A People’s Budget for New York City

Starting this fall, over a million New Yorkers in eight city council districts will have a direct say in how at least $10 million of their tax dollars are spent. Tuesday, New York City Council Members David Greenfield, Daniel Halloran, Stephen Levin, and Mark Weprin announced that they will be bringing the groundbreaking participatory budgeting process to their districts, joining four Council Members who started participatory budgeting last year: Brad Lander, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Eric Ulrich, and Jumaane D. Williams.

The doubling of the size of participatory budgeting in just its second year is a testament to the success of the process in its first year in New York City. Over 2,000 community members attended 27 public meetings during the fall and winter to discuss local priorities and design specific infrastructure projects to address the needs of their communities. About 250 community members volunteered to be budget delegates and spent many evenings discussing and shaping capital projects with city agencies. In March, more than 6,000 residents voted on nearly 300 projects.

Not only did the process engage a large number of communities, the participant make-up resembled the diversity of New Yorkers across race and class -- 20 percent of voters identified as African American; 14 percent Hispanic or Latino; and 9 percent as Other. In some districts, people of color and low-income people participated in participatory budgeting at higher rates than traditional electoral politics.

And the process changed the lives of many New Yorkers.

At an international conference on participatory budgeting earlier this spring, people from around the world flocked to Brooklyn to hear about what and how New York City did with its first year of participatory budgeting. City Council Members described the relationships they had built with constituents they had never seen or met before – and not just the “usual suspects”. Participatory budgeting meetings were unlike other public events that resembled “venting sessions.”

And community members described how having a direct and active role in public decisions was empowering. Many continued on to become leaders in their communities. Participatory budgeting also became an educational space -- people learned about how the New York City budget and government agencies work, as well as their neighbors and neighborhood. Finally, working with City Council Members and their staff, and city agencies led to participants’ greater trust in government and elected officials when it is at an all-time low across the country.

Participatory budgeting is a potent tool for empowering local residents. This is exciting, revolutionary civics in action. A real "of the people, by the people, for the people."