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Budget Dollars for the Neighborhoods: Community Development or Political Pork?

by Mark Berkey-Gerard, Aug 23, 2004
 

Last year, organizers of the West Indian-American Day Parade invited five New York City Council members on a "fact-finding" mission to Trinidad and Tobago's carnival to study what makes the event so popular and profitable. Based on New York City's annual budget, it appears the trip paid off — at least for the organizers.

Buried deep in the city's budget documents is a $100,000 allocation for the Brooklyn parade, twice as much as the group received last year.

While many New Yorkers would agree that events like the West Indian Day Parade, the city's largest ethnic celebration, are worthy of some funding from the city's $47 billion budget, the City Council is not exactly forthcoming about the details of such decisions and how members benefit from them.

Each year as part of the annual budget, the New York City Council doles out millions of dollars to community groups, arts organizations, Little League teams, and parades. (For a list of what more than a dozen council members say they received from the budget see related article.)

But when it comes to these initiatives, the City Council:

  • Negotiates the grants behind closed doors.
  • Does not disclose which officials requested the money.
  • Gives little explanation about how the money will be used.
  • And refuses to add up how much all of these efforts cost taxpayers.

 

And most council members defend the practice, arguing that the money goes to needy causes in their districts.

"They call pork the other white meat," East Harlem City Councilmember Philip Reed told the Daily News. "Meaning, it's good for you."

Where does the money come from? Who decides where it goes? And do these grants really help a neighborhood and its residents, or are they just taxpayer-funded efforts to help get officials re-elected?

MONEY FOR THE DISTRICT

At all levels of government, elected officials lobby for funding for projects in their home districts. For New York City Council members, who have less power to set policy than lawmakers in Albany or Washington, these budget allocations represent some of the most tangible evidence of what they have done for their constituents.

City Council members obtain money for their districts in four primary ways.

1. Member Items

Each of the 51 City Council members is given a sum of money — often called "member items" or "discretionary funds" — to spend in their districts.

This year, each member received a total of $240,000, of which $60,000 must go to programs for the elderly and $100,000 must go to youth programs. Officials allocate the remaining $80,000 in their districts as they wish.

Although each City Council member is given that same amount of money, many members take credit for obtaining these grants as a way of bolstering their accomplishments.

Riverdale City Councilmember G. Oliver Koppell, for example, recently sent out a press release announcing that he had "obtained an increased amount of funding" for senior programs. "The programs I am helping to fund provide much needed services to our most vulnerable citizens and add to the quality of life," Koppell said in the statement.

Koppell, however, did not mention that each of the other 50 City Council members also received the same amount of money. But when it comes to the specifics of how an individual council member divides his or her discretionary funds, elected officials often are less forthcoming.

When asked how he doled out his $80,000 in member items, Canarsie Councilmember Lew Fidler said he did not feel comfortable giving all of the details because community groups that did not receive funds may feel left out.

And Flushing Councilmember John Liu even rejected the idea that member items really exist, arguing that the council arrives at a budget as a body.

"I don't have anything that's called a member item," said Liu. "There are local initiatives that are suggested strongly by a council member."

2. Borough Delegation Money

In addition, each borough delegation — the group of council members representing each borough — is given a pot of money. For example, this year the Queens delegation received $250,000, which was split among the 14 Queens council members. With their money, Queens council members funded projects like the Queens Symphony Orchestra, which received $78,000.

To decide who is worthy of funding, borough delegations hold open meetings where individual non-profit groups come and "testify" as to how much money they need. These meetings are not widely advertised, and a group must know when and where these meetings occur.

3. The Speaker's Money

Another large sum of money belongs to City Council Speaker Gifford Millerwho, along with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has the largest influence over what goes into the city budget. Miller can also dispense large grants on behalf of the legislative body.

For example, the New York Junior Tennis League, which offers free lessons to kids, received $486,500 from the city budget this year. And while the budget documents don't say that the money came from the speaker, the tennis organization's web site does: "Funded By Council Speaker Gifford Miller" the web site states prominently.

Miller's office refused to say how much money the speaker allocated this year, saying only that the grants "represent the City Council's priorities."

To get the speaker's support for projects within their district, individual council members must convince him that they have worthy projects. Politics also comes into play; the speaker can use his power to reward or punish certain council members based on their support for him in other matters.

"Some of us are good at this and some of us aren't," said one council member who did not want to be named. "Those of us who are good at it are supposed to keep our mouths shut."

4.Capital Budget

In addition to funds in the city's annual operating budget, each council member also lobbies for projects in the separate $6 billion capital budget, which covers the purchase, repair, or construction of physical items that cost over $35,000 and that last for at least five years.

These are often big ticket items, like computer equipment for schools, improvements to parks, or expansion of local libraries. It is also what City Council members often take the most credit for, since the projects cost millions of dollars and voters can see some tangible results.

But there are other factors that lead to funding beyond a council member's lobbying. For example, Brooklyn City Councilmember Diana Reyna said she obtained $1.6 million toward the development of almost 200 affordable apartments, but that project largely resulted from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's citywide effort to build more housing over the next five years.

FOLLOWING THE MONEY TRAIL

The argument for giving City Council members a substantial role in allocating money in their districts is that they know the community's needs.

"You elect council members locally because they know what is needed in their district," said Doug Turetsky of the Independent Budget Office, a watchdog group that monitors the city budget.

But the process of distributing this money is largely obscured from the public.

Most of the lobbying and negotiations takes place behind closed doors. This forces non-profit groups and arts groups into the role of lobbyists, writing letters to their council members, meeting council members in person, and even making trips to City Hall to make sure they are not forgotten.

Budget documents also do not say which City Council member requested which item, which can lead to confusion over who exactly should take credit for obtaining the funding.

The head of one Brooklyn community center, who asked not to be named, said that after receiving a grant for $30,000 this year, he received letters from three different council members all claiming credit for it.

And come election time, politicians go back to the same organizations and groups that they funded looking for campaign donations or help in getting out the vote.

"We are eager to give this money out," said Jack Freedman, chief of staff to Councilmember David Weprin. "But we're politicians, so we also want people to know where it came from."

For a look at what your individual council member obtained in this year's city budget, read What Did Your Council Member Get for Your Neighborhood?


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