Columbia University Community Benefits Agreement in Chaos Due to Questions about Nonprofit

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November 6, 2011; Source: New York Post| If New York AG Eric Schneiderman has his eye on a nonprofit, and New York Post reporter Isabel Vincent has her eye on both the nonprofit and the AG, you know there’s a big-time story brewing. Vincent and her colleague Melissa Klein report that AG Schneiderman is looking into the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, a nonprofit that was created to receive and disburse $74 million or $76 million (we’ve seen both numbers in news coverage) from Columbia University as compensation of a sort for the school’s expansion into the Manhattanville neighborhood. Last month, Vincent and Klein revealed that the LDC had already been given $3.5 million by Columbia, but had no executive director, no website, and no apparent means for community organizations to apply to use some of the monies. They also revealed that so far, as reported by the LDC board chairman, the organization has spent $302,000 on a summer program for 200 teenagers (through the Summer Youth Employment Program of the City’s Department of Youth and Community Development) and $400,000 on consultants

The monies aren’t simply compensation. They were the result of a “community benefits agreement” (CBA) that Columbia negotiated with the Manhattanville community as a result of the property acquisition and residential displacement associated with its development of a new campus. Tension around the organization created to disburse the CBA funding has been around for a while, with members of Community Board 9 (which helped negotiate the CBA) expressing frustration with the LDC’s receipt of monies from Columbia early on after the finalizing of the CBA in 2009, but holding no public hearings or other outreach to figure out what to do with the funds. CB9 demanded that the LDC be dissolved and a new organization formed, to which the LDC board chair (appropriately named Donald Notice) agreed, but his agreement to create a new organization by July was never fulfilled.

What interests us is the Community Benefits Agreement itself. For some time we have been intrigued by the variety of CBAs negotiated around the nation, some looking quite good on paper but generating suspicions that the post-CBA implementation might be a challenge to monitor. The Columbia CBA is really a $150 million deal. In addition to the monies going to the West Harlem LDC, Columbia also pledged to build a new K-8 school ($30 million), capitalize an affordable housing trust fund ($20 million), provide “in-kind benefits” (another $20 million), and commit to local and minority hiring, all negotiated to deal with the community impacts of Columbia’s $6.4 billion construction project.

It may be that the West Harlem LDC hasn’t actually registered as a nonprofit, even though the $400,000 expenditure for consultants seems to have been used toward getting the group set up. That makes it unclear how the organization could have given DYCD the $300,000 and by what process it then turned down DYCD’s request for another $1 million more.

The CBA sounds like a deal that should be relatively public, right? In fact, several public officials—Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Congressman Charlie Rangel, for instance—have representatives on the West Harlem LDC board. But the board has resisted calls for transparency, much less audits. The press has filed Freedom of Information requests for records, but Notice and the LDC’s fiduciary agent, the Fund for the City of New York, have declined to turn over information. According to DNAInfo, “Representatives for the Fund for the City of New York said they were a private non-profit and not subject to public records law [and] Notice said he felt the WHLDC had no obligation to release its records.” 

There are enough public sector officials involved in the LDC that it shouldn’t take an FOIA request to pry information from the organization. The organization was funded through a public negotiation, including the involvement of a community planning board, which should make the tattered defense mounted by the Fund and by Notice against transparency specious and wrong-headed. What kind of consultants could have used up $400,000 in fees and created this mess? And what are Columbia University president Lee Bollinger and other Columbia bigwigs doing during all this turmoil? Tittering on the sidelines? Doesn’t Columbia have an obligation to make sure that this Community Benefits Agreement is implemented on the up-and-up, with maximum transparency and public reporting?—Rick Cohen