Neighborhood-projects vote at a loss for city funding

Council members around New York City have begun holding neighborhood assemblies to brainstorm ideas for neighborhood improvement projects, to be decided on by voters in a process known as participatory budgeting.  

Yet even as participatory budgeting enters its third year, its own City Council funding has yet to materialize.

An East Harlem resident selects local-improvement projects for funding in Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito's district. Photo from

An East Harlem resident selects local-improvement projects for funding in Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito’s district. Photo:

Over the last two years, City Council members have earmarked nearly $150,000 to help pay for the staff coordinating the budget-voting process, which involves months of planning, public meetings, ballot-casting and counting. None of that money has yet reached Community Voices Heard, one of the two groups organizing the budget balloting, or its partner in the effort, the Participatory Budgeting Project.

The City Council did not respond to requests for information or comment.

According to Mark Zustovich, the spokesman for the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development, the agency designated to distribute the 13 pending grants, is waiting for supporting documentation.

“All DYCD discretionary awards require supporting documentation such as the scope of work, budget, Board of Directors rosters and contract packages, and we look forward to Community Voices Heard providing the information we requested so that we can process their FY12, FY13 and FY14 grants,” said Zustovich.

The delays in funding for administering participatory budgeting come as the City Council has pledged to increase scrutiny to grants from individual council members — known as member items — to nonprofit organizations. Groups need to prove that they are registered with the state, that the project has a public purpose and that it’s something the organization has the capacity to carry out. Even a small lapse in paperwork can trap a grant in bureaucratic limbo.

So far, 47 percent of grants allocated by City Council members from the 2012-2013 fiscal year have been cleared, along with nearly three-quarters of the grants from the current year.

At the moment, the participatory budgeting effort in New York City is depending on volunteers, and needs more, Sondra Youdelman, executive director of Community Voices Heard, told the most recent meeting of the project’s steering committee. (The New York World attended the August meeting as a member of the committee, which is a body of advisors.)

Last year, eight council members set aside $1 million or more each to be allocated by popular vote, on everything from tree planting to computers in classrooms. This time around, nine members are on board.

Youdelman suggests that the best solution to the funding jam would be to have the City Council itself handle the participatory budget balloting in the future, through its Community Outreach Unit.

“We are just piloting the process,” said Youdelman. “It’s clear that as it expands, the less we can rely on a shoestring budget and volunteers.” In other cities, she noted, participatory budgeting is handled by local government, not nonprofit organizations.

Under a new mayor, running participatory budgeting from City Hall or by the City Council could become a reality, said Josh Lerner, the executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, which facilitates the process in Chicago, San Francisco and Vallejo, California, as well as New York City. Citywide staffing could mean more resources, he added.

Some of the participating elected officials — such as Melissa Mark-Viverito in Harlem, Jumaane Williams in Brooklyn and Mark Weprin of Queens — are potentially in the running to become council speaker, which could give PBNYC a boost.

“I would love to see it as a citywide process,” Lerner said. If the new council speaker or the new mayor is a proponent, Lerner continued, projects funded through the public vote “might become a higher priority for the agencies.”

Lerner makes the case that participatory budgeting is a particularly cost-effective form of democracy. His staff compared spending on the most recent participatory budgeting round with that on the recent party primaries for local elected office, and found that the participatory budget process spent $23 for each of the 13,000 voters who cast ballots, while the primary campaigns spent $97 on each voter.

Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio has expressed support for participatory budgeting. His Republican rival, Joseph Lhota — former chief of the city’s budget office under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani — has not made any public statements about the initiative and his campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

This fall, dozens of neighborhood assemblies are taking place in council districts in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn, where community members brainstorm ideas and select representatives who will do the legwork to turn these ideas into actionable projects — everything from rebuilding school bathrooms to security cameras for a housing complex.

This year, organizers are targeting the majority of those meetings to groups “less likely to naturally participate in the civic process”: low-income people, people of color, non-citizens, people who were formerly incarcerated, non–English speakers, and young people.

In April, residents of each of the nine districts will vote on which proposals will receive a share of their council member’s $1 million (or more) pie. Once voted on, the projects become the responsibility of individual city departments, and in many cases will take a few years to be completed.

The group is hoping for larger turnout this year than last, when about 1,500 people participated in neighborhood assemblies and a total of 13,000 voted across the city. To reach that goal under the newly constrained budget, organizers asked the steering committee to think about who could donate services like translation, interpretation and printing.

Said Lisa Bloodgood, community liaison for councilmember Stephen Levin, who is embarking on his second cycle of community budgeting, “The project is only as good and as strong as the people that volunteer for it.”


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