NYC’s ‘participatory budgeting’ procedure doles out millions, though few actually vote
Many good projects get funded, but some lawmakers balk
When the Department of Education failed to fix four rusty, JFK-era sinks in P.S. 282’s kindergarten classrooms, Park Slope voters stepped in.
When the Department of Transportation failed to set aside money to keep cyclists and pedestrians safe near Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn Heights voters acted.
When the Parks Department didn’t finish long-desired improvements at the Rainbow Playground, Sunset Park voters funded it.
These are some of the success stories of “participatory budgeting” — a seven-year-old City Council approach to allocating funds that allows residents to choose where to put a small portion of taxpayers’ dollars.
“I believe residents are in the best position to decide which projects should be given priority in their own neighborhoods,” Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Sunset Park) told the Brooklyn Eagle. “There are always more possible projects than immediately available funding. Why not ask people what they prefer?”
There is, of course, the potential that well-connected or better-organized groups will game the system to get extra money — which is a complaint of several members of the council who had not participated. Plus, participatory budgeting requires substantial work to solicit, vet and winnow ideas from the community, hold several community meetings to discuss the nominees, then cajole people to the polls for balloting that is not held on a normal election or primary day.
A tiny fraction of voters gets involved, with turnout rates that are far lower than regular elections, though the rate is increasing every year.
What is ‘participatory budgeting’?
Participatory budgeting is the fruit of a progressive urge to open up the democratic process and bring transparency to how elected officials spend our money.
Stemming from an open democracy project led by the Workers’ Party in Brazil 30 years ago, participatory budgeting has three stated principals: inclusion, equity and empowering typically under-represented groups such as immigrants, the poor or the formerly incarcerated.
In New York City, voters in the 27 participating districts — 10 of 16 districts in Brooklyn — get to decide how to spend more than $1 million of their councilmember’s $5 million discretionary budget.
Councilmembers’ delegates solicit ideas for projects during neighborhood meetings from late August to early October. According to the official rules, each district is required to hold at least three public assemblies and at least four special meetings for underrepresented community members such as youth, non-English speakers, seniors or public housing residents. Each district is also asked to conduct “informal idea collection” at public events. Volunteers help develop the ideas into proposals that go onto the voting ballot.
A number of criteria are applied by staff and volunteers, including cost range and usable life span. Issues of equity, inclusion, and spreading out the projects around the district are of paramount importance, said Susie Charlop, who is director of constituent services for Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Park Slope). A district committee tries to ensure the most equitable projects possible.
“There are lots of moving parts,” Charlop said, adding that the goal is to put money “where public funds should be going anyway but are not because funds are limited.”
A councilmember gets about $5 million to spend as he or she sees fit. Of that pool, Lander set aside $1.55 million for voters to allocate, Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn Heights) put aside $1.5 million, and Menchaca put up more than $2.8 million.
So, is it working?
Voting was conducted over nine days during the spring at sites overseen by trained poll workers. Voters could also make their selections online or through LinkNYC sidewalk kiosks after verifying their identity.
Nonetheless, the program suffers from low voter turnout.
In Lander’s District 39, which includes the relatively well-educated and empowered citizens of Cobble Hill, Gowanus and Park Slope, just 6,000 residents voted out of roughly 127,650 eligible voters over the age of 10. That’s a turnout rate of just 4.7 percent — compatred to a low 8 percent in the 2016 federal primary election, 35 percent in the presidential primary, and 62 percent in the November General Election, according to Gotham Gazette.
Menchaca’s District 38, encompassing Red Hook and Sunset Park, could be a poster child for the Participatory Budgeting program. For the fifth year, District 38 had the highest vote count in the city, with 11,600 votes, but that is still a very low participation rate from those eligible to cast ballots.
On the plus side, many worthy projects were funded, with most of the money going to needy, under-represented groups.
In Lander’s district, approved projects included outfitting a media lab at the women’s shelter in the Park Slope Armory; buying iPads for autistic children at P.S. 77; fixing up a children’s playground and building a senior fitness playground in Prospect Park; repairing a soccer field in Kensington; and a study of endangered bats.
Another winner was the International Muslim Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment to start a series of self-defense classes for Bangladeshi and Muslim women in Kensington. Known as Brooklyn’s “Little Bangladesh,” the neighborhood of 51,000 residents is home to roughly a dozen mosques.
The group said its self-defense program is a response to “the uptick in vitriolic anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-women rhetoric.”
Voters rejected eight of the proposed projects in Lander’s district, including a garden tool-sharing consortium for District 15 schools; a renovation of the library at Park Slope’s John Jay H.S. complex into a community/classroom space; solar panels for the South Brooklyn Children’s Garden in the Columbia Waterfront District; an ecology film series; Smart Boards for P.S. 131 on Fort Hamilton Parkway; a $400,000 renovation of the Borough Park Library’s outdoor plaza.
