Participatory Budgeting Gleefully Expands at City Council

Councilman Andrew Cohen, a freshman lawmaker from the Bronx who will be taking part in participatory budgeting. (Photo: William Alatriste: NYC Council)

Councilman Andrew Cohen, a freshman lawmaker from the Bronx who will be taking part in participatory budgeting. (Photo: William Alatriste: NYC Council)

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and her colleagues giddily announced today that the number of council members taking part in participatory budgeting would more than double next year.

The process, which allows community members to vote on projects that council members than fund from their discretionary dollars, is increasingly popular in the left-leaning body.

“Already we have seen how this process engages and enfranchises New Yorkers that often sit on the sidelines when it comes to civic participation, providing youth, low-income, non English-speaking citizens a voice,” Ms. Mark-Viverito said at a City Hall press conference today.  “Residents from all walks of life come together and brainstorm what they want to see in their communities and how we can make it happen.”

22 council members will now take part in participatory budgeting, up from 10 currently. Each council member will have at least $1 million to dole out to projects that their district votes for in next year’s budget. In total, more than $25 million will be spent on future projects, Ms. Mark-Viverito said.

Ms. Mark-Viverito, who appeared with several council members today, wouldn’t say at the press conference how much the participatory budgeting expansion will cost in total. In addition to the actual cash that will be doled out, there will be costs associated with outreach to communities and holding meetings before the vote. Aides later added the expansion would cost $225,500 in total: $70,000 of it will be for contracts for technical assistance, outreach, printing and technology and $152,500 for personnel.

Began in 2011 with just four council members (Ms. Mark-Viverito, not yet the speaker, was one of them), the program is now enticing many council members from the body’s liberal wing and even a handful of moderates. Many freshmen lawmakers are also getting involved, including Council members Andrew Cohen, Paul Vallone, Mark Levine, Carlos Menchaca, Daneek Miller, Ritchie Torres, Mark Treyger, Corey Johnson, Mark Treyger, Ben Kallos and Helen Rosenthal.

Councilman Brad Lander, a top progressive and architect of the participatory budgeting movement in the council, said the program allowed for a direct collaboration between government and city residents that is not always apparent.

“I knew when we launched this … that people would like the idea of having a say in how we spend our money. People find that very tangible and want to get involved,” Mr. Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, said. “New Yorkers love their communities. They love their parks and their schools and their streets and their libraries and the chance to take care of them together, to act as shared stewards. That’s the best thing that government is about.”

Queens Councilman Mark Weprin, another veteran of the process, said he was skeptical at first–he once laughed it off as another “crazy Brad Lander idea”–but insisted there was little chaos associated with participatory budgeting.

“They were so excited just to be part of a process,” Mr. Weprin said.  “So all of you out there who are still skeptical saying, ‘Oh is this a real idea?’ This is a great idea and a great way to get the public involved.”

Updated with figures for the total cost of the participatory budget expansion.