If the State Legislature approves the $168 billion executive budget recently proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, Roosevelt Island is in line to receive an infusion of funds to help pay for capital improvements around the Island.
The Governor’s proposed budget, which was released last week, includes a $25 million payment to the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC), promised in 2013 as part of a deal that awarded Cornell Tech the rights to the 2.62-acre parcel of land that rings the new campus.
The inclusion of the budget item comes as a relief to Islanders who advocated for the original deal and who worried that the State planned to renege after the fact.
“I am thrilled and relieved to know that the State has kept their agreement, and that RIOC will have more money to complete many needed projects,” said Ellen Polivy, co-chair of the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition (RICC), a Cornell Tech watchdog group. “I used to joke that the hours the Community Coalition spent pushing Cornell and the State to pay for our land might have been better spent working and paying for it ourselves. But we could never have paid $25 million, and no money could have paid for the priceless synergy of involving Cornell Tech students and staff in community life on Roosevelt Island.”
Alonza Robertson, public information officer for the corporation, says, “We are waiting to see if, and how, the budget request is passed. It may come with direct stipulations of what the Legislature wants it to be used for. Or it may not. We will know more after April 1.”
In 2011, the City awarded Cornell and Technion Universities 12 acres of land, which, at the time, held the Goldwater Specialty Hospital and Nursing Facility, to build a new campus. But the land grant also included the property on which Loop Road sits, which is operated by RIOC, a State agency.
“We said, ‘Wait a second,’” RIOC Board Member Margie Smith recalled of the negotiations. “Part of the land on campus still belonged to us, to RIOC. So when they came and said, ‘We want you to give us that section of the land,’ we said we’d be very happy to for a reduced ground rent of $1 million per year, but in present value, up front by [the end of] 2018. We are providing services for everybody that [will live] there.”
The deal, negotiated in 2013, specified that the State would pay RIOC $1 million per year until 2069 – when Roosevelt Island is scheduled to revert to New York City’s control – as a lump sum payment of the net present value, all before December 31, 2018.
According to the December 16, 2013 document, executed by Empire State Development Corporation, the appropriation was to occur no later than December 31, 2018 and would be subject to the annual appropriation process and State budgetary procedure.
But in the years that followed, the State appeared to go back on the agreement, insisting that the payment was optional and would be released only if needed.
“The following year [after the deal was made], the State Budget Office said, ‘Take that line out. We don’t have a contract that says you are going to get that money,’” Smith said at a 2016 Roosevelt Island Community Coalition meeting, after the funds were once again left out of RIOC’s budget.
“Both RIRA and RICC were outraged,” says former RICC member Joyce Short. Both groups submitted resolutions to RIOC demanding that the funds be requested.
At the time, RIOC President Susan Rosenthal said she’d never believed receiving the $25 million was an absolute. “What I’m trying to tell you is this: We can’t ask the State for money when we don’t need it. You can’t expect the State to give you money when you’re sitting on money,” she said, referring to a multi-million surplus RIOC had at the time, the result of many years’ worth of deferred maintenance, in some cases decades’ worth. “We need to show the State we spend and we’re competent at spending. By spending money we can say to Albany, ‘look at us, we’re doing stuff.’” Since then, RIOC has developed a five-year, $65-million improvement plan to address aging infrastructure and public facilities, including Sportspark, the seawall, and repairs to the Helix.
RIOC’s 2018-2019 budget projects revenues of $51,203,000 and capital improvements in the amount of $41,560,000. Capital improvements include roughly $3.8 million for sports fields and parks, $1.5 million on historic and landmark structures, $20 million on infrastructure improvements, $7.7 million on facilities and offices, and $7.1 million on the Tramway.
“The same projects that were put into this year’s budget could easily have been entered into the budget last year,” argues Short. “But the fact that the budget seems finally to be holding the State accountable is truly good news.”
Smith said, “We’re very encouraged to see that the State budget has this line item in it and we’re cautiously optimistic that it will be approved by our legislators when the budget is voted on.”
A final State budget is anticipated to pass April 1.