With “Participatory Budgeting,” New Yorkers Decide How to Spend Funds

By Leslie Gersing, Producer, Video Editor | May 1, 2017 | runs 1:46

On April 25, 2017, New York City Council member Helen Rosenthal announced the winners of projects to be funded with $1.27 million, as a result of voting by her constituents in the Participatory Budgeting (PB) process. See my companion print article in the West Side Rag, April 29, 2017.

For more information on Participatory Budgeting in New York City, visit http://council.nyc.gov/pb/participate/ or @PB_NYC on Twitter.



Frank McCourt High School student Austin Garcia (left), with his teacher Daniele Gates. Frank McCourt received funding for tech upgrades.

By Leslie Gersing
It’s like Sim City with real money.
Locals decided to spend more than a million bucks for library renovations, tech equipment, air conditioning and playground renovations at four schools on the Upper West Side.
The results were announced at The Center for West Park on April 25 at Council Member Helen Rosenthal’s Town Hall for District 6, which includes Central Park, Lincoln Square, northern Clinton and the Upper West Side.
The projects were chosen through participatory budgeting — democracy at the grass roots. Starting last year, numerous cultural, educational, security and other improvement projects were researched and debated for their worthiness, subjected to feasibility studies and budgeted. Any district resident or student, 14 and up, was eligible to vote for their top five choices. Eleven made the ballot during voting from March 27 through April 2.

                                     People voting for projects.

Four projects, at a total cost of $1.27 million, received the most votes, and will be part of the New York City Council Budget. Rosenthal allocated the extra $270,000 from her district budget to cover the overage. They are:

•Library Upgrades for P.S. 166 The project includes work to enlarge the library and creation of a new reading space at P.S. 166, 132 W. 89th St. Cost: $295,000 (1834 votes)

•Air Conditioning for P.S. 9 and Center School Gym Installation of a split system air conditioning system in the gymnasium shared by P.S. 9 and the Center School at 100 W. 84th St. Cost: $400,000 (1398 votes)

•Technology Upgrades at Frank McCourt High School including 11 new Smart Boards and 30 laptop computers with a cart, for use at Frank McCourt H.S. at 145 W. 84th St. Cost: $125,000 (1310 votes)

•Schoolyard Renovation at P.S. 84 Renovation of the playground, converting the asphalt to synthetic turf at P.S. 84 Schoolyard, the Sol Bloom Playground at 32 W. 92nd St. Cost: $450,000 (1304 votes)

During the last day of voting on April 2, volunteer Mark Diller said, “Every council member has a certain amount of money that they’re allowed to spend in the community. And Helen and a few other council members have taken $1 million of that and – capital things, projects and equipment and things – and made it available for the public to propose ideas and then to select among those ideas, which ones will actually get funded.”
At Frank McCourt High School on West 84th Street, 15 juniors and seniors got to experience participatory budgeting up close. Their class took part in all aspects of the process — from the initial development and research of potential projects, to serving on committees that short-listed finalists.
Austin Garcia, an 18-year old senior going to Hunter College next year, said: “It basically just helped me work with people and be more of a better asset in terms of doing group work with people.”
Garcia was pleased voters approved the McCourt High School project for smart boards, computers and other tech gear, which are needed to replace aging and broken equipment. His teacher Daniele Gates was happily surprised about the win, after losing out last year even though the entire student body voted in person. But she doubted there was any special favoritism among the class members. “They were super objective,” she said. “They were all working on different projects, so they weren’t invested in the project they were working on.”
New York City introduced participatory budgeting in 2011. This year, 31 of New York’s 51 city council districts took part during the 2016-2017 cycle, each agreeing to spend at least $1 million in the process. According to the City Council, 28 city council districts took part during the prior cycle, with 67,000 New Yorkers voting to fund $38 million in capital projects.
While many people laud the “small-d” democracy of the process, others are critical of asking voters to decide to spend council districts’ tax dollars on schools, roads, and other public services that should be funded by government agencies. In a recent New York Post op-ed, Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, called New York’s participatory democracy a “sham,” and said, “the exercise points out the city’s failure to spend money wisely, to an absurd degree.”
Rosenthal’s office said 3,111 residents voted for their favorite community initiatives this year, compared to 2,167 last year. While that’s a 43% increase, it’s still a small portion of eligible voters in the district — and comparable, to rising, but continued low levels of participation citywide. Rosenthal urged her Town Hall audience to sign up for her emails at HelenRosenthal.com to stay informed about the process.
Teacher Daniele Gates says more people might vote if ballots were mailed, or more attention were focused on online voting, or ballot locations set up where residents shop, such as grocery stores. But she has no doubt about the value of the class for her students. “They see the impact of participation. I think that a lot of people don’t engage in the process because their voice doesn’t matter and they have first-hand evidence that their vote and their voice matters.”

