WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Headsets designed to make public meetings accessible to non-English speakers have been given to community boards across the city — but most can't afford to hire the translators needed to make them work.
Boards in Washington Heights, Inwood and Queens are among those with access to the headsets, which can cost several thousands of dollars each.
But the groups say they're struggling to pay the $20 to $50 hourly fee for translators needed to speak into the headsets at each meeting.
Finding volunteers who will consistently step in for free at each meeting is impossible, they said.
"They have the equipment but they don't always have the volunteers," said Councilman Danny Dromm, who represents Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, which are served by Community Boards 3 and 4.
"It's inconsistent as to when the equipment or the translator will be there."
When Uptown's CB12 got translation headsets from City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez's office in 2011 it was the first in the city, according to the board's chairman Shah Ally.
But the plan quickly ran aground. The expense of recruiting and hiring professional translators for each board and committee meeting on a regular basis quickly exceeded what’s allocated in the board’s annual budget, Ally said.
CB12 representatives could not immediately say how much it had spent on translators or how much had been budgeted.
As a result, the board started relying on volunteers, including fellow board members. Now that pool has started to dry up, Ally said.
"It becomes harder [to find someone] when you have to translate meetings that are three to four hours long," he said.
A spokesman for Rodriguez said the office had not been informed of any problems with translation services.
"When it comes to community board translator services, we were very happy to provide the money [for the devices] and make sure that language access is fully provided," spokesman Russell Murphy said.
"We’re happy to discuss with the community board what are their further needs so that we can see them addressed in the next budget cycle."
Ally said the board has managed to translate a handful of meetings, although these are often with the support of other city agencies — like the Department of City Planning and the Mayor’s office — which bring their own translation support.
Other local nonprofits and community programs, such as the Northern Manhattan Is Not 4 Sale coalition, have organized meetings in Spanish to reach non-English speaking residents, he said, adding that CB12 has loaned them the headsets "because we recognize there's a higher need."
Rodriguez translates his own speeches and also introduced a bill in the City Council in February to make it mandatory that the city provides a translator for all community meetings with 65 or more people.
That bill is currently under review, according to Councilman Ben Kallos, who chairs the committee on governmental operations.
Ally said that despite not having the funding for a translator, CB12 is trying to find other ways of engaging Spanish-speakers in the community, including hiring a part-time, bilingual staffer who will be responsible for translation at the general board meetings and occasionally high-stakes committee meetings like licensing, traffic and land use.
"All our notices, emails and fliers will be in Spanish as well," Ally said. "We do a good job now at having Spanish versions, but we can do better."