Mission: Spend a million dollars

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Grassroots democracy blossoms as empowered citizens this weekend start to determine how a windfall in tax money will be allocated – and for the first time, preteens can make a big difference


  • Upper West Side City Council Member Helen Rosenthal at a recent hearing at City Hall. Since 2014, she has let constituents determine how $1 million of their tax dollars will be spent through Participatory Budgeting. Photo: Council Member Helen Rosenthal

“It is a chance for the community to partake in the democratic process in its purest form.”

Helen Rosenthal, West Side City Council member

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 will reap tax dollars in their districts.

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 10 or so proposals that meet local needs.

Improvements to schools, parks, libraries, public housing and public safety are on the ballot in Council District 6, which covers the Upper West Side, District 5, which takes in the Upper East Side, and District 3, which encompasses 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 cash runs out.

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 as the people, not the elected officials, take the reins of a political process and decide how to spend $1 million.

“People often feel their representatives are not listening to them,” said West Side City Council Member Helen Rosenthal. “PB opens the door, giving them a chance not just to vote directly on, but to actually help come up with the projects that will improve their community and make it more vibrant.”

That process is now pivoting to a much younger demographic: For the first time this year, The Council has lowered the minimum voting age to 11, down from 14, to encourage voting from the sixth grade on up.

“One of my favorite things about PB is that it gives young people a chance to vote and participate,” Rosenthal said. “This way, they can become involved from a young age, and hopefully, feel empowered to remain engaged throughout their lives.”

What can it teach preteens about civic engagement?

“The idea is that the more young people are able to participate and feel they are being heard, the more likely they are to continue participating,” she said.

“Many young people feel they have no say in the decisions that affect them as much as, if not more than, everyone else. PB is an opportunity to show them that, while we can’t simply lower the voting age overnight, we do care about what they have to say,” Rosenthal added.

“Perhaps a few of those students will be inspired to pursue careers in public service, and later, go on to make careers for themselves helping their communities. You never know!” she said.

Bottom line: “PB is a chance for the community to partake in the democratic process in its purest form,” said Rosenthal, who has utilized it since taking office in 2014.

The citizen-driven, decision-making process serves another critical purpose, said East Side Council Member Ben Kallos, pointing out the “strong correlation that all too often” exists between “people who give political contributions and groups that receive, or lose, millions in taxpayer funds.”

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,” Kallos said.

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, 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, 3,111 residents in Rosenthal’s district voted in PB, rocketing 44 percent from the previous year. By contrast, greater turnout was recorded in Corey Johnson’s Chelsea district, 3,518 votes, a 70 percent leap from 2016, and lesser turnout was chalked up in Kallos’ district, where 2,421 residents cast their ballots, up 21 percent from 2016.

Expect those numbers to swell again in PB Week this year because of the markedly lower voting age. Under the rules, all eligible voters must sign an affidavit, online or in person, to confirm they meet the district’s age and residency requirements.

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

Why does the grassroots democratic 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 capital discretionary funds until the allotted sums run out. These are the nine Upper West Side projects on the ballot as PB Week kicks off this weekend:

• Harborview Terrace, NYCHA, public housing development at 525 West 55th Street. Yard renovation and beautification of a communal courtyard. Cost: $500,000.

• Three New York Public Library branches on the UWS, St. Agnes Library, Riverside Library and Library for the Performing Arts. Technology upgrades, including new self-checkout kiosks, computers, printers and high-speed Wi-Fi. Cost: $200,000.

• St. Agnes Library, 444 Amsterdam Avenue. Purchase of new onsite security camera system. Cost: $80,000.

• Riverside Park, next to the sand pits and beach volleyball courts at West 105th Street. Installation of “youth-sized tennis courts.” Cost: $400,000.

• Stephen Wise Towers, NYCHA, public housing development at 117 West 90th Street. Renovation of the sprinkler play area and restoration of a concrete bowl in the courtyard. Cost: $500,000.

• Multiple UWS sidewalks. Installation of tree guards surrounding 35 young trees and general neighborhood beautification. Cost: $42,000.

• FDNY Engine Company 74, landmark firehouse at 120 West 83rd Street. Replacement of aging windows to improve public safety and the work environment for firefighters. Cost: $500,000.

• P.S. 166, 132 West 89th Street. Technology upgrades, including new Promethean boards, desktop computers and electrical outlets for 12 classrooms and a tech lab. Cost: $250,000.

• P.S. 9, Center School, John Jasper Complex, at 100 West 84th Street. Renovation of the auditorium and replacement of all 374 seats. Cost: $500,000


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