Photos by Leslie Gersing.

Video: Perella Weinberg Partners Completes Combination with Tudor, Pickering & Holt

By Leslie Gersing, President, Skylight Video Productions| December 1, 2016 |

Skylight Video Productions staffed and produced the video for Perella Weinberg Parners’ completion of its combination with Tudor, Pickering & Holt, an integrated investment and merchant bank in the energy service sector. The production involved budgeting, hiring and overseeing all aspects of production, including crews in New York City and Houston, Texas. According to its press release, Perella Weinberg Partners is a financial services firm providing advisory, asset management and energy security research, underwriting and trading services to a broad, global client base including corporations, institutions and governments. It has over $12 billion in assets under management.

Video: Perella Weinberg Partners

FINRA: Securities Helpline for Seniors

By Leslie Gersing, President, Skylight Video Productions | June 2015 | https://i0.wp.com/www.finra.org/sites/all/themes/finra_theme/logo.png

Skylight Video Productions staffed and field produced coverage of the Industry Regulatory Authority’s annual meeting in Washington, DC. Here, FINRA’s Susan Axelrod and Jeffrey Pasquerella discuss FINRA’s new Securities Helpline for Seniors. Lines are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, at 844-57-HELPS (844-574-3577).

The Pits

The Pits

Nearly every day, I have to report on something that very few people care about: the yields investors receive to buy Spanish government bonds. 

Bond yields are measurement of how much it costs to get a loan.  During this year, Spain’s economy was so weakened, it had to pay 7% to get a 10-year loan.  Consider that US 10-year bonds, or Treasuries, are paying under 2%, and you realize what a burden this interest rate can be.  And who pays for these loans? Spaniards of course. In the form of taxes, mostly. 

But Spain’s people are suffering. The nation is in its second recession in 3 years. Unemployment  is  nearly 25%  Again, the United States unemployment rate is currently 7.9%.

You would hardly notice how badly Spaniards are suffering if you travel through the most touristic cities.  When we toured Southern Spain last month, the highways were spectacular (we even avoided the toll roads without problems). Restaurants seemed full in the old quarters of Cordoba, Sevilla, and Grenada.

But there were tell-tale signs, literally. Everywhere we went, I saw these signs. See the red one that says “Se Vende?”  That means, FOR SALE.

For sale sign in Cordoba, Spain
copyright: Leslie Gersing

The pain in Spain is partly a result of the same real estate bubble we experienced in the United States –a massive construction boom nurtured through the low cost of borrowing money.  Banks loaned money like water from an endless well.

We saw giant, brand-new condominium complexes all along the Spanish riviera; so many units built that they swamped available demand.  Now many of them are ghost towns.    There are so many unsold or foreclosed properties in Spain, the Madrid government is setting up a “bad bank” to purchase the “toxic assets” and sell them off at more than 50% discounts. 

The default rate on Spanish consumer debt just hit a record.  Credit has now dried up or is very expensive to get. If you’ve lost your job, you can’t afford to repay your loans or buy much of anything else. 

