Lack of discretionary funding leaves southeast Queens in the cold

By Prem Calvin Prashad

Queens’ reputation as the forgotten borough never seemed more pertinent until the weekend before last, as we dug out of record snowfall and waited well into the work week for the plowing of tertiary streets. While the mayor toured Ridgewood and Sunnyside, offering a mea culpa, members of the Queens delegation wrote op-eds and held press conferences, bringing attention to the situation. Despite loud complaints from at least two elected officials in southeast Queens, many residents felt their anger was not heard at City Hall.

It’s a familiar scenario for the communities that live in Council District 28, which encompasses parts of Richmond Hill and Ozone Park, perhaps illustrated at a town hall held by the mayor’s office on Liberty Avenue a year ago. Frustrated residents who had come to hear about new initiatives such as IDNYC instead began to speak on transit, homelessness and safety issues plaguing the community. For many, it was the first time they had been able to express their views to a public official.

Much has been written on the legal woes of Jamaica’s politicians, particularly when dealing with discretionary funding. In addition to alleged mishandling of campaign funds, Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica) of CD28 has been under indictment for allegedly pocketing part of a discretionary grant from the state. In light of these allegations, the City Council stripped Wills of the right to allocate discretionary funding to groups in his district in 2014, sending that obligation to the Speaker’s office and the Queens delegation.

Discretionary funding, or as the layperson may know it, “pork,” is allotted annually to council members that make decisions on which groups in the district to support. This allocation is available publicly on the Council website. The current Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, overhauled the controversial process, after her predecessor was accused of punishing dissenting council members by reducing their discretionary funding. To date, 28 councilmembers have introduced participatory budgeting, a process that allows residents more say in how discretionary funding is spent.

As we are not privy to the decision-making process, it would be irresponsible to make specific critiques of the current allocation of funds for CD28. Those tasked with this have the unenviable role of determining the best services for a community they do not directly represent. In fact, many organizations have the citywide scope and experience to deliver excellent services in communities where they are not located.

Yet, the continuation of this status quo is not acceptable. Of the 75 awards totaling $1,293,794 doled out in Council District 28 in fiscal year 2016, many went to large organizations outside the district that promised to provide a specific service or program in the district. While this work is certainly valuable, it would appear, based on provided addresses, that none of the recipient groups were in Richmond Hill or South Ozone Park. In addition, despite the heavily South Asian and Indo-Caribbean population in the district, just three recipient organizations make discreet reference to South Asian or Hindu affiliations. The neighborhood’s Sikh community appears to be largely left out.

Councilmember Eric Ulrich (R-Howard Beach) in neighboring Council District 32 allocated funds for groups in Richmond Hill and Ozone Park, including a few located beyond the district borders. His office represented a majority of the twenty-nine grants specifically designated for groups based in the neighborhood.

“Many quality organizations depend on discretionary funding to provide vital programs, like mentoring and tutoring,” noted Richard David, a member of Community Board 9 and former vice president at the New York Economic Development Corporation. “When your council member is the only one who has been unable to do so, over multiple years, it hurts the organizations and the people they serve, especially communities of color,” he continued.

While the district waits for a resolution to Wills’ legal woes, community groups should apply for discretionary funding and increase efforts to be noticed by the other members of the Queens delegation. Groups can apply for fiscal year 2017 (July 1, 2016-June 30, 2017) discretionary funding at council.nyc.gov/html/budget/application.shtml.

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