Participatory budgeting votes are in

Mott Haven resident Maria Ojeda decided what initiatives to vote for, with help from her children. Photo by Sean Carlson

Playground repairs and public housing security cameras win

Millbrook Houses in Mott Haven will get long-awaited improvements to its playground on St. Ann’s Avenue, and public housing projects across the neighborhood will receive new tamper-proof security cameras as part of the city’s first-ever participatory budgeting initiative.

Over 1,000 voters in Mott Haven and in the Manhattan portion of City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito’s district turned out to vote on March 31 for neighborhood projects they wanted to see funded with the $1.1 million she set aside for an experiment in participatory budgeting. In all, there were 29 projects on the ballot, ranging from playground upgrades to a solar-powered greenhouse. Each voter was allowed to vote for up to five items.

Maria Ojeda smiled as she checked off her ballot and handed it to election staff at the Betances Senior Center, where Mott Haven residents voted. Although the minimum voting age was 18, her two children, a boy and girl, whispered suggestions into her ear.

“To know what the people want is so important,” said Ojeda, who lives across the street from the senior center on St. Ann’s Avenue, where she cast her vote. “For me, education is the key. My kids are on the honor roll.”

The voting, which took place over the course of a week and ended on the last day in March, gave Mark-Viverito’s constituents in Mott Haven, the Upper West Side and East Harlem a chance to choose where a portion of their council representative’s budget will be spent.

Along with the Millbrook playground, transportation services for seniors in East Harlem, including a Meals-on-Wheels delivery van, and playground improvements at an Upper West Side housing complex rounded out the top three projects selected to get funding.

But Mark-Viverito had a surprise for her constituents as she announced the winners at an event in East Harlem after the votes were tallied. The Councilwoman pledged to fund the projects that came in fourth, fifth and sixth places, along with the top three vote-getters.

“It’s been great to see some of the creativity in these projects,” said Mark-Viverito. “This is democracy in action.”

An ultrasound system for the Metropolitan Hospital Center, new technology for the Aguilar branch of the Public Library and construction of a youth development headquarters and the DREAM Charter School in Harlem were the other three projects she approved funding for.

Even those whose projects were not voted in saw value in the process.

Community activist Ray Figueroa served as a budget delegate, helping organize the initiative locally and explaining the process to residents at various stages of the campaign. He also pushed a plan for the building and opening of a solar-powered greenhouse in Mott Haven. The project would have grown food that would then be sold at a farmer’s market run by young people from the neighborhood.

“We are not unhappy,” he said of the fact that his project will not be funded. “Mott Haven as a community is benefiting tremendously as a result of this process. Participatory budgeting is a great lesson in social responsibility.”

Angel Molina, a Mott Haven resident, also served as a delegate.

“The community knows what its problems are,” said Molina. “And because of that, they also know the solutions.”

The budgeting initiative was also implemented in three other city council districts, two in Brooklyn and one in Queens.

Community Voices Heard, a development organization with chapters across the state, was instrumental in persuading Mark-Viverito and three other council members to try the participatory budgeting experiment. Members of the group helped organize residents in the participating districts, and staffed some of the polling stations.

“A lot of people feel that the government doesn’t hear them,” said Stephen Bradley, an organizer with the group, who helped run the polling station at the Betances Senior Center. “But who knows what’s better for the community than the people?”

Participatory budgeting was first implemented in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989. Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars from that city’s budget have gone to fund local initiatives through the process. Over 1,000 cities throughout the world have since initiated similar programs.

Cezar Busatto, who works for the city department in Porto Alegre that administers participatory budgeting, toured the polling stations in Mark-Viverito’s district on March 31st. He was impressed with how the process was being carried out in the U.S.

“People are conscious of what they need,” said Busatto. He noted that the most popular participatory budget projects in Porto Alegre were to improve housing, education and healthcare, particularly for the elderly.

“The community should be able to put public money to use to benefit them,” he said. “It’s just so exciting to see this happening in New York.”