4 SCHOOLS GET FUNDING FOR SPECIAL PROJECTS THROUGH CITIZEN-LED BUDGET PROCESS

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.

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Farm Bill signed into law, New Yorkers brace for food stamp cuts

President Obama signed the Farm Bill today at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, while the law’s principal Democratic sponsor, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)  said the nearly $1 trillion law, four contentious years in the making,  “works for every American.”
The President praised Democrats and Republicans for coming together to pass the bill, saying, “My position has always been that any farm bill I sign must include protections for vulnerable Americans. And thanks to the good of Debbie and others, this bill does that.”
The measure cuts about $9 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, over the next decade.

Video: SNAP Changes Put Millions at Risk, Say Advocates

 Many advocates for the hungry found themselves sighing with relief at that figure; House Republicans wanted $40 billion in food stamp cuts over the same period.  Still an estimated 850,000 households are set to lose an average $90 per month in food benefits.

“We’re really very disappointed how it turned out, said Hannah Lupien, Policy Director at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger in Manhattan, the nation’s oldest grocery style food pantry.   “Our elected officials and advocacy groups are declaring it a victory. There’s nothing victorious about hungry people losing an average of $90 in benefits every month.”  Lupien says about 25 percent of them are in New York City
.

Hannah Lupien                               Policy Director                               West Side Campaign Against Hunger

 The farm bill targeted New York and 12 other states (depending on whom you talk to), that qualified people for SNAP benefits by giving them just $1 worth of home heating assistance under a program known as LIHEAP.  Congress viewed the so-called “heat and eat” program as a loophole, and raised the minimum qualifying grant to $20 per household.

WSCAH serves about 11,000 people each month. Before the Farm Bill’s passage, Lupien and her colleagues projected it would be providing emergency food assistance to 128,000 this fiscal year, up from 75,000 in 2008.

“We’re unsure what New York and other states that utilize this program will be able to do to compensate for that change from $1 to $20, says Lupien. “We’re certainly not going to able to keep everyone on the program and certainly the intention of the Congress is to make sure …again, that those 300,000 households in New York, lose their benefits.”

These benefit cuts come on top of the expiration of an emergency increase in food aid in November, which affected everyone on SNAP.  As Margarette Purvis, President of the Food Bank for New York, points out in a February 7th letter to The New York Times.

Charities will not be able to step in and save the day. In New York City, we’ve already seen what happens when SNAP benefits are cut: 85 percent of the food pantries and soup kitchens in Food Bank for New York City’s network saw more people on their lines after across-the-board cuts to SNAP went into effect this past November than they saw in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and roughly half reported food shortages in that first month alone.

Since then, emergency unemployment benefits expired for another 1.7M Americans, during a bitter winter when fresh produce is seasonally unavailable. Senate Republicans blocked an effort to restore the benefits earlier this week.

 “We know that we will see some people who we’ve never seen before  because they’ve lost those $90 in snap benefits. What we believe is that we’ll see a lot of our same customers, more frequently. As opposed to seeing someone maybe once, twice, three times a year, maybe we’ll see them 4-5-6 times a year,” Lupien says.
Meanwhile,  New York advocates for the hungry are turning to the state, to push for an increase in the minimum wage. They’re also working with New York City’s new mayor and City Council to provide universal, free school feeding programs to all children, so the low-income kids won’t have to trade between the stigma of food hand-outs and empty bellies.

Maria Coronado’s First Trip to WSCAH

Back in Michigan, the President likened the bill to a “Swiss army knife,” because it does so much more than just help farmers, it helps jobs, innovation, research, infrastructure, and energy.  He added, “The truth is a lot of folks go through tough times at some points in their lives. That doesn’t mean they should go hungry.  Not in a country like America.”
Congress did increase funding to food pantries by a total $200M over the next decade, but Lupien says, “that $200 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the cuts that have been implemented, really in a war against our low-income neighbors.”
After leaving the food pantry, I stopped off at my local grocery store. It wasn’t lost on me that I could easily go there and buy whatever I needed – or wanted – to eat.  Right in front me in the checkout, an older woman was holding her SNAP benefits card in one hand and, returning a package of coffee, a can of milk and a bottle of orange juice with the other. She didn’t have enough to cover the grocery bill.  As she left with her much smaller bundles, the cashier said, “you still have 20 cents on the card.”