By JOSEPH SPECTOR
Gannett Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY -- New York lawmakers haven't approved new earmarks for pet projects in more than two years, but money is still flowing from a stockpile of cash they accumulated over the past decade, a review of state records shows.
Search "Pork" projects in New York from 2006-2011
The taxpayers' dollars have been funding lawmakers' hometown projects as the state grappled with massive budget deficits that led to school-aid cuts, $450 million in concessions from public employees this year and reductions in social-service programs.
A review by Gannett's Albany Bureau found that state lawmakers doled out $17.3 million in so-called member items from January through July. Gov. Andrew Cuomo this year barred any new earmarks and so did former Gov. David Paterson last year.
The Legislature is still sitting on a pot of nearly $124 million in member items it has yet to spend, according to the governor's budget office.
But the member-item stash is just a fraction of the money the state Legislature has access to when it wants to fund projects in their districts.
The budget office says the state Assembly still has the authority to spend a whopping $473 million on capital projects across the state, essentially a line of credit that the Democratic-led chamber has built up over decades. The Senate, controlled by Republicans, has $42 million in its capital coffers.
Good-government groups and some lawmakers were miffed that the Legislature could have so much discretionary money when the state has dealt with steep budget cuts.
"This is one of the things that cause the public to be skeptical about the ability of government to manage money," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY. "There is really no justification at this time of alleged fiscal crisis to have discretionary money parceled out on a political basis."
Over the past five years, the Legislature authorized spending $4.7 billion, mainly through borrowing, for a wide variety of capital projects, according to a review of records obtained by Gannett's Albany Bureau through a Freedom of Information request.
That money was separate from the roughly $200 million that the Legislature and past governors shared each year on member items, which funded schools, non profits and community groups, such as baseball little leagues. The $200 million pot was funded through annual budget appropriations, but unspent money has carried over each year.
This year, the member items have gone to roughly 780 non-profit groups and local governments. They include $18,000 to help the Binghamton Zoo buy a new tram, $10,000 for work by the Rochester Regional Community Design Center and $8,000 for a music festival in Port Chester, Westchester County.
The $4.7 billion in capital money over the past five years, meanwhile, went often to highly-touted, big-ticket projects. They included $65 million in 2008 for IBM to expand its research facility in East Fishkill, Dutchess County; $25 million in 2009 for the University of Rochester's Clinical Translational Sciences Building and $15 million in 2009 for Binghamton University's Center of Excellence project.
Critics said the majority parties in the Assembly and Senate have ultimate control over where the money is spent, with little public oversight. And borrowing to pay for the capital projects leads to further debt for the state.
"We should have complete disclosure of all allocated or unallocated money for capital projects," said Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, Ontario County.
He and other officials said because the parties in power manage such large pots of money, areas represented by minority party members get little if anything.
"Not a dime," Kolb responded when asked if Republicans have received any of the capital money controlled by Assembly Democrats.
The largest capital expenditure by the Legislature was $665 million in 2009 to build a nanotechnology manufacturing facility in Saratoga County, a project still under construction and championed by former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno in his district. Another $300 million went to the nanotechnology research center at SUNY Albany, supported by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan.
Lawmakers and the groups that received the cash have defended the spending, saying the money goes to important community projects or to expand economic-development efforts.
"It is absolutely critical," Joni Monroe, executive director of Rochester Regional Community Design Center, said of the member-item money it has received.
She said the $10,000 this year from Sen. Joseph Robach, R-Greece, Monroe County, helped fund the agency's operations, which aids neighborhoods in community planning. The agency has an annual budget of about $100,000.
The earmarks, Monroe said, "have been labeled in a very unfair way."
The Port Chester/Town of Rye Council of Community Services used an $8,000 member-item grant to help fund its fourth annual Port Chester Fest, a musical festival aimed at bringing together the diverse community, said the group's executive director Daniel Lipka. The roughly $14,000 festival had been funded in part by the county, but the money was stopped two years ago.
The state aid is "part of government's responsibility to increase the well being of the community they live in and events like this couldn't happen without support from the community, as well as government," Lipka said.
The $18,000 grant for the Binghamton Zoo's tram was welcomed for a facility that relies mostly on local revenue, said the zoo's executive director Sheila Green.
In Dutchess County, a $40,000 member-item grant funded training programs at Dutchess Community College for 22 businesses. The money was a grant from Sen. Stephen Saland, R-Poughkeepsie.
"They are important programs for the companies in our area because we provide customized training for them for needs that they identify," said Judy Stokes, a college spokeswoman.
The pots of money controlled by the Legislature are closely guarded. In his budget proposal in January, Cuomo proposed redirecting roughly $340 million of the unused economic-development capital money toward his new initiative for regional jobs councils.
But lawmakers protested, saying the money was tied up. He ultimately used the remainder of the governor's capital pot,about $130 million, to fund the council's initial grant program. And he dropped from $100 million to $50 million the aid available to communities where state prisons are closing; he announced seven prison closures last month.
Morris Peters, a spokesman for Cuomo's budget office, said the $130 million available for the regional councils came in large part from a $100 million data center in Albany that won't be funded.
He said the Legislature's member-item account hasn't been replenished since 2009. In July 2010, Paterson vetoed about $190 million in member items.
"We believe that the $123.8 million is sufficient to cover outstanding usage of the fund," Peters said of the current balance.
As for the lawmakers' capital account, Peters said that hasn't been replenished since the 2008-09 fiscal year.
