Council Member Item Reform Easier Said Than Done

For years, Council members have cried foul at the discretionary funding process. They argued the funding was used as a reward by the Speaker, leaving those that disagree without adequate money for their district. 

“When Council members are afraid to vote their conscience or advocate for their constituents because they fear the funding to their district will be cut, the rules in the Council are not working,” said Councilman Brad Lander at City Hall on Monday.

With a new Speaker and a new Council, the 51-member body is ready for reform, but exactly how that will play out is still unclear.

On Monday, the Rules Committee, chaired by Lander, held the first of several hearings on rules reform. The meeting was open to the public, who could submit rules suggestions or comment on five suggestions made by multiple Council members, including Lander.

The hot topic was discretionary funding, or member items, which is used to pay for projects and programs in members' districts that would otherwise be left without a lifeline.

“If those discretionary funds were not there, there would be small groups that would not get funding,” said Council Member Jumaane Williams. “The Daily News calls it pork, but many of us call it a baseball field.”

The general sentiment of the members present on Monday was to keep the discretionary funding, but take the politics out of the process by pulling the power over the allocation of funds away from the Speaker. However, taking the politics out is much easier conveyed as a talking point than in practice.

“From our point of view, you cannot take politics out of government,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union. “It is an important part of how important objectives get accomplished.”

Dadey argued minimizing the politics was a better solution. To accomplish this aim, Citizens Union proposed equal distribution of member items, or the use of a needs-based formula to determine how much each member gets. Which approach to adopt is where the members remain divided.

On paper, equal distribution seems like the fairest method. But take that dollar amount off a spreadsheet and into districts with varying size, numbers of residents, and socio-economic make-up and the idea becomes less fair. Those concerns give rise to the desire for a formula that would take into account these disparate factors.

“It is going to be a difficult challenge coming up with a formula that is acceptable for so many different parts of the city,” said Gene Russianoff of NYPIRG, adding he believes it could be done with more discussion.

When questioned by Williams about a specific formula, Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said she did not have one to recommend, but suggested looking at a number of markers including population, average income, and district size.

Citizens Union also did not have a formula, but suggested using the following factors: food stamp recipients, reduced price lunch participants, Medicaid recipients, individuals under the poverty line, individuals under 18 and over 65, ratio of open space, availability of public transportation, number of new students, and facilities providing services in the district.

Councilman Mark Weprin argued that coming up with a needs-based formula was too complicated and unnecessary for such a small portion of the budget.

Discretionary funds consist of both capital and expense funds. In fiscal year 2012 expense funds totaled $150 million, and capital funds totaled $430 million, according to a May 2012 report from Citizens Union. On the expense side, only $17 million was not controlled by the speaker.

In its proposal, Citizens Union recommended that half of the expense funds be divided among the members and the other half by that undefined needs-based formula. In addition, they suggest that all of the capital funds be allocated based on “need.”

For the Council members, agreeing on reform was the easy part, but it seems implementation, as far as member items are concerned, may prove a bigger challenge.

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