Mission: Spend a million dollars

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A grassroots democratic process that empowers citizens to determine how a windfall in tax monies will be allocated kicks off this weekend — and for the first time, preteens can weigh in


  • Improvements to public schools, parks, libraries and public housing are on the Participatory Budgeting ballot in City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s West Side district, which includes Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and Greenwich Village. Photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council

“This is what democracy looks like.”

Council Speaker Corey Johnson

Eleven-year-olds get the vote. A few taps on a smartphone is all it takes to cast a ballot. There is no pay to play. Or give to get. And the people — not the politicians — decide how a chunk of their public funds are spent.

Sound like a phantasmagorical course in Civics 101? Actually, it’s a real-world experience, courtesy of the City Council, that gives New Yorkers a say in which brick-and-mortar projects in their districts reap tax dollars.

Its name may be one of the wonkiest in city government: Participatory Budgeting, or PB.

But few initiatives do more to enshrine people power, make budget decisions clear and accessible — and open up the often-opaque process of funding capital projects to a citizenry seeking real and lasting change.

Starting on Saturday, April 7 and continuing through Sunday, April 15, a period called PB Week, residents in 31 of the Council’s 51 districts will vote to directly allocate $1 million in physical infrastructure work per district, selecting from around a dozen proposals that meet local needs.

Improvements to schools, parks, libraries, public housing and public safety are on the ballot in Council District 5, which takes in the Upper East Side, District 6, which covers the Upper West Side, and District 3, in Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and Greenwich Village.

Typically, the top two or three vote-getters tapped by members of the community in a given district are awarded the funds, depending on the price tag of those winning projects, until the allotted money runs out.

“This is what democracy looks like,” Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in a message announcing the kickoff of this year’s program. “This is what civic engagement looks like.”

“In my own district we have done participatory budgeting for four years, and one of the big projects that came out of it was a brand new park on West 20th Street in Chelsea,” Johnson said. “It got its initial boost from Participatory Budgeting.”

Last year, constituents in Johnson’s third council district voted to dedicate funding to new bus countdown clocks, new air conditioning for the library at P.S. 111, renovations to the grounds at NYCHA Elliott-Chelsea Houses and a new park in Hell’s Kitchen.

Providing tax dollars from Council members’ discretionary funds meets four good-government aims: Constituent priorities are addressed. Citizens gain direct control over where their money goes. Power passes into the grip of those who’ve long been outside the power structure. And corruption itself is disincentivized.

“All too often, there has been a strong correlation between people who give political contributions and groups which receive, or lose, millions in taxpayer funds,” said East Side Council Member Ben Kallos.

Historically, he noted, it wasn’t uncommon for some elected officials to use public money to “reward friends and punish enemies.” Now, PB walls off $1 million per district from being any part of that vicious cycle: “It puts those dollars back into the hands of the voters,” he said.

There are other benefits of the citizen-driven, decision-making process, said Kallos, who has utilized it since taking office in 2014. Considering that elected officials don’t always keep their word to voters, he added, “This is better than most campaign promises!”

Originating in Porto Alegre in Brazil in 1989 as a way to empower the poor and disenfranchised, PB spread rapidly across North and South America, and, after being adopted by hundreds of municipalities, finally came to New York in 2011.

Initially, it was introduced in four City Council districts. By 2016, some 68,000 New Yorkers were casting their ballots in 28 districts, and by the 2017 cycle, 102,800 residents had voted for their favorite projects in 31 districts, making the city host to the nation’s largest PB both in terms of number of participants and budgetary amounts.

Why the 50 percent surge in balloting? Online voting was rolled out in every PB district in 2017, after a more limited pilot program in 2016, and while turnout from paper balloting stayed consistent, the off-site digital voters boosted the tally dramatically.

“You can vote at home in your pajamas or on your commute to work, and it will take less than 20 seconds,” Kallos said.

Last year, 2,421 Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island residents voted in PB, up 21 percent from 2016.

Other districts boasted greater turnout, with 3,111 votes cast in Council Member Helen Rosenthal’s Upper West Side district, a 44 percent leap from the previous year, and 3,518 votes in Corey Johnson’s Chelsea district, rocketing up 70 percent from 2016.

Expect those numbers to swell again in PB Week this year because the Council has lowered the minimum voting age to 11, down from 14, to encourage voting from the sixth grade on up. Eligible voters must sign an affidavit, online or in person, to confirm age and residency in the district.

Under the rules, residents can cast up to five votes for five separate projects, but they’re not allowed to vote more than once for any one project.

“Remember, this is NOT a political election,” Rosenthal wrote in a recent constituent newsletter. “You don’t need to be registered to vote.”

Depending on where people live, they can cast ballots at Kallos’ district office, at 244 East 93rd Street; Rosenthal’s office, at 563 Columbus Avenue; or Johnson’s, located at 224 West 30th Street. There are also numerous mobile pop-up voting locations in schools, parks, libraries, subways stations and greenmarkets.

Why does the grassroots democratic decision-making process matter so much? The voters of today are more likely in future to contact a public official, vote in local elections, work in local politics, perform volunteer work, tackle neighborhood problems or join community groups, the Brooklyn-based Participatory Budgeting Project says.

With $1 million set aside, and up for grabs, the top vote-getters will be awarded the capital discretionary funds until the allotted sums run out. These are the 11 projects on the ballot for District 3 as PB Week kicks off this weekend:

• Five new countdown clocks at key bus stops throughout District 3

• Historic lampposts on Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village

• Basketball court renovations at Chelsea Park

• Over 200 tree guards to protect valuable and vulnerable trees throughout District 3

• Renovations to the park surrounding Chelsea District Health Center

• Security cameras at NYCHA Fulton Houses

• Security cameras at NYCHA Elliott-Chelsea Houses

• Gym renovations at P.S. M721

• Upgrades to support growing technology demands in every public school in District 3

• New air conditioning for dance studio at P.S. 11

• Technology upgrades—including new desktops, printers and more—at libraries in District 3

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