Strapped State Pays Nonprofits

| Media Coverage

While Gov. David Paterson has declared that New York is facing an “unprecedented fiscal crisis,” the state has paid out millions of dollars to local nonprofit groups—including $28,500 for a tennis league, $11,000 for a lighthouse museum and $2,700 for a curling club—in grants that critics deride as pork-barrel spending.

In the month of April, after the deadline for passing a state budget lapsed, Albany sent out checks totaling about $6.5 million to reimburse the expenses of hundreds of groups that supporters say provide vital community services, including programs that help the elderly and the disabled, according to state data.

Lawmakers appropriated the discretionary funds for so-called “member items” between 2002 and 2009. More than $6 million of the money paid out in April went to groups chosen by the Legislature, with the vast majority going to items proposed by Democratic lawmakers. About $400,000 was allocated to groups chosen at the discretion of the governor’s office.

Critics questioned the need to make the payments at a time when the state has taken drastic money-saving steps, such as delaying billions of dollars in aid payments to local school districts, to try to close a $9 billion deficit.

“All of this stuff is classic pork,” said E.J. McMahon a fiscal analyst for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. “It’s hard to justify this stuff even in the good times. It’s impossible to justify this during a fiscal crisis.”

The Paterson administration said the state is legally obligated to reimburse the organizations that are receiving the grants once their contracts have been approved by the state. The state, which typically appropriates $200 million for member items each year, has about $90 million that has been appropriated for them but has been unclaimed by groups.

“This is not play money. It’s meat and potatoes. It’s core services,” said Linda M. Leest, the executive director of Services Now for Adult Persons in Queens Village. The group, which was reimbursed $42,000 in April, provides home-delivered meals, transportation, classes and recreational activities to elderly people in Queens.

The release of the funds comes amid urgent warnings from Mr. Paterson about the state’s perilous fiscal condition. Besides delaying school aid, Mr. Paterson tried to impose a temporary freeze on state employee salaries and to furlough about 100,000 government workers—both moves have been struck down by courts—in steps that the governor insisted were necessary to keep the state afloat.

The most money in April, $375,000, went to a Manhattan-based group called the Visual Arts Research and Resource Center Relating to the Caribbean, which received two grants totaling $125,000 sponsored by Democratic Assembly members. The organization also received a $250,000 grant sponsored by the governor’s office.

The group runs the Franklin H. Williams Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute on West 58th Street, which was founded in 1976 and promotes the history, culture and art of African descendants in the Americas.

Reached by telephone on Monday, a senior official for the cultural group declined to provide more details about the purpose of the funds. In February, according to the organization’s website, the group hosted an exhibit in honor of African-American comic-book superheroes. It also has supported dance festivals, education workshops and lectures.

A spokesman for the governor’s office said the grant was to cover general operating expenses.

The administration said it implemented a freeze on payments to groups whose contracts hadn’t been approved by the budget deadline of April 1, but the state approved the contract for the cultural center’s $250,000 from the governor’s office after that date, according to data from the state comptroller’s office.

A spokesman for the state budget office said several contracts may have slipped through beyond the deadline.

“Because of the volume of payments processed by the Budget Division on an ongoing basis, we can’t say for sure that no contracts have been approved since April 1,” Erik J. Kriss, a spokesman for the state budget office, stated in an email.

“It’s not a perfect world,” said Mr. Kriss.

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