caveat motor

No Cars Allowed: Community Boards Get New Funding Boost, With Warning

City Councilmember Fernando Cabrera holds one of Queens Community Board 7's new tote bags.
City Councilmember Fernando Cabrera holds one of Queens Community Board 7’s new tote bags. Photo: Gabriel Sandoval /THE CITY

For the second year running, each of the city’s 59 community boards is in line for a $42,500 budget boost, courtesy of the City Council.

There’s one new condition: no vehicle purchases allowed.

The caveat comes after THE CITY last month revealed that a north Brooklyn community board bought a $26,000 SUV with the funds, spurring Mayor Bill de Blasio to demand a Department of Investigation probe.

Councilmember Fernando Cabrera (D-Bronx) announced the funding renewal Monday night at a meeting of Queens Community Board 7 in Flushing — where he was invited to accept a tote bag and other items featuring the board’s logo, paid for with $23,000 in Council funds.

“I’ll tell you, I had to fight for that baby because, literally, as of Friday, we were
not having it,” Cabrera told THE CITY after speaking at the meeting.

Cabrera commended Council Speaker Corey Johnson for ensuring the funding made it through budget negotiations with the mayor: “I thank the speaker, because he came through again.”

Asked about the move on Tuesday, Johnson described in broad terms steps he says the Council’s Finance Division will take to ensure community boards spend the funds responsibly.

“We’re looking at language, basically a term and condition, to ensure that the situation that happened with Brooklyn Community Board 1 on the SUV purchase doesn’t happen again,” Johnson said.

“I think out of 59 community boards, 98% of them use the money in an appropriate manner, but we want to ensure that there aren’t community boards that are using it for expenses that are not justifiable,” he added.

5,000 Tote Bags

At Monday’s meeting in Flushing, Cabrera got a royal blue tote bag that reads “Compliments of Community Board 7 Queens” — containing a CB 7-emblazoned badge, a water bottle and other swag — as a token of appreciation for leading the push to secure funds that boards received in July 2018.

The gift bag was one of 5,000 that CB 7 ordered, featuring a logo designed by the graphic-artist spouse of board member Chuck Apelian — part of what he described at the meeting as a “branding campaign.”

Community Board 1 in Brooklyn has their own parking space for the SUV that was bought with public money. Photo: Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

“This is something everybody is going to want, everybody is going to carry around” Apelian said, noting the plastic bag ban soon to go into effect.

In all, the board spent about $23,000 with a custom-merchandise dealer called 4imprint, city comptroller spending records show. Items purchased included “pens, bags, tchochkes, pins,” according to CB 7 District Manager Marilyn McAndrews.

Also on the shopping list, she said, were board-branded first aid kits, caps, umbrellas, letter openers, notebooks, tumblers and table runners.

The board spent the remainder of the Council funds on a security system, new phones and on digitizing records, McAndrews said.

John Choe, a member of the Queens board since 2017, expressed concerns that they had wasted taxpayer funds on the tchotchkes.

“Where is the accountability here?” he asked. “You’re spending money on things that are somewhat frivolous.”

A Wide Range of Spending

Community boards receive a baseline budget of $288,000, which they can use on employee salaries, rent and day-to-day operations. The additional money allocated by the Council must go to non-salary expenses, such as equipment or events.

City spending records and interviews with board managers across the five boroughs show many examples of using the Council funds on community enhancements.

Johnson highlighted a historic preservation study commissioned by Manhattan’s Community Board 4, which he once chaired, as an example of the good the funds can do.

Community Board 11 in the Bronx commissioned an artist to paint two murals in a graffiti-prone area to deter vandalism. Manhattan’s Community Board 12 and Brooklyn’s Community Board 7 bought audio and video equipment to help with interpretation services as well as improve access to people with disabilities.

Cabrera said the best example he’s seen are the 14 boards that invested in customizing constituent-services software from the nonprofit BetaNYC.

Some Brooklyn Community Board 1 members had hoped to follow suit — only to learn months later to their dismay that the board’s executive committee had already approved the SUV purchase.

Cabrera, a former community board chair, embraced the car ban as in constituents’ best interest.

“We want it to benefit as many people as possible,” Cabrera said. “When you buy a vehicle, it’s only benefiting a few people. And the money could definitely be better used.”

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