Last year, four City Council members launched a pilot project empowering residents to decide how to spend some of their district’s annual budgets. More than 20 community improvement projects were funded last week thanks to this innovative participatory budget. Other lawmakers should follow suit and implement similar processes in their districts.
Having residents decide how to spend discretionary budgets can help promote democratic participation, improve the relationship between representatives and their constituents, and increase public investment in the right community improvement plans.
One district that participated in this budgeting initiative was District 8, represented by Melissa Mark-Viverito, which includes East Harlem (El Barrio) and parts of the South Bronx.
In this district, where residents are predominantly low-income and of color, more than 1,100 people voted for the projects they thought should be funded. Forty percent of the voters were Latino. A food program for the elderly and playground improvements in public housing complexes were among the winning projects.
One of the most powerful features of this method to distribute public funds is that it opens the doors to groups that are traditionally excluded from the democratic process, such as undocumented immigrants, legal permanent residents and convicted felons. This matters in low-income districts where many residents fit into these categories, and are disenfranchised by election laws even if they’re loyal taxpayers and active in the community.
Each of the 51 City Council members has an annual budget of between $1 and $2 million to distribute in their district. In a democracy where voter participation continues to decrease, creative ideas that encourage participation and the representation of those who can’t express their opinion for many reasons aren’t simply welcomed but necessary.
We challenge the entire Council to follow this example and commit to having the constituents who will benefit from the funding vote on how to distribute discretionary dollars.