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
Groups Say Money Put to Good
By ALEX KRATZ
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
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
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.
“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
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
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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