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Community Board 9 members like Larry English, a former board chair, say Columbia needs to be held accountable for its commitments to the local community.

Community Board 9 unanimously passed a resolution calling for a state audit of Columbia's promises to the West Harlem community Thursday night.

Board members said the University has not been upholding the commitments it made to locals in the wake of its Manhattanville expansion. In May 2009, Columbia signed a Community Benefits Agreement that specified benefits for the neighborhood.

“Columbia is in breach of this agreement,” CB9 member Larry English, a former board chair, said. “We are demanding that the state of New York and the city of New York enforce the contracts.”

Board members are pleased that Columbia's $76 million benefits fund, specified in the CBA, is being used—the West Harlem Local Development Corporation awarded $2 million in grants to non-profits earlier on Thursday.

But they point to other provisions outlined in the CBA, the General Project Plan, and a restrictive declaration Columbia filed with the state—commitments they say have been ignored by the University. Administrators, on the other hand, say they are in full compliance with their obligations.

The CB9 resolution calls for the Empire State Development Corporation, the state's chief economic development agency, to conduct an audit of Columbia's performance to meet those obligations within 30 days.

Board members focused much of their criticism Thursday on the University's minority hiring practices, which the ESDC is already investigating. Last month, Columbia released statistics that showed that 51 percent of non-specialty contracting dollars were spent on MWL firms, and 67 percent of non-specialty trade hours were completed by MWL workers between the beginning of construction and June 2012.

Those numbers exceeded the goals set in the CBA, which calls for 35 percent of contracting dollars to go to MWL firms and 40 percent of trade hours to be performed by MWL workers.

However, Columbia's statistics exclude specialty construction projects like building the site's slurry wall and the central energy plant. Excluding specialty construction eliminates “a big bulk of the work,” Joe Ienuso, executive vice president of facilities, told Spectator last month.

“This 51 percent looks good, except that big juicy part of the money, and that's what's missing here,” CB9 member Arnold Boatner said.

English called the statistics “insulting.” “They talk to us like we're children,” he said.

He mocked Columbia's assertion that constructing the campus' slurry wall, which he characterized as digging a ditch, was specialty construction.

“People of color in America have a Ph.D. in digging ditches,” he said. “We have dug more ditches and laid more cement than any group of people in the history of the world.”

The University maintains that it is meeting its obligations.

“Columbia is proud to fulfill its commitments to the West Harlem community,” Columbia spokesperson Victoria Benitez said in a statement Friday. “New York State review of specific commitments listed in the General Project Plan is very much a part of the agreed-to process between the University and the community.”

CB9 chair Rev. Georgiette Morgan-Thomas said she was also concerned that many minority employees were not from Upper Manhattan. The minority employees she has talked to the site were from Brooklyn or the Bronx, she said.

According to the latest statistics released by the University, 21 percent of the MWL workforce hours were local—in other words, a large majority of women and minority workers came from outside the area.

“Columbia should be more transparent about who these people are,” Morgan-Thomas said.

Kofi Boateng, executive director of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, agreed that more specific data was needed.

“We have monthly meetings with Columbia, and this is a constant item on the agenda,” he said.

Beyond concerns over hiring, English also said Columbia had failed to keep other promises to the community, including a scholarship fund for Upper Manhattan students going to Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science to a year. The fund would support up to 40 scholarships per semester, the GPP states.

“I've been told Columbia is saying they can't find 40 children from Upper Manhattan” who are admitted into the schools, English said. “But this is a contract.”

Other commitments outlined in the CBA and the General Project Plan include shuttle bus service, mobile dental care, and a medical technician training program.

“I don't know if any of this stuff is being done because nobody has told us anything,” English said. “We suspect and we know that Columbia is not living up to other parts of this agreement.”

After publication, Columbia spokesperson Victoria Benitez said in a statement that since fall 2010, “we have provided at least 40 need-based scholarships to local aid-eligible students annually.” The amount of the scholarships is based on students' demonstrated need.

casey.tolan@columbiaspectator.com | @caseytolan
West Harlem Local Development Corporation Community Board 9
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