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Participatory budgeting, cut from city budget, continues in Niagara District

Della Miller has lived down the street from Dewey Park playground in the Masten District for at least 40 years.

It’s where she raised her son, an only child. Miller was an "overprotective" mother, and whenever her son went to the playground, she went with him. But there were no benches, so her son would have to tote a chair from home so she could sit and keep an eye on him.

"We really needed some benches there ... but I really didn’t know who to contact or how to go about it," Miller said.

Then she heard about a way to fund neighborhood and community projects by having residents give direct input into how the city spends money.

That his how Miller got her benches – and more – through a process called participatory budgeting.

"I never realized that community people could be involved in this way," Miller said. "Participatory budgeting can be the eyes and the ears of what’s going on in the community."

The program was introduced in Buffalo about two years ago, but hasn't taken off here like supporters had hoped.

However, Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera has incorporated a scaled-down version of the program in his district. His constituents will begin voting Friday on which projects they would like to see happen.

Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which community members exchange ideas, work together to turn the ideas into project proposals and then vote to decide which proposals get funded, say supporters from the Clean Air Coalition of WNY, which led a campaign to bring the initiative to Buffalo.

"It allows people in neighborhoods to know how the budget is allocated and how money is spent," said Brian Borncamp, community organizer with the coalition. "It puts the decision-making power in the hands of people who live in the communities where the money is being spent and decisions are being made. It moves real dollars and real decision-making power in the hands of neighborhood residents. They can come together to vote on proposals."

Ideas for projects are generated through brainstorming sessions. Anyone can propose an idea for what they would like to see in a particular neighborhood. Volunteers figure out the costs associated with the ideas and evaluate each one for feasibility and need. Those ideas are then turned into a list of implementable projects that are voted on by the various stakeholders.

Lawmakers downstate have been doing participatory budgeting for years. In fact, a representative from New York City’s Council came to Buffalo’s Common Council two years ago to talk about what it is and how it works, Rivera said.

"She explained the process to us and broke it down. It is a democratic process to engage the community and to directly involve community members in the budgetary process," Rivera said.

Buffalo decided to give it a try here starting with the 2015-16 citywide budget process. That’s when Mayor Byron W. Brown and the Council collaboratively set aside $150,000 out of the $493 million general fund for participatory budgeting, said Sean M. Mulligan, Rivera’s legislative assistant.

A steering committee was created to govern the process and to figure out specifics like should a project be citywide or should it focus on a specific area. Ultimately, the committee decided $150,000 would not make a big difference if applied all over the city, and the decision was made to fund projects in the Masten District, Mulligan said.

Twenty projects were identified to be put on a ballot, including the new benches and signage at the Dewey Avenue playground. Another approved project during that cycle was the purchase of two new NFTA shelters at bus stops. Also, there were street lighting improvements around Martin Luther King Jr. Park. And the Delavan-Grider Community Center received funding for upgrades to its kitchen to make it a community kitchen – another Miller idea.

But in the following budget cycle of 2016-17, there was no money set aside for participatory budgeting.

"There just weren’t the votes to go ahead," said Rivera, who ended up earmarking $10,000 from his discretionary funds for participatory budgeting programs in his district. Each Council member generally gets about $115,000 to $130,000 in discretionary funds each year in the citywide budget to use in their districts for programs that otherwise probably wouldn’t get funded at all.

As a result of the brainstorming sessions, residents in Rivera’s Niagara District have developed a wish list of projects to be voted on beginning Friday. Some want to see more programming at the Richmond-Summer Senior Center, where folks want computer classes, arts and crafts classes and information sessions on how to use cellphones, Mulligan said.

In addition, the Grant Street Neighborhood Center wants a van to take youth who attend its programs on field trips around the city. The young people also had their own ideas, including a new pingpong table, upgrades to some equipment and college preparatory assistance.

And there has been a request for improvements to vacant lots in the district, turning them into community gardens or improving the landscape, Mulligan said.

The various projects are being finalized to be put on a ballot, then voting will occur beginning Friday at various locations in the Niagara District, Mulligan said.

"We’re working on securing voting sites," Mulligan said.

Typical election rules do not apply to participatory budgeting. Voting can occur on multiple days at various locations and "we go to events where people are," Mulligan said.

Although participatory budgeting was not funded in the upcoming 2017-18 citywide budget of $499 million, Rivera says he will dip into his discretionary funds again to finance more neighborhood-specific projects.

"I will continue to support participatory budgeting ... It’s worked really well in the district I represent," he said. "Constituents get involved in the budgeting process. They feel they’re part of the democratic process."

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