By Susan Armitage
For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Alexander Rapaport wants free Wi-Fi in more Brooklyn parks. Rachel Freier hopes to get medical kits for an all-female volunteer EMT corps. Other community members seek new bus shelters, pedestrian countdown clocks and improvements to a Jewish youth library.
Those were among the ideas presented during two public meetings last week in Borough Park that kicked off the second year of the city's participatory budget program, which allows the public to propose and vote on ideas for neighborhood projects.
Councilmembers Brad Lander and David Greenfield each are asking constituents to help spend $1 million in city money.
“The man who wears the suit knows where it pinches the most,” said Vincent Villano of the non-profit Community Voices Heard, which helps implement the program.
The organizers believe the process will bring greater transparency to government and better pinpoint local needs.
“As a council member who represents 165,000 people, I see the big picture,” Greenfield said. But elected officials aren’t as good at reading the needs of “your block, your neighborhood,” he added.
Lander, one of four City Council members who piloted the program last year, called the first round a success. District 39 residents submitted more than 800 project ideas. About 200 were deemed feasible for participatory budgeting.
Volunteer budget delegates boiled the eligible ideas down to 20 projects that appeared on the ballot for a community vote last March. The seven winning projects included a community composting system near the Gowanus Canal and bathroom renovations at Public School 121.
Greenfield is one of four additional council members opting in for the second cycle of participatory budgeting. He waited a year, he said, “to make sure the system works for us.”
In District 44, the process will be adapted to ensure every neighborhood Greenfield represents, including Borough Park, Midwood and Bensonhurst, gets at least one project regardless of voter turnout.
Capital projects over $35,000 are eligible for funding, typically covering brick and mortar construction, durable equipment or renovations. Budget delegates reach out to city agencies to clarify eligibility and determine which projects may already be in the city’s pipeline.
While navigating the bureaucracy turns off some volunteers, it has energized others. “They were willing to talk to me, and I’m nobody,” said Neil Reilly, a graduate student serving on the District 39 Committee.
Rapaport, Freier and other community members who turned out to last week’s meetings hope their ideas will yield results.
“Rich people have their own Internet access,” said Rapaport, who runs a network of kosher soup kitchens in Brooklyn. “It’s the poor that need those hot spots” he hopes to see in Borough Park parks.
The ideas now move into the hands of the volunteer budget delegates, who will narrow the pool and develop full project proposals with support from experts. The volunteers will present draft proposals to the community for feedback in February before putting them to a public vote in March.