2008-05-23 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

Pork? Member Items? Earmarks? Much-Needed Support For Local Groups? It's All In The Same Family
Commentary By Howard Schwach

"Pork Barrel Spending" is often derided by government reformers and other do-gooders as an evil to be wiped off the face of the Earth.

Sometimes, they are right. The infamous Alaskan "Bridge to Nowhere" is one case where it is obvious to all but the most demented Congressional groupie that the money was a payoff to somebody for something.

Happily, however, most spending on what is considered "pork," whether it be in Federal "earmarks," or in city/ state "member items" goes to groups that provide valid community services and that often need the public money to survive.

Recently, Congressman Anthony Weiner, who represents the west end of Rockaway as well as portions of Brooklyn, took a hit from the New York Times. Weiner, who will run for Mayor in the 2009 election, said that he would like to see an end to congressional earmarks and other legislative largess.

"We should get rid of earmarks altogether, get rid of these member items," Weiner said. "Such a move would restore public confidence in government."

As the Times rightly pointed out, Weiner provides a number of earmarks of his own - one of them being $15 million for three boats for a commuter ferry service from Rockaway to Manhattan. Another Weiner earmark was $235,000 to fight beach erosion on Rockaway beaches. A third was $4.8 million slipped into the military spending bill to make improvements at Gateway National Recreation Area's Ryan Visitor's Center at Floyd Bennett Field.

"I lived on Long Island and know that Floyd Bennett Field isn't on the front line of the defense of the United States," said one reformer dismissively.

Ferry boats, beach erosion, the improvement of Gateway, a new firehouse for the BC volies. None of those is critical to the defense of the free world, and they are probably unimportant to people who live elsewhere, but they are all perfect examples of money well-spent to improve the quality of life and the safety of the residents who are most impacted by those organizations and facilities.

Some other earmarks provided by Weiner not impacting on Rockaway are money for a performance space at the Children's Museum in Brooklyn and money to finance a center for new immigrants at Kingsborough Community College. You can argue all you want about whether those earmarks are provided to buy votes or loyalty, but I would argue that the money was indeed well-spent on all of those items.

The same it true for the vast majority of money provided by state and city legislators through the member item program.

Sure, the system allows for manipulation. Witness the slush fund developed by Christine Quinn and her advisors, pouring money into organizations that did not exist in order to "save" the money for use when it was needed later on. The fact remains that most of the money that was parked in those phony organizations was later used to good purpose for valid community groups.

Look at the member items provided, for example, by City Councilman Joseph P. Addabbo, Jr. While some of the money went to political hacks such as Geraldine Chapey for her senior van service, most of it went to little leaguers, volunteer emergency services and arts organizations such as the RAA, RMAC and RTC.

Those groups need the money to stay alive and we need those groups to provide a little class in our otherwise drab lives. They are not pork.

What bothers me more than the member items or the earmarks is the money provided to large corporations as an incentive to keep them from moving away from the city or the state.

In 2006, for example, Governor George Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno awarded about $1.2 billion in aid to an also-ran chip maker called Advanced Micro Devices. The money came in the form of hard cash and Empire Zone tax waivers if the company agreed to build a plant in Saratoga County, the heart of Bruno's district. In return, the company was to build the factory that would provide about 1,200 jobs - at a cost of about $1 million per job. AMD could never get any traction in the chip-making field, and is now in trouble. Recently, it reportedly made plans to fire 5,000 workers. The deal was a bad one and the state will never recover even a portion of the money it doled out to the company.

There is a simple solution to the pork problem.

Viable local organizations should have to prove that they exist and that they perform the service that they claim on their grant requests. Those requests should be vetted by somebody with no vested interest in the process to assure that the money goes only to those groups that meet the criteria.

The state has been doing that for some time, but it has not worked out. According to recently published stories, about 6,500 groups were set to get member item money in 2006. So far, only 2,756 of the groups chosen by legislators to get money have filed the necessary proof that they even exist, nonetheless that they carry out the service promised in their application. An additional 1,026 were rejected. And, an astonishing 2,700 groups have never come forward to claim the grants that they were awarded more than two years ago.

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