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Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Community Boards and Land Use


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A community board meeting (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The mayor’s Charter Revision Commission met on Tuesday at the Pratt Institute for the third of its four expert advisory issue forums, this time discussing potential changes to community boards and the city’s land use process. The first meeting, held last Tuesday, focused on voting and election reform, while the second, held last Thursday, focused on campaign finance reform.

The commission, consisting of 15 members appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, including Chair Cesar Perales, will finalize a list of proposed changes to the city charter by early September that will then appear on the general election ballot in November for voters to approve or disapprove.

Stakeholders and experts such as City Comptroller Scott Stringer, community board members, academics, and advocates provided commentary and recommendations for the commission regarding the issues of community boards and land use; on some issues, the panelists and the commissioners all seemed to be in broad consensus, while on others there was evident discord.

One area of relative cohesion was a recommendation that all community boards have a full time expert on urban planning as a paid staff member, though it is unclear that this would rise to the level of being charter-mandated (there has been City Council legislation introduced to make such a requirement for each community board, which, if passed, would become a part of the city’s administrative code, not the charter). Most community boards are said to be understaffed and rely on volunteers to do important work; board members are all volunteers, which can both tilt the demography of the boards in certain directions, like wealthier than the represented area, and lends itself to a general lack of intimate knowledge of planning.

Stringer, who noted that he became the youngest ever appointee to a community board in 1977 at the age of 16, made his position clear, saying “what is truly needed” is “a full time urban planner on the staff of every community board.”

“The sole responsibility of this planner would be to support the board’s analysis in the development of recommendations on land use matters and to coordinate community based planning activities,” he continued. “Expertise of the urban planner would better enable community boards to conduct comprehensive community planning.” Stringer said the urban planner should have a degree in urban planning, architecture, real estate development, public policy, “or similar disciplines,” and that the city must “include the necessary budget appropriations to fund this position.”

“A community planner would be a game-changer in communities that are experiencing extraordinary land use applications, and quite frankly, they don’t have the expertise and they’re at a tremendous disadvantage,” Stringer said.

Kyle Bragg, a charter revision commissioner and secretary-treasurer of labor union 32BJ SEIU, questioned whether all community boards would need a land use professional, saying that land use applications (ULURPs) are not constantly being considered in a community board like Far Rockaway as much as in Midtown Manhattan. Stringer disagreed, saying that development is occurring all over the city and that “gentrification knows no bounds.”

Stringer also recommended that the city provide training on issues of land use to members of community boards on a periodic basis, something that Stringer said he prioritized as Manhattan Borough President (borough presidents appoint most community board members in their respective boroughs).

Stringer did not, however, endorse community board member term limits, breaking with some of his fellow testifiers. “When you have term limits, you also have a lame duck status that sets in,” he said. “We’re gonna see that with people now in their fifth year wondering what office they’re gonna run for next, and I dare say you’re gonna see a lot of musical chairs and people thinking about the future, not necessarily the job in front of them. And that’s just the reality of elected term limits,” he said, in apparent reference to the dozens of City Council members, five borough presidents, and three citywide officials who are all term-limited at the end of the current term. Instead, he endorsed a process undertaken during his borough presidency of periodic reviews of board members, reappointing those doing a good job and sacking those who weren’t.

Community board members who testified did not offer unequivocal support to term limits.

“I think it takes a couple of years to try to figure out how to write a resolution, how to understand city government,” said Shah Ally, chair of Manhattan Community Board 12. “But I also don’t think you need to be on the board 30 years, either.”

Rachel Bloom of government reform group Citizens Union, meanwhile, took an unambiguous stance in favor of term limits.

“Community board members should be term-limited, serving [up to] five consecutive two-year terms,” she said, while noting that the term limits should be phased in gradually to “ensure there is not a mass exodus of institutional knowledge from the boards.”

Stringer claimed that community boards have deviated significantly from their ancestral origin in 1951, at the impetus of Manhattan Borough President Robert Wagner, as Community Planning Boards. The comptroller said that, with numerous elected officials maintaining district offices, the use of community boards for constituent services draws resources away from the more integral tenet of land use.

During the portion of the commission hearing focused on land use, two general themes played out among the speakers: that the land use process does not adequately facilitate community input and that the process is more geared toward short-term zoning concerns and less toward long-term community planning.

