Published in
The Empire

BP Stringer calls for abolishment of council member item system

(Courtsey of the borough president's Flickr account.)

Citing a $1.3 million discrepancy between the most and least funded council districts through a process described as murky and subjecting, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer released a report calling for a complete overhaul of how New York City Council members receive discretionary funding for their districts.

"I know people are going to be upset with this proposal but we can't keep putting our head in the sand," Stringer said on a conference call with reporters. The Manhattan borough president is seen as a likely candidate for mayor in 2013, as is City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

City councilmembers and the borough presidents are given these discretionary funds each year during the budget process. These funds are primarily spent on constituent services through non-profits and other groups. While the distribution of the funds by individual councilmembers has at times been the subject of controversy, the borough president’s report focused on which members were getting what, pointing to what the report described as “too often based on a member’s political standing within the Council.”

"The member items are used by the speaker as an instrument of power," explained Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College and an expert on city government. "You reward your friends and you screw your enemies." Reforming member items as Stringer is suggesting would be, in essence, curtailing the power of the speaker of the city council—currently Christine Quinn.

Specifically, the report called for replacing the current, speaker-based system with one that would have the mayor’s office allotting the money evenly, or on a more transparent process that took the needs of the districts’ constituents into account. Currently, $49.6 million in funding is divided among the council’s 51 members. If the report’s recommendation were implemented, it would likely mean even more power in the hands of the mayor, at the expense of the council’s speaker, and potentially the council itself.

Quinn’s office released a statement through Maria Alvarado, the council’s press secretary, saying they were reviewing the report and were “proud of the budget reforms the Council has already implemented that increase transparency and accountability—including an online database that the Borough President has embraced today.”

The borough president’s report highlighted the significant difference between the council members. For example, Brooklyn Councilmember Domenic Recchia received the most funding during the budget process--$1,630,064 to be exact. This is more than four times as much as either Bronx councilmembers Larry Seabrook or Helen Foster received. Their districts are some of the poorest in the city. The report’s figures are based on reviewing the past four years of available data.

"I agree with Borough President Scott Stringer that District budget allocations should be based on the needs of each district," Seabrook said in a statement. "City Council Speaker Christine Quinn decides on the budget allocations for each district and I certainly hope that next year’s decision for my district is a more favorable one."

“The players at the table get more,” Foster said about the current system. “It’s not based on fairness at all. I don't know that there is any system in politics that is based on need." While she made it clear she was not in favor of any reform that took power away from the council in favor of the mayor, Foster agreed with Seabrook, that the system should be taking some level of need into account.

"The disparities should not be so great," she said.

The map below illustrates just how removed from a standardized system the process is. When the districts for the five lowest and highest receivers of total funds are put on a map, it turns out that three of the highest receivers are directly next to or one district away from all but one of the least funded districts.

NYC City Council "Member Item" distribution for fiscal year 2012.
Top five district allocations are in green, bottom five are in red.
Source: Office of Mannhattan Borough President Scott Stringer