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Council’s fund freeze hurts Flushing center

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Paul Engel would be the first to agree that the city's system for doling out pork money is both inefficient and flawed. But amid a burgeoning controversy over what are commonly referred to as "member items," he believes his group is now being unjustly punished for a problem he did not create.

Engel is the Flushing Jewish Community Council director, and because of a recent freeze on members items by City Comptroller Bill Thompson, the group is on the brink of bankruptcy.

"I was forced to lay off all staff, close programs, and now we're just operating on an austerity budget," Engel said. "We had to take a $10,000 loan in February. Basically, If we don't get this money, we'll be in bad shape."

Member item funding, also known as pork barrel or discretionary funding, is made up of millions of dollars set aside during the budget process to be allocated to non-profit agencies by City Council members each year.

Located at 43-43 Bowne St., the Flushing Jewish Community Council is one of more than 100 groups whose funding was frozen when Thompson announced he was conducting an audit of City Council member item funding. Member items have come under increasing scrutiny in recent months amid an ongoing investigation by the U.S. attorney's office and the revelation that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) had been "parking" millions of dollars in member items funding in non-existent non-profit agencies.

For the last 10 years, the Flushing Jewish Community Council has received thousands of dollars from City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) and former City Councilwoman Julia Harrison through the controversial system.

The group once ran 26 English as a Second Language classes in four locations in Queens and held numerous cultural events in the community. Engel said because his group has yet to receive the $42,000 in funding from the City Council, today it is only operating one class — and even that is in jeopardy.

"We're getting squashed by the city," he said. "They want us to continue to run the programs, but we don't get the money.

Engel said he went through all of the necessary paperwork to get his annual city grant in January. He said things were complicated when the Youth and Community Development Department, which administers the group's funding requests, said it needed a new set of forms signed, but contacted the wrong number.

By the time he had gotten the paperwork sorted out, it was April and Thompson had announced the freeze. Now Engel said he has had enough.

"There always seems to be a snafu," he said. "I would say we definitely are going to have to look elsewhere for funding, because if not, we just won't have the money to run our programs. It's been too long with the difficulties with the city."

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

Updated 6:58 pm, October 10, 2011
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