New York City

Dissenting City Council members’ projects were funded after all

City & State originally reported that members who voted against the budget were stripped of some funding for pet projects. Turns out they were just stripped of credit.

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit

New information from the New York City Council Speaker’s office shows that contrary to City & State's original reporting, the six members who voted against the recently passed city budget weren't entirely shut out of a $41.6 million pot of extra discretionary funds doled out by the speaker. They were just stripped of the honor of having their name appear next to some of the pet projects – like education and health nonprofits – that they supported.

The move to withhold that credit to the six members was widely seen as retaliation for their votes against the budget, but it wasn’t as bad as it initially appeared because several of their projects still received funding. “Of course my office would love the same credit our colleagues got for advocating for these vital programs,” Council Member Tiffany Cabán, one of the members who voted against the budget, told The New York Times. “But what is most important is that we secure the funds and prevent any reduction in services.”

Some of the six council members expressed frustration that their names had been removed from organizations they supported and that were funded in the $41.6 million “Speaker’s Initiative to Address Citywide Needs,” saying that it led them to believe their organizations hadn’t been funded. “It was a punishment, in the sense that you removed our names and didn’t want to give us credit for the programs we got funded,” Council Member Charles Barron, who also voted against the budget, told City & State on Thursday.

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams denied that pulling credit for the six members from organizations they supported was punitive or retaliatory in any way. “It is not a punishment to your community to not have your name attached to an additional allocation of funding that you voted against,” Adams said at a press conference on Thursday. “It is simply a distinguishing indication of your vote against the entire budget that includes this allocation.”

A wide array of nonprofits and community organizations around the city can apply for funding from this $41.6 million pot, detailing how the funding will support different aspects of their work, like homeless drop-in centers or free after-school music education. Those organizations then appeal to City Council members to lend their support for those projects, and the members can choose to do so, including the projects on a list of priorities they send to the speaker. The Schedule C budget document that details where this particular pot of discretionary funding goes doesn’t list any of the six members that voted against the budget as sponsors of organizations that received funding. 

But information provided by the speaker's office to City & State late Wednesday afternoon shows that the six members who voted against the budget – Cabán, Barron, Sandy Nurse, Alexa Avilés, Chi Ossé, and Kristin Richardson Jordan – received funding for at least a couple of the projects they sponsored out of the speaker's initiative. A list of organizations supported by the six members and provided by the speaker's office includes several organizations that each member received funding for. Three of the members (or their spokespeople) confirmed that those were in fact projects they sponsored, including Barron, Cabán and Ossé. Richardson Jordan, Avilés and Nurse did not respond to requests for comment to confirm which projects they supported.

There are some caveats to that list of projects. Some of the organizations overlapped with what other members or caucuses supported and received funding for. For example, the speaker's office cited the Campaign Against Hunger – something Barron and Ossé both proposed to support – receiving $225,000 out of the speaker's initiative. But several others were credited as sponsors of that proposal in the budget document, including Council Members Mercedes Narcisse and Crystal Hudson. And as City & State first reported, the six members who voted against the budget are members of caucuses credited with sponsoring some of these organizations too. The Brooklyn Community Pride Center, for example, is credited in the budget document as being sponsored by the LGBT Caucus, but it was also included on the list of priorities that Ossé had for the speaker.

City & State analyzed the available information on the speaker’s initiative funding – the Schedule C document posted online on Monday and the additional information provided by the speaker’s office later in the week – and found that on average, organizations sponsored by members who voted against the budget received less money in allocations than organizations sponsored by members who voted for the budget. That finding held whether we counted only organizations sponsored by a single member or included organizations that were sponsored by multiple members. Using the first calculation, the average allocation to organizations sponsored by a single member who voted “yes” on the budget was $210,344, compared to the $105,000 for members who voted “no.” Using the latter calculation, the average allocation to organizations sponsored by members who voted “yes” on the budget was $426,856, compared to an average of $246,667 for members who voted “no.”

Those averages don’t tell the whole story though. There were some exceptions, including examples of individual members who voted against the budget receiving more than individual members who voted for the budget. Organizations sponsored by Barron, for example, received a total of $105,000 when counting only organizations sponsored by a single member. That’s higher than Council Member Gale Brewer, who was the sole sponsor of only one organization that received funding ($100,000) or Council Member Shahana Hanif, who was also the sole sponsor of only one organization that received funding ($25,000.) Those same exceptions also existed when counting organizations that were sponsored by multiple members.

Under both calculations, every member who voted against the budget still received less in total for organizations they supported than the average allocation to organizations sponsored by members who voted for the budget.

