Earlier this week, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer called on the City Council to reform the way it awards grants to community organizations. The grants, known as “member items,” are seen by many as pork-barrel spending, tools elected officials use to repay political supporters. Others view the “discretionary” fund as an essential lifeline to the city’s many non-profit social service and cultural institutions.
Stringer released a report detailing which Council districts get the most money. The unsurprising conclusion?
The analysis, the most comprehensive study to date, reveals deep inequities within the current system over the last four fiscal years and recommends that these taxpayer dollars—totaling $49.6 million in this year’s budget—should be transferred to mayoral agencies for distribution, to take politics out of the process… Under the current system, some districts receive more than four times the amount of discretionary member items than others. The Borough President’s report notes that the adoption of a uniform, across-the-board distribution of member items would have given added funding to 32 districts across the city.
So how does the Lower East Side stack up?
- District 1 (Margaret Chin; representing Lower Manhattan below Houston Street): ranked 42nd out of 51 districts (only 9 communities received less money). In fiscal year 2012, District 1 organizations were awarded $434,464 directly from Chin.
- District 2 (Rosie Mendez; representing the East Side above Houston Street): ranked 43rd out of 51 districts. District 2 groups collected $419,664.
In contrast, four Council members at the top of the list brought in more than $1 million each for their districts. This year’s champion: Dominic Recchia of Brooklyn, chair of the Council’s finance committee ($1,630,000). According to Stringer’s report, the average district was awarded about $638,000. Last year, Chin pointed out to us that these figures are a bit misleading. This is because, she said, they do not account for more than $16 million controlled directly by Speaker Christine Quinn and distributed to districts across the city.
But, as the Wall Street Journal reported, Stringer believes the speaker’s influence over all of the money is part of the problem:
Historically, speakers of the council, including Ms. Quinn, have been accused of using these grants as a way to reward council members who are allies and punish members who oppose them on certain issues. Mr. Stringer recommended this entire pot of money be transferred to mayoral agencies and distributed on an equal basis across districts or on a needs-based formula. “Based on these simple district-by-district comparisons, the evidence is clear—there is no statistical relationship between a district’s need and its member-item allocation,” Mr. Stringer said. “And the inescapable conclusion is that politics has been driving the distribution of these tax dollars in New York City… There should be no financial reward,” Mr. Stringer said, “for towing the party line.”
It did not take long this week for reporters to begin asking Stringer whether the release of his report was politically motivated. Both he and Quinn are leading contenders in the 2013 mayoral campaign. “This is not about any one person,” Stringer replied. “This is about a system that has been broken for decades and needs to be fixed.”
Quinn staffers noted that she has instituted a number of reforms designed to make the process of awarding grants more transparent. Finance Chair Recchia told the Journal, “We protect everybody and we give everyone an equal opportunity and get funding. (The system) is fair.”
Stringer has a discretionary fund of his own. This year he awarded more than $900,000 to community organizations. In the report, he suggested the borough presidents should also look at reforming the way their grants are awarded.