Constituents debate: How should council members spend their funds?

Typically municipal budget meetings don’t attract large energetic crowds, but on Wednesday night 175 enthusiastic New Yorkers packed into Park Slope’s First Reformed Church eager to talk local finance. The topic at hand was City Council District 39’s participatory budget, part of a new grassroots initiative that gives constituents the power to decide how council members spend their discretionary funds.

Every year New York City’s council members are each given a discretionary budget, also know as member items, between $1.5 and $6 million. Council members’ distribution of funds to favored local organizations has long been controversial. This year’s experiment seeks to turn what might have been political pork into an exercise in civic engagement. Four council members – Brad Lander (D), Jumaane Williams (D) and Eric Ulrich (R) of Brooklyn and Melissa Mark-Viverito (D) of Manhattan – have each pledged to give their funds (at least $1 million each) over to the public to allocate.

“We are excited to put budgeting power directly in the hands of the people,” said Councilmember Lander, who represents District 39, to The New York World. “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.”

Last night’s meeting was the first of five neighborhood assemblies for District 39 where the public can suggest ideas. Pitches ranged widely, from free Wi-Fi in Prospect Park to sound proofing P.S. 39’s cafeteria to new sidewalk benches.

At Councilmember Williams’ October 3rd assembly, participants proposed a community center, security cameras on specific blocks, redesigning several intersections, and a library upgrade. 

All proposals will have to fall within certain guidelines. The funds must be used for physical improvements, and these can’t cost less than $35,000 or more than $1 million.

Once the ideas are collected, volunteer delegates who live, work or study in the district will help shape the pitches into proposals, which after a second round of neighborhood assemblies will be voted on by constituents in March.  

“It establishes a more transparent budget process where both the outcome and process is transparent,” said Josh Lerner, co-director the Participatory Budget Project, a research and advocacy group studying the New York process. “What participatory budgeting does is open up the whole process so people can see every stage of the process.”

Participatory budgeting first emerged in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989. Since then the practice has spread around the globe to cities in Europe, Latin America and Asia. Chicago is the only American city to have used participatory budgeting so far. Councilmembers Lander and Mark-Viverito said they first learned about the idea from Joe Moore, the Alderman for Chicago’s 49th Ward.

“The power is that people can direct money where they see the need for change,” said Mark Viverito. “I think it re-instills a sense of hope in people that government can really work for you.”


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