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The Community Boards face cuts, but the system needs a boost

It was a relatively small article on page 5 of the City section of the New York Times, sandwiched in between pieces on the closing of a beloved laundry in Cobble Hill and after-school life at a coffee/tea/spice shop in Park Slope, but it touched on a very important issue: New Yorkers have way too few resources to pursue democracy at the neighborhood level. What it didn't explain is why the Community Board (CB) system needs reform, and may well become an issue in the next mayoral race.

The article, headlined Not Quite Passing the Hat, but Already Feeling the Pain, concerns cuts of 5%-8% at the CBs, which may not sound like much, but cut into already limited resources.

After all, the CBs serve the equivalent of decent-sized cities, as the districts contain 35,000 to 200,000 people, but have a paid staff of three. (The board members are volunteer appointees, as are committee members.)

Perhaps the main role the CBs play is in advising and/or voting on major land use issues. (Remember, because Atlantic Yards was a state project, the three affected CBs didn't even get an advisory vote, though they did indicate opposition and concern.) However, unlike independent cities of equivalent size, the CBs don't have professional staff in planning and other departments.

Cuts hurt more

Outside of funds for salaries, the Times reported, board members "contend that their allocation has not been increased in about 15 years." (That's either a fact or not.) And, given the small budgets, the cuts have disproportionate impacts.

The Times reported:
“Our computers don’t speak to each other,” said Wally Rubin, district manager of Community Board 5 in Manhattan. “We have no I.T. person. We have a cabinet filled with information that the Charter mandates we keep, and we can’t even open the drawer. And now we’re talking about a $10,000 budget cut?”

In response, John Gallagher, a mayoral spokesman, said in an e-mail message, “In these difficult economic times, all city agencies and government entities must do more with less.”

That's cold.

CBs and community plans

The role of the CBs was highlighted last Monday in a Municipal Art Society (MAS) Planning Center Forum: Elected Officials Respond to Communities That Plan for Themselves. (Two more panels, on sustainability and neighborhood planning in the face of large-scale development, are scheduled for April 14 and May 14, with some Atlantic Yards activists scheduled for the latter panel.)

MAS President Kent Barwick, previewing the launch April 15 of the Planning Center's online Atlas of Community-Based Plans, pointed out that the atlas would include 87 plans, perhaps half of them serving communities the equivalent of Richmond, Virginia (population 192,913).

"These are the plans you don't hear a lot about in the press," declared Eve Baron, who heads the Planning Center. "They're not the Bruce Ratner plans. They're not the [Sheldon] Solow plans."

Improving CBs

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a panelist, described how he revamped CBs in Manhattan by establishing an independent screening panel to deflect political interference and offered training sessions in land use and zoning.

Still, he said that CBs are too involved in service delivery and not involved enough in planning. He said the next mayor should "mandate the hiring of a planner for every community district." In fact, he said, mayoral candidates should be evaluated on their commitment to planning. (He's been mentioned as a potential candidate.)

Commented moderator Ron Shiffman, a longtime community planner and former member of the City Planning Commission (CPC), "It's not unfair to say the CPC is more a rezoning agency than a planning agency, and has been that way for a long time." The Department of City Planning, the agency attached to the CPC, has "far fewer people per capita" than in most other major cities.

City Council Member Gale Brewer, who represents the Upper West Side, lamented that CBs often don't have the resources to be proactive, to say "This alternative works." The Atlas is an attempt to change that, to show what community planners have been doing.

Support from the Borough President and others, Brewer said, can be key to empowering the CBs. Most don't have the staff to keep up with all the changes in their community and put all documents online. "Maybe Craig Hammerman"--District Manager of Brooklyn CB 6, which has an extensive web site--"because he's a nut," Brewer said affectionately, but few others manage similarly.