Over the past eight months, the residents of Eastern Queens have embarked on a new and unusual way to decide how $1 million of government funds would get spent. The results exceeded my expectations and once again proved the value of public participation in government.
Our million-dollar decision, through a process called participatory budgeting (PB), turned out 1,116 residents of Council District 23 to vote, and they were part of more than 10,000 PB voters across New York City. The wave of positive responses that I received from constituents attests to how PB empowers communities, cultivates civic engagement, and encourages young people to get involved in the democratic process.
PB gets residents involved in and excited about local projects in their communities. I introduced the concept of PB to the community last summer.
In the fall, hundreds of residents attended neighborhood assemblies that were held across the district, at libraries, senior centers, community centers, and schools. Assemblies served as brainstorming sessions at which the community generated hundreds of project ideas.
Those who wanted to continue their participation volunteered to serve as budget delegates and formed five committees: Youth, Parks, Schools and Libraries, Public Safety and Transportation, and Community Facilities.
For four months, the delegates donated hundreds of volunteer hours to sort through the lists of project ideas, meet with city agencies, and identify feasible projects, which they developed into detailed proposals.
I then hosted a project presentation night, a kickoff event at which the delegates spoke to the community about the projects that would appear on the ballot. Community members asked questions and received information about each project.
March was Get out the Vote Month. We spread the word about the PB vote by canvassing, and by attending local community meetings and civic associations. We also knocked on numerous doors, sent emails, mailed letters, tweeted, and posted reminders on Facebook. It was a truly community effort that paid off in spades.
During the first week of April, voting took place over seven days across nine different poll sites. The winning projects are those that got the most votes:
1. Emergency equipment for Glen Oaks Volunteer Ambulance Corps, a life support ambulance service that provides emergency transportation to residents and visitors.
2. Roof repair for the Queens County Farm Museum, a popular cultural institution that holds a smorgasbord of events from a children’s carnival to an antique auto show.
3. An overdue technology upgrade for Martin Van Buren High School.
4. Portable NYPD security cameras.
5. Beautification of Cunningham Park, specifically the reconstruction of the picnic area and the creation of a music stage.
I thank all of the volunteers, voters, and other participants who made PB’s inaugural year in Eastern Queens a tremendous success. I am confident that in the second year it will continue to expand, affording local residents the chance to make real decisions that will affect the communities where they live.
Mark S. Weprin