‘Dormitory Authority’ Builds a Bridge
The Dormitory Authority of the State of New York was founded in 1944 to build dormitories at state teachers’ colleges. Its mission evolved to include funding the construction of college residence halls, education, and healthcare facilities. But in 2008, the Authority issued a $250,000 grant to the Hudson Valley Trust, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded by former state senator Vincent Leibell. That grant was used not to fund housing, but to build a covered footbridge in a quiet Patterson field.
Leibell, who pleaded guilty in December to two federal corruption charges, founded the Trust to preserve local history, and its projects have a big presence in Patterson. Built in 2008, the bridge was just a few hundred feet from the Lawlor Building, which was renovated with taxpayer grant money obtained by the Hudson Valley Trust and which served as an office for Leibell and other organizations.
The Dormitory Authority’s grant to construct a footbridge—under which no one lives, as some commentators have noted—has raised questions about the Authority’s mission and how it decides to award taxpayer money. During its 70 year history, the agency has handed out billions of public funds, and it continues to award grants during New York State’s present fiscal crisis.
State Senator Greg Ball, Leibell’s successor, placed blame for much of New York’s budget woes on the relatively hidden expenditures of the state’s many authorities and agencies. “The larger issue is that members [of the assembly and senate], at least previously, had the authority to tuck away millions of dollars, aggregate millions of dollars at a time, [with] no accountability,” he told the Courier.
The Dormitory Authority, also known as DASNY, was established in 1944 by Governor Thomas Dewey to finance and construct dormitories at state teachers’ colleges. Susan Barnett, public information officer for the Authority, said that over time the organization expanded its mandate to include projects related to healthcare, education, and certain government agencies. Such organizations are mentioned specifically on the Authority’s website as “eligible.” Bridge-building, in the concrete sense, is not mentioned anywhere.
However, organizations that do not fall directly within the Authority’s official scope can lobby a state senator or legislator in order to make it onto the list of groups authorized to received grant money.
The funds for the bridge, which the Trust requested in late 2006, were admissible under the Dormitory Authority’s New York Economic Development Grant Program, available to economic development projects located outside cities with populations of one million or more. According to the Authority’s 2006 annual report, while some projects are designated a specific agency construction project manager, those that are not must submit requisitions for payment, and a desk audit is conducted prior to payment.
The Courier has been unable to receive an official accounting of how the secluded footbridge promoted “economic development” in Patterson. The Courier has also confirmed that no one is legally sleeping in or under the bridge. Upon first reporting on the footbridge last June, Roger Gross, who was executive director of the Hudson Valley Trust until December, told the Courier that, though the two-year old bridge had not been used often, “word is just starting to spread about it. We have to publicize it.” He added that the Fraternal Order of Police held a function at the bridge last summer.
“We have these general organizations that are okay,” said Barnett, the Authority’s spokeswoman. “If somebody [outside the statute] comes to us and says we’d really like [a grant], we say, ‘You would have to go to the legislature and get them to have you added to our statute.’”
The Trust’s “grant disbursement agreement” with the Dormitory Authority, obtained by the Courier through a Freedom of Information Law request, indicates that the Trust’s lawyer, Clement Van Ross, who also serves as counsel to the Putnam County Legislature, vouched for the organization’s validity. No other descriptions, such as specific reasons for why the project was authorized or how the bridge promotes economic development were listed. Much of the paperwork—including the requisition forms—is completely blank. The Authority is still processing the remainder of the Courier’s FOIL request, including correspondence between Senator Leibell and the Authority.
After the Courier reported on the cost of the bridge last summer, Leibell, issued a critical response, saying that constructing the covered bridge, which extends over a creek near the parking lot of the Lawlor Building to an unkempt field, was actually a cost-saving measure. Without the bridge, Leibell said the Trust would have needed to construct a costly parking lot elsewhere to provide access to the green space.
Leibell, during his nearly 30 years in Albany as a state senator and assemblyman, presumably directed such grants to his two 501(c)(3) nonprofits, the Trust and the Putnam Community Foundation. Still, the amount of power that Leibell had in persuading the Dormitory Authority to allocate taxpayer dollars to his personal nonprofits remains unknown.
Ball indicated that the problem with most state agencies is their lack of transparency. “If we’re serious about cutting expenditures, waste, fraud, abuse, and patronage in New York State, we’ve got to start with completely streamlining, reorganizing, and holding these agencies and authorities accountable—and to that extent, actually eliminating many of them,” Ball said.
The Dormitory Authority’s 2010 annual report specifies that grants are awarded by the legislature and governor in accordance to certain guidelines and then forwarded to DASNY. “The Dormitory Authority does not review the project or the grantee for ongoing operational viability, nor does the Dormitory Authority assess the economic impacts and/or other benefits the project may have on the community or the State,” reads the report.
Grant approval is sought from both the legislature and the Public Authorities Control Board—made up of the governor, state majority leader, and assembly speaker.
In 2006, the same year the Hudson Valley Trust requested their grant, Gail Gordon, the Authority’s then-chairman, and Maryanne Gridley, the then-executive director, wrote to top New York officials about the Authority’s accomplishments for that year. “The future can be hard to see, but we get a glimpse of it every day at the Dormitory Authority,” they wrote. “We expended $845 million on 450 projects to construct hospital buildings, college dormitories, high-tech research laboratories, court facilities, mental health treatment centers and even a county jail.”
Locally, the Authority has given grant money to the Philipstown Town Hall to install new windows, Putnam Hospital Center for state of the art radiation technology, and to Putnam and Duchess Counties for enhanced emergency dispatch equipment.