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Dividing the Wealth: Who Gets the Council’s Discretionary Funds?

by Courtney Gross, Jun 25, 2007
 

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Many of David Weprin's constituents would undoubtedly like to pat him on the back. By one measure, the mustachioed councilmember from Queens gained more funding for individually sponsored projects and initiatives than any of his 50 council colleagues, corralling more than $735,000 for nonprofits and community-driven organizations.

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Gotham Gazette’s analysis of the City Council's so-called "pork-barrel" spending – officially known as the member items list – also found that newer members of the council, such as Mathieu Eugene and Darlene Mealy, both of Brooklyn, got far less funding for their individual initiatives.

This analysis is possible, because for the first time the council not only released pages upon pages of figures for these discretionary funds following the passage of the $59 billion fiscal 2008 budget, but also provided the names of the members who sponsored every item– a move hailed by Council Speaker Christine Quinn as a way of opening up the city's budget process.

This year's revamped members' list makes at least one element of discretionary spending - besides Councilmember Charles Barron's affinity for rodeos - undeniably apparent: It is much easier to rake in the cash if you have seniority or a leadership position. (For a complete list of who got what, click here).

Following The Flow

The discretionary funds are just one of several ways council members "bring home the bacon."

According to city officials, each council member receives $340,464 in discretionary funds, of which $151,714 is devoted to youth programs in his or her district, $108,750 to senior initiatives and $80,000 to allocate as he or she sees fit. That funding for the entire council totals approximately $17.4 million.

Both the senior and youth initiatives are not included in this year's members' list, because appropriations have not yet been solidified, city officials said. Council members have an opportunity to lock down additional funding for their district through capital spending, which is also not included in the list.

Beyond that, the members' list does include the $80,000 each council member can use at his or her discretion as well as grants. The members lobby for these grants through letters of support, applauding the work of certain organizations and nonprofits that run social or community-driven programs. Much of the members' list is fueled by this procedure.

This year's discretionary funding includes a range of programs focused on such issues as fighting crime and reducing poverty. And, of course, the list is not without the odd, the quirky or the eyebrow-raising earmark (like $3,000 from Councilmember Robert Jackson for a Summer Scandinavian Music Festival in Fort Tryon Park or $4,000 to Cowboy Mania for rodeo costs from Brooklyn-based Barron). (For another somewhat unusual program see box.)

Some of this discretionary spending is signed by one councilmember, while other, typically larger earmarks include a number of sponsors.

Our analysis totals only the funding that each council member received through the members' list for items that he or she alone sponsored. It does not include the many projects with multiple council sponsors. Current council records provide no way of determining which council member was the lead sponsor of the items sponsored by two or more members. As a result, the totals do not include, for example, the largest appropriation - $600,000 to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which was sponsored by 15 council members.

And so, some council members who are not high on Gotham Gazette’s list could have directed more of their discretionary funds to larger projects, which tend to be sponsored by an array of members, instead of focusing on individual items.

And the size of the individual items varied from $1,000 to $600,000. Because of that, by another measure, Weprin is not number one. While he collected the most funding for individually sponsored initiatives at $736,500 in 31 separate line items, Queens Councilmember Leroy Comrie acquired the most individual items – 80 totaling $710,857.

Although co-sponsored items are excluded, the analysis does offer insight into individually sponsored items, which total $11.6 million, nearly a third of the more than $36.4 million on the member’s item list.

COUNCILMEMBERS TOTAL AMOUNT OF FUNDING FOR ITEMS SPONSORED BY ONE MEMBER NUMBER OF INDIVIDUAL ITEMS
David I. Weprin
$736,500
31
Leroy G. Comrie, Jr.
$710,857
80
Lewis A. Fidler
$702,625
41
Peter F. Vallone, Jr.
$682,857
48
Michael E. McMahon
$661,000
72
Inez E. Dickens
$588,200
69
Christine C. Quinn
$423,500
60
Robert Jackson
$337,250
44
Joel Rivera
$321,337
33
Domenic M. Recchia, Jr.
$312,500
27


Cick here for a complete chart.

***This chart includes the total funding allocated for each councilmember's individually sponsored items. The totals do not include any items that were co-sponsored by multiple council members or items signed by borough delegations. It represents approximately a third of the total members' list funding.

The Benefits of Seniority (Sometimes)

These individual items are merely one part of what each member contributed to a district, a borough or citywide project throughout the members' list. Weprin, for example, had 31 individually sponsored items, but signed on as a co-sponsor to 164 more initiatives.

Other names were scarce in comparison. Bayside Councilmember Tony Avella signed on to 9 items on his own and sponsored 26 other items with his colleagues.

Council members hovering near the top of the list tend to be incumbents, chair the council's most influential committees or are thought to be seeking higher office in the next citywide election in 2009.

Some of the members who got less than $100,000 in individually sponsored items are newcomers to the council or sit on less active committees. Many also signed on to initiatives endorsed by multiple council members or sponsored by borough delegations.

