New Budget Plan Would Give People Spending Powers

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Over 50 people gathered last Thursday night to hear their neighbors give presentations on exactly how they think $1 million should be spent in their district. In an experimental process called participatory budgeting, City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito has chosen to let the decisions on how to spend her district's discretionary funding for the year fall into the hands of those who live there.

Groups of budget delegates, volunteers from the community who were assigned the task of thinking up and researching projects that could use funding, presented their proposals in seven different categories: parks and recreation, education, transportation, seniors and social services, public health and environment, youth and public housing.

Each proposal was accompanied by a colorful poster board highlighting why it should receive a portion of the funding, featuring photos of decrepit basketball courts, dangerously unlit passageways and antiquated computer labs alongside their aspirational opposites, showing how the dollars would directly improve that particular aspect of the community.

Speaking for the parks and recreation delegation, which was pushing for a renovated dog run at Jefferson Park and resurfacing the Booker T. Washington Park basketball court-which has puddles so deep they've been called "pools with no lifeguards"-Kioka Jackson first urged everyone to come back and bring friends to vote on the projects in March. Anyone 18 years old or over who resides in the district can vote for their top five projects, and the winners will receive portions of the funding, allocated in the capital budget.

"It's so important, because it's the time when we get a chance to make decisions in our community," Jackson said.

Council District 8 encompasses parts of the Upper West Side and Manhattan Valley, as well as East Harlem and part of the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. It has the highest concentration of public housing in the city, and Mark-Viverito has made it a priority to improve the quality of life for NYCHA residents.

Many of the project proposals sought funding for public housing repairs and improvements like security cameras, renovated playgrounds, barbecue pits and rat-proof recycling bins, with enthusiastic support from the budget delegates who had conceived the proposals.

Delegate Ray Figueroa presented his ambitious proposal for building a greenhouse on a NYCHA property, in the Mill Brook Houses in the Bronx.

"What this greenhouse proposes to do is to deal with poverty at the root of poverty," Figueroa said. "Building a greenhouse that will serve as a foundation for a youth-run food production and farming business." He hopes that the $200,000 in startup money from the City Council would get the project going and that it would also qualify for state and federal grants.

Laurie Frey, a member of the District 3 Community Education Council, presented several projects from the education delegation that would improve local schools. P.S. 163 needs an air conditioner in its gym so kids can use it year-round; P.S. 171 needs a new library and other schools could badly use new laptops and computers.

"The nice thing about public schools is that they are public spaces, and this is a public process here," Frey said. "And unlike the Parks Department, we don't have laws to protect our public school buildings in the same way. We need that."

Other projects included purchasing a new ultrasound machine for the Metropolitan Hospital Center, creating a skate park for kids to encourage exercise and keep them from skating illegally on sidewalks and constructing a 10-foot barrier wall between a Wagner Housing Project playground, where asthma rates are particularly high, and the FDR Drive to direct polluted air flow above the kids playing below.

"A lot of these projects are really out of the box," said Joe Taranto, deputy chief of staff for Mark-Viverito.

Taranto said one of the fringe benefits of the process has been that community members gain insight into the sometimes thorny inner workings of city government.

"People have a better idea of how much things cost, how many bureaucratic loopholes there are, how a capital project is actually defined," Taranto said. "It really gives people a better understanding of how their government works at a local level, and we're really excited about that part, too."

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