Inside the Mott Haven Community Center in the Bronx one Wednesday evening in early October, representatives from City Council District 8 were trying to gauge whether any more residents would show up for the night’s “neighborhood assembly,” an open forum of sorts where members of the community would brainstorm about development projects that can be funded by the council.
On that particular evening, roughly 20 residents were spread out in the room, sitting on plastic fold-out chairs. That was less than the organizers anticipated, said Julia Solomons, an intern within the city council’s office. The last neighborhood assembly had more than 50 people in attendance, but Solomons said that was mostly because a local school organization brought in a lot of students.
The assembly was part of something called “participatory budgeting,” a process that invites residents to decide how discretionary funds will be allocated to local projects proposed and developed by members of the community. In 2011, four city council members piloted the program in their districts and allocated $1 million each in capital funds to participatory budgeting. Since then, the number of participating councils in New York City has risen every year, jumping dramatically from nine in 2013 to 24 districts this year.
As a result, communities, like this particular area in Mott Haven in the Bronx, now face the challenge of educating the public about a process that relies heavily on community engagement to succeed. At the neighborhood assembly in Mott Haven, about half of the people in attendance were completely new to participatory budgeting.
“It definitely is still a foreign concept,” Solomons said. Or as Pam Jennings, the project manager for the city’s Participatory Budgeting Project, a non-profit which has overseen technical training for the process, put it: “There’s definitely a strong learning curve,” for the districts doing participatory budgeting for the first time.
She added, “You kind of have to learn by doing.”
When PB, as the process is often called, was initially introduced in 2011, it was very much a pilot program, said Jennings, with uncertain outcomes. Since then, participatory budgeting has gained traction, particularly in the last election cycle when it became a campaign issue, she said. As a result, many freshmen councilmembers were elected into office pledging to institute PB.
Part of the public appeal of participatory budgeting is that almost any resident can become involved and vote, regardless of the barriers, such as citizenship status, that might otherwise exclude that resident from participating in a general election. In some districts, even residents as young as 16 years old can vote.
To work, however, residents need to get involved. But how to do that, exactly, has been left mostly up to the individual councils, albeit with the help of two nonprofits: the Participatory Budgeting Project and Community Voices Heard, a grassroots advocacy group responsible for outreach. The city council has also begun institutionalizing and centralizing participatory budgeting to help ensure underrepresented communities receive targeted outreach.
And that’s not an easy task to do alone.
“The biggest lesson was that this is a very big undertaking,” said Mary Tek, coordinator of the City Council’s Innovation Projects team that is partly responsible for centralizing the process. “There just needed to be more people working on this.”
So the New York City Council placed bids with community-based organizations to target a specific, underrepresented demographic, said Tek. For instance, she said, an organization’s bid might target residents who identify as part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community or who speak another language.
“The more districts that become involved, the easier its been to streamline the processes, build up economies of scale and really build up a solid infrastructure so that the districts can all make the most out of this process,” Jennings said.
Figuring out, however, how to maintain the level of independence afforded to districts in the past while streamlining the process is an ongoing project.
“We don’t want to overly micro-manage the process. We really want to maintain the grassroots feel,” Innovations Projects coordinator Tek said, adding that it’s critical to build on the experience from previous years so that districts “don’t all have to reinvent the wheel.”
New York City isn’t alone in terms of adopting participatory budgeting. The concept, first introduced in 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, has since spread to more than 1,500 sites around the world. In the United States, an alderman in a ward in Chicago introduced the process back in 2009 and other cities like Boston, San Francisco and Vallejo, Calif., have since introduced varying forms of participatory budgeting as well. The White House has also encouraged its implementation at the local level.
As it stands, however, New York City has the most city council districts participating in the United States. So, a successful large-scale implementation here holds unparalleled influence.
“We see New York City really as a model for how other cities and communities can scale participatory budgeting processes effectively and quickly,” said David Beasely, the communications director for the Participatory Budgeting Project.
