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Brooklyn Voters Pull the Levers on City Council Spending

By DNAinfo Staff on April 7, 2013 3:03pm

By Luke Hammill

Special to DNAinfo.com New York

CARROLL GARDENS — Liz Chaney, the parent of a second grader at P.S. 58 in Brooklyn said her second-grade daughter Sarah is “literally afraid” of her school’s bathrooms, which haven’t been renovated since 1954.

“I think there’s a ghost in them,” said Sarah, moments after her mother voted to renovate the bathrooms, one of many items constituents could choose to spend money on as part of City Councilman Brad Lander’s participatory budgeting program.

Now in its second year, the program allows residents to decide which projects will get funded by $1 million in Lander’s discretionary budget, which totals about $3 million altogether.

“I’m saying, ‘Tell me how to do it,’” Lander said as he greeted voters outside the Carroll Park House where the poll stations were set up, at Carroll Street and Smith Street.

The P.S. 58 bathrooms, which have been described as “dirty, gloomy, noxious and unhealthy” in a video made by parents, were one of the more popular projects with voters. A $110,000 plan to install 45 automatic flushing valves and new paper towel dispensers, among other things, was one of 24 projects listed on the ballot.

Anyone aged 16 or older could choose five of the 24 items at voting locations throughout Lander’s district, and the most popular choices will get funded.

Another P.S. 58 parent, Jen Wohl, brought her son along as she voted for renovating the bathrooms.

“They’re disgusting,” Wohl said. “And for him to tell me that — something’s got to be done.”

Despite their concerns about the bathrooms and other issues, residents expressed gratitude for the opportunity to have their voices heard. Mike Benson, a P.S. 58 parent who was handing out flyers to encourage voters to choose the bathroom initiative, called the participatory budgeting program a “radical democracy.”

“I really love the idea that people can get involved,” Benson said though he also wondered why renovating dirty bathrooms should even be up for a vote, or why it's not something the school system should be required to do. “Is this something that should be getting dealt with anyway?” he asked rhetorically.

Lander and four other City Council members started the program last year, and four others have joined them this year. Lander is optimistic that participatory budgeting will keep spreading around the city.

“It’s a lot of work. I will say that,” Lander said. “But it repays itself.” He understands why people are mistrustful of public officials in light of recent scandals and said participatory budgeting was at the “opposite end of the spectrum.”

Other projects proposed included a $205,000 community plaza at Hamilton Avenue and Van Brunt Street and a $350,000 initiative to improve safety for pedestrians on Hicks Street. Dave Lutz, 67, was campaigning for those issues as voters walked in and out on Sunday morning.

“Pedestrians can’t see drivers and drivers can’t see pedestrians…I know how difficult it is to cross that street,” Lutz said of Hicks Street.

Lutz, too, was a fan of the participatory budgeting program, calling it “absolutely terrific.”

“This is a wonderful process for bringing on the small ideas that can really make differences in people’s lives,” he said.