I heard a story from Annie, who owns a converted farmhouse in Almeria.  She and the neighbors own groves full of olive and orange trees.  The olive trees were everywhere we drove and seemed to thrive in the arid Sierra Nevadas.

Olive grove in Purullena, Spain
copyright: ljg456

Each year the olives are harvested and delivered to a coop like this one in Ugijar, where they’re pressed to make oil.

Olive oil cooperative factory, Ugijar Spain
copyright: ljg456

But the orange trees are another matter.  Annie said it cost so much to water her own orange trees, she made no money when it came to harvest time.

Annie’s orange trees, near Almeria, Spain
copyright: Leslie Gersing
Annie’s just an ex-pat with a summer home in this rugged area of southern Spain. She’s not a farmer, who depends on these ancient trees to survive.  Annie said water has become so expensive for the locals, many have cut their trees down to nubs. That keeps the trees from dying, but leaves them in a dormant state, so they won’t need much irrigation.
Many Spaniards have also been cut to the quick; well-educated and proud, but forced to move back home with their parents or grandparents.  Their government is cutting budgets, so school books must be purchased; children who need meals must pay more or they won’t be fed.  Government workers are laid off, their pensions are cut; there’s no money for infrastructure. People can’t afford to buy much of anything.
The government raised the VAT to 21% from 18% in September. Talk about a regressive tax: can you imaging having to pay 21 cents on every dollar spent on food? 

Now last week, demand for Spanish government bonds was described as “insane.” What’s insane about this is the growing belief among bond investors that Spain will formally request a government bailout from its European Union partners. Just rumors of that request have driven Spanish bond yields down. Ironically, Spain’s capitulation, and acceptance of strict terms for borrowing money, have helped the euro and European markets rise.
And when demand rises for bonds, the interest rate goes in the opposite direction. So 10-year bond yields are now about 5.46%.  That’s down from 5.66% at the prior auction, and 1.5% below their peak.  But remember, US 10-year bond yields are about 1/3 that rate. 

The problems are not just confined to the Euro Zone’s fourth largest economy.  Portugal received a sovereign bailout and adopted tough reforms to reduce government spending.  Portuguese 10-year bonds are down about 2% since mid-September:  the government  pays about 7.7% to borrow money. You could say that’s a bargain from nearly 18% in January.

On November 14, many Portuguese are going to strike against austerity measures they say are destroying their nation, not growing the economy.  Spanish unions have just announced they are going to take to the streets that day, too. 

It’s worse in Greece, where overall unemployment is above 25%, and about 50% for the young. Tens of thousands went on strike this week, as the government planned to make another $17 billion in cuts and tax hikes in order to secure the next “tranche” of bailout money from the “Troika” of European Union, European Central Bank and IMF lenders.  Many Greeks say Germany and other wealthy nations in the European Union profit at their expense.  Greek animosity showed its ugly side when the head of Europe’s most properous economy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was portrayed as a Nazi during a recent visit to  Athens. Some demonstrators blame Germany for keeping an irrationally tight control on the aid spigot, forcing them into practical bondage.

A recent New York Times article mentioned the rising popularity of a neo-Nazi party, which blasts immigrants and people deemed insufficiently  “Greek.”  Robbers are mugging people on the streets, as food and fuel become too espensive for the increasing numbers of newly-destitute.

I just learned that most Greek olive oil isn’t even made by Greeks. Some of my favorite Greek olive oils are actually products of large multinational corporations in Italy or Holland. Greeks just grow the fruit; they don’t own the means of production.

Spanish bond yields sound pretty boring, and complex.   But it’s allowed me to learn a little bit about what happens when governments decide to cut spending as a means to reduce their deficits.

There’s a reason politicians, businesses and economists are divided over the notion of stimulating economies with cash and other incentives, instead of putting themselves on a budget diet. There’s a reason this has become a central argument in the 2012 presidential election.

The next time I buy olive oil, I’ll remember what’s happening in Spain..