Sandbagged By NYS Ruling, Island Kids Searching for Funds
Historical Society and Other Non-Profits Also Hit
By Laura Russo
A sudden decision by the New York State Authorities Budget Office (ABO) is generating dire consequences for Roosevelt Island non-profit organizations that provide vital services to residents – especially children.
In January, the ABO announced a mandate, effective immediately, that prohibited the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) from awarding grants from the Island’s Public Purpose Fund. (article in the WIRE, page one.)
The State first established the Public Purpose Fund (PPF) in 1989 after the construction of Manhattan Park. Rather than paying sales tax on construction materials, the State allowed the developers to pay into a fund created specifically to support the community’s social and service needs.
By 2008, the fund was much reduced, but the RIOC Board voted to replace the funding with an annual budget line item of $100,000. (None of the grants come from State tax money. All money spent by RIOC comes from residents – through developers as ground rent payments, or in Tram fares or other facilities charges levied by RIOC.)
Since 2008, RIOC has worked in tandem with the Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA) to award funding to Island non-profit organizations like Island Kids and the Roosevelt Island Historical Society. A RIRA committee reviews applications, makes recommendations that are reviewed by the RIRA Common Council and then passed on to the RIOC Board. Every year, the funding needs listed by applicants have far exceeded the $100,000 available.
According to the Public Purpose Funds Procedures published by RIOC on January 5, 2015, before the ABO mandate was announced, PPF allowed RIOC to support programs and projects “that enrich the Roosevelt Island community.”
For some Island non-profits, PPF was an integral part of the organization’s funding. The sudden loss of funding could have a catastrophic effect not just on the organizations, but also for residents.
Island Kids has been running a very successful summer camp on Roosevelt Island since 2006. Typically, over 30% of campers receive financial aid in the form of full or partial scholarships. Nikki Leopold, founder and Executive Director of Island Kids, said, “An important part of our objective has been for the camp to reflect the economic and social diversity of the Island’s population.” She added, “being affordable to residents is part of our mission.”
In 2014, Island Kids had a financial aid budget of $25,000. According to Leopold, so far this year Island Kids has received over $15,000 in scholarship requests. She said, “Scholarship requests grow every year. There is always a waiting list.” She expects requests to double by the time camp starts in July.
PPF made up $10,000 of the Island Kids camp scholarship fund, with the rest coming from private donors and corporate sponsors. Now, not only has Island Kids lost $10,000 in PPF, but a corporate sponsor reduced its grant by $5,000 earlier this year. Suddenly, Island Kids is left with only $10,000 in scholarship funding, less than half of the normal budget. It is unable to meet current financial aid requests.
Julie Adegite, Director of Program Development at Island Kids, has five years of experience working in non-profit organizations and community development. She noted that one of the major strengths of the program is its diversity, saying, “Fewer scholarships for kids who can’t afford the program could really change its dynamics. It helps to be around kids who don’t look like you; it’s essential to development.”
Leopold lamented that the scholarship deficit will have a large impact on Island kindergartners in particular. Island Kids is the only summer camp on Roosevelt Island that caters to children in this age category.
The loss of Public Purpose Funding has shocked and dismayed the non-profit community here. Judy Berdy, President of the Historical Society (RIHS), said of the mandate, “It seems like Roosevelt Island is being penalized by Albany for the abuses of other State agencies like the Thruway Authority, the MTA, and Battery Park City,” adding, “It’s ridiculous, considering the total expenditure of [Public Purpose Funds] for all Island organizations was only $100,000.”
PPF comprised about 10% of the RIHS budget, but this year, along with the loss of a long-time private donor, the organization experienced a “double whammy,” said Berdy.
In order to make up the deficit in funding, RIHS is soliciting more corporate donations and asking current members to be more generous. In addition, the Historical Society is hoping to receive discretionary funds from the City Council.
“The City Council has been very receptive, but there are many constituents with many different needs,” said Berdy, noting that the Council already funds five to seven other organizations. “We just can’t rely on discretionary funding,” she said.
Two other factors complicate the use of discretionary funding to make up for the deficit in PPF.
First, because the City budget won’t be officially passed until July, organizations won’t know what, if any, funding will be received from the discretionary budget until more than half-way through the calendar year. In addition, because the funds come in the form of reimbursement of approved expenditures, another six months to a year can pass before the organization receives funds. “This puts many organizations in limbo; it is a huge quandary,” said Berdy.
Leopold echoes Berdy’s concerns about the use of discretionary funds to replace PPF. She said discretionary funds are not the solution, precisely because of the timing. “[City Council Member] Ben Kallos and the City Council were generous last year, but we’re only getting [last year’s] money now.”
Leopold said that it is paramount that Island Kids maintain its mission to serve the children of Roosevelt Island, regardless of their economic circumstances. In order to make up for the deficit in summer camp scholarship funds, she has started a Go Fund Me account (www.gofundme.com/islandkids) with the goal of raising $15,000. She said that, depending on the success of that appeal, she should know within about four weeks what scholarships can be funded this summer.
In addition, Leopold is asking families to write to the City Council, to the State, and to RIOC in order to illustrate the importance of PPF and the negative impact that discontinuation of PPF will have on Island residents and children.
Leopold said that, as a community, “We have to be proactive. We have to take care of ourselves. We were very fortunate to have Public Purpose Funds, but now it’s time to act.”