How would you spend a million dollars? Long Island City residents gathered July 9 to discuss just that.
In the second of two informational meetings held by City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), residents of the 26th Council District gathered in the Jacob Riis Settlement House to learn about participatory budgeting for the 2015-16 fiscal year, a democratic process where residents from 22 city districts have a voice in how $25 million in discretionary funds should be spent citywide.
Each district has a minimum of $1 million to allocate to brick-and-mortar-projects like upgrades to schools, parks, libraries, transportation, public housing or other community spaces. According to officials, the process will start later this fall.
Meeting in the Riis Settlement House was particularly fitting for the meeting’s focus on the power of funding, as Executive Director Christopher Hanway announced Van Bramer had just allocated $150,000 to install air conditioners and upgrade bathrooms on the downstairs level.
Van Bramer played a game of “New York City Budget Jeopardy” with residents to engage them and better acquaint them with the participatory budgeting process. He asked questions like, “Who usually decides which projects to submit for Council member discretionary funding?”
This is the first year Van Bramer’s district, which incorporates Woodside, Sunnyside, Long Island City and Astoria, will participate. The district also includes Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing complex in the country, as well as Ravenswood Houses and Woodside Houses.
“This is an exciting time for all of you to really become leaders,” Van Bramer said. “Through this process you will have an opportunity to engage your neighbors and to engage your fellow community members.”
He believes the grassroots spirit of participatory budgeting will be powerful in the district.
A major goal is to increase the number of districts over time, Van Bramer said.
In the city’s participatory budgeting process — which was introduced in 2011 — neighborhood groups will come together in September and October, when residents look at community needs and select delegates. From November through February, community members will brainstorm project ideas and develop project proposals. Projects should have a lifetime of five years and must have budgets of at least $35,000.
District residents age 16 and older will be able to vote on which projects will be funded in late March or early April.
Van Bramer explained there are other ways districts can receive more than the $1 million minimum; he explained there are “bumps” of $25,000 to $100,000 additional dollars based on poverty levels in each district.
“Our district is about in the middle so we received an additional $50,000,” Van Bramer said.
In addition, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito does have a separate pot of funding that she can allocate based on requests from Council members, and Van Bramer said he’s able to allocate more money for particularly great project proposals.
Members of Van Bramer’s staff also stressed the importance of community engagement.
“We definitely want to empower a new generation of young people to come out and lead this process,” said Nick Gulotta, one of Van Bramer’s staff members. “It’s really exciting to engage folks from high school to senior citizens.”
Sondra Youdelman spoke on behalf of Community Voices Heard, which helps citizens across the city get involved in the process. The organization can train residents to best spread the word about the process and projects on the ballot through canvassing, making phone calls and utilizing social media.
Youdelman also said CVH is trying to recruit people who can translate materials into different languages, something that Queensbridge Tenant Association President April Simpson-Taylor says is an increasing need in the Queensbridge Houses.
“Over the years, Queensbridge Houses has become very diverse,” said Simpson-Taylor, who added that more residents are of Bengali and Asian descent, many of whom might not speak fluent English. She believes that ensuring all information is readily available to all demographics could empower the community to do their part.
“Being the largest housing development in the country, there should be more people here that represent not just Queensbridge, but this district,” she said.
“This is the charge and the challenge,” responded Youdelman, explaining that knowledge is key to the success of this process. “If they know about this and they know they can vote on a million dollars, they tend to vote. The problem is, does everybody know about it? We have very limited resources to actually spread the word.”
In Queens, Councilmembers Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens), Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton) and Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) have taken part in participatory budgeting. Besides Van Bramer, Councilmembers Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans) and Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn, Queens), who represents part of Ridgewood, are also looking to bring participatory budgeting to their districts beginning this fall.