By Larisa Karr
This article is part of a series that examines how elected officials in central Brooklyn and southeast Queens, home to New York City’s Haitian-American enclaves, spend their discretionary budgets. This first installment looks at the discretionary fund of Council Member Mathieu Eugene, whose District 40 encompasses mainly Flatbush and East Flatbush.
In District 40, the central Brooklyn area where Mathieu Eugene serves as a City Council member, the roughly 230,000 residents who call the central Brooklyn neighborhoods home are mainly Caribbean-American immigrants. However, when it comes to his discretionary fund, Eugene has supported more organizations outside of his district, many of them Jewish groups, according to an analysis of city records by The Haitian Times.
This fiscal year, Eugene has given $946,552 to groups outside of District 40, compared to about $298,600 to organizations inside his district, according to the NYC Council Expense Funding database. Haitian and Caribbean organizations inside his and nearby districts received $82,000 in total from Eugene.
To many community members and observers, the official statistics only confirm a pattern they have long experienced with the term-limited Eugene, who was first elected in 2007 and is now a candidate for Brooklyn Borough President in this year’s elections.
“It’s been historically like that for the past few years with his office not supporting us enough,” said Spencer Cassius, director of Development, Community Affairs and Partnerships at the Haitian-American Community Coalition in East Flatbush. “It’s disappointing for us to know that someone who we share cultural traditions with is not supporting a 40-year-old organization that’s been around just as long as those other Jewish organizations.”
Eugene did not respond to multiple requests for comment via email and social media for this article.
Given the skewed giving, experts said that it is important to question why council members like Eugene choose to give considerable amounts of funding to organizations in communities and districts other than their own.
“This is something that deserves scrutiny and the council is not very good at monitoring itself,” said Joseph Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College. “We can’t escape the fact that it’s a political process also.”
Funds to outside groups three times higher
Discretionary spending is money that the City Council allocates to nonprofit organizations and city agencies for work that benefits their specific districts. Such funds often support organizations that help the homeless, promote education or assist residents with healthcare needs.
It is different from participatory budgeting, where district members determine how to spend funds for community needs. Under this participatory system started in 2011, council members also receive another budget whose disbursement is decided by community members, not the council member.
Eugene was allocated $1,461,593 in funding for Fiscal Year 2021, which runs from July 1 to June 30. Eugene gave $32,000 to the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island, $53,000 to the Boro Park Jewish Community Council, and $51,593 to the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush this fiscal year.
Haitian-American organizations like the HABNET Chamber of Commerce, the Society for Haitian Research and the Haitian-American Community Coalition received $5,000, $6,000 and $8,000 from Eugene, respectively.
In nearby District 46, councilmember Alan Maisel gave overwhelmingly to his own Jewish community, including $118,500 to the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty. Although his district includes part of East Flatbush, he did not give any funds to Haitian organizations.
Community residents not surprised
District residents are frustrated that Eugene and other council representatives are not transparent about their budgets or as supportive of Haitian and Caribbean organizations in central Brooklyn that need it most.
“Eugene will go to the churches and give big speeches like he’s a community member, when in fact he is just taking advantage of our community,” said Wesly Simon, executive chef at Zanmi Restaurant in District 40’s Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood. “As a small business, we do a lot of things to help our people and if somebody doesn’t stand in that light, we cannot stand with you.”
He said that it is especially dire for Eugene to support organizations in his own district because it is more financially at-need than others in Brooklyn.
Community members said that even though they have invited Eugene to events to see how their organizations benefit their district, his support remains lackluster.
Casseus said he is thankful for the funding that the HCC does receive and that it has helped the organization expand its programs to a wider population.
“Discretionary funding has really sustained us in doing our outreach work and creating strategies around how to reach people who are vulnerable, who don’t have access, and who need the services that we offer,” said Casseus, of East Flatbush. “When the HCC first started, there were almost no resources available specifically for Haitian immigrants.”
Such funding helps the HCC provide support for undocumented immigrants who don’t have access to primary care, proper housing, and resources for chronic illnesses like HIV.
Why discretionary funding matters
As 2021 kicks off, the New York City Council is preparing for a big election in November. The list of issues voters will look at include housing, assistance for small businesses and access to education. Another factor that could play into whom constituents select is the funding allocated to individual councilmembers for discretionary spending.
While such funding benefits community groups overall, the City Council as a body has a history of corruption when it comes to discretionary funding, according to The New York Times, making it imperative to view how members spend funds.
“The amount of money that these people are throwing around is incredible,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of Educational Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College. “It’s strange that individual council members have discretion over the spending of government funds and designate pork for favored entities.”
“These councilmembers have given us discretionary funding every year since they’ve been in office because they’ve seen what we do and know who we are,” said Casseus. “It doesn’t make sense for us to go to someone who has a district in downtown Brooklyn.”
Councilmembers from the organizations Eugene funded in other districts did not support any Haitian-American organizations in his district, choosing instead to help organizations within their own communities. Experts say that Eugene’s decision to fund community organizations outside of his own districts is concerning.
“This type of discretionary spending is something that should be shone light on,” said Viteritti. “It raises legitimate questions of conflicts.”
Non-profit organizations that wish to receive funding from the council must first fill out an online application each year. After reviewing the applications, the council determines which organizations receive the funding. Nonprofits must also register in different online portals and platforms through the city.
“Part of the problem is that although there is a degree of transparency and we could look up a listing for an individual councilmember and see where they designated money, it’s still pretty opaque as to who and why they’re getting the money,” Bloomfield said. “It’s very hard to tell what might not have been and what organizations did not receive the money.”
Other experts say that while there is potential for corruption with the council’s discretionary funding, the process is ultimately beneficial for the community.
“It’s a way of empowering government at a grassroots level and it allows people who know their districts better than anyone else in the council to expend resources in a way that could benefit the community,” Viteritti said. “If you have a situation where voters believe the council member is not using those resources in a way that benefits the community, they have the ability to get rid of that person.”
Editor’s Note: The calculation of the funds disbursed does not include dollars given to city agencies like the Department of Education and quasi-government entities such as the public universities and local community boards. Such entities are evenly funded amongst council members throughout the city.