The City Council’s system of doling out millions of dollars to community organizations is once again under fire after Speaker Christine Quinn gave a hefty chunk of her share to groups whose officials support her mayoral campaign.
An analysis by The Daily News found that more than half of the 24 groups favored by the speaker were tied to donors who gave a combined $210,000 to help her move her office to the other side of City Hall.
The grants amounted to $3.1 million out of her $15 million share of the pork pie.
The member item system has already come under fire for allowing the speaker to shell out larger shares to political cronies while punishing dissenters or ignoring marginals. Two Councilmembers have been convicted of using the funds for their own benefit.
In response to the Daily News report Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, one of Quinn’s rivals in the Democrat primary for mayor, renewed his call for an end to the member item process.
“The Speaker’s iron-fisted control of member item funding is not the reform we need,” said di Blasio, a former councilman from Brooklyn, in a statement. “It’s time to do away with the broken member item process that gives politicians too much control over disbursement of taxpayer dollars.
“Under the Speaker’s watch, four Council Members over five years have gone to jail or been arrested for criminal misuse of taxpayer dollars. We can fund worthy projects and community groups without a process so susceptible to abuse, but we need leadership truly committed to real reform. The people of New York City are still waiting.”
Public watchdog groups have also called for tossing the member-item process.
But for small community-based non-profits, including several Jewish community councils and other groups under the UJA-Federation umbrella, the annual grants are an important source of funds to fill budget holes. An estimated $4 million went to agencies under Jewish auspices in the current budget cycle.
“They are flexible dollars that help agencies meet community needs,” said Ron Soloway, managing director for and government and external relations at UJA-Federation.
The social service funds help pay for case management, case assistance, benefit counseling and, in some cases, senior or youth services.
“These member items basically fund programs for which there is a community need but not an ongoing governmental program,” Soloway said. “It allows our agencies to fill gaps in service. Local elected officials, because they are in the community, know exactly what the gaps are.”
Despite the corruption in the process, he added “I believe almost all this money is spent on a reputable way. Without some replacement for this money it’s going to create a significant black hole.”