David Stone
Volunteers from the Disabled Association, the Historical Society and the Senior Center, all beneficiaries of RIOC's largesse, served free Thanksgiving dinners to all who asked in 2018.
Volunteers from the Disabled Association, the Historical Society and the Senior Center, all beneficiaries of RIOC's largesse, served free Thanksgiving dinners to all who asked in 2018.
File Photo

The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation oversees a uniquely generous giveaway aimed squarely at sponsoring nonprofits contributing socially to the community. But an improved process has not yet lifted itself fully out of past years' controversy.

Since setting up shop at RIOC, CFO John O'Reilly has sought to remedy short comings in the public purpose process that left it lagging eighteen months behind in payments and out of sync with the agency's budget. Nonprofits earning awards are now paid up front, not after performing services, as if collecting a fee, which created a severe drag on some budgets while RIOC held onto the money.

Some, if not all, of the nonprofits benefiting from public purpose grants depend vitally on them. Others, funded as well from other sources, use the funds to expand services to needful community niches. 

Overall, there's no question that money's distributed out of RIOC's annual budget play an important, positive role, enriching a uniquely situated community.

About the community and beyond: Roosevelt Island News

Nagging Controversies

"This way of doing interviews for RIOC PP Funds is useless," Roosevelt Island Historical Society president Judith Berdy protested when the schedules were released.

"Year after year, we all present at the Chapel with great Power Point Presentations," but theses presentations fail to fully explain programs and their values in the community.

Berdy's concerned - as is The Daily - that the committee reviewing grant requests is not sufficiently informed to make the critical judgments needed.

But she offered a solution: "It is time that the committee members visit the different groups and actually see what activities and programs they actually operate."

As we reported last year, the Public Purpose Fund Committee, one assigned by the Common Council, has little or no contact or familiarity with most of the organizations and their contributions to resident well-being.

Our Other Objections

The Daily has objected to the basics of how RIOC assigns funding decisions.

RIOC's longest serving board member and a one-time Common Council president, David Kraut argued, last year, that outsourcing much of the funding decision-making to the Council made sense because, when initiated, it replaced a flawed internal process in which a single person made decisions.

Bringing in the Council, an elected group comprised of residents, created fairer community oversight.

But that was then, and this is now. 

The Common Council deteriorated dramatically in recent years. So few volunteer to serve that only a single housing complex fields enough candidates for competitive elections. Some buildings, pointedly 546 Main, the traditional senior building, had not a single candidate and, consequently, no representation at all. Most monthly meetings in 2019 were unable to conduct official business because a quorum failed to show up.

And in spite of years of criticism, the Council has not added representatives from The House, Cornell Tech's resident building, or Coler Hospital, populated mainly by longterm residents who otherwise participate in the community.

The Common Council, in short, is not nearly representative enough of the community to earn this vital role.

Berdy shared another nagging concern.

"We have been pitting groups serving 100 persons a day versus a smaller group that seasonally serves persons," she said. "A more fair and open process must be developed."

Adding to unresolved issues, this year's applicants include a curious entry: The New York Foundation for the Arts, a well-established organization that itself offers grants, not services, and has no established Roosevelt Island presence.

Interested in attending the interviews? They take place in the Good Shepherd Community Center, 543 Main Street, on Tuesday, February 11th, and Wednesday, February 12th. RIOC posts the schedule here.

Reporting: David Stone