Innocent Abroad in Participatory Budgeting

TALE OF AN INNOCENT IN PARTICIPATORY BUDGETING

I first heard about Participatory Budgeting in the early summer of this year and was very excited about it. It seemed that large sums of money might be devoted to what residents of Crown Heights would want. At the same time I had become aware of a combination bench and tree in front of Happylucky No. 1 gallery on Nostrand Avenue that had been built for Liane Fredel, the owner of Happylucky No. 1, by KaN Landscape and Design and Rock Shelter Landscape and Design, the first as designer and second as builder. As a new startup Nostrand Avenue Improvement Association was virtually penniless, but I thought that three elements might be combined. The Association as organizer, the design/building team for the bench that attracted me, and funding coming from the what I soon learned to call PB administered through Laurie Cumbo's office. To jump start the process I did a GoFundMe that raised $2,500 for a first bench that would show what was possible.

I enlisted KaN in what I thought was a partnership in which we would gamble on getting the money. I came up with the idea of building twenty bench and tree combinations up and down Nostrand Avenue from Empire Boulevard to Fulton Street, which turned out to be exactly twenty blocks and got in touch with Laurie Cumbo's office which was conducting PB in the 35th Council District. I first talked to Crystal Hudson there who seemed guardedly optimistic. She encouraged me to make NAIA into a Business Improvement District, which would have been very premature, but I countered I would become a non-profit with the hope of getting a grant to finance the bench project. Soon after I was put in touch with Jason Hur who was the one who was going to actually administer PB for Cumbo, and we talked over the summer with the idea I would enter the process as a “budget delegate” in the fall, someone who helps form the proposals to be voted on in April.

Then came a process of finding out more. First I discovered that Cumbo's district only covered ten blocks of Nostrand Avenue from Sterling Place to Empire Boulevard. I told KaN this but somehow the information did not get through. They began by preparing materials for the full twenty blocks. It was then I began to realize I was talking to them but not really communicating. Part of the problem was they were French with an imperfect command of English, but what was wrong went much deeper. There were a series of disheartening events that culminated in the realization that the partnership I wanted was not going to be. They wanted full payment for everything they did. The first bench they were going to build at Met Food on Nostrand Avenue would cost the same as the one at Happylucky No. 1 and that did not include the tree, which might have cost another $2,000. So the “partnership” came to an end, and there was a nasty encounter with one of the the KaN partners in which she told me I was “delusional” and “disrespectful” and started screaming at me in a crowded restaurant that I had to sign a non-disclosure form for the designs that KaN had prepared. I felt fully confirmed that I was right to bring the relationship to an end.

For various reasons my application to become a non-profit had been delayed, but I finally found a competent accountant and got the application in and as an interim measure started searching for a financial sponsor. Right now I am hoping that that might be Mosaic Baptist Church, a church on Nostrand Avenue whose services I attend. And then came PB. I went to various meetings and volunteered to become a delegate. The benches project was on hold now, but I thought that I might do something to lay the groundwork for it. First I had been told that public schools have a big advantage in PB as they have a large constituency of natural voters; students over 11 years old and their parents, teachers and administrators can all vote in PB. So I formed a proposal with another delegate, Dierdre Levy, to have murals painted on the walls of five district schools. I took a walk around and found places where these murals might be painted. Next I formed a proposal to have twenty trees planted up and down Nostrand Avenue and some side streets, some in rectangles of dirt where a tree once was, some at places where there were dead trees, and some in blocks where there were no trees or just one of two and it would make sense to plant more.

More information: PB works with various city agencies and within those agencies particular groups that must approve the proposals. The relevant agencies for my two proposals are the Schools Construction Agency which is not the same thing at all as the Dept. of Education. Without even meeting them, I was told that they do not do murals. So even though schools have many murals on their walls, there is no way of financing this through PB. End of story. Second, I did meet with James Morris of the Parks Dept. He comes from the part of the agency that does capital projects. I found out that typical building time for a capital project is five years, and Morris felt uncertain that planting trees was a capital project. In his presentation he suggested various things; none of them were planting trees. The closest was “Greening a Park Entrance” with an estimated cost of $320,000 to $860,000. He further told the group talking with him that building a comfort station in the park would cost $5,000,000. I had imagined my trees project would be completed or at least begun with planting trees in the empty dirt rectangles during the summer of 2019 and that the cost would be something like $100,000. Five years would make no sense for me, and god knows what the cost would be!

It was soon after this that I discovered that all money in PB is held by the agency. No one gets a grant from this process; thus one is tied to a bureaucracy that moves slowly and is very expensive. Also it is not clear that an original idea can be funded. These agencies have their own agendas and thus far it seems all they are offering is that someone apply to fund something they already want to do.

Thus far we have reached the stage of committees of budget delegates preparing proposals to be presented for analysis by the agencies. They will come back and tell us what is feasible and what the cost will be. In the 35th District there are two committees, one for education and one for “other,” which includes Parks and Recreation, The Housing Authority, Transportation and Libraries. The education committee has been tasked with coming up with ten proposals for the Schools Construction Agency and two for the Parks under capital improvements. The “other committee” is to come up with ten proposals for each agency except for education and only eight for Parks. The committee only has about seven members, each promoting his or her own idea, and the chair has no particular proposal in mind, so there is no way the committee will come up with ten for each agency, and at this point it seems that proposals from the agencies will fill in the missing slots. Does this mean the agencies will make proposals and then approve their own proposals? That would be a travesty.

This innocent has entered into a new world and is learning that the word “participatory” the adjectival form of the noun “participate” can refer to something that is pretty slimmed down. It might be a bit like a magic trick in which the magician asks you to choose a card, and no matter how you choose, you end up choosing the card the magician wants you to choose. The subject is a participant, but one in a game where the rules are made up by someone else, and the participant may end up feeling like a fool who has been tricked.

To be continued…

- John DeWind

UpdatesJonathan Judge