By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Here's another closely guarded secret about the money that the New York City Council doles out every year—and this one's 10 times the size of the $50 million in so-called member items that are currently providing fodder for investigators and reporters:
It's the council's share of the city's capital budget, a mammoth piece of economic patronage that last year weighed in at more than $500 million.
Like its smaller cousin on the expense side of the ledger, the council's capital budget is assembled from member requests for presumably worthwhile projects.
The funding runs the gamut from help for New York's poorest, to timely and expensive assistance to the most powerful institutions. There are dozens of smaller appropriations, ranging from $50,000 to $150,000, for putting new computer labs in neighborhood schools and installing security cameras and buzzer systems in city Housing Authority projects.
At the other end of the spectrum, the council last year earmarked $8.5 million for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a whopping $12.5 million to the High Line, the West Side project that has been a favorite of Speaker Christine Quinn and her predecessor, Gifford Miller.
Sandwiched in between are hefty donations to favored local nonprofits, such as $100,000 to the Queens Symphony Orchestra, $1 million for the Battery Conservancy to create a new glass-enclosed carousel in Battery Park, and $2.2 million for the New York Aquarium.
Which council members steered this taxpayer largesse to which projects? Who decided one project was more worthy than another? No one's saying.
While Quinn broke with past council tradition last year by publishing the names of members who were responsible for expense items—and trumpeted her reform as a victory for open government—she balked at doing so for the far-larger capital budget.
When the Voice asked in June 2007 to review the forms that council members submit to request capital funding, Quinn's lawyers turned a fast thumbs-down. The council's attorneys denied a Freedom of Information request, saying the members' funding forms amounted to "pre-approval information." This is legalese for: "We don't have to give it to you because they're only applications—not final decisions."
Well, how about a list of only approved projects that identifies the council member requesting the funding? No luck there either. Council spokesmen insisted that no such document existed. Even the amount of the council's capital budget was hush-hush. "There is no total for the council capital funding," said a council aide given the unfortunate task of handling the Voice's pesky inquiries. "You can tabulate it. That's not something we can provide you."
What Quinn's crew did offer was a vague promise that everything would eventually be made public—part of what the Speaker calls her "transparency process."
"It is a massive budget and a complex budget process," Quinn's designated hitter said at the time. "And, as with anything of that scope, it takes time to create these templates. It is kind of at risk of a cliché, but Rome wasn't built in a day."
This month, at Quinn's ill-fated press conference—where she advanced budget reforms that she was quickly forced to withdraw after council members complained—she again vowed to provide the information. "In the capital budget, we will this year begin listing the names of the members or delegations or caucuses who requested the capital funding," she said.
But no sooner was this pledge made than her staff again went mum, failing to respond to a list of outstanding questions.
In a way, you can't blame them. The escalating scandal over the council's discretionary funding has descended on Quinn's office like a sudden tornado out of a clear sky. And you don't get the sense that anyone had the forethought to build a storm shelter.
When the indictment of two council aides for stealing $145,000 in council-sponsored funding was announced last week, Quinn was reduced to that old stand-by for nervous executives: "We've cooperated fully," she said. But across the street at the offices of the Manhattan U.S. Attorney, prosecutors weren't offering Quinn much of a lifeline, refusing to characterize anyone's status or cooperation.As for the council's half-billion-dollar capital budget, it's a lot like the fictitious organizations used to squirrel away expense money for the Speaker's later spending: It's hiding in plain sight.
The projects and allocations are made available in a fat volume known as the "ResoA Worksheet" for Section 254, a reference to the section of the City Charter under which the council gets to add its own budget appropriations. In last year's budget, covering the 2008 fiscal year, the council's ResoA book ran to 212 pages.
Included are projects that were appropriated in prior years, but which city agencies, for a variety of reasons, have failed to execute. But the annual challenge to council members is to squeeze in as many new projects as possible. There's a clear public purpose in much of the funding, but, like the expense-side member items, each project provides bragging rights to constituents, and opens new opportunities for campaign fundraising.
Much of the process, lawmakers say, is carried out in the dark: Council members fill out forms and submit them to the Speaker and the council's finance division. Members are instructed to list projects in order of priority, although no one, except the Speaker's office, knows the allotment that each member receives. Like the expense side, it's presumed that budget shares are doled out in a political pecking order, with the most powerful members receiving the highest amounts.
Council rebel Tony Avella, the Queens Democrat now running for mayor, says that last year he threatened to sue Quinn, and make public all documents related to the apportionment of capital-budget funding, if he was denied what he believed to be a full share of the pie, an estimated $3 million. "I got what I wanted," he says.
Since the city sells bonds to finance the capital budget, projects are supposed to be tangible, brick-and-mortar improvements that physically enhance the city's property. The council's capital budget is filled with such items, changes that somehow didn't make it onto the mayor's own list: new roofs for firehouses, upgraded athletic fields for community colleges, clinic improvement at city hospitals.
But it also includes scores of allocations to what are known in the budget business as "non-city-owned" projects. Quinn and Mayor Bloomberg signed an agreement in March tightening up funding for such ventures, but the current fiscal year is filled with them: $100,000 for exterior restorations at the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum in Staten Island; $1.2 million for a new roof at the Noble Maritime Collection in Snug Harbor; $100,000 to help build a home for the New Way Circus in Brooklyn; $4 million for a climate-control project at the Brooklyn Museum; $3million for Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens' Council's new school; $88,000 to preserve documentary materials for the Greater New York Coalition for Soviet Jewry; $2.75 million for renovationsfor Rosie's Broadway Kids; $170,000 for new film projectors at the Museum of the Moving Image; $500,000 for an office fix-up for Ballet Hispanico; $250,000 for a new generator for the 92nd Street Y; $1.1 million for a library at Vaughn College of Aeronautics in Queens; $600,000 for a project of Black Veterans for Social Justice; and $500,000 for a new "Abe Beame Center" at the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council.
All laudable projects—hopefully. But who requested them? Who decided taxpayers should pay for them? Who knows?