Who wants to spend $1 million? More people, organizers hope

For residents of at least nine City Council districts around the city, the vote on election day next week will not be the only one on the calendar: come spring, those age 16 and older will also decide how to allocate $1 million or more in each district to local projects, by selecting their top five choices from a community-selected slate.

As participatory budgeting enters its third round, organizers will have to make sure that the kind of enthusiasm from community residents that drove its first two years carries forward.

It needs people like Regina Mitchell, director of the CAMBA Beacon after-school program at PS 269 in Flatbush, who said she decided to attend a participatory budgeting meeting out of curiosity two years ago, with hopes of seeing a new computer lab at the school. Even when its computers were state of the art, many years ago ago, the lab simply did not have enough machines to go around.

“I put this idea on the table,” she said. “I really wanted it and we got it.”

Last week, her persistence paid off. Councilmember Jumaane Williams helped Mitchell unveil a new $150,000 computer center, with 32 new desktops and 21 laptops, along with smart boards, printers and document cameras.

Photo: Claire Moses

Councilmember Jumaane Williams cuts the ribbon on PS 269’s brand-new computer lab — selected by local voters as a winning project. Photo: Claire Moses

“Sometimes it takes a very long time to see the results,” said Williams, one of the first council members to sign up for participatory budgeting. Williams represents a Brooklyn district that includes Flatbush as well as parts of Midwood and Canarsie. The completion of this first voter-approved project in the district, he said, will “inspire other people.”

The CAMBA lab was one of the winners during the very first round of participatory balloting, in which four council members awarded funds to at the direction of their constituents. When Williams’ projects are completed, Flatbush will have better street lighting, public safety cameras and more.

Many other winning projects, in this district and in elsewhere, aren’t completed yet. From new school bathrooms at PS 58 in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, to funds to help build a home for Harlem RBI and the Dream Charter School, they await funding and action from city agencies.

But ultimately participatory budgeting depends on getting busy people in the district — and not just those with projects to fund — to make time in their schedules to attend meetings and do the heavy lifting of selecting projects for the ballot.

“No people, no PB,” said Chris King, a community engagement strategist with Community Voices Heard, which helps coordinate the citywide effort, at a recent meeting.

PBNYC has been tracking the number of New Yorkers involved in the budgeting process, from deciding which projects to nominate to the voting that selects the winners. It has nearly doubled, from 7,736 individuals in the first year to 13,889 in the second. But in that time, the number of council members who’ve signed up has doubled, too, to eight members last year. That means the effort actually involved fewer people on average in each council district in year two than year one — and has organizers redoubling efforts to get the public involved.

“We’d like to see more people,” said Mike Menser, board chair of the national Participatory Budgeting Project and a founder of the New York City initiative. “It takes a couple of years to proliferate.”

At the start of the process in each district come neighborhood assemblies, which have been taking place for the last month. The final two in Brooklyn take place Wednesday night, in Flatbush and Gravesend; Queens Council members Eric Ulrich and Donovan Richards will continue to hold assemblies into November. These gatherings play a crucial role in deciding on projects to be voted on in each district. Yet they often see modest attendance: representatives from City Council members say that between 10 and 20 people is typical.

At a recent meeting in the western Brooklyn district of Councilmember Steven Levin, 10 people showed up to the assembly meeting, according to staffer Lisa Bloodgood.

“That was a little bit of a struggle,” Bloodgood said at a recent meeting of the Participatory Budget Project steering committee, of which The New York World is a member.

One way to expand public involvement is to lower the age of those who can vote in the process. Younger delegates and voters, Menser said, increase the likelihood that their parents will get involved.

This has been the experience in the Rockaways, where Councilmember Richards took office earlier this year in a special election and promptly signed up for participatory budgeting. According to Silaka Cox, an NYU freshman who is in charge of youth engagement in that district, turnout at their assemblies was “great.”

Among other gatherings, the district will host a special youth assembly on Thursday afternoon.

“Youth engagement is very, very good,” she said.

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