“The symptom of the conflict, the neighborhood-city conflict, throughout much of the ULURP process that can both stop good things from happening and also not give communities power over unneeded or unwanted uses, is a sense that there is no ability to proactively community plan,” said Moses Gates, the vice president of housing and neighborhood planning at the Regional Plan Association. “That unless you’re able to put forth a positive vision that has some oomph behind it, and some ability to be recognized, that the only option you’re left with is an option of obstruction, or an option of essentially trying to go through the process and make the best of what might be perceived as a bad deal.”

Gates recommended the creation of an “Office of Community-Based Planning” to assist communities, and community boards, in land use and planning. Gates also recommended a charter codification of a “fair share” program, wherein communities shoulder burdens of ill-desired land uses, like a sewage treatment plant for instance, equally, instead of being shouldered disproportionately by communities without the political and social capital to fight those land uses.

“Planning is more than land use,” said Elena Conte, director of policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development. “It properly considers the systems and the structures into which land use fits. It’s about the social, environmental, and economic wellbeing, and land use is not planning. And so I think we are asking the wrong questions of our land use procedures, right? Both government, stakeholders, developers, and communities feel as though too much is being lumped onto the process unfairly.”

Others, such as Hunter College professor Tom Angotti, said that the important decisions are often made unaccountably in the “pre-ULURP” process, meaning a period before the city’s official Uniform Land Use Review Process that takes land use decisions from developers or the City Planning Department to community boards to the Borough President and Borough Board to the City Planning Commission and, finally, to the City Council.

“All those discussions that go on, side discussions, agreements that get made behind closed doors, are part of the undemocratic process that precedes ULURP,” said Angotti. “And it’s followed by a series of public hearings, at the community level, at the borough president level, at the City Planning Commission level, at the City Council level, which are more theater than true democracy. Why? Because we’re stuck in a method for participation that is bankrupt.” Angotti noted that concerned citizens are often forced to wait hours in order to testify for three minutes to a few sleepy-eyed bureaucrats.

Angotti also recommended that ULURP decisions be made based on preordained “197-a” plans submitted by community boards, rather than on an ad hoc basis. Since the 1989 charter revision that established 197-a plans considerable by the City Planning Commission, only 17 community plans have been submitted to the city.

“The biggest single reform could be a charter requirement that every ULURP action be consistent with a 197-a plan,” forcing both community boards to submit such plans and the City Planning Commission to take them seriously and not simply shelve them.

Commision Chair Perales, however, criticized the land use panel of testifiers as failing to clearly present their recommendations in a digestible manner.

“We are supposed to put something clear and concrete before the voters,” Perales said. “We’re not decision-makers here. We’re here to determine what it is the issues that you think should be addressed in a revision of the city charter. And if you have the opportunity, or are so inclined, maybe go back and send us something that will help us to digest, better understand, what your positions are on what we can do about land use with what are gonna be relatively minor changes in the city charter.”

“Remember,” he continued, “you don’t want to go into the voting booth and have to review a three page referendum that this planning commission put before you, so we have a tough job, and while we have been persuaded by many of your comments, I’m not so sure we understand how to put it before the voters.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

City Council Push for Budget Transparency Falls Far Short


De Blasio City Council members

Johnson, de Blasio, Dromm (l-r) (photo: John McCarten)


At several budget hearings earlier this year, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson took a hard line on transparency. He insisted that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration was being less than forthcoming on how money is spent and was hampering the Council’s charter-mandated authority to review and approve the city’s spending plan. To wit, in its official response to the mayor’s preliminary budget in April, the Council proposed adding 123 new units of appropriation -- budget lines that explain expenditures -- in order to more clearly and specifically show what the city is spending money on.

When the city’s new $89.2 billion budget was approved last week, however, the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget only added a total of five new units.

“We’re going to work with the Council,” de Blasio promised at at the release of his executive budget proposal in late April, two weeks after the Council’s response, when Gotham Gazette inquired about the push for more units of appropriations. “We have, over the years, been adding. We’re open to adding more. That’s an ongoing discussion, which we’ve had again today with the Council. Stay tuned.”

But there was little news to stay tuned for. The five new lines in the adopted budget include four under the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications -- two each for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MoME) and the NYC Cyber Command office which both fall under DoITT’s purview. Those units are for personal services (PS) which covers salaries and wages of agency employees, and other than personal services (OTPS) which includes costs such as office supplies, equipment, maintenance, and the like. In total, those budget lines cover $25.2 million in expenditures for MoME and $65.8 million for the Cyber Command.

The fifth unit of appropriation was created under the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, to allow the Council to look at expense funding allocated for the New York City Housing Authority, about $255.4 million for the 2019 fiscal year, which begins July 1 of this year.

