Participatory Budgeting Season Begins

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The Participatory Budgeting season in NYC has officially begun. Every year, City Council Members receive several million dollars in discretionary funding from the city to use to improve their districts. Traditionally, it is up to the city council members to decide how that money is spent. Participatory Budgeting, however, allows the general public to participate in that decision-making process. In City Council Districts that participate in Participatory Budgeting, at least $1 million is set aside out of that discretionary funding and the people get to vote on how to use it. The people also get to propose the topics that everyone votes on. According to the New York City Council website:

“Participatory Budgeting is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. It’s grassroots democracy at its best. It helps make budget decisions clear and accessible. It gives real power to people who have never before been involved in the political process. And it results in better budget decisions - because who better knows the needs of our community than the people who live there?”

On Monday, September 25th, Councilman Donovan Richards’ Office hosted a meeting at the Far Rockaway Library to discuss this season’s Participatory Budgeting process for City Council District 31. The purpose of the meeting was to begin to gather ideas from the public for potential projects and get community members to sign up as delegates, who decide which project proposals make the ballot. Proposed project ideas for Far Rockaway included countdown clocks, street repaving, and public wifi.

To be eligible for funding through Participatory Budgeting, projects must cost more than $35,000 and less than $1,000,000 to complete. To put that in perspective, constructing a whole building from the ground up would be too expensive, fixing a pothole would be too cheap, but renovating an existing park or improving technology at a local school would most likely fall within the required range. Past projects for District 31 have included many improvements at the Far Rockaway Educational Complex, including upgrades for their computer lab, library, gym, and locker rooms. In District 31, the vast majority of projects that have been implemented via Participatory Budgeting have gone towards education and improving our public schools. Herein lies a tension within the Participatory Budgeting process in NYC. Many low-income neighborhoods, like Far Rockaway, end up voting to spend money available through Participatory Budgeting on improvements which our community desperately needs but which the city should already be funding on its own, like updating technology in public schools or fixing our roads. Conversely, many more affluent neighborhoods who are not as desperate for such basic improvements get to spend the money on creative and innovative projects like free public wifi or rooftop gardens. In City Council District 39, for example, funds were used through Participatory Budgeting for six countdown clocks at bus stops in Park Slope and Cobble Hill and an environmentally friendly green roof on the Windsor Terrace Library. District 32, which includes the west half of the Rockaway Peninsula, has gotten improvements for a dog park through Participatory Budgeting and is currently building a public performance space on Beach 94th St.

This year, the age to be eligible to vote on Participatory Budgeting projects has been lowered to 10 years old, allowing youth to have a direct say in which projects are chosen. In fact, you don’t even need to be registered to vote to be able to vote for Participatory Budgeting, nor a U.S. citizen. You simply have to live in the City Council District that you are voting in. Voting on this year’s proposed projects will take place from April 7th to April 15th, 2018.

Too often, people are disconnected from politics or have no say in how their tax money gets spent in their own communities. Participatory Budgeting presents us with an incredible opportunity, but unfortunately very few people take advantage of it. At the meeting on September 25th, only 16 community members showed up. This is but another example of the rampant lack of civic engagement that has plagued the Rockaway community for decades and continues today. It's time to take how money is spent in our own backyards back into our own hands. I urge every member of the Rockaway community to get involved in this truly democratic process.