Participatory Budgeting in New York City? City Council Members Try a New Kind of Citizen Involvement

For the first time in history, some New York City residents have been given the opportunity to be directly involved in allocating the city’s budget—more than $6 million of it. Council members in four districts are trying out participatory budgeting, a grassroots democratic system that allows anyone to present proposals for improvements in their communities. The process fosters transparency, equality, and inclusion, words not always associated with municipal governments.

Council member Brad Lander, whose council district is in Brooklyn, learned about participatory budgeting about a year ago; he’s been anxious to try the process ever since.

“I instantly thought it would be a great way to get people involved in the process of governing our communities at a time when faith in government is at an all-time low,” Lander says, citing a September poll revealing that only 15 percent of Americans say they trust the federal government most of the time. Lander is committing at least $1 million of discretionary funds for participatory budgeting over the next year.

Participatory budgeting was first practiced in Brazil in 1989. Today, more than 1,000 places across the world implement participatory budgets, mostly at the municipal level.

It has restored faith in government for some New Yorkers who have been involved.

“We don’t have many opportunities in New York to actually participate in how the money gets spent,” says Mario Pagano, a 63-year-old Brooklyn resident who’s been involved in the process in Council member Brad Lander’s district. “We don’t ever have a chance to get past the city, the bureaucracy.”

She says participatory budgeting allows for citizens to get past that bureaucracy barrier and feel empowered about ideas and about making a difference in the community. She hopes to see improvements in infrastructure, specifically on roads and at subway stations.

“It’s really hard to think that you can clean up one little corner and make that be the beginning of something that’s really positive and hopeful and you can see change you can build on, you know? But I’m a firm believer in that myself,” Pagano adds.

Mamnun Haq, a community health worker who’s been attending neighborhood assemblies, is also thankful that Brad Lander has an open mind about participatory budgeting.

“People pay their taxes and they never get the opportunity to use their money. I mean, this is federal government money and this is the first time that people are getting the opportunity to use that money in their own way,” Haq says.

Council member Lander says most citizens have proposed very concrete, reasonable ideas, like making improvements in schools, in parks, on streets, and at subway stations.

“Many really good ideas have been proposed; things that we never would’ve known or thought of in the office,” he says.

The next step is to assemble a committee to look into each proposal and figure out which ideas are feasible, ensure the plans are eligible for city capital dollars, calculate costs, and turn rough ideas into solid proposals to put on a ballot in March.

New York City Council members Melissa Mark-Viverito (Manhattan/Bronx), Eric Ulrich (Queens), and Jumaane Williams (Brooklyn) have also committed at least $1 million of their discretionary funds towards the process.

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