The participatory-budgeting process is once again underway in New York City, and once again Bay Ridge won’t be participating. Nearby communities, such as Sunset Park, Red Hook, Coney Island and Gravesend, have taken part in the past and are doing so again this year. In fact, Councilmember Carlos Menchaca’s district (the 38th, encompassing Sunset and Red Hook) boasted both the highest number of submitted proposals last year and the highest voter turnout.
Funded projects for this past cycle include street and road repairs, technology for schools, a Borough Park beautification initiative, and a media room for the Red Hook Library. Overall, the number of council districts that have set aside funds for participatory budgeting has ballooned to 28 this past year from a mere four upon its launch in 2011. So what’s all the buzz, and when is it coming to Bay Ridge?
It could be soon—but that’s up to you.
What is Participatory Budgeting?
All city councilmembers have discretionary funding, which they make available to constituents through an application process (though only properly registered nonprofit organizations are eligible). With participatory budgeting, a portion of this discretionary budget (usually $1 million, though some councilmembers set aside more) is allocated for projects that are proposed and developed directly by community members, regardless of their status or affiliations with existing organizations. Community members don’t simply apply for the funds; they develop their own projects, which are then subject to a vote by the whole community. It opens up the process by which discretionary funds are spent.
The funds set aside must be spent exclusively on capital projects, such as improving schools, parks, and other infrastructure, but the process itself allows citizens to take a direct role in determining neighborhood priorities and how their tax dollars are spent. This yearlong process involves training, meetings and project development. Constituents must work with their councilmember’s office on issues of feasibility before a project is brought to a vote.
Participatory budgeting benefits communities in the short term by allowing key projects to be funded that might otherwise have been overlooked. In the long term, it involves more people in the political process, which surely impacts electoral politics. It is this whole process—not just the allocated funds—that make participatory budgeting such a vital crucible for civic engagement.
Not all Districts Take Advantage of Participatory Budgeting
Participatory budgeting has its critics, such as NY1’s Errol Louis, who sees it as a frivolous waste of constituent time, and redundant to both existing discretionary funding and to the community-board structure. Councilmembers who have thus far declined to participate have cited this redundancy, according to an article in the Gotham Gazette, as well as the fact that it requires enormous time and effort from staff. In many cases, officials stick with what’s familiar—what has worked for them in the past.
I reached out to Councilmember Gentile’s office to see where he stands. He has no issues with participatory budgeting, he said, but he doesn’t see the need for it in Bay Ridge. “I have always taken input from anywhere or anyone throughout the year,” Gentile, who was first elected to the council in 2003, said. “I don’t just have a two-week window; I have a 365-day window.” In that sense, he called himself the “father of participatory budgeting.”
For Gentile, the councilmember’s main role has always been weighing community needs and “prioritizing the budget,” and community input and feedback is already a part of this process. “We’ve had a system in place for a long time that works,” he said.
He described the voting process of participatory budgeting as “narrow,” and said it has the potential to leave out people who don’t have the support of a voting bloc. Gentile described the great success he has had in bringing funding to needed projects through the traditional discretionary-budgeting process. He cited in particular the recent renovations made to Patrick O’Rourke Park, a playground on 81st between Eleventh and Twelfth, off IS 201. In this case, a parent of a child at the school approached him about the conditions of the park, so he went and took a look. Soon after, renovations were underway.
Participatory Budgeting Sparks Civic Engagement
For councilmembers who participate in the process, there’s a different kind of energy at work that goes beyond the idea of government as trouble-shooter—it’s about more than just picking winning or losing projects on a ballot, said Councilmember Menchaca, who represents Sunset Park and Red Hook and was eager to discuss the successes he has had. The power of participatory budgeting is that it “builds civic engagement by changing the relationship of residents with each other and with government.”
Furthermore, he mentioned the ways in which participatory budgeting energizes minority constituents, those from underrepresented groups who may not be on community boards or have access to power through traditional and established means. “We have very diverse communities, geographies and languages, combined with many unmet capital-project needs. Notably, in 2015, more than two-thirds of voters used non-English ballots. With that mandate, I hope to increase the amounts and kinds of funding allocated to participatory budgeting along with voting numbers.”
Another benefit Menchaca cited was the way it increases communication between citizens and leaders. “Even projects that don’t win the majority of votes, but still receive enough support to get on the ballot, help me understand community priorities and lead me to seek other sources of funding for those projects,” he said. For Menchaca, it’s win-win. “People who participate in participatory budgeting collaborate with neighbors, learn about city-government processes and can see the results of their work in practical terms. I’m especially proud that youth and immigrants can vote. Participatory budgeting helps teach the importance of civic participation and voting.”
What Would it Take to Get Bay Ridge on Board?
Whether or not to choose to engage in participatory budgeting is as much about governing style as anything else. For Gentile, whose roots in the community are long and deep, there’s already an effective pipeline in place between constituents and his office. For younger councilmembers, coming from districts with transplanted or otherwise changing populations, participatory budgeting is a more attractive form of budget prioritization. It allows the community to speak directly about its needs.
As Bay Ridge continues to grow and change, governing styles can change as well. Justin Brannan, president of the Bay Ridge Democrats and a leading contender to succeed Gentile in 2017 (when he leaves office because of term limits), spoke highly of participatory budgeting, perhaps giving us some insight to his potential future priorities should he be elected. “When it comes to giving New Yorkers a direct say in how their taxpayer dollars are spent, you really can’t go wrong,” he said. “I like the participatory budgeting process because it puts some power back into the hands of the people and invites more folks to get involved with a fundamental process that yields tangible results.” For Brannan, as for Menchaca, it’s as much about the civic engagement as it’s about individually funded projects. “Participatory budgeting empowers and includes communities,” Brannan said. “And, in 2016, we need to be getting more people involved, educated and engaged in the democratic process. Not less.”
Participatory Budgeting Time
Participatory Budgeting seems to have become a permanent feature of our political landscape, even though it’s still in its infancy. This past year, participatory budgeting in Brooklyn got a boost from Borough President Eric Adams (a longtime supporter) when he made available an additional $100,000 for each of the 10 participating districts in Brooklyn. As more councilmembers decide to take part, and as more and more citizens get engaged (and as the bugs are worked out), participatory budgeting is working its way into the DNA of city governance.
The deadline for submitting ideas for this, the sixth cycle of participatory budgeting, was September 30. Right now, delegate orientations are being held around the city, where volunteers are trained on the budget process and the intricacies of project development. They will then form committees that will work in conjunction with the councilmember’s office on bringing these ideas to fruition and preparing them for presentation to the public. Then, in February and March of 2017, expos will be held for committees to get feedback from the community before bringing the final projects to community vote in the spring.
Looking beyond individual projects or the headlines of million-dollar allocations, participatory budgeting is valuable because it gets people involved in their communities and the political process—beyond the cycle of presidential elections.