The annual budget dance in the city marking a standoff between the mayor and the large interest groups is underway. The tone has softened under Mayor Bill de Blasio, but there is still anguished testimony from lawmakers and horse-trading behind the scenes as many institutions try to emerge unscathed.
Enter a new player in the budgeting process: run-of-the-mill resident.
Four years ago New York City decided to try participatory budgeting, bureaucratic jargon for letting the citizens decide how $1 million in public funds should be spent in their council districts.
Much to the surprise of some skeptical City Council members, the process has been a hit with young and old alike.
In 2011 Councilman Eric Ulrich was the first borough lawmaker to try it out on his southern Queens constituents. Three other council members in the city joined the experiment.
This year 24 Council members, including nine from Queens, asked their constituents to spend a year drawing up proposals and selecting small capital projects to present to residents for a vote.
Voters must show proof of residency in a particular district and be at least 16 years old, although Councilman Daneek Miller’s district is open to ballot casters as young as 14. An individual does not have to be a registered voter and immigration status is not relevant.
The number of Queens residents taking part in this grassroots democratic process has climbed steadily.
In northeast Queens, Councilman Mark Weprin said some 1,100 residents voted in 2013, the first year he introduced the program, followed by 1,600 last year. This year he was expecting well over 2,000 to turn out to score their preference for project ideas involving schools, libraries and parks. Voting ended this weekend.
Councilman Paul Vallone has been working with student ambassadors at Bayside HS, who were old enough to vote on a coveted music studio and administer the polls.
In Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer’s Sunnyside district, a Long Island Bikeway, a renovation for Hart Playground and Smart Boards for PS 166 in Astoria went to the voters.
Over in Councilman Costa Constantinide’s Astoria district nearly 100 residents volunteered to be budget delegates. Proposals include a new dog run under the RFK Bridge and renovations at NYCHA Astoria Houses.
The City Council was wise to empower Queens residents with the rest of the city.
Give the people a chance to decide how their taxpayer money should be spent and they will come.