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The Public Ought to Know: Glen Oaks Library project must become a priority

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You would think getting money in the city budget would mean a program or project would happen. Not so! Just bringing your child to school each day guarantees nothing if you fail to check homework, confer with teachers and set ground rules at home for studying — to mention just a few. You need to be as much a nudge after a project gets funded as you did to get it funded.

My favorite case in point involves the Glen Oaks Library. Before I ever contemplated leaving the Council for the Bronx borough president, Bernice Siegal, now a judge, and I prevailed upon our councilman-employer to fund roof repairs at that branch. Since we both grew up in the community, when the librarians there cited a need to fix the two-story building, it resonated with us. To his credit, the councilman concurred in making the project a priority nearly a decade ago.

It did not hurt that former Community Board 13 Chairwoman Sue Noreika and local civics supported the needed renovations. The budget adopted in June 1994 included $300,000. That money remained substantially unused and was carried over to June 1995 when the budget included $474,000 in the capital commitment plan.

In a subsequent meeting at our district office, the Queens Borough Public Library advised that the repair needs at the branch library were greater and proposed a new building, site to be determined. In the interim, the QBPL would authorize stop-gap repairs at the existing branch. And, of course, we were asked to allocate much more money in the next budget to fund a new Glen Oaks Library.

Subsequently, the QBPL requested permission to use money allocated to build the new Glen Oaks branch to complete another project ready for construction but short of funding. The councilman who covered the other branch committed to allocate funds in the next budget to make the Glen Oaks project whole again.

A few weeks into the winter of 2004, visit Union Turnpike at 256th Street and observe the same library branch. In October 2002 I voted against my community board’s recommended capital project priorities when it failed to make the Glen Oaks Library a top priority but kept another library project already in construction near the very top (No. 2). Glen Oaks moved up the following year to No. 3 from No. 24.

City agencies need not follow community board priorities, but borough presidents and council members often rely on these recommendations when they fund projects during the budget process. I directed community groups and residents to their local community boards when they proposed a project or program to the councilman for whom I served.

This good government approach also made for good politics; it becomes hard to question the motives of an elected official in directing funding when that official acts in accord with community wishes as embodied in a community board’s recommendation.

Lack of progress on the Glen Oaks project infused my recommendation last spring as a consultant to a council member. Civic leaders sought a new branch library; it made political sense for the member, facing primary opponents from that community, to fund the library. Only one problem: The QBPL keeps its own capital needs list and had no plans for that project for more than a decade.

It made no sense to allocate funds if the agency will not use them. I recommended meeting with the QBPL about its priorities and plans for the branch after the budget got done. I know the councilman remains eager to fund it.

The general rule is that 20 percent to 30 percent of construction costs cover project design work. City agencies often hire contractors to design projects. I’ll need a separate column to address how the city awards of professional design contracts can affect project quality and cost.

Fast forward to 2004. The September 2003 Capital Commitment Plan, online at nyc.gov/html/omb/html/budpubs.html#sep2003capplan, indicates $395,000 for design and $6.7 million for construction of a replacement facility for Glen Oaks. Construction money remains a promise since mayors sometimes cut projects not in the building stage and it is then allocated for next year’s budget. Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis), who chairs the Finance Committee, secured this funding, and I suspect he will do all he can to ensure it happens.

The bottom line remains that the project should have been done before Weprin took office. Agency plans in a representative democracy ought not to take precedence to an adopted budget. It shows arrogance to ignore community needs and legislative initiatives. Legislators and the public need to pay as much attention after budgets get adopted as they do during the budget adoption process.

Corey Bearak is an attorney and adviser on government, community and public affairs. He is also active in Queens civic and political circles.

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