The speaker’s office pushed back on the idea that clear wins and losses can be derived from the funding in the speaker’s initiative. “Funding from the Speaker’s list isn’t a game with a scorecard for members – it’s about filling the gaps for organizations and projects that do critical work across our city,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “Drawing broad political conclusions using certain math averages that are missing key variables and entirely focused on members is reductive and misses the point. There are many factors to how programs on the Speaker’s list of funding are selected, including effective advocacy and support by members and the applicant.”

Adams made the same point at a press conference on Thursday when asked if this discrepancy in speaker’s initiative funding was a sign of retaliation. “That question is very hard to determine at this point,” she said. “We had so many meetings and briefings around the budget itself, around allocations, around which pot is which … I will just let you know, we tried to give communities exactly what communities needed. And stretching across the city, it’s a lot of mouths to feed.”

Separately, a number of organizations that the speaker's office said the six members supported and received funding for were actually not included in the $41.6 million pot of discretionary funds that City & State originally reported on. They were included in a separate section of the Schedule C budget document called “local initiatives,” which details how members spend some of their own discretionary funds. But these projects are listed as being sponsored by the speaker and the document doesn’t suggest anywhere that the six members have anything to do with them. The speaker’s office has not confirmed whether those projects were funded from the speaker’s own discretionary funds or another source of money.

For decades, council speakers have used discretionary funds in the budget to reward favored allies with funding for projects in their districts, and withhold it from those who didn’t align. Melissa Mark-Viverito lessened some of that ability soon after she took office in 2014, by introducing a standard formula for funding. But speakers since then still have ways of doling out this particular type of political currency. Speakers have a lot of input into doling out funding for capital projects in members’ districts. Adams’ capital budget has yet to be thoroughly reviewed. But in her first year, Adams chose to give the members who voted against the budget a relatively minor rebuke by stripping their names from the speaker’s initiatives.

Adams forcefully defended her integrity, denying that she pulled funding from any deserving recipients. She was merely taking away credit from members who she did not believe deserved it. 

“The names were not there because the vote to permit this funding was not there. So that’s the way that I reasoned,” she said. “I don’t consider the members losing out. They’re elected by their communities. So their communities win.”

That was part of the speaker’s fiery defense of her leadership ahead of a regularly scheduled council meeting Thursday, saying she hoped to correct “misinformation” about discretionary funding, as well as education funding, in the budget. Adams had gotten heat from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who posted a video to her 8.5 million followers on Instagram Tuesday accusing the speaker of “movie villain type decision making.” Ocasio-Cortez was drawing attention in particular to the Variety Boys & Girls Club in the district of her ally Cabán, which, as Patch first reported, missed out on an expected $150,000 grant. 

Adams said that particular instance was simply “an oversight” that she’s pledged to fix with Cabán and the organization’s CEO, former City Council Member Costa Constantinides. And she denied that she was using nonprofit funding as a tool to whip votes, or keep members in line. “Let me be very clear. I am not a speaker who is interested in punishing any community,” said Adams, who represents a district in Southeast Queens. “In fact, as the representative of a community that has been historically underserved, I certainly appreciate the investments that were made as a body to our local communities.”

In the whirlwind budget process, members of both the council and the press didn’t have much time to review budget documents before they were voted on Monday night. When the Schedule C budget document was posted on the council’s website on Monday, it did not include – and as of Friday afternoon still did not include – credit for any of the six members who voted against the budget as sponsors of organizations that received funding from the speaker’s initiative. 

Prior to publishing our original story that erroneously reported those members had been cut out of funding in the initiative, City & State reached out to the speaker’s office on Monday afternoon, asking for a comment or explanation on those members appearing to be cut out, originally asking for comment with an hour, and then providing an extra half hour when there was no immediate response. City & State didn’t receive a response after two emails. 

The first response the speaker’s office gave to City & State’s initial reporting was on Monday night, at a press conference ahead of the budget vote. The speaker denied that there had been retaliation in the allocation of that extra pot of discretionary funding, and said that the speaker’s initiative is not about any one member. There was no further explanation of why there was no retaliation or mention of the fact that the six members who were expected to vote against the budget did in fact support projects that received funding, but were not given name credit for doing so. 

When City & State reached out about a separate story on Tuesday afternoon, the speaker's office said that it was incorrect that the six members had been cut out of the speaker’s initiative, explaining for the first time that projects those members supported received funding but that they were not given credit for sponsoring them. City & State set up a call with the speaker’s office on Wednesday morning to talk through the specific issues with the story, but didn't connect until that afternoon. The speaker’s office said again that organizations sponsored by the six members had been funded but without name credit, and City & State asked to be provided with a list of those specific projects. City & State received that list on Wednesday evening, and confirmed that those projects are in the Schedule C document. Some are funded in the $41.6 million speaker’s initiative, and some are funded in local initiatives and listed as sponsored by the speaker.

That the six members did in fact have projects funded in the speaker’s initiative was a surprise to some of them too, with several not realizing until later in the week that they had simply been deprived of credit for sponsoring those projects.