It’s voting week for participatory budgeting in 28 out of New York’s 51 City Council districts right now. That means you might get stopped on the street and asked to vote on how to spend up to $1 million dollars of the city’s money.

Participatory budgeting (PB) allows New Yorkers in participating Council districts to direct how the city spends capital funds to improve infrastructure in their communities. PB offers what might be the earliest point of entry into local government: New Yorkers as young as 11 can vote to fund projects in their district.

But how does this process happen? And what do you need to know about PB before you cast a vote this week? THE CITY explains.

Don’t know if your district is doing PB? Find out here

What Is Participatory Budgeting?

Participatory budgeting is a tool that allows New York City residents to vote directly on proposed projects to fund in their neighborhoods and how much to spend on each. 

In previous cycles over the past decade, voters have elected to steer tax dollars to community gardens, upgrades to library and school facilities, installations of green roofs and much more.

Council members get $5 million each budget year to devote to projects in their district. Members who decide to do participatory budgeting earmark at least $1 million in funds that their constituents will decide how to spend through a process of idea submission, voting and formal proposals: Maybe a local high school needs its bathrooms renovated, or the library in your neighborhood needs an air-conditioning upgrade. 

When Is It?

Between September and November every year, residents submit ideas for improvements they’d like to see in their communities and select Budget Delegates — who are volunteer community members devoting time to formalizing ideas — to revise their ideas into official proposals, a process that takes place over the winter. The budget delegates then go back and forth with city agencies for about three months, when they decide which projects are capital-eligible and viable, according to PB experts on City Council staff. This year’s cycle began in September and will wrap up by June.

When springtime arrives, it’s time to vote. All the formal proposals are now on the ballot, and residents vote for up to five projects that the community will fund. 

Take a look at all the ideas that came in online this past year here.

Phyllis Waisman, a budget delegate for the Parks and Environment committee in Manhattan’s Council District 3, represented by Councilmember Erik Bottcher, was out on the streets encouraging residents in the West Village, Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea to vote this past weekend. This year, residents in the district will be voting for their top choices among pedestrian safety upgrades, bathroom renovations, auditorium upgrades and water bottle filling station installations in public schools, ventilation system upgrades for a library, expansion of tree beds in the streets, and supplying water irrigation in district gardens.

Waisman has been a budget delegate for participatory budgeting in the district since 2017.

“It was a way to introduce people in the community, get young people to vote and be involved in the democratic process without [being old enough] to vote, and they were voting on projects that would benefit the community,” she said. 

Which Projects Qualify?

Some requirements for a project to qualify are consistent across districts. The project must:

  • Cost at least $50,000
  • Have a useful lifespan of five or more years if it’s infrastructure-related; at least three years if it involves electronics (like funding the purchase of iPads and laptops for a library or school)
  • Must be on public land

All the projects that win can cost up to $1 million. However, $1 million is a floor — some Council members also choose to do PB with a greater amount of money from their $5 million discretionary fund as well as with their expense budgets, adding to the pool of money that their constituents can decide how to spend. For example, Councilmember Tiffany Cabán’s office in Queens does PB with an additional $50,000 dedicated to projects like after-school services and community programming. 

“We noticed that it piques people’s interest a little bit more — it’s more exciting and tangible and these projects are projects that have to happen within about one fiscal year that the funding is allocated for, so it’s something that people can see really quickly,” said Nomi Tinkelman, organizing director for Cabán’s office. “Capital projects tend to take a while, so it’s a longer wait to see the results.”

Who Can Vote?

Participatory budgeting is an easy way to get involved in your community — you have to live in the district and be 11 years or older.  There are no citizenship or immigration requirements. 

City government has made a concerted effort to engage younger New Yorkers. The city Department of Education operates a participatory budgeting program in middle schools through its Civics for All initiative, including a PB curriculum for teachers.

However, young New Yorkers under age 13 can vote only using a paper ballot, and those between 13 and 17 have to get their parents’ consent to sign up online and vote.

Where Can I Vote?

You can vote in person or online. In-person voting sites come in two forms: a spot set up by Council members in their district offices or local community centers, like libraries or schools. Or, some Council members staff pop-up sites in high-traffic areas, representatives from City Council said. 

You can also vote online here. You’ll have to enter your address, first and last name and verify your phone number. After that, you vote to fund up to five projects, and then hit submit.

What Does PB Accomplish?

PB is designed to give people power to spend resources directly to improve their communities. In New York City, PB is one way to push for tangible change in the neighborhood and get involved in local government or politics, even if one is not a citizen or able to vote in other elections. 

PB is not without its criticisms. It takes time to see the results of even those proposals that pass. Ideas coming from residents with the loudest voices and highest participation rates may not accurately reflect the needs of the neighborhood. The Brennan Center notes that in Indonesia’s experience with PB, low-income neighborhoods got less than their fair share of a budget because poor people did not participate as much. 

However, PB is still touted as the one of the most direct ways of giving people power over how taxpayer money is used and rallying them around common neighborhood needs.

“We live in a diverse community. And to me there’s nothing more important than bringing people together,” said Diane Lazarus, another volunteer in Council District 3. “To build from the bottom up and have some — even if it’s small — a feeling of some empowerment.”