A Million Dollars to Spend, On the City


That stands for: Participatory Budgeting in New York City

Whenever I receive mailers from elected local officials, I read them. Not because I’m so interested in local politics, but mostly just because I figure that if somebody puts in the effort to write four pages about what they’ve been doing and mail it to me, the least I can do is unseal the newsletter. Furthermore, I firmly believe that if you want your representatives to listen to you, you have to listen to your representatives.

When I opened a mailer from Councilman Brad Lander the other week, I learned that District 39 (which includes Borough Park, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus, Windsor Terrace, Kensington and Park Slope—-where I live) is engaged in an experiment in participatory budgeting. Basically, there’s a million dollars set aside to fund public works projects in this district, and we, the residents of the district, get to decide how to spend it.

Over the past six months, a number of citizen committees have put together a list of roughly twenty proposals for projects to improve the community—-things like soundproofing a public school cafeteria in Park Slope, putting in countdown clocks along a bus line and creating a public composting site in Gowanus. You can read the full list of proposed projects here.

This weekend, every resident of District 39 will get to vote at locations including the Windsor Terrace Library, the Old Stone House and Carroll Park to decide which of these public works they want to fund for their community. The complete list of polling locations and hours can be found here.

Participatory budgeting has been used before by various cities across the globe over the past two decades, but never before in New York City. I am not personally involved in this project—-I don’t even know anyone on the brainstorming committees—-but I’m incredibly excited about it. Here’s why:

This is totally nonpartisan. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or you think they’re all crooks—-you still want to renovate dysfunctional bathrooms at a high-needs elementary school. This isn’t about one politician winning and another one losing. No matter which of these projects get funded, the community wins. They are all good options.

One million dollars isn’t a lot of money in the world of national politics. It can’t pay for a war or a new highway or even a presidential campaign ad. But it can fund small changes that make a big difference to real people.

My mother once told me that democracy is not an annual or once-every-four-years pursuit. We don’t just participate in the system the first Tuesday of every November and then forget about it again. It is a constant process, and that means we ought to be constantly engaged. For me, participatory budgeting is a perfect example of what it means to belong to a year-round democracy.

I’ve focused on District 39 here, just because that’s where I live, but there are actually four districts using participatory budgeting right now, including one other in Brooklyn: District 45 (including Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood, Canarsie and Flatlands), where items on the ballot include security cameras, lighting for parks and a new air conditioner for a library.

So, as they say, vote early and vote often! Or, barring that, just vote once, at whatever hour seems reasonable to you.

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