Vol. 20,  No. 5 March 8 - 21, 2007


Money Well Spent?
THIRD in a Series on How State Legislators Distribute Funds, known as Member Items, to Local Groups

The Good Side of Member Items
Groups Say Money Put to Good Use


Despite a reputation for secrecy and abuse, it appears most member item allocations – grants handed out by state lawmakers for projects and organizations in their districts – actually do find their way back into local neighborhoods, funding vital art, social and economic development programs.

By definition, member item grants go toward specific projects that benefit the community. Of course, that doesn’t always happen (see Part 1 of this series), but after talking to some of the local groups that receive member items, it’s clear communities are being served in most cases.

Following are the stories of how four groups used their member item funds this past year.

Teaching a Lost Audience
Bill Scribner founded the Bronx Arts Ensemble in 1972 to bring music and musical education to the northwest Bronx. He’s been around so long, he can’t even remember when he first started to appeal to his state legislators for funding help. But he does remember that he wrote several letters and proposals before a politician finally decided to support his cause.

Before, he used the money to put on classical concerts in the northwest Bronx. But now, with arts funding in public schools at anemic levels, he uses the $10,000 grant from Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz to put musical instruments back in schools. Dinowitz contributes to several Bronx arts organizations and usually gives money to Scribner because he not only provides instruments, but also helps schools find music teachers.

Scribner, who partly funds his organization by putting on classical concerts, says the American orchestra is dying because of lack of education.

“How do you have an audience, if you don’t teach the youngsters?” Scribner says.

With member item money, Bronx Arts Ensemble can help a little to fill the gaping hole left by the school system, Scribner says, but he simply can’t fund every school.

Getting Lucky
“There’s no real rhyme or reason or science to this,” says Wally Edgecombe about the member item process. As the Hostos Community College Arts Director, Edgecombe says he’s received four state member item grants in his 25 years at the school.

Last year, he saw Assemblyman Jose Rivera at one of the many concerts his department puts on. Rivera was filming the concert with his trademark hand-held video camera. Edgecombe asked him if he was enjoying the performance and if he’d like to help out with some money. “Sure,” Rivera said.

Next thing Edgecombe knows, Rivera said he can give him $50,000. The lawmaker called again later, saying he found an additional $10,000. Rivera’s only request was that Edgecombe reprise his December concert celebrating the Puerto Rican flag, which was designed in New York City. Edgecombe did just that and didn’t charge admission. Rivera showed up with his camera. With money left over, Edgecombe is putting on a bilingual play in March and another big concert in May.

Like Scribner, Edgecombe fights for every arts funding scrap he can get. “Any source of money that is regular, that you don’t have to hustle for, is great,” he says. “I have a payroll that I have serious insomnia about, but we’re big boys and girls, we can handle it.”

Augmenting Critical Programs
The Mosholu Montefiore Community Center is indispensable to the Norwood community and beyond, providing everything from senior services to day care. Because it commands a $17 million budget, a few thousand dollars in member items isn’t vital to executive director Don Bluestone’s organization, but the money nonetheless helps to augment its arsenal of critical community programs.

Not so long ago, before the districts were gerrymandered, when Norwood was the heart of the 81st Assembly District, Bluestone says he used to receive $180,000 in member items. Now, he receives smaller amounts from three different representatives. He used $6,000 from Dinowitz to put on free concerts; $5,000 from Assemblywoman Naomi Rivera to extend the Center’s satellite Tracey Towers’ youth program to include Friday nights; and $10,000 from embattled State Senator Efrain Gonzalez for college prep classes for high school students.

Bluestone laments the fact that Norwood is now the “armpit of Riverdale,” meaning that so little of any of its state representatives’ districts is in the neighborhood, but he appreciates any help he can get.

“Could we use more? Yes. And would they be put to good use? Yes. And of course, they won’t be going to cheese museums or anything like that,” Bluestone said, referring to a state-funded cheese museum upstate that is often cited as a symbol of member item abuse.

‘A Step Further’
Located just down the block from Bluestone’s center is Mosholu Preservation Corporation (MPC), a non-profit community development organization that also manages the Jerome-Gun Hill Business Improvement District (BID) and publishes the Norwood News.

Roberto Garcia is the director of economic development at MPC and the BID’s executive director. MPC received $10,000 from Gonzalez and $35,000 from Dinowitz, and the BID received another $10,000 from Gonzalez. Garcia is using the money for a wide variety of beautification and enhancement projects designed to “give the whole district and the roads leading up to it a good, clean, wholesome and inviting feel,” Garcia says. “It makes people feel good about living and shopping here.”

Garcia says the bigger picture, for all non-profit groups that receive member item money, is that “it allows us to take projects a step further and take steps to make the community better as a whole.”

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