More Than Most of Us Knew

Mea Culpa: What I Got Wrong About Public Purpose Funds

Updated 32 weeks ago David Stone
Life Frames learning garden grows on space provided by Public Purpose Funds.
Life Frames learning garden grows on space provided by Public Purpose Funds.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

I wasn't alone but certainly added my voice in complaining that RIOC wasn't spending nearly enough of its legal allowance in Public Purpose Fund Grants. Turns out I was wrong.

State law gives RIOC permission to allocate up to 3% of its annual operating budget "to benefit Roosevelt Island residents, enhancing their quality of life through education, artistic and cultural enrichment, improved health, or a better environment."

It's pretty broad, broad enough to meet a good number of easy to identify needs.

One thing that makes PPF grants special is RIOC's openness to the Roosevelt Island Residents Association evaluating applicants and making recommendations, assuming RIRA's entanglement in the community helps guide the money in a neighborly direction.

It gives residents a hand in how public money is spent...

...and that's where I got lost. I assumed that what RIRA evaluated and the awards that flowed from it were the public purpose funds and, at far less than 3% of RIOC's budget, damn little.

Even RIRA's PPF Committee, charged with reviewing applications and making recommendations for the Common Council, chided RIOC, suggesting they nudge allocations higher, closer to the 3% ceiling.

Then, a funny thing happened on the way to something else...

Scanning RIOC's fiscal 2019 budget proposal, I noticed something in the narrative for Extraordinary Expenses:

For grant and community support, the Proposed Budget FY 2019‐20 includes an extraordinary expense of $763,715, a decrease of $34,170 over the Approved Budget FY 2018‐19 amount of $797,885. This is mainly due to the elimination of public purpose grants to the Youth Center and the addition of cleaning and landscaping services for the community spaces and parks, respectively.

The Youth Center had never been part of RIRA's review and recommendations.

Off went an email to RIOC President Susan Rosenthal.

"Can you give me a breakdown on what items are included in the budget under the PPF section?"

Rosenthal volunteered her newest Vice President and CFO, John O'Reilly, as designated explainer.

We met late yesterday afternoon, and I learned that, unlike what most of us understood, RIOC's pushed its Public Purpose contributions close to the legal ceiling.

Because the bulk of it was outside the RIRA process, we missed it. 

O'Reilly, who is just learning the ins and outs of PPF allocations, gave me a quick rundown.

I was surprised to learn that accommodations made to give the Girl Scouts camping space in Lighthouse Park were made possible by accounting under the public purpose allowance.

Similarly, RIOC allocates the costs for janitorial and other maintenance at the Cultural Center to PPF, lessening what it needs to charge users.

And RIOC's got a thing for funding gardens, those for iDig2Learn and Learning Library gardens situated near the Youth Center and, significantly, the land on which the Roosevelt Island Garden Club maintains the Community Garden north of Manhattan Park - all accounted for out of the PPF budget.

Good Shepherd Community Center users, Community Board 8 and RIRA itself, get free space for public meetings, all costs charged to Public Purpose Funds.

Not only was the information O'Reilly shared enlightening, it taught me something else.

As with other considerable free benefits, like our boundlessly helpful Red Buses, RIOC doesn't always take enough credit for its contributions... and some of us, me included, take too much of it for granted.


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