“It puts the dollars back into the hands of the voters.”
Ben Kallos, East Side City Council member
Eleven-year-olds get the vote. A few taps on a smartphone is all it takes to cast a ballot. There is no pay to play. Or give to get. And the people — not the politicians — decide how a chunk of their public funds are spent.
Sound like a phantasmagorical course in Civics 101? Actually, it’s a real-world experience, courtesy of the City Council, that gives New Yorkers a say in which brick-and-mortar projects will reap tax dollars in their districts.
Its name may be one of the wonkiest in city government: Participatory Budgeting, or PB.
But few initiatives do more to enshrine people power, make budget decisions clear and accessible — and open up the often-opaque process of funding capital projects to a citizenry seeking real and lasting change.
Starting on Saturday, April 7 and continuing through Sunday, April 15, a period called PB Week, residents in 31 of the Council’s 51 districts will vote to directly allocate $1 million in physical infrastructure work per district, selecting from around a dozen proposals that meet local needs.
Improvements to schools, parks, libraries, public housing and public safety are on the ballot in Council District 5, which takes in the Upper East Side, District 6, which covers the Upper West Side, and District 3, in Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and Greenwich Village.
Typically, the top two or three vote-getters tapped by members of the community in a given district are awarded the funds, depending on the price tag of those winning projects, until the allotted money runs out.
Providing tax dollars from Council members’ discretionary funds meets four good-government aims: Constituent priorities are addressed. Citizens gain direct control over where their money goes. Power passes into the grip of those who’ve long been outside the power structure. And corruption itself is disincentivized.
“All too often, there has been a strong correlation between people who give political contributions and groups that receive, or lose, millions in taxpayer funds,” said East Side Council Member Ben Kallos.
Historically, he noted, it wasn’t uncommon for some elected officials to use public money to “reward friends and punish enemies.” Now, PB walls off $1 million per district from being any part of that vicious cycle: “It puts those dollars back into the hands of the voters,” he said.
There are other benefits of the citizen-driven, decision-making process, said Kallos, who has utilized it since taking office in 2014. Considering that elected officials don’t always keep their word to voters, he added, “This is better than most campaign promises!”
Indeed, PB provides “almost instant gratification in which people can vote on a project, see the money allocated and then see it built,” he said.
And Kallos summed up the bottom line, saying, “Now, the people get to decide how to spend $1 million — irrespective of elected officials and the political process.”
Originating in Porto Alegre in Brazil in 1989 as a way to empower the poor and disenfranchised, PB spread rapidly across North and South America, and, after being adopted by hundreds of municipalities, finally came to New York in 2011.
Initially, it was introduced in four City Council districts. By 2016, some 68,000 New Yorkers were casting their ballots in 28 districts, and by the 2017 cycle, 102,800 residents had voted for their favorite projects in 31 districts, making the city host to the nation’s largest PB both in terms of number of participants and budgetary amounts.
Why the 50 percent surge in balloting? Online voting was rolled out in every PB district in 2017, after a more limited pilot program in 2016, and while turnout from paper balloting stayed consistent, off-site digital voters boosted the tally dramatically.
“You can vote at home in your pajamas or on your commute to work, and it will take less than 20 seconds,” Kallos said.
Last year, 2,421 Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island residents voted in PB, up 21 percent from 2016.
Other districts boasted greater turnout, with 3,111 votes cast in Council Member Helen Rosenthal’s Upper West Side district, a 44 percent leap from the previous year, and 3,518 votes in Corey Johnson’s Chelsea district, rocketing up 70 percent from 2016.
Expect those numbers to swell again in PB Week this year because the Council has lowered the minimum voting age to 11, down from 14, to encourage voting from the sixth grade on up. Eligible voters must sign an affidavit, online or in person, to confirm age and residency in the district.
Under the rules, residents can cast up to five votes for five separate projects, but they’re not allowed to vote more than once for any one project.
“Remember, this is NOT a political election,” Rosenthal wrote in a recent constituent newsletter. “You don’t need to be registered to vote.”
Depending on where people live, they can cast ballots at Kallos’ district office, 244 East 93rd Street; Rosenthal’s office, 563 Columbus Avenue; and Johnson’s, at 224 West 30th Street. There are also numerous mobile pop-up voting locations in schools, parks, libraries, subways stations and greenmarkets.
Why does the grassroots democratic decision-making process matter so much? The voters of today are more likely in future to contact a public official, vote in local elections, work in local politics, perform volunteer work, tackle neighborhood problems or join community groups, the Brooklyn-based Participatory Budgeting Project says.
With $1 million set aside and up for grabs, the top vote-getters will be awarded the capital discretionary funds up until the allotted sums run out. These are the 13 Upper East Side projects on the ballot as PB Week kicks off this weekend:
• New York Public Library, three district branches, technology upgrades, $200,000. New computers, printers, self-checkout kiosks, phone systems, network equipment and free high-speed Wi-Fi at East 67th Street, Webster and Roosevelt Island branches.
• NYPL, Webster Library branch, 1465 York Avenue, upgrades to the electrical system, $500,000.
• NYPL, Webster branch, new HVAC and cooling system to provide a safe environment to patrons during periods of extreme heat, $600,000.
• Ten public schools districtwide, purchase of laptops and laptop carts, $350,000.
• PS 183, 419 East 66th Street, new HVAC for cafeteria and community spaces to limit excessive heat in warmer months, $600,000.
• PS 290, 311 East 82nd Street, reconstruct kindergarten bathroom to have age-appropriate height stalls and sinks to improve sanitary and safety conditions, $200,000.
• PS/IS 217, 645 Main Street on Roosevelt Island, cafeteria renovation, including re-tiling floors and fixing cracks, $300,000.
• Lexington Houses, NYCHA, Lexington Avenue at East 98th Street, playground renovation, new play and safety equipment, $500,000.
• Ruppert Park, 1741 Second Avenue, new and expanded children’s play area, $500,000.
• St. Catherine’s Park Water Park, 1245 First Avenue, replace existing fountains with new plumbing, interactive spray heads and sports coating for kids to play in the water, $460,000.
• NYPD security cameras for two East 86th Street subway stations, including entrances and surrounding areas, $141,000.
• NYPD security cameras for East River Esplanade, connecting Hospital for Special Surgery and Rockefeller University security cameras to the NYPD security system, $160,000.
• NYPD security cameras at Sutton Place Parks, at East 54th, 55th, 56th, 57th and 58th Streets, to cover all park space to address crime and quality of life issues, $247,000.
Which project or projects is Kallos voting for? “I vote every year in PB, and I’m glad it’s a secret ballot!” he said.