Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
City Council members received up to $578 million in Fiscal Year 2012 to fund construction projects and a variety of non-profits in their districts, according to a new report from the good government group, Citizens Union. Who got what was mostly decided by Council Speaker Christine Quinn — and the distribution, the group contends, was based more on politics than need.
Discretionary funds are part of the budget – a result of negotiations between the City Council speaker and the mayor. Part of the money goes to capital expenditures – funds for construction projects. The other part goes to funding neighborhood non-profits.
According to the report, during the 2009-2011 fiscal years, Domenic Recchia, Jr., whose district includes Coney Island and Bensonhurst, received more than $66 million in discretionary funds — the most of any council member. On the other end of the spectrum, Bronx Council Member Helen Foster, who represents the second poorest district in the city, received just over $15 million during the same period.
Dick Dadey of Citizens Union said such large disparities should not exist. "These are significant funds that fund communities that we believe need to be funded but more objectively and with greater equity," Dadey said. He argued that Recchia received the most money because he is the chair of the Finance Committee and one of the most powerful council members.
Recchia declined to comment, as did Foster. Council Speaker Christine Quinn's office justified the amount that Recchia received, saying he funds programs and cultural institutions city wide and not just in his district.
While Foster ranked very low in the amount of discretionary funds she received, she wasn't last. That distinction went to representatives of Northeast Queens: Council Member Danny Halloran and his predecessor, Tony Avella. Halloran spokesman, Steven Stites, said there's a perception that the district is full of middle class homeowners who don't have the same need for city funding. "That's just not true, the district has one of the largest tax bases in the city and Councilman Halloran thinks they ought to get the services to match that," Stites said.
The report recommended using measures, such as median incomes or unemployment rates, to determine funding for districts.
Speaker Quinn disagreed with using a needs-based formula for deciding funding, arguing it would be too restrictive and could leave out worthy hospitals, libraries or daycare centers located in well-to-do neighborhoods.
The report also recommended more transparency for the portion of money that goes to fund construction projects and that reforms, such as the vetting of non-profits, be made permanent. Discretionary funding has been under scrutiny for years. In 2008, a federal investigation had revealed that city council members were distributing money to fictitious organizations.
Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the latter two changes are already in the works.