Burnsville residents will take a more hands-on role in deciding how public money is spent in their city under a plan advanced this week by the Burnsville City Council.

The idea is known as "participatory budgeting," and it essentially means that residents get to steer where some of their tax dollars go, whether that means individual projects or city departments. It's a strategy that has been attempted in several major U.S. cities, as well as in smaller or more informal ways in Minnesota cities such as Minneapolis, Duluth and Bloomington.

Burnsville leaders are hopeful it will get more residents involved in the budgeting process, but it will take some time — Burnsville is unlikely to implement the strategy until 2026.

Council Member Cara Schulz called the council's decision to implement participatory budgeting "a very big deal" she believes will have a long-term positive impact on Burnsville.

"It shifts a lot of the power, which is budgetary power, back directly to residents," Schulz said. "Now people will be able to be directly involved and they will be able to almost immediately see the fruits of their initiatives."

Schulz, who introduced the participatory budgeting idea, suggested the city start slowly with a pilot program, noting that it's too late to include it in the 2024 budget.

"There are still a lot of project details to be decided," Burnsville City Manager Gregg Lindberg said in a statement, "but I'm excited to work with our staff on exploring new ways to bring community members together."

At a council meeting Tuesday, city officials expressed enthusiasm and some concerns about the concept.

Council Member Vince Workman said participatory budgeting has the potential to be positive, but worried it would favor residents with the loudest voices and wondered how it would affect the tax levy.

Mayor Elizabeth Kautz said the endeavor would likely require new staff and noted the city already plans to hire 56 new full-time employees, many in the fire and police departments, in the coming years.

Several council members said they want to see participatory budgeting implemented at the neighborhood level, with groups of neighbors deciding how to spend a certain amount of grant money from the city.

Council Member Dan Gustafson was once skeptical of participatory budgeting, saying officials are already elected by the public to make funding decisions. He's now excited about it, he said.

Currently, if neighborhood residents want to see a new sidewalk installed, for instance, they can create a petition, present it to the city and collect the money to fund it themselves, he said. But that process leaves out less-affluent neighborhoods.

Participatory budgeting will be more inclusive, he said.

Burnsville officials shared research compiled in recent months by more than 30 city staff members who dug into the topic before the city held a series of meetings this spring and summer.

They highlighted 18 U.S. cities that have explored participatory budgeting, including Boston, Chicago and Oakland, Calif. Nearly all had much larger populations and budgets than Burnsville.

The Burnsville report noted that Minneapolis leaders began talking about participatory budgeting in 2017. The concept hasn't been implemented citywide, but Minneapolis dedicated $100,000 to several projects chosen by youths via participatory budgeting in 2019. The city is contemplating including participatory budgeting in its next budget cycle, said Sarah McKenzie, a Minneapolis spokeswoman.

A Minneapolis official spoke at a recent Burnsville meeting that also included a presentation from the Participatory Budgeting Project, a national nonprofit promoting the idea.

Schulz said the speakers urged Burnsville to "spend a lot of time on the set-up" and have measurable goals in mind.

The hardest part will be avoiding unnecessary complexity, she said. Many cities efforts' were too ambitious and complex, leading them to eventually limit participatory budgeting in some way.

"This needs to be simple," she said.

Julie Liew, a spokeswoman for the League of Minnesota Cities, said several Minnesota cities have tried participatory budgeting in smaller, less formal ways. Duluth asked citizens to weigh in on which projects they valued by dropping a token in a container, with the highest priority project receiving funding. Bloomington took a similar approach.

Gustafson said one challenge will be how to fund it. The budget must be significant and involve "enough money to make a difference," he said, which for other cities has included between $700,000 and several million dollars.

He said the city has tried to help businesses for a long time. Participatory budgeting will put the focus on residents, he said.

"The important thing is, we just get it right," he said.