Brooklyn community board leaders urge Speaker to reinstate budget funding for Vocal New York

Council Speaker Corey Johnson (left) and Boerum Hill Councilman Steve Levin.
John McCarten/New York City Council

Members of Brooklyn’s Community Board 6 are urging Council Speaker Corey Johnson to reinstate funding for the local drug addiction services organization Vocal New York, which advocates allege Johnson cut from this year’s budget in retribution for the group’s recent protests.

Leaders of the advocacy group claim Johnson slashed $2.25 million of previously-allocated funds from this year’s budget — which organizers were planning to use to pay for a new headquarters — as revenge for their involvement in efforts to defund the Police Department.

In a July 30 letter to the speaker, CB6 civic gurus asked the lawmaker to undo the cut.

“Vocal New York has a history of helping and advocating for those who most need help in our city, and that is why they were initially awarded this funding. No protest of this year’s budget alters that track record and shouldn’t impact their future,” read the letter, penned by the board’s Chairperson Peter Fleming, District Manager Michael Racioppo, and Budget Committee Chairperson Rick Luftglass.

Advocates with Vocal New York — who plan to move from their current Boerum Hill outpost to 300 Douglass St. in Gowanus — said the funds would have allowed them to buy the property and fund renovations instead of renting it, which will incur tens of thousands of dollars in extra costs in the coming years, according to Paulette Soltani, the group’s political director.

The group — which recently helped set up the encampment of demonstrators outside Manhattan’s City Hall and also took part in a rally outside the Williamsburg apartment of Johnson’s boyfriend in late June — believes the budget cut is a payback for their protests.

“We believe it’s political retaliation and now we just want to move forward,” Soltani said, echoing her boss Jeremy Saunders’s criticism to Politico, which first reported the controversial funding cut.

Vocal New York provides clean needle exchanges for drug addicts, and also offers other social services for people who are homeless and have HIV/AIDS, and Soltani said that Johnson’s move is a blow to the group’s democratic rights that directly hurts some of the city’s most vulnerable.

“It’s anti-democratic and it’s especially dangerous and disappointing because this type of retaliation is suppressing some of the most marginalized people in city,” the advocate said. “It’s suppressing the actions and political power of people that are often told the most by those in power that they don’t have a voice.”

The heads of the community board — which represents the areas of Gowanus, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Columbia Waterfront, and Red Hook — said that the organization will be crucial for jobs and services in the area and that Johnson should reconsider the funding slash.

“We would benefit greatly from the jobs and services that would be provided,” the letter read. “If this revocation is a matter of absolute necessity, it would be understandable. However, we’d ask that funding be restored if it was disappeared as political retribution for Vocal New York’s role in opposing and protesting, the amount of police funding in the proposed and adopted budget.”

A spokeswoman for Johnson’s office declined to comment directly on the board’s request, but vehemently denied any political motivations behind the cut, noting the Council had received more than $1 billion in capital requests this year and that they weren’t able to fund many of them due to the city having $100 million less in cash to spare for those projects.

“Unfortunately, the project from last year that they applied for and received discretionary funding for fell through,” said Jennifer Fermino in a statement. “That forced us to make difficult choices, and we were unable to fund Vocal’s new project. We look forward to working with them in the future.”

The Brooklyn group also advocates for policy changes, such as pushing the state to pilot a safe injection facility in the borough — a proposal that Mayor Bill de Blasio approved in 2018, but has been gathering dust on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk ever since.

Local Councilman Steve Levin, who sponsored Vocal’s funding for this year’s budget, has championed the proposed injection site, going as far as to be handcuffed by cops at a protest two years ago.

When reached by phone, Levin said he didn’t know why the money was dropped from the budget and that he had only heard about it last week.

“I can’t speak to why the speaker’s office didn’t reallocate the funding. I wasn’t part of that decision,” he said, adding that he is hoping to get the funding sometime mid-year, before the next budget in June 2021 — something, he conceded, rarely happens, but that would go a long way towards keeping the group in the area to do their work.

“The work they do in terms of harm reduction is very important,” he said. “I definitely want Vocal to stay in the community and in my district. Hopefully we’ll get a way to get the project funded.”