James A. Garfield, who served as U.S. President for six months in 1881, once said: “all free governments are managed by the combined wisdom and folly of the people.” This week’s vote on Participatory Budgeting projects in the 32nd Council District should be a good illustration of wisdom and folly in action. Voters are being offered the choice to vote for up to five proposals to be funded with tax money, all of which were put through a rigorous vetting process by five committees of budget delegates. As of Thursday evening, March 29, 2012, 1100 residents had voted so far–out of about 40,000 adults over the age of 18 in the eligible portion of the 32nd district that is participating.
Hundreds of proposals were researched and priced. The 16 that made it through the process are numbered on the ballot, a copy of which appeared on page 24 of The Wave a week ago, on Friday, March 23, 2012. I am lobbying strongly for two that I feel are very appropriate and effective uses of tax money: #3–Peninsula Library upgrade ($500,000), and #16–Year-Round Bathroom and Changing Station at Beach 86 Street ($160,000).
I attended the initial Participatory Budgeting organizational meeting last summer, went to neighborhood assemblies to offer suggestions, and served as a budget delegate. Going into the process in Fall, 2011, I was convinced that the most pressing concrete problem for residents of the district is transportation. The need to improve the Beach 116 business district and the general business climate is also very important, in my view, as is the need to protect the health of Jamaica Bay. Sadly, few proposals emerged from the process to address any of those pressing problems, due to the $1 million cap for projects. One of the ideas I championed from the beginning did get through the process and onto the ballot–expansion of the Peninsula Branch Library.
Voting for libraries should not be controversial. Founding father James Madison counseled us back in the early 1800’s that : “the diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” Libraries have supplemented the public schools for generations, to provide adult education, summer reading programs, and after-school homework help. The compelling rationale to expend $500,000 on the Peninsula Branch Library is three-fold: (1) Funds to build the branch were allocated by Mayor Wagner back in the 1960’s, and the amount was cut by Mayor Lindsay in 1971 when the library was finally built. It was one of several branch libraries jokingly called “Lindsay Boxes” at the time because it was so small. Time to make up for slights of the past. (2) Our community is remote and we should not be forced to travel two hours or more, round-trip, to the Jamaica, Queens business district for job workshops, to do historical research, or use a computer to research available grants. All of these resources should be available to us, here on the peninsula, but our libraries are simply too small. The Far Rockaway branch library is receiving a huge renovation, and Broad Channel and Seaside both got facelifts recently. Peninsula Branch is way overdue. VOTE FOR #3!
There is one parks committee proposal that I like a lot: the year-round heated bathroom and changing station at Beach 86 Street, with a price tag of $160,000 (#16). It seems like a very good idea for several reasons: (1) Year-round residents will have a bathroom to use when they visit the beach or boardwalk on mild winter days. (2) This would be a renovation of the building housing our hard-working Rockaway Parks Administrator, Jill Weber, and her staff. I think we should treat them well. (3) Surfing has unquestionably brought rejuvenation to the area’s businesses and housing stock, and this will support more of that type of positive activity at the beaches. So, VOTE FOR #16!
The rest of the park-related projects, #1, and #11-15, are GROSSLY OVERPRICED. That includes gazebos and other shade structures, trash cans, playground resurfacing, and other parks improvements. Many residents will vote for them, anyway, and particularly as to the parks with substantial corps of volunteers, like the Rockaway Freeway Dog Park, it’s great to see people put their care and attention into creating something to meet a community need. It would, however, be better if the Parks Department were more willing to partner with talented and creative people in the community to accomplish projects in a less costly way.
You could see from the beginning of the process that the parents, teachers and administrators of the local schools came out to seek funding, and they wisely put together a reasonably priced, compelling technology package serving schools in all neighborhoods (#5). They ran a full page ad in the Wave in support, the local homeowners’ group has lobbied online for it, and the campaign had great, short sound bites, which are always very persuasive. No doubt that one will probably get enough votes to be funded. I voted for it, but am not lobbying for the proposal—with their very savvy campaign for a worthy cause, they surely don’t need my help!
Proposals to purchase Argus cameras and all-terrain vehicles for the police seemed flawed to me. The ATVs were overpriced, and are only valuable if they come with an assurance that police cars will never be deployed on the boardwalk except in an extreme emergency. That assurance will never be made by the powers that be. Argus cameras are useful in one location, in my opinion—at the crime hot spot near Hammels Houses where street gangs are active. That funding was allocated years ago, and has not materialized, for some unknown reason. Deploying cameras elsewhere seems a waste of resources, to me. I learned over the past several months that the individuals responsible for many of the burglaries and car break-ins occurring in the west end are home-grown “bad boys” who continually cycle hopelessly through the courts, being released to commit new crimes in our midst. We are fortunate that there are no street gangs west of Rockaway Beach proper. So I will not be voting for the Argus cameras or ATVs.
Although I understand the importance of the requests by volunteer fire departments, they serve only a miniscule portion of the population living in mostly well-off enclaves, so I will not vote for them, either.
As to transportation, little can be done within the $1 million price cap of this process, so there were no transportation proposals on the ballot. The federal government has recently awarded a sum far larger than that to the NYC Department of Transportation to devise safety measures for pedestrians and bike riders near the two bridges, which we will look forward to seeing.
Article copyright 2012 Vivian R. Carter. Photos copyright 2010 and 2011, Vivian R. Carter.