RIOC’s Public Purpose Funds mess is a natural outgrowth of profound laziness, official indifference to fairness and clinging to personal agendas. These 12 good reasons are those seeking grants. The nonprofits work hard and even harder at presenting their appeals, but the RIOC/Common Council pairing fails at living up to their efforts.
By David Stone
About the Public Purpose Funds mess…
Giving away money for good causes should be the easiest thing in the world. And it would be here, if not for RIOC’s laziness and the Common Counsel’s raft of poisonous personal agendas. Reason blows out the window, and in the end, you get a clumsy mix, muddled and unfair.
Palming off responsibilities to unqualified amateurs without clear guidance or enough resources will always yield a ridiculous granting process. It’s built for failure.
Only on Roosevelt Island? Maybe. But we can learn and do better.
First some brief background…
Starting out, you couldn’t find a better idea for building community than public purpose funds. They’re almost too good to be true. So good, you’d think they were bullet proof.
But experience shows, even generosity is vulnerable under the influence of poor governance and greed.
Originally, public purpose money came from Manhattan Park, which put up cash in lieu of taxes as it was built in the late 1980s. RIOC handed grants out to nonprofits starting up in the new community. Eventually, the funds ran out, and generously. RIOC filled in from its own budget.
But take a moment for that to sink in. RIOC’s budget comes primarily from taxes levied on residents and collected invisibly via rent and other payments. That is, residents pay for public purpose funds distributed by RIOC, and how they are used or misused matters.
These days, imagining a generous RIOC, tuned in and supportive, is not easy, but those were the days.
Legislation now allows the state agency’s allocation of up to 3% of its operating budget for public purpose grants, but they’ve never came any nearer that than they have in hiring local leaders. In terms of the current budget, the cap is around a million dollars, but RIOC gives out only $150,000.
More than that gets paid to multiple RIOC execs in annual salaries as they take orders from remote Albany handlers.
Making it more democratic…
In the early 2000s, hoping to make granting more fair, RIOC handed off deciding distribution to the Common Council of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association, assuming elected representatives are better attuned to community needs.
Final responsibility remains with RIOC’s board, however, and they’re as passive with this they are with most things.
That is, the Common Council coughs up decisions, the board mumbles feigned interest and snoozes through an unanimous approval. Easy peasy, except the unfairness in the resulting public purpose funds mess is glaring.
Worse for 2021 than ever before, even if you thought it was impossible.
Whatever the truth of the Common Council’s community sensitivity ten years ago, it’s far from democratic today.
Seldom able to raise a quorum for meetings in recent years, plagued by thefts and failing to accept responsibility for the near disastrous 2019 Cherry Blossom Festival, the Council is mainly comprised of rooted political operatives with local agendas and empty chairs.
The Public Purpose Funds mess, one vote at a time…
For simplicity’s sake, let’s breakdown the 2021 recommendations, one by one. These come from a Common Council committee and are subject to approval by the full Council.
1. New York Foundation for the Arts- Piazzolla-100
A giant blunder straight out of the gate sets the tone.
First of all, as we reported earlier, there is no such organization. Because the Council strangely blends a thriving arts organization with a touring performance group, it shows a lack of insight into the real world. In fact, NYFA thrives on dozens of corporate and foundation grants and has no business taking limited funds away from local nonprofits.
But while neither piece of this mismatch is actually a community group, NYFA’s at least nonprofit. Piazzolla-100 is a touring tango company with no legitimate claim to Roosevelt Island resources. Nor do they claim nonprofit status anywhere on their website.
The Common Council PPF committee voted $11,000 for them anyway. They should get nothing because they are not qualified according to standards set by RIOC and simple decency.
2. Roosevelt Island Disabled Association (RIDA)
Given RIDA’s over the top work in helping the community, its outreach with other nonprofits, $18,000 seems like too little. In the absence of RIOC’s derelict leadership in the pandemic crisis, RIDA organized a free food pantry that helps over 150 families, each week. In doing so, they consolidated support from both local and nearby support groups.
RIDA asked for $25,000, and RIOC should give it to them. Never has good money been better spent.
3. Roosevelt Island Senior Association (RISA)
In 2016, the Department for the Aging kicked this group out of the Senior Center because whistleblowers led them to massive thefts by their senior staff. Past and current board members were implicated, if not charged.
Since, RISA representatives repeatedly lied about what happened, promoted false narratives and worked to undermine their successors.
Refusing accountability disqualifies them. RISA never recanted their false claims, apologized to the community nor paid back a dime.
“RISA is back,” the Common Council PPF committee sings, offering them a gag-worthy $16,000, mostly for activities seldom available.
For their efforts, RISA deserves nothing for public purpose funds.
4. Carter Burden Network, Inc. (CBN)
Here’s where the corrupt personal agendas kick in, slamming CBN with a funding cut of more than 35%.
Because CBN came here in an emergency and saved the Senior Center after RISA damn near destroyed it with malfeasance and neglect. And members of the Common Council never forgave them for doing the right thing. The hell with forsaken seniors when it’s our friends doing the dirty deeds.
Forget about the stealing and mismanagement, the lying, the absence of accountability. After all, RISA’s local, and CBN isn’t.
CBN, for its service to seniors and for bringing integrity to a place where there was little, deserves every dime of the $31,000 requested.