It should be noted that the separate capital budget, which outlines city spending on infrastructure,includes six new budget lines -- one for the Brooklyn Public Library and five within Parks Department expenditures.

In April, at a hearing on a mid-year modification to the current annual expense budget, the Council first showed indications that it wouldn’t approve OMB’s requests without greater disclosure from the administration. Then, at a May hearing on the executive budget, prior to the new units of appropriation being added, Council Member Daniel Dromm, the chair of the Council’s finance committee, which leads the budget process at the Council, excoriated OMB officials for their refusal to be more transparent, insisting that the administration “must discontinue the longstanding practice of using vague and overbroad units of appropriation” over more specific ones.

Dromm continued, “While such a shift is understandably resisted by the Mayor because it would restrict his ability to transfer funds between programs without oversight and to avoid seeking budget modification approval from the Council, it is necessary to facilitate the Council’s and the public’s understanding of agency spending and performance and to more transparently track the Administration’s priorities.”

But the Council’s response to Gotham Gazette’s queries about the units of appropriation were more tempered. “[The] Council is very pleased with the end results of this budget process and is committed to more transparency measures, including continuing the push for more lines of appropriation,” said Jennifer Fermino, a spokesperson for the speaker, in a statement.

A spokesperson for Council Member Dromm did not respond to a request for comment.

Maria Doulis, vice president of Citizens Budget Commission, an independent fiscal watchdog that advocates for increased budget transparency, among other changes, said the Council’s push for transparency likely fell by the wayside as it negotiated larger priorities such as discounted MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers.

“It might be best to come to some sort of agreement about this outside the budget because when you’re negotiating a budget, it’s all about the dollars and cents and not necessarily how the dollars and cents are presented,” Doulis said in a phone interview. She said the five new units are a “micro step forward” and that the Council must remain committed to a long-term approach, which could happen through a dedicated working group.

She also noted that the City Council has failed to push for transparency at crucial moments. She pointed out, for instance, that the mayor announced a new labor deal with the United Federation of Teachers on Wednesday but without details of how the spending will be reflected in the city budget. “So all these Council members are on this press release and they’re happy to laud and support this effort,” Doulis said, “but I didn’t hear any of them saying, ‘And we’d like to see a full accounting of what exactly the city will be paying for on this.’ So I don’t know that transparency is any better or worse than it was last year, or a couple of years ago under Mayor Bloomberg. In my mind it’s pretty much the same or marginally better.”

Although Doulis did say that the city’s budget is enormous and complex, and that the administration does publish more budget documents than other local governments, she said there should nonetheless be improvements. “The question is, can the average citizen ask a basic question about services that he or she cares about and their costs and look in the budget to find an answer fairly simply and easily,” she said, “and the answer to that is ‘no.’”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Hearing to Focus on City’s Delinquent Contracting Practices


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Council Member Levin (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The new city budget does not do enough to address the tremendous backlog of city contracts with nonprofit groups that have been left languishing by city agencies, the groups say. This comes after a recent report from the city comptroller that shows 81 percent of new and renewed contracts were registered retroactively, meaning after their start date, last fiscal year. Human services were the most affected, with more than 90 percent of contracts in this category submitted retroactively to the comptroller’s office by city agencies, half of them late by six months or more.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council recently agreed to a $89.2 billion operating budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Though it continues to increase spending at various city agencies that rely on human services nonprofits, there is no accompanying deal to address the rampant contracting delays across city agencies.

The problem of contract delays affects cash flow and services to the public, and also compounds other issues, such as contracts not accounting enough for overhead expenses, that together contribute to a financial crisis for many organizations that the city contracts with to provide vital services from homeless shelters to after school programs.

“It needs to be a priority of this administration to fix the backlog in contract registration and also the significant amount of contract amendments that are pending from investments the city made last year: money that was announced on July 1 of 2017 that providers still have not gotten in June of 2018,” said Michelle Jackson, spokesperson for the Human Services Advancement Strategy Group (HSASG), in an interview last week. The group, which consists of nine associations and represents some 2,000 human services provider organizations in New York City, will be testifying at a City Council oversight hearing on the issue at City Hall this Thursday, June 21. “There really needs to be a focus on getting all of those amendments and registrations up to date,” Jackson added.

