By Trudy Whitman
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
We’ve all done it—walked down a block in our neighborhoods on which many of the street trees are dead or dying; looked both ways several times and crossed our fingers at an intersection known to be hazardous; cooled our heels at a bus stop wondering why NYC doesn’t install electronic next-bus signs.
Now there’s a way that citizens can make changes to improve their neighborhoods by becoming involved in a program called Participatory Budgeting.
Beginning in 2011, Brad Lander (District 39) joined a group of three other New York City Councilmembers leading their constituents in an initiative previewed in Brazil and launched in this country in Chicago. The success of the actions taken in NYC’s forward-thinking districts led to the program’s growth—nine council-members, including Stephen Levin of Brooklyn’s District 33, have committed $1 million each in discretionary funding for the 2013-2014 Participatory Budgeting cycle.
At one of several neighborhood assemblies held within his district this fall, Lander told an audience of about 50 neighbors convened in the auditorium of the Carroll Gardens library on Oct. 14, that he understood that $1 million spread among six or seven projects was not a huge sum. However, in addition to community improvements, the council-member continued, the exercise fosters empowerment and the development of new leaders. Indeed, half of the library audience had volunteered to be part of the process in previous years, and several volunteers had become program facilitators. Evidently, it is a gratifying experience.
“Thanks for stepping up to be part of it,” Lander told the group, before volunteers took over to describe through video, PowerPoint and discussion just how Participatory Budgeting works.
After the neighborhood budget assemblies, during which the groups break up into smaller sections to brainstorm and present ideas, those who agree to be voluntary budget delegates are asked to join committees that mesh with their primary interest. Last year, the committees were education, youth services, culture and community facilities, environment, parks and recreation, public safety and public health and streets.
With the assistance of council-member staff and city agencies, which help estimate project costs, district improvement ideas are honed into viable project proposals. These must fall within the range of $35,000—$350,000, explained volunteer Neil Reilly, and they must qualify as the “brick and mortar,” or the capital arm, of the council-member’s discretionary budgeting pot. The delegates meet from October through March, traveling to neighborhoods other than their own to judge where need is the greatest. Project expos are mounted in March, and residents are asked to vote for their favorite projects in April. There were 24 projects on last year’s ballot for which 2,800 people came out to vote. All district residents age 16 and up are eligible to vote and are asked to check ballot boxes for no more than five projects. Voting stations are set up all over the 39th District to make the process as convenient as possible.
Implementation takes time; the winning projects make it to the city budget in the summer, but they may take several years to build or set up. Along the way, staff members and volunteers monitor project progress.
A few of the projects that were funded in 2013 are the renovation of eight bathrooms at PS 58 ($110,000) in Carroll Gardens, budgeted for fiscal year 2014; the installation of 29 new adult and preschool computers at Carroll Gardens and Windsor Terrace library branches, also budgeted for 2014 ($75,000); and the planting of 100 new trees on blocks throughout the district with few or no trees ($100,000). The tree planting was completed this past April.
In an update sent to constituents after the Carroll Gardens neighborhood assembly, Lander advised that there is still time to post an idea for district enhancement by going to www.bradlander.com/PB. The deadline is Nov. 3.
“I’ve enjoyed reading the ideas that neighbors have posted on the online map,” he wrote. “Improving safety at that dark street corner, CitiBike pods around Prospect Park, new playground equipment for kids with disabilities—all would serve our community well.”