Scott Stringer Wants to Halt Group's Spending of Columbia Cash in Harlem

By Jeff Mays on November 1, 2011 6:26pm | Updated on November 2, 2011 9:46am

Borough President Scott Stringer called for safety improvements at Greenwich and Duane streets at an Oct. 6, 2011 press conference.
Borough President Scott Stringer called for safety improvements at Greenwich and Duane streets at an Oct. 6, 2011 press conference.
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DNAinfo/Julie Shapiro

HARLEM — Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer wants to stop a group from distributing $150 million in funds from Columbia University's community benefit agreement with West Harlem, saying he has concerns about its lack of transparency.

In a statement released Tuesday, Stringer called on the West Harlem Local Development Corporation to "halt any further disbursement of funds" because they were doing so "without a formal application process, without public notices, without protocols for selection, without advice from a community advisory committee and without adequate, transparent discussion by the LDC as a whole."

"I am especially dismayed that LDC’s executive committee continues to disburse funds," Stringer wrote.

The agency is responsible for giving away $76 million in cash and making sure Columbia delivers $30 million for construction of a new K-8 school in conjunction with Teachers College, $20 million for an affordable housing fund and $20 million in in-kind benefits.

But Stringer, who has a staff representative on the board of the West Harlem Local Development Corp., is one of the growing list of officials who have raised concerns about the group's management since its creation in 2009.

DNAinfo reported Monday that congressional candidate Vincent Morgan has asked for an audit of the group and wants it to be reorganized because it lacks transparency. State Senator Bill Perkins had a position on the board but resigned in protest in September because he said he was not happy with the level of transparency. Community Board 9 has also railed against what they call the board's mismanagement.

U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, City Councilman Robert Jackson and Assemblymen Keith Wright also have staff representatives on the board, but have not come out publicly to criticize it.

Since the community benefits agreement between Columbia and West Harlem was signed in May 2009, Columbia University has transferred $3.55 million to the group so far and delivered another $10 million to the city's affordable housing fund. The West Harlem LDC has spent $400,000 of the funds on consultants alone — but only $300,000 on programming for a summer youth jobs program administered by the city.

A rendering of Columbia University's Manhattanville campus expansion on West 130th Street would create a public plaza.
A rendering of Columbia University's Manhattanville campus expansion on West 130th Street would create a public plaza.
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Columbia University

Morgan has called those disbursements illegal because the group has yet to be granted non-profit status. And Assemblymen Keith Wright, who supports the board, questioned the wisdom of funding city agencies with the money.

Morgan praised Stringer's Tuesday statement, but said more needs to be done.

"I'm very pleased that Manhattan Borough president Scott Stringer has the courage to stand up but this needs to go a lot further," Morgan said. "This goes into the question of who is making the decisions."

Donald Notice, chair of the West Harlem LDC, said in a previous interview that the group is finalizing its non-profit status, working on an up to 10-year lease for office space and searching for an executive director. The group has also not held a public meeting since its inception.

He added that he expects most of those milestones to be achieved by the end of this year.

On Tuesday, Notice said that he had not yet seen Stringer's letter and could not comment on it.

The West Harlem LDC is also supposed to ensure that Columbia meets certain mandates for hiring local residents and minority firms for the 17-acre expansion of the Manhattanville campus.

Morgan has called on Columbia University President Lee Bollinger to halt bidding on the first phase of the $6.4 billion expansion until an audit is conducted and changes made to the board. Columbia University officials declined to respond to whether Bollinger would consider such a move.

Morgan said he is recruiting a task force from across Harlem to create a "strategic plan" for the WHLDC.

"This board has to be a reflection of the goals and desires of the Harlem community," said Morgan.

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