Former Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio committed the crime, but leaders of local community organizations feel they are doing the time.
Approximately 20 nonprofits that serve Richmond Hill, Woodhaven, Ozone Park, Ridgewood and Glendale are struggling to make ends meet without the aid of discretionary funds that had always been provided by Seminerio, who resigned in June from the 38th District Assembly seat and pleaded guilty to fraud charges the following day.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) suspended all the disgraced politician’s member items when he fell under suspicion for misappropriating funds. A spokesman for Silver said member items were not granted to Seminerio in 2009-10, and that past funding had been suspended. He wouldn’t confirm how much money was allocated for local nonprofits, and said he was uncertain if that funding had already been used.
Newly elected Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Glendale), who was sworn in last week after the special election, says he is working to recapture some of the funding, but with only a few months left in the year, a positive outcome for the inherited dilemma doesn’t look promising.
“When someone is indicted they [Assembly leaders] have to be very careful,” Miller said.
Although none of the nonprofit organizers blamed Miller, the leaders, who represent a vast array of service-oriented groups — from welfare, health and education to senior centers and animal shelters — shared the same frustration: their services are suffering and they shouldn’t be punished for the actions of their former representative.
“I cannot function without member funds — I have to pay bills,” said Simcha Waisman of the One Stop Richmond Hill Community Center. “Tony’s money was good for us, it paid our bills and utilities. [Silver] thinks that by punishing us, he’s punishing Tony. But taking it away is like shutting the door on us.”
Waisman, who says Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn (D-Flushing) has offered a great deal of help and acted as a spokeswoman for the center, needs at least a portion of the $150,000 he was supposed to receive in funding at the end of August. Without more money, he isn’t sure if One Stop, which offers after-school tutoring, NASA education camp, Mommy and Me classes and more, can survive past the holidays. “I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Bobbi Giordano, who rescues dogs and cats and houses them at her shelter, Bobbi and the Strays in Glendale, said her veterinarian bills alone are $60,000 a year. Although she was receiving $25,000 a year from former state Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale), she was only asking for $5,000 from Seminerio. Without the funding, she has to rely on fundraising — no easy feat in a fragile economy.
“It’s really rough,” Giordano said. “We’re digging into our own pockets.”
Maria Thomson, president of the Greater Woodhaven Development Corporation, said she and co-workers felt it was a major injustice on Silver’s part to take away their funding.
“We’re a credible group,” Thomson said. “We’ve proved ourselves over and over again with audits. Everything is on record and we are legitimate.”
Frank Kotnik, former president of the Glendale Civilian Observation Patrol, says his group was in dire need of Seminerio’s funding a few years ago and that the politician approached them to ask if if he could help, and not the other way around.
“What happened with Seminerio is pretty bad, but it’s not going to affect us much,” Kotnik said. “We’re going to make out.”
Still, discretionary funding is the “life blood” of many other community organizations, said Albert Baldeo, a Democratic community leader who heads the United Communities Alliance in Ozone Park.
“We have heard complaints from many of these entities that they have run out of money to pay program and operational costs, including salaries, bills, taxes, maintenance and utilities, and can only remain in existence if funding is restored,” Baldeo said.
Until the issue is resolved, leaders continue to question the money’s whereabouts. “Did Silver give it to his Lower East Side district?” Thomson asked. “Did it come back to Queens? What happened to the funding?”