The yearly cycle for participatory budgeting typically starts taking hold in September and October and runs through April. Neighborhood assemblies, like those going on now, are the first step in the process where residents contribute ideas. Later, volunteers serve as delegates and with facilitators from the city council they comb through those initial ideas in search of what’s feasible and what’s not. The proposals that qualify for funding are then presented to the public in the spring, in a manner akin to how posters are displayed at science fairs. Proposals receive feedback, residents later vote on what projects they want funded and the process begins anew the following year.
Each city council sets its own schedule and decides when, where and how many neighborhood assemblies to hold, Tek said. As a result, the process in some district councils is well underway in terms of hosting assemblies, while others have barely set the dates.
Once the neighborhood assemblies are in place, participating council districts still face the challenge of getting residents to attend. That’s been a challenge since the process began in 2011 in New York. In the first year, only 6,000 residents participated. The following year, participation jumped to more than 13,000. Since, attendance at the neighborhood assemblies has dropped, according to a 2013 study done by the Urban Justice Center, a group that provides educational and direct legal services to residents who otherwise could not afford them.
Who becomes a delegate really helps get the word out, say experts. If the delegates are representative of the diversity within the community, then the process works, despite low turnout, said Sondra Youdelman, the executive director of the nonprofit Community Voices Heard. So she said, the organization is trying to inform people immediately when the opportunity to become a delegate come up.
Still, limited resources make on-the-ground outreach difficult, Youdelman said. Of the 24 participating districts, Community Voices Heard has a contract to do outreach only in 16.
“It’s a good gesture, but it’s not sufficient,” Youdelman said. “We’re lucky if we’re in each district twice before a neighborhood assembly.”
Mott Haven in the Bronx has technically been participating in the process since 2011 when City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito of District 8 piloted the program along with City Councilmembers Brad Lander, Eric Ulrich and Jumaane Williams. But as a result of redistricting, new neighborhoods have come within the district’s boundaries this year and two new councilmen jumped on the bandwagon: City Councilman Andrew Cohen of District 11 and Councilman Ritchie Torres of District 15. Each has pledged the minimum of $1 million to the process and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has pledged $2 million, splitting it between the neighborhoods of El Barrio in East Harlem and Mott Haven in the Bronx.
Cynics point out how miniscule the allocated funds amount to in relation to the city’s overall $75 billion budget.
“It’s a fraction of the budget,” Speaker Mark-Viverito conceded in an interview with NBC News in September. “But it’s a great process.” She added, this is “the way the budget will move forward.”
Meanwhile, back at the Mott Haven community center in early October, the process got underway when Max Cantarero the director of community affairs for the speaker’s office, outlined to residents the kind of projects that might qualify for capital funds. “If you can touch it and it’s more than $35,000, you can probably fund it,” Cantarero told the small crowd of attendees..
On a projected screen, he showed slides asking the group whether fixing potholes qualifies for capital funds or expense funds (The answer: capital). He advised the group that the total budget is limited to $1 million dollars and reminded them that only a handful of projects are funded each year.
After hearing the presentation, many residents, like Ray Figueroa, jumped right in to the process with ideas. Figueroa had three: a green rooftop farm, a compost toilet and a van for Friends of Brook Park, an environmental organization in the South Bronx. Other ideas proposed that day included the installation of safety mats at a local playground, new bleachers at a local baseball field and a renovated recreational space for teens.
Despite Figueroa’s excitement, the attendance at the most recent meeting reflects low levels of community engagement,, so far at least.
“It’s a really hard concept to explain to people in a short amount of time,” Solomons said.
She said it helps to give residents concrete examples of what can be accomplished and that can only be done by listening to their concerns and use that as a springboard for linking common proposals. Sometimes, she said, to get more people to come to meetings, she’s handed out fliers in food pantry lines and tells residents there will at least be a free meal if they show up.
Solomons said she remains hopeful that residents will realize the potential of the process.
“What’s cool about this project is that it’s more inclusive than a typical election,” Solomons said. “When people agree on something, there is more momentum to get things done. It creates a whirlwind effect.”