Michael Whyland, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said projects are "carefully vetted" before they receive funding through its capital account. He said projects have to meet certain criteria, such as serving a public purpose and having a lifespan of at least 10 years.
Once approved by the Assembly or the Senate, a request for a capital project is reviewed by the state Dormitory Authority or the Empire State Development Corp., which both have the ability to borrow money to fund the projects.
The money is spent through a variety of accounts. The Dormitory Authority alone has a dozen different programs, such as the Community Capital Assistance Program and the Economic Development Assistance Program.
It was mainly through those various accounts where former Sen. Vincent Leibell got approval for nearly $7 million in state aid for the Putnam Community Foundation and the Hudson Valley Trust Inc., records show. Leibell, from Patterson, Putnam County, started in May serving a 21-month federal prison sentence for kickbacks involving the state money.
Since January, Empire State Development has approved nearly $23 million for capital projects, the largest being $12.5 million for the construction of the Hofstra University School of Medicine. It is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County.
Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, said the use of their capital account is under review. Senate Republicans regained the majority in 2010.
"We are still in the process of evaluating exactly how much the Senate Democrats spent from this account when they were in the majority and where those monies were directed, but we expect to use the remaining funds to make sound investments that help revitalize New York's economy and create new jobs," Reif said.
-- The state Legislature doled out more than $17 million in member items for nearly 780 pet projects from January through July from unused pots of funds.
-- Additionally, the Legislature has more than $515 million in unused capital money for projects across the state. The Assembly has $473 million and the Senate has $42 million.
-- The Legislature and past governors spent $4.7 billion from those capital accounts since 2006, records show, with many of the state's largest projects funded through borrowing. The state's total debt load - including the money borrowed through legislative projects - is about $58 billion.
Here's at a look at some of the legislative earmarks, the so-called member items, approved this year, according to the state Comptroller's Office. Overall, $17.3 million statewide was approved between January and July.
--Blind Brook-Rye School District $100,000
--Rye Neck School District $100,000
--Food Bank For Westchester $100,000
--Ossining Children's Center $50,000
--Westchester Arts Council $20,000
--Westchester Jewish Community Services $15,000
--Birthright of Rockland County $10,000
--Putnam County Fish and Game Association $5,000
--Port Chester-Town of Rye Council of Community Services $8,000
Dutchess County projects
--Patterson Library Association $5,000
--Dutchess Community College $40,000
--Walkway Over the Hudson $20,000
--The Hudson Valley Trust Inc. $10,000
--Special Olympics - Hudson Valley region $5,000
--Food Bank of Western New York $60,000
--Town of Tonawanda $60,000
--Young Audiences of Western New York $14,000
--Buffalo Niagara Convention Bureau $35,000
Southern Tier Projects
--City of Elmira Chamberlain $10,000
--Trumansburg Village Treasurer $25,000
--Southern Tier Zoological Society $18,000
--Town of Kirkwood Supervisor $10,000
--Rochester Regional Community Design Center $10,000
--Greece Chamber Charitable Foundation $10,000
--Hilton Fire Department $8,000
--Barnard Fire District $8,000
--North Greece Fire District $8,000
--Brighton Fire Department $8,000
--Town of Marion $30,000
--Le Roy Town Supervisor $27,000
--West Webster Fire District $20,000
Here's at look at some of the major projects over the past five years that have been authorized by the state Legislature and funded through borrowing by the state Dormitory Authority or Empire State Development Corp. Since 2006, $4.7 billion has been approved, records show.
Recipient ... description ... price tag ... date of initial approval
--Rochester Institute of Technology ... Development and Construction of the Golisano Institute for Sustainability ... $8 million ... 08/31/10
--Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority... Construction of the CityGate Satellite Transit Center ... $6 million ... 05/16/08
-- University of Rochester ... Renovation and Expansion of the Eastman Theatre $13,000,000 ... 05/13/08
-- City of Rochester ... Reconstruction of the South Avenue Parking Garage $8,000,000 ... 03/07/08
-- University of Rochester ... Clinical Translational Sciences Building... $25,000,000 ... 07/08/08
-- Broome County ... Airport Sewer Extension and Site Development for a New Industrial Park ... $4.25 million ... 06/24/08
-- Broome County ... Greater Binghamton Health Center ... Environmental Remediation and Demolition for New Nursing Home ... $4 million ... 05/16/08
-- New Main Street Development Corporation ... Acquisition of Property for Purposes of Economic Development in Yonkers ... $24 million ... 09/03/08
-- Grace Church Community Center ... renovations to the site in White Plains ... $500,000 ... 9/20/06
-- Hudson Valley Hospital Center ... three additions to the existing hospital building ... $7.3 million ... 11/15/06
-- Historic Hudson Valley ... building on a nine-acre site in Tarrytown ... $1 million ... 12/18/06 4/7/11
-- IBM ... for nanotechnology research and development ... $65 million ... 9/18/08
-- Marist College ... campus improvements ... $5 million ...12/18/06
-- Cornell University ... for engineering research ... $12 million ...7/18/06
-- The Clemens Center ... expansion for Powers Theatre ... $2 million 12/18/06
-- Elmira College ... relocation of buildings and construction of Parking Lot $750,000 ... 10/10/08
-- Southern Tier Economic Growth, Inc ... Chemung County Commerce Center Property Acquisition ... $600,000 ... 06/24/08