In Levin’s district, voters rejected more security cameras for the 94th and 84th precincts and gym upgrades for the Urban Assembly Campus on Adams Street. In Menchaca’s district, voters set down a school media center, repairing steps at Sunset Park, and 100 new trees on Third Avenue.
Such projects might still get funded by other means now that they’ve been identified, according to a study by the Urban Justice Center. Lander has added projects to his district’s budgets that were initially suggested in the participatory budgeting process.
The pros and cons
Voters are obviously putting some money where they want it to go, but some officials have brought up many possible pitfalls over the years.
“The only benefit I can see in my district is a cynical one,” Councilmember Rory Lancman (D-Queens) once told the Observer. “It would be a great way to use governmental resources to mount what is for all intents and purposes a political campaign outside the normal political process.”
With voter turnout so low, the system can be essentially hacked by activists, another lawmaker warned.
“If you can get together a group of people to push for some project, there can be discrimination against other organizations that don’t have the lobbying skills and organizational effectiveness,” Councilmember Alan Maisel (D-Mill Basin), also told the Observer. “I see this particularly in the schools. One school may have a very effective parent organization. Another school, just as meritorious, may not.”
And not all projects appear to benefit the most underserved. One example is voter approval in Levin’s district of an upgrade to the temporary bike path connecting well-financed Brooklyn Bridge Park to Columbia Street at Atlantic Avenue.
“[The Department of Transportation] didn’t have the funding,” said Benjamin Solotaire, who handles participatory budgeting for Levin’s office. “Participatory Budgeting asks the communities to identify their priorities.”
Some longtime holdouts are changing their minds now that Council members have been given more resources to implement the program..
One of these is Councilmember Rafael Espinal (D-Bushwick).
“While there are many ways in which the participatory budgeting process can be beneficial, my office has never before had the resources to take it on,” he told the Eagle. “Especially in low-income neighborhoods like the ones I represent, where constituent services are a priority and my staff is already overburdened …”
He added, “I do believe this program would be great and fortunately because of the leadership of Speaker Corey Johnson, who has raised our budget, I would like to explore implementing the Participatory Budgeting program now that I can hire more staff to handle the additional workload it requires.”
Supporters also defend the process as a bulwark against powerful groups that “typically dominate the status quo ‘non-participatory’ budgeting process,” said Melissa Appleton of the Participatory Budgeting Project, which provides technical assistance and training to Prticipatory Budgeting NYC.
“Elected officials often allocate resources to the groups who shout the loudest or have the most resources to advocate for their cause,” she said. “Participatory budgeting opens up that process, so that any resident can voice their needs and ideas, even if they’re not backed by a powerful community group.”
Appleton admitted the city could do more to jump start the process with earlier outreach to underrepresented communities. The Council makes grants of $5,000 to $7,000 per participating district for community education about the process — but the larger contribution comes from the process itself, Menchaca said.
“This grassroots exercise in direct democracy … proves residents are capable and eager to lead the budget decision process on topics that directly affect them,” Menchaca said. “In the end, participatory budgeting isn’t only about choosing winning projects, exciting as that may be. It’s also about creating opportunities for civic participation and building stronger communities.”
Updated 5-16-18 to reflect that 27 Council Districts participated this year, down from 31 last year due to political transitions.
Winning projects in three Brooklyn Council districts
District 33 (Councilmember Stephen Levin) $1.5 million total*
New trees in Bedford-Stuyvesant
New water fountains at P.S. 157 in Clinton Hill and 318 in Williamsburg
Permanent bike path connecting Brooklyn Bridge Park to Columbia Street at Atlantic Avenue
Pedestrian safety improvements on Clay, Franklin and Commercial streets
Bathroom renovation at George Westinghouse High School
Six laptop carts at P.S./I.S. 157
District 38 (CouncilmemberCarlos Menchaca) $2.8 million total*
Upgrades to audio and visual equipment at P.S. 1, P.S. 105, P.S. 169 and M.S. 821
Technology upgrades for classrooms at South Brooklyn High School, P.S. 105, M.S. 821, P.S. 503 and P.S. 371K
Renovation of Rainbow Playground
More security cameras at P.S. 94 in Sunset Park
Gym wiring improvements at P.S. 503/506
A STEAM design studio, including a 3D printer, at Summit Academy in Red Hook
District 39 (Councilmember Brad Lander) ‘Expense’ projects ($50,000 total):
Media Lab at Park Slope Women’s Shelter
Women’s self-defense classes
iPads for autistic students at P.S. 77
Study of endangered bats in Prospect Park
Outreach plan for elementary school diversity
‘Capital’ projects ($1.5 million total*):
New kindergarten sinks at P.S. 282
Safety improvements at P.S. 118
Senior fitness playground in Prospect Park
Improvements at Harmony Playground in Prospect Park
Resurface soccer field in Albemarle Playground
* Borough President Eric Adams added $100,000 to each Councilmember’s total.
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