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NEW YORK — Michael Burnett, who lives in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood, is trying to get people interested in fixing up a local park. Burnett wants to create a permanent space for his Kingz of New York youth football program, but he’s struggled to find funding and support.
In September, around the time Burnett lost his porter job at a Manhattan restaurant, he saw a flyer in the neighborhood for something called "participatory budgeting." He went to the Miccio Community Center near the Red Hook public housing complex where he lives to check it out. At the informational meeting, he was asked to identify some of the problems in his neighborhood; he named broken elevators, mold in homes after Hurricane Sandy, poor-performing schools and a lack of green space where children can play. Burnett’s dream for his community is to take the dusty local football field and outfit it with new grass and floodlights. And he learned at the meeting that, with a little luck and a lot of work, participatory budgeting might help secure at least some of the money he would need.
Participatory budgeting gives citizens the opportunity to directly decide how to spend a share of their city's budget. The concept started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989 and has made its way to an estimated 1,500 cities. But its spread in the United States has been relatively slow. It was adopted first in Chicago, then the city of Vallejo, Calif., and, starting in 2011, four districts in New York City.
Today nine New York districts use participatory budgeting as a way to divvy up at least $1 million on infrastructure projects. There have been 73 winning projects, which were allotted a total of $15 million in public funds, since the program began. That included $100,000 to plant trees in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, $300,000 to construct a music stage for a park in Queens and $300,000 to build a greenhouse in the South Bronx.
More than 1,000 participatory budgeting delegates, including Burnett, will help develop ideas, like his park renovation, into more polished proposals over the winter. That will culminate in a kind of spring science fair at which prospective projects are pitched to the community, cardboard-diorama style. In April, all those above 16 years old who live in the district will be able to cast ballots for the ideas they like best. Burnett says he's excited to be part of the political process: "I feel (that in) meetings like this, and assemblies like this, your voice is heard more than if you vote."
Backing from City Hall
In New York, the concept is gaining momentum. About halfway through a recent forum with candidates for speaker of the New York City Council, a question was asked about participatory budgeting. Each of the six candidates had a prepared response, in many cases an impassioned one. Melissa Mark-Viverito, the front-runner, whose district includes East Harlem and the South Bronx, turned to the crowd and asked, "Who here would like to have a say directly in how your taxpayer dollars should be spent?" Mark-Viverito was one of the first council members to embrace participatory budgeting, and she says that if she wins she’ll help to expand the process to all 51 of the city's districts.
Last year, residents of Mark-Viverito's district voted to use $180,000 for a mobile cooking classroom. The classroom is the brainchild of 54-year-old Harlem resident Susan Rodriguez, the founding director of SMART, a nonprofit that promotes healthy lifestyles for people with HIV/AIDS. She sees the classroom, which is expected to open next summer, as a way to expand her organization's nutritional programs to other segments of the Harlem and South Bronx populations.
Josh Lerner is the executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, a nonprofit that advises participating cities, primarily in the U.S. and Canada. He says the number of New York districts with participatory budgeting is likely to more than double, to 21, by next year. Bill DeBlasio, the city's mayor-elect, took part in the process last year in Brooklyn's 39th Council District, where he lives. Lerner says that with key people in city government on board, it makes it easier to push forward the civic ideas being generated. "The community is driving what’s needed in dialogue with experts," he says. "For this to work you have to have dialogue between local knowledge and expertise on the ground and technical knowledge and expertise at City Hall."
Lerner says that while New York's version of participatory budgeting is confined to individual districts, the model is normally applied on a citywide level. That means people from different neighborhoods come together to figure out how best to spend larger sums of taxpayer money. In June, residents of Vallejo, population 117,000, decided how to spend $2.4 million of the California city's budget. Lerner envisions New Yorkers one day figuring out how to spend $100 million around the city. "One of the great things for me about this process (is) people talk with folks they never met before, from very different walks of life, and become aware of needs that may be greater than their own," he says. "So … they walk in wanting improvements for their school and they walk out wanting improvements for another school that has a lower-income community involved."
Bill Eimicke, a former deputy secretary for policy and programs for New York state and now a professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, says he has mixed feelings about participatory budgeting. Greater civic participation in budgeting can lead to improved transparency, he says, and discretionary funding — the pool of money city that council members are free to disburse — is historically the most likely to get misused. An open process in which community members and the media can see, and have a say in, how that money is spent can only help ward off financial scandals, he says.
But Eimicke also wonders how democratic the participatory budgeting process really is. He points to the low turnout in the procedures: In most New York City districts, for example, fewer than 2,000 of roughly 160,000 citizens take part. "You have meetings. You say, 'Who likes this and who likes that?' and whichever one is the best, then you do it," he said. "That sounds democratic, but it's really not, right, because how many people actually go? Not that many. How many people actually know that it's happening? Not that many. How many people really understand what the choices are? Not that many."
Mamnunul Haq, a 51-year-old Brooklynite originally from Bangladesh, did his best John F. Kennedy impression as he talked about his favorite civic activity — participatory budgeting: "Ask not what your country can do for you!"
Haq's council district, No. 39, was one of the first in New York to adopt participatory budgeting. It is also home to what he estimates to be about 20,000 Bangladeshi immigrants. Many of them are green card holders, indicating permanent resident status, but not citizenship, so they can’t vote. But with a state ID card, a driver's license or even a phone bill, they are eligible to take part, and vote, in participatory budgeting procedures in their district. This decision to include green card holders, made by the citywide participatory budgeting steering committee, aims to make the process more inclusive.
Haq canvasses mosques and community meetings, letting people know they qualify. He said Bangladeshis tend to focus heavily on politics in their native country, but last year he got a few hundred out to vote in the local budgeting procedures. "The glow in their face — so happy I voted," recalled Haq. "Next day people were asking, 'Whose project won? Did the school win?' Most of them voted for the school project because of their children." Participatory budgeting, he said, has helped give them a feeling they have a stake in Brooklyn, too.