New York City's system of Districts and the Community Boards is a well-designed and well-intentioned system that achieves a great deal of good for the community.
But there are flaws, which undercut the ability of the Board to do the best job possible. I roughly group these into three intertwined categories: money, knowledge, and personnel.
Not Systemic Flaws
First, let’s be clear about what I am NOT referring to:
The Community Board’s failure to do what you want it to do is not a systemic flaw; it’s democracy. An approved bike lane or liquor license could be one person’s dream and another’s nightmare. That’s how the system works; if you don’t like the results, learn how to work it to your advantage.
The failure of agencies to agree with or support Board recommendations or requests is not a systemic flaw: sometimes, in the complex landscape of urban politics, citywide macro-policy trumps our micro-level perspectives: thus fire houses stay closed, schools are shuttered, etc. The Board did its job, but other concerns superseded.
Even dereliction of duty is not a systemic flaw. A Board might fail to address or even recognize a pressing issue (gentrification, a spate of arsons). While not ideal, nothing in the Charter suggests Boards have to deal with every issue. They are free to pick and choose, as any deliberative body. Other agencies pick up the slack, hopefully.
Instead, systemic flaws are hard-wired, deliberately included, and handicap Community Boards, often for reasons of political power.
Lack of Money
Community Boards are the watchdogs of the local community. When the City is not living up to its expectations, in service delivery or in planning, the Boards can, and should, cry foul. A measure of independence is necessary to do this properly.
But the systemic flaw is that Boards are funded through the annual operating budget of New York City, and thus subject to budgetary gamesmanship. If the City really supported the Boards’ independence and mission, it would surely provide them with either a bigger budget or an independent revenue stream that is not susceptible to political vagaries. Neither is the case.
While I am a realist about municipal budget priorities, I still think the amount of the city’s budget devoted to Community Boards is shamefully, pitifully, laughably miniscule.
How miniscule? The budget for all Community Boards has averaged about $14 Million over the past five fiscal years. During the same time, the total City budget averaged about $65 Billion.
Boards get 0.0215% of the city budget—2 one-hundredths of one percent, a mere drop in the fiscal bucket. Divide $14 million by 59 boards, and the average budget per board is just under $240,000.
The District Manager, out of that number, has to pay for the Manager’s salary, other staff salaries, office supplies, postage and mailings, phone and utilities, etc.: suffice it to say, there is not a lot left over. It’s amazing what the Boards can accomplish with this relative pittance.
So, why so little? After all, wouldn't a more robustly funded Community Board system could be stronger, a better watchdog, more independent, and help shoulder the municipal burden?
Of course: but the powers-that-be—the Mayor and City Council—don’t want stronger Community Boards. To them, decentralized power is a headache, a complication, a risk factor. Weaker, more docile, more dependent Boards are less troublesome. They are less able to investigate, oppose, or otherwise interrupt policies and programs that come from downtown Manhattan.
Thus this systemic flaw allows elected officials to actively starve the Boards, while paying lip service to their good work.
Make no mistake: underfunding Community Boards is a politically driven decision.