The Independence Day celebration started early for many New York activists and groups seeking taxpayer funding — thanks to the seasoned pork stuffed into the record-spending, $98.7 billion city budget just approved by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council.
Awash with nearly $16 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds, a lame-duck de Blasio and many-term limited Council members rammed more discretionary funding into virtually every nook and cranny of the budget, documents reviewed by The Post reveal.
Council members have the authority to steer millions of dollars to pet programs — and boy, did they ever, likely saddling the next administration and New Yorkers with a yawning deficit.
The amount of funding spent via council initiatives exploded from $376 million last year to $516 million this year — a 37 percent increase, according to city budget documents. The overall increase is even up 13 percent over the $454 million spent in the pre-pandemic Fiscal Year 2020.
“Some of the money seems to be burning a hole in people’s pockets,” said Andrew Rein, executive director of the Citizens Budget Commission.
Rein said that in general the mayor and council “are not spending the federal money wisely and strategically” and are leaving the next mayor and council with a projected $5 billion budget gap.
The budget documents show that Speaker Corey Johnson, in particular, is leaving the council with a bang.
The funding under Johnson’s direct control — the Speaker’s Initiatives to Address Citywide Needs — skyrocketed from $6.79 million last year to $34.65 million in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget the council passed on June 30. That’s a 410-percent increase.
The boost in spending surfaced after critics privately grumbled that Johnson used his power over the budget as a slush fund to leverage support in his run for city comptroller, a position that is intended to serve as a fiscal watchdog for the city.
And the boost wasn’t merely making up for cuts in spending during the pandemic last year. Two years ago, the Speaker’s Fund spent $12.8 million — so, it’s still up 170 percent from pre-pandemic spending.
“This dramatic increase in Corey Johnson’s use of taxpayer dollars to benefit his campaign is another example of corruption. Once again, Corey uses the budget to favor those who support him and to punish those who question him,” said Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a rival in the Democratic primary for comptroller.
“Another reason why I insisted on more transparency in the budget process, before the primary when the speaker was using the budget to buy votes.”
Speaker Johnson’s office said all funding decisions were based on merit.
Johnson, through his Council discretionary fund, pumped money into groups far and wide including:
- $800,000 to support programming provided by the Hispanic Federation, $275,000 to the Federation of Italian-American Organizations, $275,000 to the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, $100,000 to the Chinese American Planning Council, $50,000 to Bertha Lewis’ Black Institute, $100,000 to the Hatzolah private ambulance company, $5,000 to the New York Board of Rabbis and $140,000 to the NY Irish Center,
- Well-heeled, privately run parks foundations, as well as neighborhood groups, also got a lot of hay from the speaker’s fund: $400,000 went to the Hudson River Park Trust, $100,000 to the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, $30,000 to the Carnegie Hill Neighborhood Association, $40,000 to the Douglaston Local Development Corp., and $75,000 to the Southern Queens Park Association.
- Local merchants, job training and preservation groups landed stimulus funds including: $200,000 to the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce/Alliance, $250,000 to Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow (job training), $175,000 to the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation, $100,000 to the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp.
- Another $350,000 combined was earmarked to the Abortion Access Fund and Planned Parenthood.
Johnson’s fund also directed funding to LGBT groups including $50,000 to CUNY’s student LGBTQ Leadership program, $50,000 to LaGuardia Community College’s LGBTQ Public History Project, $150,000 to the New Pride Center’s Dignity for All project, $100,000 to the LGBT Network and $100,000 for for services and advocacy LGBT Elders.
Other council members funded groups that backed their campaigns for higher office:
- Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander, who holds a lead over Johnson in the comptroller’s race, steered $13,000 combined to Make the Road and VOCAL-NY, both affiliates of the Working Families Party. Leaders of all three groups endorsed his candidacy.
- Queens Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and Brooklyn Councilman Antonio Reynoso earmarked $22,500 combined to immigrants’ rights advocacy group Make the Road, whose political arm backed both candidates in their respective races for borough president. According to Council budget documents, Make the Road will receive more than $500,000 in discretionary funds.
- Over the past two years, Councilman Ben Kallos, who ran for Manhattan borough president, dedicated funds to 10 of the borough’s 12 community boards, mostly outside his councilmanic district, including $16,500 in the new budget. Kallos on Monday defended the funding, saying he was helping community boards built up capacity to review big development projects.
“I spoke about this repeatedly during the campaign [for borough president]. Every community board should have an urban planner,” Kallos said.
- While there’s no money to boost police manpower, the council earmarked $250,000 to increase public awareness of the Civil Complaint Review Board.
- Councilman Justin Brannan, a candidate to become the next speaker, directed $20,000 to the Federation of Italian American Organizations in Brooklyn to host the borough’s Columbus Day Parade and $5,000 to Bay Ridge St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee.
- $31,500 in grants for “Drag Queen Story Hour” — where the aforementioned read to kids in libraries and school districts.
- Spending on “community development” programs doubled from $13.1 million to $27.5 million. Among the programs seeing big increases include those serving transgender and LGBTQ residents.
- Spending on environmental initiatives — including programs providing cleaning services in each councilmanic district — nearly doubled from $10.2 million to $19.4 million.
- Spending on food pantries and fresh food programs nearly tripled from $8.64 million to $22.7 million.
- Funding to spruce up small neighborhood parks and gardens jumped from $1.8 million to $5.1 million.
- Separate Centers for Studies on Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans and Haitians received $1 million apiece.
- Amid a rise in Asian hate crimes, the council created a $4 million fund to support Asian-led services organizations to provide mental health services, racial literacy programs and anti-bias and hate crime work.
Johnson and the Council defended the record spending and claimed the budget was fiscally responsible, noting that they added $500 million to the city’s Rainy Day Fund.
“This Council is proud to have negotiated the first ever deposit into the city’s new Rainy Day fund, bringing the total to $1 billion,” said Jennifer Fermino, a spokeswoman for the Johnson-led Council.
“The Council’s advocacy also led to major new investments in education and quality of life, including social workers in every school, more litter basket pickup, as well as anti-violence programs. We need to rebuild and reimagine New York City post-pandemic, and this budget paves the way to get us there,” said Fermino.
Budget negotiators said the Council’s discretionary spending did go up this year to make up for cutbacks last year because of the revenue shortfall caused by COVID-19 pandemic.
Insiders said the increases reflected the Council’s wish to support small and medium sized groups that were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, including those who were most vulnerable residents.
Council officials acknowledged in some cases they boosted spending — not just restored cuts from last year — and added new programs such as the K-12 black studies curriculum and the anti-Asian bigotry campaign.
De Blasio spokesman Bill Neidhardt responded, “If investing in modern curriculum is not ‘using the money wisely and strategically’ then I really don’t know what the CBC wants out of life. We got a stimulus, we’re investing it in the working class. Cry about it.”