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West Harlem Plans How to Spend $150M in Columbia Cash

By Jeff Mays | March 9, 2012 7:42am

HARLEM — West Harlem has started planning how to spend $150 million in funds expected from Columbia University's community benefit agreement.

Community Board 9 has formed a committee to come up with solid ideas about how the money can be used to improve the lives of area residents.

"We hope when people are ready to distribute money we have a plan for it," said CB 9 chair Rev. Georgette Morgan-Thomas.

The committee is going to examine the community benefits agreement and create detailed plans and proposals on how the money can be spent based on the priorities of the board.

"The CBA lays out a broad and specific plan," said Morgan-Thomas.

"We as a community board may want to submit,  when the time comes, a very specific project."

The West Harlem Local Development Corporation, the group responsible for disbursing the funds agreed upon as part of Columbia University's $6.4 Billion, 17-acre Manhattanville campus expansion, has come under scrutiny from elected officials and community members for failing to accomplish basic tasks such as launching a website, organizing as a nonprofit or hiring an executive director since its inception in May 2009.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched an investigation of the group after DNAinfo reported that it had spent more on consultants than programming. In January, after spending more than $700,000 in funds, the WHLDC finally launched a website.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and congressional candidate Vincent Morgan are among those who have called for the group to dissolve and halt all spending.

CB 9 board member Theodore Kovaleff, a liason to the WHLDC, said the group recently made an offer to an execuitve director and is in the process of acquiring office space near 127th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

The WHLDC is also still awaiting approval from the Attorney General to transfer its assests to a new non-profit called the Local Development Corporation.

"It's in the hands of the Attorney General," said Kovaleff.

The WHLDC is responsible for disbursing $76 million in cash and making sure Columbia delivers $30 million  in cash and in-kind benefits and services for the construction and operation 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.

As of last year, the oft-criticized group had received $3.55 million from Columbia but spent only $700,000, including $400,000 on consultants with ties to former Mayor David Dinkins. Both consultants left with six-figure paydays before any of their goals were accomplished.

Some board members questioned the usefulness of an ad-hoc committee, saying that the priorities for spending the Columbia money should come from CB 9's various committees focused on issues such as housing and education.

Board member Savona Bailey-McClain said the committee would be examining the goals for each committee in preparing specific proposals and urged each one to update its mission statement.

Morgan-Thomas also said the committees were swamped by their work with exisiting and upcoming issues in explaining the reasoning for this specialized committee.

"In looking at what's going to come to our door before long we should have a clear plan as to where the CBA money is needed," she added.