Property owners in Burnsville could get the power to earmark some of their tax dollars to individual city services, including police, fire and parks.

If the City Council moves forward with the idea, Burnsville would be the first known city in the United States to implement this form of participatory budgeting, a city memo said.

The council first discussed the idea at a February work session and will continue the conversation at Tuesday's meeting.

"It really comes down to, whose money is it?" said City Council Member Cara Schulz, who proposed discussing the change. "I think the answer is, it's the residents' money."

However, the concept comes with legal, practical and equity concerns — and at least one council member has expressed skepticism about its usefulness.

"I'm always interested in living our values and our vision, which is really to be bold and innovative," said City Manager Melanie Mesko Lee. "I also need to think about the practical impact."

Schulz said the council isn't anywhere near nailing down details, but she's already received queries about it from other Minnesota cities.

"What I'm proposing is … starting modestly," she said, adding that it could involve steering an amount as small as $20.

Questions abound

Schulz said participatory budgeting already exists. Citizen commissions make recommendations on city spending. Federal tax forms include the choice to direct some portion of income taxes to the presidential election campaign fund.

City Council member Dan Kealey said he favors the idea. "It's participatory democracy, which I like," he said.

Though it would involve a small amount — he suggested $5 or $10 to start — it would still be meaningful for taxpayers. He said he doesn't believe it will radically alter the city budget.

Cities struggle to get residents involved, including in the budgeting process, and this could bring greater participation, he said. Officials would learn about residents' preferences, too.

But Council member Dan Gustafson questions why it's needed, since the council is already chosen by residents to make spending decisions.

"That's what we're elected to do," he said.

A memo prepared by city staff identified some of the limits of letting taxpayers decide exactly where their money goes. Only the City Council has the power to set the tax levy, but residents can give input on spending and the City Council can vote to approve their wishes, said Stacie Kvilvang of Ehlers, Inc., who is Burnsville's municipal adviser.

Also, such a change would require new technology and staff and move away from budgeting based on need, leaving deficits in some areas and surpluses in others.

Equity challenges exist, since renters wouldn't have a way to participate directly if it is limited to taxpayers, the memo said.

Burnsville's population is about 63,000, with about 25,000 households in 2020. About 64% of residents both own and live in their homes.

Resident Heather Jelinek said the idea would "give citizens a bigger voice" and encourage them to collaborate on city projects. She wants it to apply to everyone, including renters, she said.

Schulz said she believes it's a feasible idea and that it's "very possible we will pass this," though the governance process is long. She ran on a platform of accessible government, she said.

"I wasn't kidding," she said.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781