Park Slopers Give Two Cents on How to Spend $1 Million in Taxpayer Dollars

By Leslie Albrecht on October 4, 2012 8:00am 

PARK SLOPE — Exercise equipment for Prospect Park, a space for art exhibitions along the Gowanus Canal and a rooftop garden for the John Jay campus were among the suggestions residents floated at a brainstorming session Wednesday on how to spend $1 million in taxpayer dollars.

City Councilman Brad Lander hosted the session, one of several that are part of the "participatory budgeting" process, where residents decide how to use $1 million of Lander's discretionary funds on local improvements in the councilman's district.

Ideas for funding will be collected at a series of public meetings, then citizens will vote on their top choices. The projects with the most votes will win funding. Lander is one of eight city council members who use the budgeting tool, which originated in Brazil. Usually council members decide themselves how to spend their discretionary money.

Last year's participatory budgeting funded renovations for bathrooms at P.S. 124 and a community composting system along the Gowanus Canal, among other projects.

"Our usual political power is voting for someone who will hopefully do what we want them to do, but in this case we actually get to decide what to do with our own money," said Rachel Fine, a volunteer with Lander's office.

At Wednesday's meeting at Greenwood Baptist Church on Seventh Avenue, residents broke into groups to brainstorm, listing suggestions with markers on poster-sized paper. Last year's round of participatory budgeting included some outlandish suggestions — a gondola on the Gowanus Canal and a public seltzer fountain — but ideas at Wednesday's session leaned toward the more practical.

Among the suggestions: adding more garbage cans to restaurant-heavy commercial strips on Park Slope's avenues, repairing cracked sidewalks, and installing emergency phones in Prospect Park. Quirkier suggestions included installing 10,000 rain barrels to keep storm water run-off out of the Gowanus Canal, a public art project involving a windmill, and building space for an "art fair" along the Gowanus.

Lander wanted to involve more young people in participatory budgeting this year, so residents as young as 16 will be allowed to vote on projects, and Wednesday's meeting included a special group for teens.

Among them was 17-year-old Kimarley Forbes, a senior at the Secondary School for Law at the John Jay Campus. Forbes said he'd like to use the $1 million to improve technology at schools at the John Jay campus, which houses four high schools, or build a new library in the neighborhood. Forbes said students from all four schools at John Jay liked the idea of building a rooftop garden at the campus.

Forbes, who said he's considering a career in politics, said he attended the session because he wanted to make sure his voice was heard. "It wouldn't be right for the government to say what should happen in this community. It's better for the citizens in the community to say what they want," Forbes said.

Residents who want to weigh in on the $1 million can check Lander's website for upcoming participatory budgeting meetings, or submit ideas online.

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