Public Purpose Fund Grants Fall Short

About RIOC’s Stingy, Broken Public Purpose Funds

Updated 2 years ago David Stone
About RIOC’s Stingy, Broken Public Purpose Funds

As I begin writing, I don’t know what the Common Council’s Public Purpose Fund Committee will recommend in grants before passing them on to RIOC. What I do know is that not a dime will go to our seniors. That alone should awaken RIOC to the fact that this system is not just stingy, but badly broken.

Is Stingy Part of RIOC’s Unwritten Mission?

Let’s start with RIOC’s stinginess because it affects everything that’s wrong with the process by which PPF grants are determined and distributed.

If RIOC were more generous, needy nonprofits would be looking forward to generous rewards for services given, and thriving would be more a matter of fact than of worry.

“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.” Source — RIOC. 

Reads nice, right? 

And the legislation making it possible passed, championed by our local elected officials and signed by the Governor, with generosity packed tightly inside an idea: return a small amount of the money  ($27 million in fiscal 2016) RIOC collects from ground leases and other Island resources to the community to improve conditions in a locally aware way. 

But RIOC fails to deliver anything near the good fortune promised by that legislation.


(Sorry about the all-caps, but that’s how the legislation is written.)

The math is simple. 

RIOC’s operating budget comes in at well over $20 million, meaning they can award in excess of $600,000 to nonprofits that help Roosevelt Island residents.

Instead, RIOC coughs up a measly $100,000 in a perfect year, sometimes less because if you don’t follow the rules and report according to guidelines throughout the year, you aren’t getting all the money, paid in arrears, you were promised.

Pause for an apology… 

Significant details on the above cannot be reported because RIOC has persistently been in violation of an important condition of the law: 

“On or before May 1, 2016, the corporation shall post a report on its website that shall list and describe the purpose of each grant issued between 2010 and 2015.  Such report shall also describe the resulting public benefit of each grant.”

When confronted by a resident about why the State agency has never done so, RIOC attorney Jaci Flug explained,  “You are correct that our current website does not include that section. It will be updated as the entire RIOC website will soon be redesigned and updated.”

Think of it like this — you’ve parked your car illegally on Main Street for eighteen months, but PSD shouldn’t ticket you because you’re going to get a new car at some future time. No explanation necessary... or offered.

Or, you might just arrive at the depressing conclusion that RIOC hasn’t bothered because they consider Public Purpose Funds a nuisance they’d rather not spend much time on. 

Thanksgiving at the Senior Center. In 2018, RIOC will not be in this picture.
Thanksgiving at the Senior Center. In 2018, RIOC will not be in this picture.

While a hundred grand may sound like a good bite of the apple, it’s not when you’re in an economic environment where you have little access to philanthropy or corporations that traditionally help nonprofits…

…and it’s only one-half of one percent of your budget.

More like spit in your eye, that skinny but round number comes off as the lowest they believe they can get away with.

And in the past year, RIOC was so slow to pay, one nonprofit, RIVAA, was forced to fall behind in rent, which is what their grant is meant to cover. 

That rent — adding insult to injury — is more than Hudson, RIVAA’s landlord, agreed to pitch in to this and future year’s Winter Wonderland, also subsidized by RIOC.

Hudson and RIOC appear to give, but not much, with one hand what they take away and more with the other.

RIOC does have a strain of generosity though, and it’s not limited to handouts for real estate developers.

In the year ending March 31st, 2016, the most recent we found available, eight RIOC employees earned more than $100,000 in salary, that is, before  benefits like health insurance and pensions.

Heading that list was then President/CEO Charlene Indelicato with a payout of just under $178,000. Her successor, Susan Rosenthal’s Vice President salary annualized at just under $152,000.

Neither is a whopping amount, and a lawyer with Rosenthal’s credentials could reasonably expect to earn much more in private practice. 

But in contrast with what RIOC is willing to squeeze out for nonprofits, eight individuals pulling down more than the same one-hundred grand given to support services is an unsettling fact.

Worse, as Board Member Margie Smith pointed out (to no avail) and as a nonprofit executive complained bitterly to me, RIOC’s committed to giving up $50,000 in income every year to help Hudson, one of the City’s most prosperous real estate companies, cover the costs of its Winter Wonderland, which unimpressively decorates a limited section of Main Street and for only a couple of months.

RIOC also kicks in all the electricity and labor for burying lines carrying it underground.

RIOC and Hudson, which collects tens of thousands in rent from nonprofits, brushed off local artists who offered and were capable of doing more with the Winter Wonderland concept for far less.

It may not be corrupt, but it’s certainly incompetent to splurge on a limited, passing display, when groups of capable community members go begging.

It’s also stingy and painfully shortsighted.

It may be too late for RIOC to correct the flaws in its PPF system or to put an end to its inadequacies, this year. Time is short for getting their 2018 budget numbers finished and passed up the Hudson to Albany.

But there’s plenty of time to consider the future and the good that can be done when RIOC shares the wealth and invests wisely in the very unique needs of Roosevelt Island.

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