Piercing NYC Council’s Wall of Silence, or It’s The Budget that Matters

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The NYC 2008 budget was recently released ahead of schedule. Because of record increased tax revenues and cost savings based on “administrative adjustments”, NYC is flush with cash. In fact, NYC has a $4.4 billion surplus. This year’s budget may be the healthiest since the glory days of Mayor Lindsay.
Amazingly, we were not inundated with media reports speculating how the surplus is to be spent. We have not been bombarded with negotiation news, or rumors regarding favored programs to be rewarded.
What we were given is bait and switch distractions- Imus and a Council Speaker denying a community a mere street co-name.
During the contentious debates over Sonny Carson’s name, public attention was effectively taken away from negotiating for a fair share of the flush city budget.
Quinn’s so-called “strong (arm)” position against Carson’s name, the political process and the black community brought nationwide attention to the NYC Council. Yes, the council has the power to dismiss a community’s wishes. But what is Speaker Quinn hiding?
How can the council be so vociferously pro or con the Carson amendment yet maintain an established (although slightly amended) pattern of deafening silence with regard to its own expense budget member items?
How can any John or Jane Q. Public decide for him or herself if any council member’s vote on any bill (yea, nay or abstain) may be (c)overtly tainted by member-item funds dispensed by the speaker?
Does a council member represent his/ her constituency, or are they beholden to the largess of the Speaker?
God forbid the NYC Council is hiding what has been found on the state level: member-item fraud and mismanagement. Of more immediate concern is a citizen’s ability to access equitable distribution of member items across council districts.
According to Councilman Charles Barron, each council member is allotted both a capital and expense budget for their district. The capital budget varies from year to year and is based upon the requirements of individual projects. The expense budget has 3 components: seniors, youth and discretionary.
Reportedly each council member receives $108,000 for senior programs in their district. These funds come through the Dept. for the Aging (DFTA). Youth services are allocated $151,000, derived from the Dept. of Youth and Community Development (DYCD). Also each council member is allocated a discretionary expense budget (aka member items) with a base of $80,000. This discretionary expense budget can be as high as $300,000- 400,000 or more, depending on the council member.
Barron believes the system, which determines which council member receives how much, is inherently unfair. “The Speaker decides how much [discretionary member-item dollars] each council member gets. It is not based on need, but your relationship with the Speaker.”

Barron’s assertion, and numbers, was recently affirmed by Councilman Tony Avella (Queens) and the Gotham Gazette. Avella was the sole white to vote in favor of the Vann Amendment.
Councilman Avella states he and Barron are the two council members who consistently vote independently. Avella refuses “to sell my soul for a few thousand dollars for my district, and vote for a bad bill if in the end the entire city suffers.”
According to Avella, he consistently receives minimal member items for his district ever since he “voted against the property tax.” Avella states council members do not “feel free to vote what is right.” He continues: “It is very clear to those that are independent, those that vote their conscience get less money [for their district].”
Avella’s contention is reflected in the Gotham Gazette’s calculation of individually-sponsored member items for fiscal year 2008. Avella’s allocation is $67,607, compared to Weprin ($736,500) and Comrie ($710,857). Avella states these numbers are slightly inaccurate. However, he believes Quinn is being disingenuous when she touts the new format of this year’s Council Expense Budget as being transparent. Exact sponsorship of council member-items is hidden in allocations sponsored by multiple members. (These group sponsorships account for approximately 2/3 of the total council budget.) Avella believes, “If you follow the leadership blindly, you get more dollars for your district.”
The numbers are revealing.
Calculating the individual member items dollars the Speaker allocates by borough shows that the average member dollars per council person in Brooklyn is $139,649, less than half of Staten Island. Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx all received about $100,000 per council district more than Brooklyn. The explanation is simple and goes back to the council vote for speaker: the boroughs that supported Quinn for speaker are rewarded.
An absurd aside: Comrie, who received $710,857 for his district, is reported to claim his funding is based upon need. By Comrie’s logic, Mealy, who brought $59,000 to her district, and Eugene, who received $46,500, both represent central Brooklyn districts that do not have critical needs.
Another point of interest: the Brooklyn Delegation of the Black, Latin, and Asian Caucus did or did not bring in dollars to their respective districts based on a number of factors, including how they voted on Vann’s Carson amendment. Those that voted for the Carson Amendment, (Barron, Vann, Foster and Mealy), all received less than $140,000 for their districts. Those that voted against the amendment, or abstained, (except for Eugene) brought $140,000 or more back to their districts. Apparently, Eugene’s abstention did not help him.
Considering 2/3 of council member dollars in the 2008 Council Expense Budget are hidden in group sponsorships, the situation may be a lot worse than revealed by analysis of individually-sponsored member-items.
Responding to a question on how works in the council, Avella say “Council members are told how to vote [by the Speaker].” Referring to the Vann Amendment, Avella states, “The very fact that she is quoted as saying her position sends a message.” Avella says he did get a phone call from the Speaker’s office regarding the Vann Amendment. He admits he was not explicitly told how to vote, however he was given a reiteration of the Speaker’s position. According to Avella, “Anyone can read between the lines. This is regularly done [in order to get a desired vote].” Avella says other council members have told him off the record they are afraid to vote their conscience for fear of losing member dollars.
Allocation of member-item dollars is based upon several factors, including, borough delegations, key leadership positions, individual members, and the negotiation process. The final decisions, however, are made by the Speaker.
These are quotes from Speaker Quinn’s statement referring to Sonny Abubadika Carson prior to the vote regarding Councilman Vann’s amendment: “record is clear- he was a divisive individual,” “not an individual who sought to bring our city together,” “individual who in any shape or fashion has not lived up to the core values of the City of NY.”
Looking at the 2008 City Council Expense Budget, in which member items were inequitably distributed by Quinn, can any of these phrases apply to her?
On Tues. June 12, Speaker Quinn and Mayor Bloomberg reached a budget agreement. The full Council voted on the budget on Fri. June 15. The 2008 budget includes a surplus of $4.4 billion in a $59 billion budget. $2.3 billion is allocated to paydown of future expense and debt on 2009 and 2010. (Bloomberg will not be mayor in 2010.) Meanwhile, there are 9,000 less summer jobs for youth in 2008 than in 1999. A Police Athletic League program closed on June 25 in Councilwoman Mealy’s district.

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