In a couple of hours, supporters and opponents of the proposed Chinatown Business Improvement District will make their respective cases before Community Board 3’s economic development committee. In the last week or so, the story has gotten quite a bit of play in the mainstream media. Just a couple of days ago, a New York Post headline blared, “Chinatown cleaners played dirty with grant.” The five sentence story made some pretty strong allegations:
They really cleaned up. A $5.4 million LMDC grant awarded to a Chinatown nonprofit to perform street cleaning was instead used to pay for a whopping share of management salaries, “outreach” and office overhead. Between 2006 and 2009, the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp. spent $1.4 million of the four-year grant to run its office instead of cleaning Chinatown’s dirty streets, according to financial statements. “It’s crazy. Give me $5 million and I could do a much better job,” said the manager of a flower store on Bayard Street. In 2008, the group spent $605,000 on administrator salaries, rent, office improvements and other overheads. The actual cleaning that year came in at $1 million. The feds have rigorously audited the contract, and no discrepancies have turned up, an LMDC spokesman said.
Since there’s no source indicated in the report, it’s impossible to know for sure where the Post got its info. We can assume it came from past IRS 990 forms, which non-profit organizations are required to file. BID backers say the story paints a distorted picture by focusing only on financial statements filed before the Chinatown Partnership began paying the cleaning contractor directly. There was a period of time early on, they say, in which city agencies were administering the LMDC money.
You might notice something else missing in the Post story: the other side. Representatives of the Partnership and Councilmember Margaret Chin (a big BID supporter) were interviewed by reporter Heather Haddon, yet their comments did not make it into the paper.
But there’s no need to single out New York’s most notorious tabloid. NY1, Crain’s and the Daily News all ran recent reports that did not so much as mention any organized opposition to a business improvement district in Chinatown. Citywide news organizations have a need to streamline stories for mass consumption. That’s a given. In this case, however, they’ve done a lot more than skim over the details. The mainstream coverage so far has failed to tell both sides and has done this community a disservice.
Note: if you would like to see the Partnership’s 990 forms for yourself, they’re available via Guidestar (registration required). Tonight, we’re expecting BID supporters to answer the allegations made in the Post story in some way. It should be an interesting evening.