Of Dumpster Pools and Solar Panels: Checking In on NYC’s Participatory Budgeting Project

| December 12, 2011 4:00 AM

Participatory budgeting, an experiment in democratic engagement that launched in New York City this fall, allows citizens to suggest how their tax dollars should be spent, and then to vote on the proposed ideas.

Hundreds of people in the districts of the four  Council members involved — Brad Lander, Jumaane Williams, Melissa Mark-Viverito and Eric Ulrich — attended public assemblies over the past few months to share their ideas on how to spend approximately $1 million per district in capital funds. The proposals are now being considered by volunteer committees and will be put to a vote this spring.

MetroFocus reached out to the Council members to hear their thoughts on how the process is unfolding, and to learn a bit about some of the ideas being floated. (Note: New York City is not the first place to test this process — see below the Council members’ responses for a brief history of participatory budgeting in other cities.)

Brad Lander represents the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Park Slope and parts of Kensington and Borough Park. Photo courtesy of the office of Council Member Brad Lander.

Council Member Brad Lander, Democrat for the 39th District

“We are excited to put budgeting power directly in the hands of the people. Not only will next year’s budget be more democratic as a result, it will also be more effective because our constituents know best where money needs to go in our community.”

Quirkiest Ideas: Make a Gowanus Canal gondola, aptly called “The Gowandola;” create dumpster pools for hot summer days like they had on Manhattan’s East Side on Saturdays in 2010, and which first popped up in the Gowanus neighborhood.

Boldest Idea: A community center to bring together the diverse neighborhoods that make up Kensington, Brooklyn. To make the idea feasible within the $1 million budget limitation, committee members are looking for rooms in libraries or other public spaces that can be remodeled to be mini-community centers.

Council Member Eric Ulrich, Republican for the 32nd District

Eric Ulrich represents Southwest Queens. Photo courtesy of the office of Council Member Eric Ulrich.

“This initiative brings a new level of transparency and public participation to the budgeting process. Residents know best what types of projects are needed in their neighborhoods and, as taxpayers, should have more say in how the government spends their money.”

Quirkiest Idea: Locate a library “vending machine” in an area not served by a regular library branch.

Boldest Idea: Improve disabled access to the Rockaways and other Queens’ beaches.

Melissa Mark-Viverito represents parts of Harlem and the South Bronx. Photo courtesy of the office of Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, Democrat for the 8th District

“Participatory budgeting has incredible potential to mobilize people who do not tend to come to community meetings or play an active role in the community to really engage and see the power of participatory democracy. It is my hope that through this process, we can restore a little bit of people’s faith in local government and its ability to respond directly to the concerns of residents. ”

Quirkiest Idea: Create youth community farms with solar-powered green houses at two public housing developments.

Boldest Idea: Digitize a billboard that marks the location for La Marqueta, a marketplace in El Barrio/East Harlem that was booming decades ago and has recently been revitalized.

Jumaane D. Williams represents the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Flatbush and parts of Canarsie and Midwood. Photo courtesy of the office of Council Member Jumaane D. Williams.

Council Member Jumaane D. Williams, Democrat for the 45th District

“The message behind participatory budgeting is ‘your money, your vote, your choice.’ We are empowering the residents of our districts to get educated and engaged in the budgetary process that controls so much of how this city functions from day-to-day. I believe this will produce a more active electorate that demands more of its elected officials, which is how democracy truly thrives.”

Quirkiest Idea: Build an Internet-based recording studio and youth center.

Boldest Ideas: Install WiFi in all public parks; build a roller skating rink and a bowling alley.

Here’s a look at how participatory budgeting has worked elsewhere:

  • Porto Alegre, Brazil

Participatory budgeting began in 1989 when officials in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre asked residents to give their opinions on how funds were allocated, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project, which provides support to elected leaders and groups wishing to implement this form of open government. Since then, the city has used participatory budgeting annually to decide how to spend as much as 20 percent of the budget, with approximately 50,000 residents taking part.

  • Chicago

The windy city was the first in the U.S. to test the waters of participatory budgeting. In November 2009, City Alderman Joe Moore,  along with residents of the 49th Ward, collectively debated and voted on how to spend Moore’s $1.3 million discretionary budget. For months a group of assemblies deliberated the many ideas put forth by residents, and 1,600 people turned out to vote on how to best spend the money.

“Beginning with the 2009-10 budget cycle, I have ceded my decision-making authority to the residents of my ward,” wrote Moore on his website. This year is no different.

  • Montreal

In the Plateau Mont Royal borough of Montreal, Canada in 2006, Mayor Helen Fotopulos called upon her constituents to take part in government by telling her how to spend $4.7 million of her capital funds budget, according to the Montreal Gazette.

  • Toronto

The Toronto Community Housing Authority, the second largest of its kind in North America, has been practicing participatory budgeting since 2001. Each year, the Authority allocates approximately $9 million through participatory budgeting, and has used the money to pay for much-needed buildings maintenance, garden beautification and a computer resource center.

  • Next up, New Orleans?

The Participatory Budgeting Project, a non-profit advocacy group, is hitting the road and making stops in a handful of U.S. cities that are now considering participatory budgeting including New Orleans, Baltimore and New Haven.

  • AndWhySee

    I’ve been hearing about this, glad to get some insight into the process.

    It would be helpful to know what $1 million means relative to the overall amount of capital funds available each year. Is this a large or small percentage of what each councilmanic district normally spends? We need some context.

  • George

    Very informative and interesting.

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