The New York Community Trust (NYCT), allegedly brought in to straighten out RIOC‘s public purpose granting process, did what many thought impossible. They made things far worse. Some awards even appear vindictive, settling scores on the state’s hit list.
by David Stone
How NYCT Makes a Joke of Community Trust
The short version:
The Roosevelt Island public purpose funds provide grants to support various programs and initiatives on Roosevelt Island. The revenue comes from the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, which manages the island. Grant recipients include groups that provide educational, cultural, recreational, and social services programs on Roosevelt Island.
That’s gone on since deferred taxes for building Manhattan Park established a fund for helping nonprofits. Later on, in the mid 1990s, RIOC supplemented a depleted reserve with cash from its own budget.
To be clear, this was unique and generous but also increasingly stingy. After State Senator José Serrano sponsored legislation enabling RIOC to set aside up to 3% of its operating budget, a big win for Island activists, the state agency never got anywhere near 1%.
Compare their $150,000 cap on public purpose fund grants with the $1 million plus they give away unnecessarily to the MTA out of sheer incompetence every year.
A seriously screwed up process…
Over the past decade, an insufficiently managed collaboration of RIOC insiders and community representatives evolved the awards process into a political one. Favoritism, resentments, special deals and outright foolishness abounded.
And over the last several years, protests forced RIOC’s board to reconsider and revise grants after seeing weird results.
Finally, for 2022, secretive internal dealing led to appointing New York Community Trust as grants overseer. The primary operatives in this initiative were CFO John O’Reilly and an outsider, attorney Markus Sztejnberg. (Sztejnberg later joined RIOC’s legal team.)
It sounded good, but then, it became a nightmare for many. A key point apparently used to punish nonprofits who have criticized RIOC was an invention. A demand for new programs as a condition for receiving grants was never part of the PPF mission, but now, it appears to be a tool for slamming critics.
Nightmare Grants Crush Community Trust
Let’s take a small example.
The Wildlife Freedom Foundation operates three animal sanctuaries on the Island. Aiding mostly stray cats but also helping hurt opossums, geese and others, they do work that RIOC would have to perform otherwise.
For this, WFF charges RIOC nothing. It really is a matter of community trust, but it’s been eroded – by RIOC bullying.
After WFF executive director Rossana Ceruzzi led protests against a poorly thought out plan for converting Southpoint Park into a tourist attraction, RIOC swooped down. Chief Counsel Gretchen Robinson suddenly demanded that WFF pay $400 per month for using state land.
It was unprecedented. Multiple community groups use state property without paying rent, but Robinson demanded it with no opening for negotiations. CEO Shelton J. Haynes was assumedly aware as was CFO O’Reilly who earlier blunted protests, allowing the work to proceed in Southpoint.
What they could not do then – crushing WFF – because state assembly member Rebecca Seawright intervened, they can do now. NYCT slashed WFF’s grant from $10,000 to a potentially fatal $1,000. No reason given.
Damning another critic along with community trust…
Another victim of New York Community Trust’s axe is the Roosevelt Island Historical Society. RIHS, like WFF, does for Roosevelt Island what RIOC is too inept to accomplish. Staff greets visitors in a kiosk in the Tram Plaza. They offer gifts, water, advice and directions.
RIOC, with its bloated staff and budget, could not even manage wayfinding signs for visitors. After years of frustration, Hudson-Related stepped in with a series of wayfinding signs around the Island. But after four years, they’ve given RIOC one more chance to screw up: they haven’t updated the signs that get more out of date and inaccurate every day.
RIHS’s misdeed? Society president and local resident Judith Berdy is a persistent – and often funny – RIOC critic. Free speech under Cuomo/Hochul-inflected mismanagement is not respected. Media blackouts and evasions under freedom of information statutes proves this point.
As does New York Community Trust’s hammering RIHS with a drastic cut in grants. Although RIHS’s value to Roosevelt Island is far greater, the RIOC Team ratcheted their grants down to a super-stingy $11,000 in 2021.
For 2022, NYCT smacked them down to $5,000. No reason given, but ya know…
Finally, Mistreating Seniors. Again.
Six years ago, a crooked but politically connected Roosevelt Island Senior Association got evicted from senior center management after massive thefts were uncovered. Their top manager pled guilty to a single felony, in a compromise, when prosecutors whittled more than a dozen down to one.
Not only was RISA not contrite, they recommended the soon to be felon as manager for the Carter Burden Network which agreed to taking over on an emergency basis. They then inspired a campaign against CBN as an intruding outsider. Never mind that senior services and participation skyrocketed.
RISA never admitted the wrongdoing and, in fact, lied about it. Using a local media outlet as a beard, they described hundreds of thousands in thefts as a “minor accounting error,” all the while keeping up their campaign against CBN.
But of even greater interest here is that, according to court documents, RISA snagged $15,000 improperly from RIOC. It was never paid back.
Now, New York Community Trust wants to give the politically connected, RIOC-loving RISA $12,000 for a slender lineup of after-hours programming.
The Carter Burden Network, widely cited as developing a showpiece senior center operation? NYCT slammed them with a cut from $15,000 to $5,000.
Honestly, what do you think? Vindictiveness and score-settling pops right out as an explanation, and neither RIOC nor New York Community Trust is likely to offer any information nor discussion.
At least there’s some humor, if only of the dark kind. Roll back the tape to Governor Kathy Hochul’s promises of a better, more open New York while recalling how much worse its gotten since the dreaded Andrew Cuomo’s departure.
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