Self-Serving Interests Discredit the Good in Public Purpose Grants

How To Make an Albatross Out of a Gift: Common Council Shows the Way

Updated 3 years ago Peter McCarthy
Albatross. Some fly
Albatross. Some fly
Photo credit: JJ Harrison, Creative Commons Sharealike 3.0 license

Minutes shared with RIOC as part of a protest over how Public Purpose Funds are being handled show the ugly side of competition for resources. Common Council members came to the meeting with personal axes to grind and were not restrained.

What Are PPF Grants?

The Roosevelt Island Operating Corp.'s guidelines make it clear: Public Purpose Funds should be allocated to benefit Roosevelt Island residents, enhancing their quality of life through education, artistic and cultural enrichment, improved health or a better environment.

The simple statement of intentions, whether by neglect or intention, is lost on the RIRA Common Council, according to minutes we obtained from their November 9th meeting.

Public Purpose Funds date back to 1989 when Manhattan Park, then finishing construction, made a deal with the state to redirect taxes on construction materials to nonprofit groups working to enhance community life.

RIOC annually asks the Common Council to recommend what organizations should receive funds and in what amounts. If the Common Council broadly represented Roosevelt Islanders, that should work, but it doesn't because the Council surrenders control to a core group of insiders with personal agendas, abandoning residents it was formed to represent.

In the last RIRA election, barely 10% of eligible residents voted, even though voting in the general election required passing their line up of booths twice. In spite of heavy promotion in the Common Council's public relations vehicle, the former Main Street WIRE, they able to field only enough candidates to offer competition in just two of seven housing contests and not in either executive office competition.

The resulting composition of the Common Council allows too much room for individuals joining for personal reasons, a fact apparent in the minutes where Public Purpose Funds were debated.

What the Minutes Show

Common Council member Dave Evans chaired a committee that reviewed applications and listened to two nights of live public presentations. It's a time-consuming task that was cramped by a very short period between presentations and recommendations.

Agree with their decisions or not, Evans's group of only three did an admirable job of sorting through a lot of material submitted in behalf of groups looking for funds to advance their efforts on Roosevelt Island.

The PPF Committee was faulted for a lack of detail in what they presented, but given the timeframe they had to work with, it's hard to imagine their being able to get much more.

But then, the usual suspects showed up with sharpened axes to grind.

Joyce Short was first out of the box with her "Concern that Carter Burden is not an Island organization. Carter Burden is not a home grown organization. They are like a vendor," she argued, according to the minutes.

Carter Burden manages the Senior Center at 546 Main Street.

Public Purpose Funds have never been restricted to "home grown" organizations, but that line of attack seemed to be coordinated with Short's fellow Maple Tree Group member, Sherie Helstien.

Helstien's group, the Roosevelt Island Seniors Association, was also "a vendor," before having their contract terminated under not yet explained circumstances. Carter Burden, a respected service provider with a fifty year track record of success, was asked to step in and has, by all accounts, greatly improved services to seniors.

But the machine was in motion. Facts weren't about to interfere. After Ellen Polivy and Frank Farance tried to bring reason into consideration, Helstien attacked.

"Carter Burden has an $8 million operating budget. Which organizations in the community have a $1 million operating budget? They can apply for money elsewhere where they can get the kind of funding that they are looking for. They are, in effect, taking money away from not just the Senior Association, I'm talking about all of our organizations," Helstien complained, trying to use Carter Burden's success against them.

She went nativist, dragging in other Island groups she claimed were losing out to Carter Burden. Those organizations will remain nameless as they were unlikely to have agree to be part of Helstien's tactics. Also in conflict with her statement was her group's publicly stated intention of appealing to other, off-island funding sources themselves.

Helstien, who as the Common Council's vice president also serves as an officer of RISA, should not have been allowed to participate in the debate, according to the Council's own rules, failed to mention that her own group earned a recommendation that was more than double Carter Burden's despite having little of no track record and a dubious claim to 501(3)(c) nonprofit status. 

Unsaid was the fact that, since being evicted from Senior Center management, RISA has positioned itself as in competition with Carter Burden.

Short rounded out the attack, "Seems that Carter Burden is well-endowed and it we divided up their money it could be allocated to be applied to other organizations on this list," completely abandoning the stated mission of Public Purpose Funds to serve the community, inventing new criteria to suit her purpose.

While the Short/Helstien attack on Carter Burden was the most strident, there were other contentious comments.

"I am concerned about Gallery RIVAA that they are in arrears on their rent," claimed Janet Falk, "but come back to the bank of RIOC for Public Purpose Funds. So those are my concerns: these organizations perennially come back for money as if it is their right to get funds."

There is no provision preventing Island groups from asking for annual help, just as others do to funding organizations like the United Way. Falk's complaint is made less valid by her failure to disclose that she previously approached RIVAA in an effort to become their paid representative and was turned down.

Summary

For the purpose of this editorial I've mostly avoided how badly Common Council president Jeff Escobar misused his authority to allow members with known conflicts of interest to attend and participate in the discussion, but it adds to the general sense that the Common Council cannot be trusted to manage the task of reviewing applicants for Public Purpose Funds.

Too much raw self-interest was allowed to contaminate the process and discredit the work contributed by the PPF committee.

If it isn't clear that the Common Council has been hijacked to serve the political/social interests of some members by now, rub your eyes again. The Common Council does not represent residents or the community. It represents itself.

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