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CB 9 Wants Group Handling $150 M in Columbia Cash to Disclose Finances

By Jeff Mays | November 22, 2011 8:14am | Updated on November 22, 2011 8:16am
A rendering of the view on 12th Avenue as part of Columbia University's Manhattanville expansion.
A rendering of the view on 12th Avenue as part of Columbia University's Manhattanville expansion.
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Columbia University

HARLEM — Community Board 9 has joined the chorus of voices demanding that the group distributing $150 million in funds from Columbia University's community benefit agreement with West Harlem disclose their finances to the public.

Community Board 9 helped spur the creation of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation and has two permanent seats on its board. But since the agreement was signed 2 1/2 years ago as part of Columbia University's $6.4 Billion expansion, the WHLDC has failed to form as a non-profit, hold a public meeting, set up a website or hire an executive director.

On Monday, board members passed a vote of no-confidence in the corporation.

Despite receiving $3.55 million from Columbia University, the group has spent $400,000 on consultants, $100,000 more than it's spent on programming, DNAinfo reported. The group is now being investigated by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Community Board 9 wants the WHLDC to make a public report about its finances and disclose which consultants were hired and what they accomplished.

The WHLDC is responsible for disbursing $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.

The WHLDC 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.

The board also wants the group to hold a public forum to develop "clear standards" for the disbursement of funds. In addition, CB 9 has asked the group to hold off on hiring any staff.

"We have no confidence in the WHLDC," reads a resolution passed by the board.

Columbia University has given the group $3.55 million but the only programming thus far has been for a summer youth jobs program run by the city. Critics, including Congressional candidate Vincent Morgan, have called the disbursement of funds to a city agency illegal and asked for an audit because the WHLDC's non-profit status was not finalized.

Morgan and Adam Clayton Powell IV have also called for Columbia to step in, but the university has declined, saying the WHLDC is "legally and operationally independent" of the university, according to a letter from Maxine Griffith, Columbia's executive vice president for community and government affairs and a special advisor for campus planning.

In addition to Morgan, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who along with U.S. Rep Charles Rangel, Assemblymen Keith Wright and Councilman Robert Jackson have staff representatives on the board, has called for a halt to spending.

Jackson says the WHLDC has "nothing to hide" but that he has encouraged the group to increase transparency. Rangel said Schneiderman is right to investigate the group. Wright also said there was no "malfeasance" at the agency but that he was not in favor of the WHLDC providing money to a city agency.

Former Community 9 Board Chair Larry English voted in favor of the resolution.

"Over the last several weeks there has been a growing voice demanding accountability and reform from the WHLDC. It was important that CB 9 speak to this issue," English said.

The WHLDC also needs to be reconfigured because it doesn't match the "ethnic diversity" of West Harlem. Morgan has said the WHLDC board lacks Latino representation given the size of the Latino population in West Harlem.

WHLDC chair Donald Notice did not respond to a request for comment. However, he said in an earlier interview that the group should finalize its non-profit status, disclose its funding process, lease a headquarters and hire an executive by the end of the year.

One example of the group's failure is its plan to spend money for 1,400 square feet of office space, said CB 9. The WHLDC failed to "thoroughly investigate the possibility of acquiring such space as an in-kind contribution" from Columbia, they said.

CB 9 believes space may be available at the Columbia School of Social Work on Amsterdam Avenue and West 121st Street.

"The Manhattan Borough President has demanded reform, and now the community board has spoken with a clear majority that the status quo is unacceptable at the WHLDC," said English.