The delay in the city’s procurement process means vendors -- predominately nonprofits in the human services sector -- are forced to either fund their own work while they wait for the city to register and approve their contracts, or delay starting operations entirely. For providers waiting to have their contracts renewed, Jackson said, “they have to just keep operating the service because you don’t just send all the kids home, you don’t kick everyone out of the shelter. It’s not like a construction project where you can just wait to get all your documents signed…Nonprofits are taking a real fiscal and legal liability by waiting for these contracts.”

It’s a system in “dire need of reform,” according to Comptroller Scott Stringer’s report. In a statement to Gotham Gazette last week, Stringer’s spokesperson added: “One of city government’s most important jobs is delivering services to New Yorkers in need – that’s why fixing the city procurement process is urgent and essential. Providing services to our most vulnerable residents depends on our ability to execute social service contracts expediently.”

The next step in addressing the issue is this week’s hearing of the City Council Committees on Contracts and General Welfare at City Hall, which will be co-chaired by Brooklyn Council Members Justin Brannan and Stephen Levin, the respective chairs of those committees. The “process has to be sped up,” Levin said.

“These providers are operating at significant deficit and often we engage with providers that are doing a lot of the work that we would like to see providers do, and they are doing it on their own fundraising,” Levin told Gotham Gazette.

The backlog is also putting pressure on the city’s Returnable Grant Fund, a revolving fund providing interest-free loans to nonprofits. February testimony from Acting Chair of the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, Dan Symon, to the City Council was referenced in the comptroller’s report, claiming the Fund processed 751 loans for nonprofits in fiscal year 2017 as a “direct result of delayed contract awards.” The combined total of these loans was $149.9 million.

“We need to make sure we are providing services equitably across the board,” Levin said. “That when you go to shelter you’re not just lucking out in getting into a good provider or a provider that’s has the ability to raise significant money versus a provider that can’t. That’s not an equitable system.”

Mayor de Blasio and his administration were widely criticized following the release of Stringer’s report, with questions raised about the progressive mayor’s commitment to human services organizations and their clients. The issues raised by the comptroller’s report are longstanding and nonprofits groups and their supporters have been lobbying city government to improve the process for sometime.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette last week, a City Hall spokesperson said the mayor’s office has been working to reduce contracting backlogs and that model budgets -- a system introduced this year designed to increase rates for providers funded below what is considered the ‘model’ to deliver appropriate service -- will help these departments fulfil their administrative duties to outside contractors.  

“We’ve invested more than a quarter-billion new dollars annually in our shelter provider partners to address decades of disinvestment and reform outdated rates they were paid for many years,” the spokesperson said. “We have also been working closely with these vital partners to resolve inherited contracting backlogs, implement model budgets for the first time ever, and address any outstanding challenges they may have to ensure they can deliver the services our neighbors in need deserve as they get back on their feet.”

 

Due to this work in resolving contracting issues, the City Hall spokesperson said this year is the first time in recent memory that providers will be operating with registered current contracts. As of May 2018, 97 percent of fiscal year 2018 contracts are registered and active, with only one contract still at the comptroller’s office and another contract pending provider budget submission.

According to the comptroller’s report, the seven city agencies that contract for the majority of human service programs are: the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), Department of Education (DOE), Department of Youth & Community Development (DYCD), Department for the Aging (DFTA), Department of Homeless Services (DHS), Human Resources Administration (HRA), and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).

All of these departments submitted more than half of their registration and renewal contracts retroactively to the comptroller’s office last year. DHS and HRA submitted 100 percent of these contracts retroactively, and the DOE was at 99.8 percent of registration and renewal contracts submitted after their start date. In HRA’s case, more than 60 percent of retroactive contracts were submitted to the comptroller’s office more than six months after the contract was due to start.

Despite the backlog, some departments are set to receive less funding in fiscal year 2019 than in the current, soon-to-end fiscal year, according to the city budget that was released on Monday June 12.

DYCD, for example, is receiving about $121 million less in funding via the city budget this financial year, yet of 859 registered or renewed contracts it received last year, 795 (92.5 percent) were submitted retroactively, according to the comptroller’s report. Similarly, DOHMH is allocated $112 million less in fiscal 2019 than it was in 2018, and of 314 new and renewed contracts it handled last fiscal year, 265 (or 84.4 percent) were submitted after their start date.

When asked if the budget has allocated enough resources to these city agencies that are struggling with contracting, Council Member Brannan said: “This is something we intend to discuss at the hearing on the 21st, both from the administration side as well as what the providers think. I am committed to working with the Speaker, Administration, as well as the Comptroller, to ensure we are processing contracts in as swift a manner as possible so that vital services are not being jeopardized due to procedural snafus that can be remedied.”

