Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Council's Pork Budget: Look But Don't Touch

alg_pig.jpgThe City Council's total Schedule C of discretionary spending will go up 9% to almost $397 million in FY11, with much of the increase used to restore Mayor Bloomberg's cuts -- like keeping fire companies and pools open.

That's a different impression than Speaker Christine Quinn's made when she said at the handshake press conference that "the discretionary and initiative funding we've put in will be at a degree significantly less than last year."

Pure pork spending -- excuse me, member items -- went up just $50,000 to $48.9 million, and new initiatives fell 36% to $115.3 million, so she's technically correct. She just didn't mention at the handshake that pure restorations shot up 48% to $231.6 million.

The pork budget is always the most interesting, of course. It spawned the slush fund scandal, it has proven fertile ground for federal investigators, and it has been where even the sketchiest groups have been able to suckle tax dollars in the past.

Quinn has done an awful lot to reform the slush fund -- the sponsors of all items are now disclosed, all recipients get extra vetting from the Mayor's Office of Contract Services, and the recipients are posted online. And this is all light-years ahead of how pork-barrel spending is dispensed in Albany or Washington.

Yet when the Council put its discretionary spending list online late today, it was in one big 530-page pdf document -- difficult to search and impossible to sort. Budget geeks would like to be able to easily round up how many city dollars will go to Brooklyn Democratic Chairman Vito Lopez's Ridgewood Bushwick empire, for example, but you can't do it without repeatedly hitting the "search" function and adding it up with pen and paper. (The DN's Frank Lombardi did, and reports it's at least $530,000.) And forget about easily adding up how much a particular Council member gets -- much less comparing them all against each other.

To do that, you'd need to get the Excel spreadsheet -- because the formatting of the pdf document clearly looks like it was generated from Excel. But the Council's press office says it can't immediately get that spreadsheet from its Finance Division.

"We released the pdf today so that we could get it out today," writes spokeswoman Maria Alvarado. "As I'm sure you are aware, we have a fully searchable online database where everything can be sorted and searched by Member, keyword, group name, borough, etc. This year's data will be uploaded to this database ASAP. It simply wasn't possible to get it done today. The database is a tool that lends itself to full transparency and accessibility, as it is intended."

Anyone want to place bets on whether the Council's 2 p.m. meeting to vote on the budget will come before or after the public can slice and dice the numbers themselves?

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