Putting Your Two Cents into the Budget


In the second year of participatory budgeting, New Yorkers in several communities get to vote on spending city money.

How would you spend $1 million to improve your community? Fix a pothole? Put up more streetlights? Or build a community center?

Those are choices New Yorkers are being asked to make in the city’s second round of a process called participatory budgeting.

A meeting of City Council Member Jumaane Williams’ constituents late last month was a typical scene from this process. About two dozen people gathered in the cavernous main hall of Catherine McAuley High School in Brooklyn’s East Flatbush neighborhood- where safety and security projects were among the first to go on a community “wish list.”

What the community needs most, said Martin Cornish, vice president of the Flatbush Gardens Tenants Association, is more security cameras monitored by local police, to “cover thousands of people and keep a safer path for everyone in the community.”  Statistics from the 67thpolice precinct, which covers the community, show crime is down by nearly four percent since last year, but Cornish’s proposal drew many murmurs of approval.

Meetings like this one are sponsored this year by Williams and seven other city council members. Each council member agrees to hand over $1 million from his or her council district’s discretionary budget, and local residents decide how that money will be spent- subject to final approval by the full City Council.

Projects must be physical improvements, not services or programs, and they can cost anywhere from $35,000 up to $1 million. “Don’t worry about a project you think is too cheap,” said Yinet Rodriguez, a city adviser who briefed Williams’s district 45 constituents on the process. “Just think about how they can add up with other projects so they can meet the cost criteria.”

Aga Trojniak keeps track of budgeting ideas

Aga Trojniak keeps track of budgeting ideas. Credit: EDIRIN OPUTU

None of those ideas seemed as popular as Cornish’s proposal for more security cameras. However there was support for buying computers for the Flatbush Gardens Tenants Association community room, in order to convert it into a computer center for young people.

Other proposals included new air conditioners and textbooks for P.S. 351, repairing the swimming pool at P.S. 361 and installing streetlights on Brooklyn and Nostrand Avenues.

City officials say that meetings like this one often attracted 75-100 people when participatory budgeting debuted last year. A study of the process showed that 7,736 people took part citywide, and that 27 projects they proposed got final City Council approval, at a cost of $5.6 million. District 45 had the highest rate of participation of people born outside the United States and also engaged residents still too young to vote. The voting age has been lowered from 18 to 16 this year.

Despite the City Council’s decision to repeat and expand participatory budgeting, the small turnout at the meeting in McAuley High School may indicate it hasn’t drawn many more people into the budgeting process. However the meeting was only one of several held, some of which targeted specific groups, including meetings at senior centers to encourage older people to join the process.

Council Member Williams’ decision to let constituents submit ideas by email may also have led some to skip neighborhood assemblies in favor of electronic participation. Williams’ office said email suggestions have not yet been tallied; Hurricane Sandy’s disruptions have caused delays.

“A lot of people come in with a lot of ideas,” Rodriguez said. Many know little about local government and are surprised, for example, that projects are put through a bidding process. “They learn about the city budget and how it works,” she said.

Once community delegates have compiled all ideas, they will keep working on the list and present concrete projects on a ballot in March that is open to all eligible voters in the city’s 45th council district.

“The regular political process is not very transparent,” said Aga Trojniak, the Flatbush Tenant Coalition representative. Making budget decisions via public meetings and a district-wide vote changes that, she said. “I think the beauty of this process is that it is very different.”



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