But locals weren’t voting for a presidential nominee or City Council candidate. Instead, they were voting for projects that would improve aspects of their communities, whether it was education, housing, or parks.
District 34, which includes parts of Ridgewood, Williamsburg and Bushwick, kicked off its participatory budgeting vote week on Saturday with an expo at El Puente, located at 211 South 4th Street. Voting will run until April 3.
Inside the center’s auditorium, budget delegates stood by project boards that detailed exactly where the money they’re requesting would go. This year, residents from the district are considering 12 projects to choose from for more than $1 million of funding.
Councilman Antonio Reynoso said this is his second year with participatory budgeting. Last year, his district cast more than 3,000 votes, the third highest among City Council members and highest among council members in their first term in office.
“The two people that beat me, one was Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has unlimited resources,” Reynoso said, “and then Carlos Menchaca, who had a system that he was allowed to introduce a lot earlier than me because the council member prior to him had already started it. He had a slight leg up.”
Reynoso said the community originates all of the projects, from fixing a pothole to changing a stop sign or “building a rollercoaster on top of a school.” They come up with more than 200 projects, and then started narrowing down from there.
Projects that don’t fit the requirements are eliminated first. For example, the proposals have to fund capital-eligible projects, which must cost more than $35,000 and last more than five years. Each proposal also cannot exceed $1 million.
As the process winds down, the two-dozen budget delegates decide which ones to prioritize and which projects to leave out for voting. This year, they’ve narrowed it down to 12 projects.
“It’s almost like the selection committee for the NCAA tournament. Some get in, some don’t,” Reynoso said. “The community runs the entire process. I have no say in it.”
The ten-month process, which started in September, is onerous, Reynoso said. He said his office introduces community members to the idea, explains the process and then guides them through it. He said it’s time consuming and expends a lot of resources.
“The resources we have to do this are almost nonexistent,” he said. “It’s literally your staff having to put in overtime to get this done.”
His team has been reaching out to people all over the district, putting up flyers and posters and trying to reach residents directly at senior centers, schools, churches and train stations. During vote week, they arrive with ballots in hand so residents can vote on the spot.
Reynoso said his staff is mobile and goes to where the people are. That’s why he likes that voting is a week long, rather than just one day.
Despite the lack of resources, Reynoso said participatory budgeting is a great experience because it creates an informed community.
“They’re being educated as to how important this is, how difficult this is and how expensive everything is,” he said.
Maryellen Borello, a Ridgewood resident and first-time budget delegate, said she thinks it’s important for people to know what actually goes on when money is spent on different projects. She said participatory budgeting is an “excellent way” for people to have their voices heard on funding projects.
“This is why I became involved,” she said. “I met some really great people who are involved in the neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Bushwick. It's really has been a wonderful experience.”
Borello said she uses facilities in Ridgewood or takes the train into Manhattan, but normally doesn’t go into Bushwick or Williamsburg. Through this process, she learned about the similarities and differences in needs of schools, parks and other issues in the neighborhoods.
Borello’s project is improving the district’s parks. Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick, she said, needs new paving after a tornado hit the park a few years ago. The $500,000 proposal would also add new benches and plant more trees in Fermi Playground.
“Parks can be used by everyone no matter what neighborhood you’re from,” she said.
Another project up for consideration is a $200,000 upgrade to a visual arts classroom at M.S. 50, also known as the El Puente Community School. Lawrence Booker, a Cypress Hills native and budget delegate, said the art room is in need of a major repair.
“If you just take a look even at the sink structure, it clogs all the time,” Booker said. “The second problem is you have part of the room that’s properly lit and you have another part that just has very poor lighting.”
The funding would also go toward creating more storage spaces for the students.
Booker said a lot of the recommendations came straight from the students. More than 300 students use that one art room. The hope, Booker said, is to turn the middle school art room into a community center where people can create and produce art.
“We’re in Williamsburg, there are so many artists who can just come in and teach a class on sculpting or a basic watercolor painting class,” he said. “We really would build community that way.”
Two projects ask for technology upgrades at four schools in Ridgewood, Williamsburg and Bushwick. The proposals would add smart boards, tablets, laptop carts and desktops, among other technology improvements.
Merissa Zambiasi, who teaches at P.S. 239 in Ridgewood, said the tech and computer overhauls would be the first for the school since it opened in 2006.
“Our bandwidth is very low, so we can only get about 20 laptops on the Wi-Fi at the same time before they get glitchy,” she said. “The electrical would have to be upgraded.”
She said many of the students at her school live near the poverty line and don’t have computer access at home. In school, they only have about 45 minutes per week, and when the computers don’t work, they lose that time.
Zambiasi said she’s been meeting with other budget delegates since October. After they pitched their projects, they realized some schools had similar needs, so they decided to combine the proposals.
“We figured if we pooled our projects together, it might get more votes and help more kids,” she said.
She’s been speaking to students about the upgrades to get them excited. She said she hopes they go home and tell their parents about it so they can vote for the project.
Unfortunately, the school is at the end of the district in Ridgewood, so many parents and families live outside of District 34 and can’t vote. Even Zambiasi, who lives one block outside of the district, cannot cast a ballot for her project.
“It’s terrible, I hate it,” she said. “My side of the street is Bushwick, Ridgewood is across the street. I can’t even vote.”
But she hopes others will. Kids over the age of 14 can vote, so she’s encouraging middle school students from the area to get involved.
Reynoso is also hoping more residents will cast their ballots this year. He said he thinks the district will beat the 3,000-vote total from last year.
“I expect to beat Carlos Menchaca,” Reynoso said, “and I’m going to give Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito a run for her money this year.”
The next project expo is Wednesday, March 30 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Greater Ridgewood Youth Council at 59-03 Summerfield Street.