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Borough President Wants to Abolish City Council Member Items

By Jill Colvin | July 20, 2011 7:51pm
Scott Stringer blasted the City Council's member item allocation process as
Scott Stringer blasted the City Council's member item allocation process as "arbitrary" and "unfair."
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DNAinfo/Mary Johnson

MANHATTAN — Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer blasted the City Council’s process for doling out public money to programs in members' districts as “arbitrary” Wednesday, and called for a complete abolition of the current system, which he said breeds political favoritism.

“We have a system where some districts get far more than others and politics is the only explanation,” Stringer told reporters during a conference call, where he said the member item system creates a “chilling effect on open debate.”

“There should be no financial reward for toeing the party line,” he said, ahead of the release of a report that analyzed four years' worth of data on council money allocation.

This year, each of the 51 council members received a baseline sum of $260,464 for their districts. The remaining part of the $33 million was allocated at City Council Speaker Christine Quinn's discretion.

In Manhattan, Inez Dickens’ District 9 received the most money, ranking sixth city-wide, with more than $940,000 for local groups. Quinn’s District 3 followed closely with $847,000.

Gale Brewer’s Upper West Side District 6 received the least in member item money this year, bringing in $403,000, according to the report.

The money, which represents a fraction of the city's overall budget, does not include other funds secured for capital projects, which go through a separate approval process.

Stringer pointed to huge disparities in the way the discretionary part of the cash was allocated this year to more than 4,000 groups including senior centers, arts groups and after-school programs.

While Finance Chair Domenic Recchia Jr.’s Brooklyn district received $1,630,064 ($10.30 per constituent), the district that received the least amount of money got less than a quarter of that (just $2.16 per resident) — a difference of $1.3 million.

In Manhattan, he pointed to the fact that Jessica Lappin’s wealthy Upper East Side District 5 received almost twice as much as freshman Ydanis Rodriguez's lower-income District 10, which includes Washington Heights and Inwood and arguably has a greater need.

“The evidence is clear. There is no statistical relationship between a district’s needs and its member item distribution,” he said. “It needs to be ended now.”

“The system is antiquated… it’s an embarrassment,” he said.

To solve the problem, Stringer called for the complete abolition of discretionary spending. Instead he wants the money put in the hands of the mayor’s office, where it would be distributed as community grants using a merit-based system informed by districts' needs.

Quinn spokeswoman Maria Alvarado said the Speaker's office is already taking efforts to make the system more transparent.

"We are proud of the budget reforms the Council has already implemented that increase transparency and accountability — including an online database that the Borough President has embraced today. We look forward to reviewing his report,” she said in a statement. One of the reforms is a requirement that the Council post a listing of all of the members' allocations 24 hours before the budget is passed.

Stringer insisted to reporters that he did not intend to lay the blame on Quinn.

“This issue is not about one individual speaker. It is about a system," he said. The two are widely expected to run against each other in the 2013 mayoral race.

Upper Manhattan Councilman Rodriguez also credited the Speaker for the efforts she’s made to increase transparency.

While he may not secure as much discretionary money as others, he said he’s focused on bringing the most he can to his district.  

“I do my best to bring funding to my local [constituents],” he said, adding that, “As a democratic body, the New York City Council should work on any ideas and suggestions on how we should continue to improve transparency.”

City Councilman Daniel Garodnick, whose district received $460,464 this year, agreed the report "raises some important issues about fairness and district needs in the way discretionary allocations are made."

He said the council "should take a hard look at his recommendations with an eye toward further reforms."

Brewer said she thinks the funds should remain under the Council's control but agreed the process could be improved.

"I think it would be fairer to have an equal distribution," she said, adding that she focuses on securing millions in capital funding for her district and has been very successful in her efforts.