ASTORIA – New York City Councilman Costas Constantinides recently held a party in his Astoria district to celebrate New York City’s innovative Participatory Budgeting process and to honor the volunteers who helped make it possible.
The initiative, which was pioneered by Melissa Mark-Viverito as a member of the City Council before she became its Speaker, enables citizens to vote for the projects they deem most important for their neighborhoods and the party was the occasion for announcing the winning projects.
When the Ancient Greeks pioneered democracy, it was direct democracy, but as cities and states grew bigger and bigger, representative government became the norm for democratic government. Notwithstanding what the information revolution might make possible in the future, public officials concerned with declining citizen interest in politics and election turnouts have worked within the current system to get citizens more involved.
About half of New York’s City Council members have turned over responsibility for $1 million of their annual capital allocation to their constituents.
The process, which took place in Astoria for the first time in the 2014-15 budget cycle generated 2,204 ballots – which outperformed last year’s city wide average of 1700. “I’m very proud of that,” Constantinides said.
Constantinides explained to TNH how it works. Last fall community residents attended four assemblies in Astoria and Jackson Heights and brainstormed about project ideas.
About 100 of the participants then volunteered to be Budget Delegates and broke up into groups working on specific issues.
The delegates turned an initial list of 250 capital projects into 18 proposals that were announced in March 2015.
“The delegates worked with City agencies to see what was feasible,” Constantinides said, and clarified that what is involved in the capitol budget are not programs but buildable projects “that cost more than $35,000 and last more than five years.”
The Councilman and his staff – who put in many hours and whom Constantinides said were vital to the effort – did not advocate for any of the projects. They tried to be as neutral and helpful as possible.
The 18 projects were voted upon at sites across Constantinides’ district. There were many Greek-American voters and ballots were also Greek.
The three winning projects’ budgets exceeded the $1 million the process produced, “but I did not want to not fund something that got more than 700 votes,” he said, and provided an additional $245,000 to the budgets.
The extra money came out of the capital outlay his office also controls. Last year they had $5 million to spend on items like school playgrounds and libraries.
“This allows direct democracy, it allows neighbors to decide how their tax dollars should be spent,” Constantinides said, adding “It was great to see…people were very excited,” and he especially enjoyed seeing high school students cast their first votes as citizens.
The top vote getter was “Public school district-wide Tech upgrades.” $245,000 was allocated, $35,000 for each of seven schools.
The councilman was most excited about “the additional tech dollars we are putting into our schools… Schools in the 21st century have to keep up with technology.”
The “Dog Run in Astoria” came in second place and will receive $500,000. “We have never had a functional dog run before,” he said. The run will be built on an empty lot under the RFK Bridge.
In third place was the IS 126 playground, which will cost $500,000.
“We had great volunteers, people who gave up their time for the betterment of our neighborhood should be commended,” Constantinides said, but he also spotlighted his staff. “They were amazing. I could not have done this without them. It was like running a district-wide election with seven people. They manned five poll sites 12 hours a day, seven days that week.”
Attorney Constantinos Kapatsos’ parents are from Cephalonia. He told TNH he read about Participatory Budgeting on Facebook and decided to attend a meeting. He was so impressed he became a budget delegate and at a volunteer at the voting sites.
Born in California, Jeremy-Joseph Rosen has lived in New York most of his life. He said the staff did a great job of facilitating and not influencing the process. “People from all walks of life, 40-60 people came to the meetings I attended, which lasted 1 ½ hours. The budget delegates are committed to a four month process of a meeting a week.”
While a lot of people came into the process with an agenda, a specific project they wanted to support, Rosen said. He told TNH “I just love my neighborhood and wanted to be part of the process.