2014-04-04

Co.Exist

Direct Democracy In Action: Voting On How The Government Spends Your Money

The Big Apple's participatory budgeting process is now in its fourth year. This weekend, residents will get to have a direct say over their councilmember's discretionary funds.

It would be tough to find something people like to complain about more than politicians. Now, thanks to New York City's Participatory Budgeting project, we get to do part of their job for them.

With the fast flow of information these days, the average citizen can easily be just as informed as any local politician or policy wonk. So why do we need politicians to spend our tax dollars for us? Especially when it comes local communities, people have a visceral and intuitive understanding of the changes they want to see.

Through participatory budgeting in New York, district residents create and collaboratively workshop proposals for how to spend a chunk of their councilmember's discretionary budget. This weekend, residents of participating districts will have the opportunity to vote on which of those proposals they want to spend money on.

Participatory budgeting started in New York in 2011 with just four districts, representing neighborhoods as diverse as East Harlem, Park Slope, Flatbush, and Rockaway Beach. But the roots of participatory budgeting go back much further, to 1989 in Porto Allegre, Brazil.

Participatory budgeting in Porto Allegre is considered a resounding success, drawing praise from both leftists and the World Bank alike. It represents the kind of common sense solution that is hard to disagree with: people having direct say over how money in their communities should be spent. When participatory budgeting started in Porto Allegre, only 75% of homes had running water; now almost all do.

From the original four forward-thinking districts, participatory budgeting has expanded to 10 districts in New York, most of them in Brooklyn.

While the process is exciting and empowering for residents, it also gives them a taste of the tough decisions politicians have to make. Take Brad Lander's District 39. There are about $2.5 million worth of proposals, but only $1 million to spend. So residents have to ask themselves, would you rather spend $200,000 on adding more security cameras or $140,000 to install solar panels on a firehouse?

In other districts, the proposals highlight vast economic inequality. Ben Kallos's District 5 represents both the relatively wealthy Upper East Side and East Harlem, which has the highest concentration of public housing in the country. On the same ballot for District 5 (PDF) is a proposal to replace the cooling system in the NYPL Upper East Side 67th Street branch for $500,000 as well as a proposal to spend $430,000 to update fridges and stoves in four East Harlem public housing buildings.

Participatory budgeting is the best kind of local democracy in action. But that also means that if residents are unhappy with how our tax dollars are spent, we only get to complain about ourselves, not politicians.

Voting runs now through Sunday April 6, depending on your district. Visit pbnyc.org for more info.

[Image: NYC aerial via Shutterstock]

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