5. Main Street Theater Dance Alliance (MST&DA)
Rarely do community groups of any kind spread the wealth of service as far and wide as MSTDA. While mainly teaching theatre arts, they also add original programing that draws attention nationally.
There’s no downside with MSTDA, and to their credit, they are grateful for whatever the Common Council and RIOC awards them. You won’t hear a complaint, but the Common Council, without explanation, wants to slash funding from $25,667 to $16,000.
To pay for tango lessons?
No logic or even intellect here. The Common Council PPF committee simply kicks the community in the ass.
It’s an embarrassment.
6. Open Spaces – iDig2Learn
iDig2Learn has a history of constructive environmental awareness. Their track record is flawless, but giving their limited efforts $12,000 in support while other groups doing much more get less is simply stupid.
Calling it unfair understates the bad judgement throughout the public purpose funds mess.
7. Island Kids (IK)
Personal agendas are at play again here. While giving Island Kids an increase to $10K, the Common Council PPF committee attacks them.
“More outreach is needed to improve the diversity, economically and racially, of the families served,” the committee notes in derogatory fashion.” Without evidence, they add, “African Americans are typically, and historically, underserved.”
We know whose personal agenda pushed that one, and we say, prove it or remove it.
Accusing Island Kids of racism while not challenging other groups with similar demographics is another disgrace.
8. R.I. Visual Arts Association (RIVAA)
We agree that it’s preposterous forcing RIVAA to come begging for public purpose money that they must, then, give back to RIOC, but it’s really worse.
Gallery RIVAA occupies space abandoned by Bigelow Pharmacy, twenty years ago. The place was a mess and would be another hole in the notorious Shops On Main debacle, had RIVAA not pitched in and saved it.
Recognizing their sweat equity — as well as reality — RIOC allowed them use of the space for free. Until RIOC’s board turned Main Street over to Hudson Companies, which promised to “shock and awe” with commercial successes.
That failed, but for ten years, they’ve claimed $3K per month from this nonprofit. In exchange for nothing.
The Common Council lacks resources for correcting this grievous error. The solution is removing Gallery RIVAA from the Hudson Deal and reaching a fair leasing agreement. A real estate giant has no business demanding rent from a tiny nonprofit.
9. PS/IS 217 Parents Teachers Association (PTA)
While supporting kids in school is admirable, the Common Council PPF committee’s recommendation is badly flawed because of earlier RIOC blunders.
As at least one member of the PPF committee knows, the PTA already gets substantial RIOC funding far greater than any other applicant gets here.
In 2018 or before, then chief counsel Jaci Flug gave the PTA, without competition or public rationale, all rights to the Saturday Farmers Market. They collect rental payments from everyone vending in the space, and they do nothing except buy liability insurance.
Complicating the matter, although their contract says otherwise, RIOC provides security services, clean up and so forth.
In fairness to others never considered for this questionable, unilateral privilege, the PTA should not get additional income from public purpose funds. The giveaway of resources as a private perk already grants them more than any other group.
10. Roosevelt Island Historical Society (RIHS)
Operating the Tram Plaza kiosk and relentlessly pushing RIOC into doing the right thing on numerous projects, RIHS is an irreplaceable core resource for Roosevelt Island. Only RIDA does as much with limited resources.
But a painful highlight of the public purpose funds mess is a recommendation slashing their grant nearly in half, from $18,333 to $11,000.
In brutal fashion, the Common Council PPF committee suggests they get no more than tango lessons given by a profitable touring company.
It’s a brutal hatchet job on community values and resources, but it’s consistent with this miserable agglomeration of bad judgment and personal agendas.
11. Wildlife Freedom Foundation (WFF)
WFF gets the full $10K they ask for, but it’s not enough. This longtime Island group saves RIOC the costs of animal welfare, a municipal obligation. RIOC ought to pay more than this just for the service, but they don’t.
In future years, while we hope the Common Council no longer plays this role, we also hope WFF requests much more and gets it.
12. Life Frames
For the seasonal operation of the small garden alongside the new NYPL, the deep thinkers on the Common Council PPF committee want Life Frames, a non-resident nonprofit with main offices in San Francisco, to get more money than 8 Roosevelt Island based nonprofits. Year round, broadly based operations like CBN, Island Kids, RIVAA and the Historical Society get less.
If you haven’t already concluded that the 2021 public purpose funds mess signals a flop greater than any before it, this should do it.
Conclusion: The Public Purpose Fund Mess in Context
The public purpose funds mess is best illustrated, not by the inequities, but by its broader failures.
While considering the gross unfairness, ask yourself what’s missing and get that perspective.
Nonprofit groups lacking the ability for developing elaborate presentations and those simply ignored by RIOC and the Common Council tell a story.
- Open Doors, the creative group of Coler Hospital residents, gets nothing. And not just that, the Common Council refuses even recognizing them as residents.
- Also caste aside as nonresidents, several Cornell Tech student groups volunteer year round, offering free help to Roosevelt Islanders. (Full disclosure: One team provided The Roosevelt Island Daily with valuable start up assistance. For free.)
- The Roosevelt Island Parents Network has, for years, aided families by organizing resources and group activities. They are said to be the largest group here, but they get nothing.
- Last but not least, Girl Scout troops give Roosevelt Island inspiration extending far beyond cookies, but they get nothing in return from RIOC.
We could go on, but you get the picture.
See the Common Council PPF committee’s full list of recommendations. (Not recommended on a full stomach.)