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East Harlem Residents Vote on How to Spend $1M From City Budget

By Jeff Mays | March 27, 2012 3:43pm
Carmen Pineiro, an organizer for Community Voices Heard sounded like a saleswoman on a misson as she recruited people to vote on how to spend $1 million from the city's budget.
Carmen Pineiro, an organizer for Community Voices Heard sounded like a saleswoman on a misson as she recruited people to vote on how to spend $1 million from the city's budget.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — Standing outside East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito's office with flier in hand, Carmen Pineiro, an organizer for Community Voices Heard, sounded like a saleswoman on a mission.

"Vote, vota," she said, bouncing back and forth between English and Spanish. "All you have to do is walk inside and take two minutes of your beautiful time, dos minutos, and tell the community how you feel. They have stuff for everyone, stuff we need."

Pineiro wasn't selling used cars. She was recruiting people to cast their votes in the city's first participatory budgeting process. Mark-Viverito is one of four council members giving constituents in their districts a direct say in how to spend $1 million in discretionary funding. The votes kicked off on Monday and will continue through March 31, when winners will be announced.

Mark-Viverito estimates that several thousand people have participated in the process — from forming neighborhood assemblies to putting together more than 500 funding possibilities. Hundreds of people stepped into her office to choose their top five funding choices from 29 finalists. More than 500 people have voted within the first two days.

There are more than 1,200 cities that use participatory budgeting around the world, including Chicago, Montreal and Toronto, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project. Councilmen Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn and Eric Ulrich of Queens are also participating in the participatory-budgeting process in their home districts.

The choices include spending $250,000 to provide security cameras throughout New York City Housing Authority properties in council District 8, using $150,000 to enhance a skate park in Thomas Jefferson Park, and allocating $150,000 to light the viaduct pedestrian tunnels along Park Avenue from 102nd to 110th streets.

Voting is open to all District 8 residents who are 18 or older.

"This is really about giving people the faith and hope that government can respond to you," said Mark-Viverito, who declined to cast a ballot or reveal her favorite projects for fear of influencing the process. "It's been really great to see the level of engagement."

Samira Muhammad, 71, a retired lab technician from Harlem Hospital, said she voted for safety improvements at the senior building where she lives and viaduct lighting.

"Some of the drug activity is there because it's dark. Evil likes darkness," she said. "I wish it was more money. One million dollars is not enough for an impoverished community like this."

Emi Gavino, 19, a student, said he voted for a $105,000 project that would provide 3D and 4D ultrasounds at Metropolitan Hospital Center to help expectant mothers. 

"You should be able to spend your money on what you think is right for the community. You don't always want people making decisions for you," he said.

Patricia Williams, a stay-at-home mother, agreed. She voted on cameras in public housing, two years after her son was robbed.

"Children's saftey should come first. Where would we be if something happens to our kids, the future," Williams said. "I just hope my vote makes a difference."

Rebecca Young, a social work student from Hunter College working for Community Voices Heard, said the process helped to change participants.

"It's brought people who have worked for this community for a long time — but not together — together. When they vote for other officials they can now take into account how the system works and who will be most effective in that system," Young said.

Mark-Viverito said more of the projects could win funding if she negotiates more money. She's also looking forward to repeating the process for next year's budget.

Participants like Muhammad said she was dismayed more of her neighbors weren't there and said she would spread the word.

"I feel empowered. That's the word. That's how I feel," she said.

Voting will continue at Mark-Viverito's office, 105 E. 116th St., from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Friday. On Saturday, March 31, voting will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at SCAN La Guardia at 307 E. 116th St. Winners will be announced March 31 starting at 7:30 p.m. at Silberman School of Social Work, 2180 Third Ave., at 119th Street. Call (212) 828-9800 for more information.