Four Bronx Council Members Give Constituents New Power to Vote on Local Spending, Even as Five Others Pull Out
“Participatory budgeting” directing funds to community projects comes to parts of the borough formerly on the sidelines — but some local reps are reclaiming control over funds formerly steered by the people.
In some neighborhoods across the city, residents have long had the chance to decide how their local City Council member spends $1 million a year on local projects — but not in most of The Bronx.
Now participatory budgeting is coming to four Bronx districts for the very first time, covering neighborhoods from Wakefield to Castle Hill and Morris Heights, even as five other Bronx Council members decided to ditch the experiment in hyperlocal democracy.
New Council members Kevin Riley, Marjorie Velázquez, Pierina Sánchez and Amanda Farías have each decided to give their constituents a chance to propose and vote on capital improvements costing some portion of that million dollars, with balloting set to take place in April.
Delegates in the four Bronx districts have received an eclectic mix of proposals so far, from creating a dog park in Williamsbridge, to beautifying Clason Point Park and funding a bike lane expansion in the west Bronx.
Local volunteers in charge of reviewing the proposals said the program was an exciting way to get residents of the Bronx — where voter participation is typically low — to get more involved in civic life. Residents of the district as young as 11 may vote, as well as non-citizens. Each participatory budget cycle runs through the city fiscal year, spanning from July to June.
Julio Quiñones Jr., an elementary school teacher volunteering as a budget delegate for Farías’ Soundview and Castle Hill district, said the enthusiasm from the community to fund schools and parks projects in that area speaks to what residents feel could improve their daily lives.
“It would be the community that would actually benefit from it, and actually use it day to day, and who would actually see it and be aware of the need,” said Quiñones, who was born in the area and still lives there. “And these are voices that don’t typically have a seat at the table.”
Less Participation in Pandemic
This year’s participatory budgeting cycle is notably downsized from the last formal process, pre-pandemic, in 2019. (Some members did their own ad hoc online version last year.)
In 2019, 33 Council members participated in the initiative, asking residents how to spend a combined $35 million in capital funding, or slightly above $1 million per participating district.
Just 15 Council districts are participating this year, including the four in The Bronx as well as the Queens district of Speaker Adrienne Adams.
Daniella Eras, an advisor on the Civic Engagement Commission, the city agency that collaborates with the Council on participatory budgeting, attributed the downturn to the high turnover in the legislative body, which this year welcomed 35 new members out of a total of 51.
But some of the districts that were previously involved but no longer doing participatory budgeting are represented by members who were reelected in November — including, in The Bronx, Councilmembers Rafael Salamanca and Diana Ayala. Spokespersons for Ayala and Salamanca did not respond to a request for comment.
Council districts generally open submissions in the fall, finalize ballots in the early spring, and hold a nine-day vote week in April. The winning projects are then included in the Council’s upcoming fiscal year budget and submitted to the corresponding city agency.
That means that three of the four Bronx districts participating for the first time this year are working on a compressed schedule, since Velázquez, Farías and Sánchez took office in January.
Volunteer budget delegates review proposed projects and finalize ballots. Delegates who spoke with THE CITY said they signed up after seeing calls for volunteers on their Council member’s social media pages.
School parents and green space advocates are among the most involved in the process across the city, according to Civic Engagement Commission executive director Sarah Sayeed.
“Participatory budgeting surfaces needs in the neighborhood — things that people are noticing are gaps that they want to see supported,” Sayeed said.
‘We’re All Learning Together’
In Bronx neighborhoods participating for the first time, responses ranged from excitement to wonder, say the Council members representing them.
“My favorite thing about this process has been that people get to see, for example, that the comfort station in the park costs $2 million — it’s not me making this up, it’s what it’s costing the city of New York and the Parks Department,” said freshman Councilmember Pierina Sánchez, whose district includes Morris Heights.
“People have had a million questions about how things work and why, and that’s a beautiful thing because we’re all learning together and they’re learning with me,” she added. “It feels really great to be able to govern in this way.”
Geneva “Chef” Wilson, a volunteer budget delegate in Sánchez’s district, said the process has helped her learn how city government works and projects come to be.
Wilson, a chef who owns a catering company in the neighborhood, has so far spent most of her time helping get the word out about participatory budgeting and how it works.
“I would sit in the doctor’s office and talk to people and be like, ‘We need this, this needs to be done and that needs to be done,” she said. “You’d be surprised how many people were sitting up in that same doctor’s office with that same idea.”
Wilson and the other five delegates are currently weighing which submissions within their $1 million budget to include on the ballots, including a gun violence prevention program, pedestrian and bike lane expansion on the Washington Bridge, and a senior center food pantry project in Morris Heights.
Velázquez’s City Island and Throggs Neck district received proposals for a community garden on East Tremont Ave., a winter ice skating rink in Pelham Bay Park and more.
Of the four new Bronx districts, the one now represented by Amanda Farías – which includes Parkchester, Soundview and Castle Hill — has received the most proposals by far, with 36.
Among them is a plan to grow Clason Point Park by expanding toward a vacant lot nearby, including “a barge in the summer with a swimming pool, cafe, better street lights, improve[d] sidewalks” and surveillance cameras.
Diana Eusebio, a nonprofit worker and budget delegate for the neighborhood, said that ideas to beautify the neighborhood’s green spaces were “exciting.”
Farías said she sees participatory budgeting as a tool for “fighting apathy and bringing people into an election process.”
“We’re getting people engaged, they understand it’s a form of civic engagement, we get to make young people see the importance of voting – I think that’s really important to make sure that people can feel a relationship with their local elected officials and their government,” Farías said.
“But also, it gives better access and transparency to tax dollars, and who they have to hold accountable down the line.”