Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A closer look at the Borough President's budget, his marquee Coney project, and the off-books funding via the mayor's office

City Council Member and Comptroller candidate David Yassky is on to something with his It's Your Money NYC web site showing recent City Council earmarks. We need a lot more transparency, and it should go beyond the City Council.

After all, do we know what Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz does with his operating budget? Sort of, but it takes a little digging.

Do we know what Markowitz does with his discretionary budget? Not quite.

Do we know what Markowitz does with his capital budget, by far the greatest pot of money he controls?

People might be surprised to learn that some $24.6 million, more than a third of the total this year, is directed to the $64 million amphitheater planned for Asser Levy Park in Coney Island, home of one of the two summer concert series Markowitz has long sponsored. (It's been reported that Markowitz wants to spend $54 million from his office on the project, but I hadn't seen the context. Not everyone in Coney is happy with the idea of amplified music near religious institutions.)

Details needed

Remember, when Markowitz met with bloggers on April 23, he lamented the pressures on his budget but couldn't immediately provide details.

I later that day got some overall numbers. His staff pointed me to the city budget office (right; click on graphics to enlarge), which shows that the agency budget has indeed gone down dramatically.

I was told that, for FY 09, the budget is $4,729,484 for personnel and $914,826 for other spending, including $302,000 in discretionary funds. Also, the BP's office, was initially allocated $88.7 million in capital funding, but after cuts, the estimate is $70.96 million.

(Click on graphics to enlarge)

But what's next?

A city official the next day pointed me to p. 168 of the Departmental Estimate, Office of Management and Budget (PDF), Markowitz's office stands to lose a significant number of staffers, 24 of 75, in the proposed mayoral budget, as more than $1.4 million will be cut from his $4.4 million personnel budget.

Which staffers will go?

But which ones would be cut? Would it be any of the three chauffeur-attendants, important to moving Markowitz to the many promotional/ceremonial events he attends?

Or would it be any of the three people in the planning office, crucial to the nuts-and-bolts land use advice the BP's office is supposed to provide (and, according to Markowitz, are available to help beleaguered Community Boards)?

Or would it be some of the 20 community coordinators, nine community liaison workers, or 12 senior community liaison staff?

Markowitz spokesman Mark Zustovich several days later told me it's too soon to tell: "Our office is reviewing the budget and no determinations have been made, or timetable established, in respect to staffing."

Discretionary funding

Also, page 169 of the PDF shows that the $298,662 "special expense" line would be cut almost completely.

Zustovich said that was the BP's discretionary budget, which itself was cut dramatically from the previous fiscal year.

What was it used for? He said no information was available, as it will be tabulated at the end of the fiscal year (after June 30).

Overall trend: way down

The mayor's proposed Executive Budget (p. 9 of this PDF) shows a dramatic dropoff in funding for the Brooklyn Borough President's office, as well as for the other borough presidents.

Markowitz has publicly lamented the decline in support, telling the Brooklyn Paper that the mayoral budget doesn't show "respect," and it sure seems that he has a grievance.

There should be a public discussion of the proper funding levels for the offices of the Borough Presidents.

Back-door support

Meanwhile, as the New York Post reported last October, since 2003, the Bloomberg administration has provided at least $2.7 million in taxpayer funds to three nonprofit groups Markowitz controls, including Best of Brooklyn and the organizations that run his summer concert series. Forest City Ratner and others connected to Atlantic Yards also gave between $680,000 and $1,075,000 to Markowitz's nonprofits.

The Brooklyn Paper further reported that FCR and affiliated companies gave $200,000 to the Martin Luther King Jr. Concert series, and Barclays gave $60,000.

So, this is a way of funding certain targeted priorities of the Borough President's office. Some of those programs may be very welcome. But the back-door funding means even less oversight.

The capital budget

So, what does Markowitz do with his $71 million capital budget? As noted in a January profile by City Hall News, there's little guiding philosophy:
If he had an opponent, this might be a point of contention, along with the kinds of things which have received support from his discretionary budget over the years. Though Markowitz has a knack for grand thinking—Brooklyn as an international tourist destination? Astroland retooled for the 21st century?—his capital expenditures have been decidedly small-bore. Unlike Adolfo CarriĆ³n in the Bronx, who directed much of his capital money toward creating affordable housing, Markowitz has spent less than $9.5 million over seven years on this construction, lacking any identifiable emphasis toward this or anything else for his capital investments. In disbursements rarely higher than $1 million and generally much less, Markowitz has spread the money around to things like adding street planters and buying new equipment for community centers. To his critics, this is evidence of an inability and unwillingness to flex the full power of the office, though to defenders like Council Member Lew Fidler (D-Brooklyn), the hundreds of thousands of dollars the borough president has been pouring in to renovating school playgrounds in recent years is “not a small thing if it’s your playground.”

Well, maybe not so small-bore. Markowitz in February 2007 unveiled a $35 million plan for a new Coney amphitheater, as the Brooklyn Paper reported. By November 2008, it was a $64 million project, as the Brooklyn Paper reported. In January of this year, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Markowitz would contribute $54 million from his capital budget, and $10 million would come from the Mayor’s Office via Council Member Recchia.

That $54 million obviously isn't being disbursed in one year, since this year's budget, as the chart at right (supplied by the BP's office in response to my request) shows some $24.6 million. It also shows$10.75 million for the refurbishment of the Loews Kings Theater in Flatbush.

The rest of the numbers are somewhat opaque. There's apparently funding for playgrounds at schools and fixing libraries. There's little apparently directed at affordable housing, despite Markowitz's rhetoric about the importance of affordable housing at Atlantic Yards.

More info needed

Also notable is that I had to ask for the list--it's not online--and it took a couple of weeks, and that it came with no supporting explanations.

Such information should be accessible to anybody, right? Perhaps the next Comptroller, whether it be Yassky or a rival, will make sure there's more transparency. The issue should be part of the current campaign.

And maybe Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who's inundating New Yorkers with campaign mailings, can see fit to supply us with information citizens deserve, rather than advertisements for himself.

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