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Niagara Falls gives residents a vote on how to spend federal funds in parks

Normally, when a grant arrives from Washington, local politicians decide how to use the money.

This time, residents of Niagara Falls get a chance to weigh in.

During August, residents will have the opportunity to cast a ballot on their favorites from a list of 10 park improvement projects.

"I think it's great. Shared decision-making has always been shown to be the best way to ensure that people's voices are heard," said Brian Rotella, a father of two who lives near Hyde Park.

He was one of the 33 Niagara Falls residents who created the list of ideas at two public meetings in June. The participants were shown pages from the city's master plan for each park and invited to write ideas on a poster.

"I thought it was very democratic and very open," said Katie Neal, a recent college graduate who works at a youth center. "It kind of leveled the playing field."

Ryan Undercoffer, finance director for the Community Development Department, said the city has allocated $360,000 for parks out of roughly $2 million it received in Community Development Block Grant money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Undercoffer said the project that receives the most votes will be the one the city tackles – and funds – first. Then they'll move on down the list in the order of the voting results until the $360,000 is exhausted.

"This is something HUD has said in the past that they support, but we're only the second city in the country to try it with Community Development Block Grant funding," Undercoffer said. Oakland, California, was the first.

"It's something that's completely different and new," said Rotella, a school psychologist. "I think 33 (participants) is better than 10 or five. These things take time to build."

"We said anything that got four votes or more, we'd consider," Undercoffer said.

They ended up with 10 projects in parks that are eligible for the federal money because they're in low-income neighborhoods.

Some ideas, such as a bicycle rental program in LaSalle Waterfront Park, had to be ruled out because the area's median income is too high, but Undercoffer said the city is seeking other means of financing park improvements in those neighborhoods.

"As a parent of two young kids, my big thought on how this money should be utilized would be improved parks of playgrounds," said Rotella, who intends to vote for construction of a new playground pod in Hyde Park.

The city has obtained cost estimates for each of the 10 projects on the ballot. The most expensive is a playground replacement in Liberty Park at 19th Street and Forest Avenue, priced at $110,000 to $120,000. The cheapest would be planting ornamental trees in Wright Park at Main Street and Park Place, which would cost about $1,000.

Undercoffer said residents will be able to vote only once during the month – they'll have to report their name and address when they vote – but they may choose up to three projects off the list.

Balloting will take place at several civic events during August, starting from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at Niagara Falls Crime Night Out in Liberty Park. Residents also may vote any Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Community Development office in the Carnegie Building, 1022 Main St.

Other potential projects would be built in Gluck, Gill Creek and Jerauld parks. The full list of projects and voting opportunities is to be posted online at nf-cd.org/pb360.

Undercoffer said the city intends to continue to use this method of choosing how to use the block grants in future years.

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