedback, but how will the burden on park operations and horticulture…how will we be able to do that without extra funding and the staff necessary to do it?” Powell asked. “I want every person on our staff to know how much we value them without saying ‘You’ve done so great, you got us through Covid, you’ve done all this great work, now here, we’re gonna dump this on you when you’re so exhausted.’”

She suggested modifying the 18-month timeline and asked Cox whether additional funding or outsourcing would help lighten the workload.

Cox said county staff is still learning and the implementation stage of the participatory budgeting process will answer many questions. He said his team will be meeting soon with the appropriate county departments to see what it will take to implement these projects and go from there.

“Whatever we need to do to not increase the burden on them, I want to be a part of that,” Powell responded. “And if it needs additional funding, please bring it to us because if this has to be done in-house, I don’t know how they’ll do it.”

Commissioner George Dunlap was critical of the county’s rollout of the participatory budgeting pilot program, citing feedback he’s received from constituents who didn’t know about the voting until it was too late. (Only 915 of Mecklenburg’s estimated 1.1 million residents participated.)

“If there is one issue that has haunted me in District 3, it is this process,” he said.

Unlike the other districts, District 3 only submitted $380,000 worth of projects and therefore, all proposals are being funded.

Cox assured Dunlap that remaining dollars will either be used to cover unanticipated project costs during implementation or carried over and added to available funds in the next participatory budgeting cycle.

Dunlap questioned how the community was advised they could volunteer to pitch projects and vote on the final list.

According to Cox, the participatory budgeting pilot was promoted “very heavily” on social media and through several in-person informational meetings. He said the county also “pushed it out” to various contacts and community leaders to help spread the word and advertised it on the county website, TV and radio.

Dunlap encouraged Cox to look at how communication can be improved in the next round of the program so more residents can participate.

“Because 1,000 people out of 1.1 million is not very…statistically…it doesn’t work,” Dunlap said.

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