Funding That Disgraced Pol Nelson Castro Promised His District Disappears
FORDHAM — It was a digital dream — a high-tech plan to equip one of the Bronx’s busiest commercial strips with public Wi-Fi, shopping apps and data-gathering security cameras.
After years of financial false starts, the Fordham Road Business Improvement District had found an assemblyman who promised to produce $100,000 in state capital funds for the project this year.
The BID had already selected camera locations and a Wi-Fi vendor and was filing forms with state budget officials when the assemblyman, Nelson Castro, abruptly resigned in April as part of a deal he had made with prosecutors to avoid jail time on perjury charges.
Like data in a server crash, funding for the BID’s long-sought upgrade was instantly erased.
“I saw my check fly off on little wings,” BID Executive Director Wilma Alonso said recently with a wry laugh.
If Alonso wasn’t crushed by the funding loss, it’s because the exact misfortune had beset the project before — twice — when former state Sens. Efrain González Jr. and Pedro Espada Jr. had also pledged funds, then left office amid corruption charges before delivering them.
“It’s pretty pathetic,” said Daniel Bernstein, the Fordham Road BID’s deputy executive director.
Castro was elected in 2008 to represent the 86th Assembly District, which includes parts of Fordham, Mount Hope, Tremont and University Heights.
During a Board of Elections hearing that year, Castro allegedly lied three times, according to an indictment for felony perjury charges.
In order for prosecutors to drop those charges, as well as others relating to election fraud, Castro agreed to cooperate in a multi-year corruption probe by wearing a wire, which ultimately brought down his colleague, former Assemblyman Eric Stevenson.
Part of Castro’s deal required him to resign, which he did April 8.
His lawyer, Michael Farkas, declined to make Castro available for an interview or to comment on his behalf for this article.
The Fordham Road BID is not the only community-based group that was counting on Castro to deliver state dollars this year.
The Davidson Community Center, a nearly 50-year-old neighborhood nonprofit that runs a food pantry, after-school tutoring and more, expected $40,000 from Castro, said Executive Director Angel Caballero.
The center wrote a proposal last year for security cameras along Burnside Avenue, where it hoped to form a new business improvement district, and Castro agreed to find the capital funds, Caballero said.
“We haven’t received anything that he promised,” Caballero said. “Right now, we can’t do anything. We have to wait to see if the next assemblyperson can help.”
The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition applied for $50,000 in state capital funds to create a community garden, which Castro promised to secure, said coalition Executive Director Aleciah Anthony.
Anthony said she was not sure if her group would still receive the money — but she had not heard anything about it since Castro pledged it last year.
The state Assembly press office did not respond to questions Tuesday about the Castro-promised funding and whether these groups could still expect to receive any of it.
Assembly members have not included new member items, or legislative grants, in the state budget for the last few years.
Instead, the money Castro promised likely would have come from a pool of mostly capital dollars that can be appropriated in the budget in lump sums, according to Rachael Fauss, policy and research manager for the good government group, Citizens Union.
Members can request capital funds from this pot, but ultimately Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the Ways and Means Committee decide who gets them, Fauss added.
With Castro gone and no one yet elected to replace him, it is unclear who will advocate on the Bronx groups’ behalf for the state funds they were promised but never received.
“That’s the problem when you use public dollars,” said Alonso, of the Fordham Road BID.
During the five years the BID has been appealing for state funds for the tech upgrade, it has developed a detailed proposal for how it would spend them.
Businesses could upload coupons on the district-wide wireless network, local college students could compete to create shopping apps, police could remotely access the camera feeds and the BID could mine pedestrian-count data collected by the cameras.
“It could take Fordham Road to a whole different level,” Alonso said, before remembering that the funding had evaporated — again. “Now we are back on square one.”