Community budgeting nears decision time

Delegates study proposals, will select projects to fund

Residents are eager to know how their decisions will impact the spending of $1 million in tax revenue this winter in Mott Haven and Melrose.

Last fall, City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito announced her constituents would be able to decide how the money should be spent, as part of a new initiative known as participatory budgeting. Residents of Mark-Viverito’s district, which includes Mott Haven and Harlem, have met several times since the fall to consider what local projects to finance. 

Proposals can call for capital funding for infrastructure-related projects only, not for expense requests, which would require the city to hire new workers.

About 70 budget delegates have started to sift through the projects residents proposed in October and November public meetings.

“Everybody who’s involved seems very enthusiastic about it and they’re happy to be part a process like this,” said John Johnson, a member of Community Board 1 who was elected by his peers to serve as a Mott Haven budget delegate.

Johnson said he would like to see the money go to an increase of closed circuit cameras in the Millbrook public housing projects to help reduce crime.

Carmen Aquino, a resident who attended the first meeting, said she would be disappointed if the more populous Harlem segment of Mark-Viverito’s district ends up overshadowing Mott Haven initiatives.

“This is a needy community.  We need a lot of services here,” she said.

Aquino said public lighting, increased security and housing for seniors are issues that should be addressed with the new funding.

In all, residents submitted more than 550 proposals, at the meetings and online.

Budget delegates were split into seven different committees at the fall meetings, including parks, education and housing. Since then, committee members have had to consult city agencies to learn which of the proposed projects are eligible for capital funding.

Budget delegates have until early February to finalize the wish list. More neighborhood assemblies will follow, at which the delegates will present their findings, before residents get to cast a final vote on the projects of their choice in early March.

Anyone who lives or works in the area can still apply to be a budget delegate by contacting Mark-Viverito’s office to arrange to attend an orientation session.

Mark-Viverito said her constituents’ proposals don’t differ greatly from projects she considered supporting during last year’s traditional budgeting process. Nevertheless, she said, direct community participation is what makes the new initiative special.

“Seeing people want to be more involved in their community is really rewarding and illustrates why this process is important,” she said.

She said her office is getting to hear from people who wouldn’t have otherwise gone to community board meetings, and that residents will be heard at a time when the public has little faith in government.

“This is a way of saying ‘What you have to say matters. This is your money. You should have a more direct say and involvement in that process,’” she said.