“I hope that through our hearing we can shed light on the administration’s progress implementing model budgeting across different agencies as well as seeing how the providers are faring with model budgeting,” Brannan added.  

DHS and the DOE, which respectively submitted 100 percent and 99.8 percent of contracts retroactively to the comptroller’s office last year, are both receiving an increase in funding for the upcoming fiscal year. According to the city’s preliminary budget, DHS is receiving more than $183 million in additional funding compared to the current fiscal year and DOE is budgeted an additional $1.2 billion.

Speaking to Gotham Gazette, Council Member Levin said the Council’s preliminary budget hearing with DHS dealt largely with where the increased funding is going and he is confident the additional funding will help the agency in improving contract delays.

“In our preliminary budget hearing with DHS, we did talk a lot about where a lot of the increased funding is going and they spoke a lot about the model budget contract,” Levin said. “So we’re expecting that it should be able to be covered in the significant increases in budget year-over-year in DHS. I have every expectation that they’ll be able to be covered it for sure. And if they’re not, there’s opportunities to do budget modifications.”

“We need a system that’s set up that can afford the services that we need to provide for over 60,000 people in shelter ...” Levin continued. “We need to make sure that the providers are funded enough so that they can provide adequate services.”

Comptroller Stringer's report makes two recommendations for improving the processing of contracts within city agencies: to stipulate deadlines for every agency that handles contract applications and to implement a transparent tracking system for vendors to follow their applications through the process. But the report also describes an extremely cumbersome system, weighed down in bureaucracy, in which up to five departments sometimes will handle a contract before it reaches the comptroller’s office -- the only agency with a deadline, which is 30 days -- where it is ultimately approved or kicked back to city agencies for more processing.

“What we’re looking at now is 100 percent late registration [from some departments] and what’s going to happen today and tomorrow to get that fixed?” Jackson, of the Human Services Advancement Strategy Group, said, adding that while she “absolutely agrees” with the comptroller’s recommendations, “a tracking system and a timeline are not going to fix the backlog” already in existence.

The HSASG is calling for a “SWAT Team” to immediately help clear the backlog, as well as allocation and recognition of this in the budget. Jackson said the group is asking for an additional $200 million to human services, not only to fix the contracting delays, but to also go to areas such as benefits, insurance, and occupancy costs.

“A lot of these contracts don’t have cost escalators, and obviously in New York City rent goes up every year (a lot of expenses go up), and there’s not a way to capture that,” Jackson said. “Of course we were disappointed to not see further investment in the sector but we appreciate it’s a long-term investment that needs to be made.”

Brannan said he “supports the recommendations” laid out in the comptroller’s report and that he is “working with the Comptroller’s office to come up with potential legislative fixes that would provide for agencies to process city contracts within a much more reasonable period of time.” He said he’s spoken to the Mayor's Office of Contract Services about next phases in rolling out the city’s Procurement and Sourcing Solutions Portal (PASSPort), saying it “in theory should significantly reduce procurement delays.”

The spokesperson from City Hall also said the planned updates to PASSport will “make it easier for agencies to order and pay for goods off centralized contracts.” The system, which was initially launched in August 2017, will be updated with “phase two” in 2019 and “phase three” will launch approximately one year later to “enable online bidding and invoice management for all agencies,” the spokesperson said.  

New York City isn’t the first city to require urgent and comprehensive procurement reform. A 2005 report by the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) on fixing that city’s similarly “slow and burdensome” contracting system provided the administration with a range of recommendations that might be applicable in New York City today. These included, not only fixed deadlines for every department and a transparent tracking system, but also recommendations to increase public information and awareness of the city’s contracting system; allow simultaneous review by agencies; develop clear and explicit procedures for fast-tracking contracts; and use a post-audit approach to test compliance by departments, instead of every single contract moving through the comptroller’s office.

There is no indication of any other measures being taken to address the contracting backlog in New York City, though the City Hall spokesperson said: “We are continuously looking to improve our practices to also realize timely procurement.”

More ideas will likely be raised at Thursday’s Council hearing, but for those in the nonprofit sector, the fiscal year 2019 budget was the perfect place for the city to demonstrate its understanding of, and commitment to solving, the problem. “We would have liked to see it in the budget, even if it was just a statement about how to get all this money out the door,” Jackson said. “I think there needs to be a real recognition that this is a priority to fix the registration process and it needs to happen right away.”

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by Caitlin Bishop, Gotham Gazette
@caitybishop  @GothamGazette

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