Rite of autumn: Community boards play budget lottery

It took nearly two decades for a Bronx community board to secure funds to open Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club. Photo courtesy of Vincent Benic Architect; (c) Ines Leong of Archphoto

The red-brick 46th Precinct in Fordham Heights, built during the Great Depression, is now bursting to the seams with some 400 employees. Calling the building “old, dilapidated, archaic,” Bronx Community Board 5 (CB5) has asked the New York City Police Department to set aside funds for a new facility in the department’s fiscal year 2013 budget. This is one of 25 infrastructure requests CB5 will be delivering to city agencies for the coming year, part of an annual fall ritual in which the city’s 59 community boards each deliver a “statement of needs” outlining local spending priorities.

The odds weigh heavily against CB5. “NYPD’s funding constraints, project capacity and Department priorities rule out including this project at this time,” read the agency’s message of rejection for the same request last year. In fact, CB5 has asked for a new precinct facility every year since 2001, without success.

Such denials are not unusual. In the last fiscal year, according to the city’s Office of Management and Budget, the NYPD honored 24 percent of infrastructure requests and only 3 percent of other requests from community boards. Last year the Department of Parks and Recreation received 472 capital requests, the most of any city agency, and approved 28 percent. The Department of Education received 98 capital requests, and okayed 31 percent. Community boards handed the Department of Transportation 445 requests only to see 18 percent approved. (None of the agencies responded to our email and calls requesting comment.)

The city charter directs community boards to submit funding requests in order to inform agencies’ budget estimates before they are submitted to the mayor. Yet the city is required only to report back to the community boards to explain why each request was rejected or accepted. A common message of rejection is the curt and vague “Due to fiscal constraints, the availability of funds is uncertain.”

Dorothy Turano, district manager for Brooklyn Community Board 18 in Flatlands, Mill Basin and Canarsie, said she understands that the city’s financial situation makes accommodating community board requests difficult, but adds that the generic responses “make you feel like they never even looked at it.” The community boards, she said, “work very hard every year on the requests. But often it feels like an exercise in futility.” Of her Community Board’s 39 capital budget requests – the maximum number permitted – all but one call for the city Department of Transportation to reconstruct local streets. DOT responded in 14 of the instances that funds were unavailable. In another 18 it stated that the sites needed to be investigated. Another four requests resulted in a request to “contact the Borough Commissioner’s office.” And two responses promised that funds were budgeted for future years. CB18 had requested virtually all of the items previously.

Some community board budget requests do eventually come through. In about 2007, the Parks Department approved funds for the reconstruction of a playground in Bronx CB5. “It took me ten years,” said Kathryn Speller, chair of the CB5 Parks Committee. “but that’s the process.” At an October meeting, Speller submitted a new request, this one for the reconstruction of run-down Echo Park. “I will probably be dead and gone when it gets done,” said Speller. “But you have to understand it’s not something that can happen right away.”

So why bother? “The community board is your medium to the city government,” said Speller, who is retired but still works as a part-time secretary at the human service organization Bronxworks. “You may not like the process, but this is the process.”

Many requests are modest, such as new stoplights and park improvements, but the idea behind all of them is the same: these are the projects local residents want most from city government. Typically community board committees propose the items, which are then voted up or down by an entire community board.

Mickey Josephs, assistant director of the Community Board Unit at the New York City Office of Management and Budget (OMB), said that while budget constraints are often the reason behind a denial, other factors come into play, including space constraints, zoning restrictions and building requirements. Moreover, not every community board is created equal. “There are 59 levels of capacity,” said Josephs. “Some of them are very capable but others require more hand-holding.”

Some community board requests are part of larger strategies to secure government funding for ambitious projects. Nearly two decades ago, CB5’s then-district manager helped initiate a request for funds to turn an abandoned building owned by the New York City Housing Authority into a community center. Last May, the site finally reopened as the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club, thanks to funds from private donors and local politicians as well as funds budgeted by the Housing Authority. It helped that the district manager was Adolfo Carrion, who later rose to become Bronx Borough President and then an official at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Community boards also hedge their bets by simultaneously asking elected officials to spend their own funds on the requested items. This year CB5 asked for security cameras on Burnside Avenue, the site of a recent shooting, even though City Councilmember Fernando Cabrera had already pledged to provide funding for the cameras. Despite Cabrera’s promise, CB 5’s chairman, Dr. Bola Omotosho, said it was crucial that the cameras stay on the request list to the Police Department this year. “The security cameras are still on so that Cabrera can identify it as this is what the community needs,” Dr. Omotosho said. “The community budget process is continuous. You cannot measure your success until it’s actually done.”

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