Manhattan Councilmember Alan Gerson accumulated 12 individually sponsored items totaling $63,000. Even so, according to Gerson's Deputy Chief of Staff Sayar Lonial, the councilmember contributed to approximately $4.5 million worth of initiatives with his colleagues, leaving him "pleased" with his appropriations.

"From our perspective, it's more about the groups getting the money than who gets the credit," said Lonial. "We kind of feel like it's a council team effort."

Others on the lower end of the funding spectrum, however, attribute their relative lack of individual cash to how willing they were to comply with the council speaker's agenda.

Who’s In and Who’s Out?

Dollars for Bats

Councilman James Oddo, famed for his defeat of aluminum baseball bats, is putting his money where his mouth is. Among his discretionary member allocations for fiscal year 2008, the council minority leader included $5,000 for a “Wooden Bat Baseball Tournament.”

The tournament, which includes several league-wide game days, has already taken place throughout Oddo’s home borough of Staten Island,. Each player in the major division of their local Little League receives and must use a wooden bat. The program has helped provide free wooden bats for several hundred young baseball players.

Michael Scerbo, who organized the wooden bat days, said that giving the players something they could keep was important in getting them ready for the rest of their baseball careers. Given the ban on aluminum bats in high school games, the young player will probably have to use wooden bats. “Kids should get used to the bats now.…and be ready to use them,” Scerbo said.,

--Brian Bonci

Those in council leadership positions tend to be at the higher end of the funding spectrum. That, observers said, is not unusual.

"I think there is an element that is unavoidable in member item processes," said Megan Quattlebaum, the associate director of Common Cause/NY. "They tend to be fairly leadership controlled. So the rank and file lawmakers who have been around longer, who have earned the favor of leadership, tend to do better. That’s why transparency is so important."

Coming in third with just over $700,000, Lewis Fidler, assistant majority leader and chair of the youth services committee, said he is proud to be considered the third "biggest pig" in the council.

And it's not just his leadership position that locked in his funding either, Fidler said. Although the council speaker can have ultimate veto power, Fidler said other people scrutinize the member items.

"Some of it gets decided by the member," Fidler explained. "Some of it gets decided by the borough delegation. Some of it gets decided by the speaker and some of it gets decided by the budget negotiating team." The process, he said, is multi-faceted.

Because of his role as chairman of the finance committee, Weprin said he ends up lobbying for groups that have been shortchanged, which contributes to his position at the head of the funding line. The finance chair said he also often serves as an advocate for organizations whose outreach extend far beyond his Queens district. For example, one of Weprin's most expensive items allocates $100,000 for New Yorkers for Parks for "The Daffodil Project" – an initiative that commemorates 9/11 and draws attention to the needs of neglected parks in all five boroughs

He also acted as a liaison for the speaker's office, he added, advocating for groups on Quinn’s behalf and lobbying for groups on a citywide scale - all of which contributed to his topping the funding pool for individual items.

Weprin also recognized that the experience of a councilmember could dictate whether his or her projects are allocated in the members' list. "A lot of it is based on what's happened in the past," said Weprin, who has served in City Hall since 2002 and is running for city comptroller in 2009.

But some council members with as many years inside City Hall received far less than Weprin or Fidler.

Avella, who ranked in the bottom five on individually sponsored items, has also served on council since 2002. On one hand, he said the more funding a member gets, the better the individual looks when up for re-election or campaigning for higher office. But, on the other hand, the more funding a member receives, the more they are in the speaker's pocket, he said.

Avella, who serves as funding, zoning and franchises committee chair, said getting more funding "isn't worth selling your soul."

"There is a basic amount, but those that are looked upon favorably by the speaker get more," said Avella. "When you follow the leadership, you’re rewarded... Does it make it right? Absolutely not."

Other council members, like Comrie, claim the funding is apportioned by need.

"I have a working class district," said Comrie, who ranked second in funding for individually sponsored items. "I have one-parent families that can't afford to pay for after-school programs or sports programs. … I'm giving to anybody that has a volunteer group that is willing to give my seniors, my children, my adults the programs."

Beyond the needs of his district, Comrie said his position as majority whip and head of the Queens delegation also gives him an in to preliminary discussions on funding. "(I'm) definitely part of the planning and developing of the agenda," Comrie said. "I get to put my two cents in early and often."

Funding in the Future

Whether it is influence, seniority or submission that gets some council members certain projects and skips over others, the 2008 members' list still opens the door to more disclosure in the City Council. Council members contrast their disclosure with the state legislators in Albany, whose pork barrel spending is largely shielded from public view, and with that of other legislatures in the country.

Some advocates would like to see more disclosure at City Hall such as more information on which councilmember is spearheading each co-sponsored initiative. But several council members said the city is certainly heading in the right direction.

"It's the first time we actually did this," Weprin said of the inclusion of names with members' items. "We are open to suggestions for future years, and the intent is to be more transparent."

 


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