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Comptroller's Analysis of De Blasio Budget Plan Includes New Agency 'Watch List'


Stringer De Blasio climate budget

De Blasio and Stringer, right (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


Comptroller Scott Stringer on Friday released his analysis of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s preliminary budget for fiscal year 2019, which begins July 1. Stringer said that the administration does not have enough of a “budget cushion” to rely on as economic prospects look gloomier going forward, urged de Blasio to reduce wasteful spending in what is an $88.67 billion budget plan, and unveiled his first “agency watch list,” initially including three city departments “of most concern when it comes to budgeting.”

For roughly 20 minutes in a conference room in the Dinkins Municipal Building, home to the comptroller’s offices, Stringer praised de Blasio’s budget for closing Rikers Island, expanding early childhood education, and funneling resources toward deficient heating systems in public housing, but also argued that various city agencies have not been sufficiently transparent or effective. The comptroller also warned about the city’s growing projected budget gaps for years to come, which are part of the outlook for next fiscal year, where a balanced budget is planned, as mandated by law.

In making his case for the need for the city needing additional savings, Stringer said that though the New York City economy is strong, growth will slow next fiscal year and beyond. He also pointed to federal factors that he said would adversely affect New Yorkers. “With President Trump’s proposed budget cuts going after the most vulnerable New Yorkers and his tax bill targeting our economy, it’s critical that New York City prepares for whatever comes tomorrow,” he said. “That means spending our limited resources in a way that achieves maximum impact.”

To that end, he introduced the “agency watch list,” which he described as a list of agencies “where we appear to be spending more without measurable results.” The list includes the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), the Department of Education (DOE) and the Department of Corrections (DOC).

“I am calling on the Mayor to undertake real evaluations of this spending,” Stringer continued. “What are the goals of the programs? Are they being met? Are we measuring the outcomes?”

He added, “It’s time to start taking a hard, data-driven, quantified look at what these agencies are doing.”

Repeating questions he has raised in the past regarding DHS, Stringer said that while the city must allocate significant resources to help homeless people, it had not gotten the bang for its buck. He explained that spending on homeless services has soared, nearly doubling since 2013, while the homeless population in shelters has increased over the last five years by over 10,000 individuals.

“As the person who exposed this crisis with our sweeping audit of shelters in 2015, I support taking every measure we can to reduce homelessness,” he explained. “But if we’re going to solve this problem, we have to know: is our spending leading to results?”

Meanwhile, DOC has also seen its spending rise in recent years while the city’s jail population has declined by north of 30 percent in the last decade. During the same timeframe, the cost per year of housing each detainee has ballooned from $117,000 in 2008 to $270,000 in 2017.

Education spending has been mismanaged, Stringer said, also repeating past criticisms in citing “rampant waste and a lack of accountability at DOE.” According to Stringer, the DOE spends too much on bureaucracy and not enough in classrooms. He cited the large jump in employment at DOE headquarters. “Since 2012, DOE has added over 400 new central administrative staff,” he said. “That’s growth of 24 percent. But the number of teaching staff has only grown by half that rate, 12 percent.”

The comptroller also noted $1 billion of spending on broadband that has provided unsatisfactory Internet services, according to a survey of New York City public school teachers. What’s more, the city could not account for much of its investment in technological equipment. “In an audit my office did in 2014, DOE was unable to account for one-third of its computer monitors, laptops, and tablets,” he said.

More broadly, Stringer said the city should set aside more room in its budget to “help the city weather unexpected events.” The comptroller insists that the ideal range for the city’s “budget cushion” is between 12 and 18 percent of its yearly spending. De Blasio, for his part, maintains that the current 9 percent of spending is adequate, brushing aside Stringer’s recommendation.

“We are in uncertain times,” Stringer said Friday. “Economic growth is slowing down, especially when we look ahead to 2020,” Stringer said. “We need to do more to prepare.”

In a statement to Gotham Gazette Friday afternoon, de Blasio spokesperson Freddi Goldstein turned the comptroller’s analysis around. “The Mayor’s made dramatic investments in homeless outreach, our schools, and our corrections system,” she stated. “They have helped lead the city to records in job creation, test scores, and crime prevention. We appreciate the comptroller highlighting these gains.”

Beyond the proposed expense budget that de Blasio has put forward, Stringer also critiqued the other city spending plan that runs concurrently with the budget. “There is simply no accountability in the capital budget,” Stringer said. “And that means agencies simply do what they want, which may not be what the city needs.”

“Right now,” Stringer said, “we have huge pots of money appropriated, for only the most vaguely defined purposes.” As examples of the city’s mismanagement, Stringer cited a $33.5 million “acquisition fund” for the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which, according to Stringer, has not been spent, a fire and rescue facility in Brooklyn that was $20 million over budget, as well as recent Brooklyn Bridge repairs that cost $140 million more than expected.

Stringer’s analysis of the capital budget is likely to resonate at the City Council. New Speaker Corey Johnson created a new subcommittee on the capital budget, and a capital budget hearing will be part of the upcoming weeks of hearings the Council will hold on the preliminary budget.

“Our capital planning and budgeting process is a disaster,” Stringer said Friday, “and it’s been allowed to continue for far too long.”

Max & Murphy Podcast: Lieutenant Governor Candidate Jumaane Williams


Jarrett Murphy, left, of City Limits, and Ben Max, right, of Gotham Gazette


February 22, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Lieutenant Governor Candidate Jumaane Williams

jumanne williams pod 277

City Council Member Jumaane Williams recently announced his candidacy for Lieutenant Governor, opening a Democratic primary challenge to incumbent Kathy Hochul, Governor Andrew Cuomo's chosen second-in-command and running mate. Cuomo and Hochul are expected to run for reelection this year, but the two positions are elected separately in the party primaries. So, Williams is trying to take Hochul's place alongside Cuomo, assuming the governor makes it through his own primary.

Williams says he's running to become "the people's" lieutenant governor and to push a more progressive agenda than Cuomo and Hochul have. He joined the podcast to explain his motivation for the run and the campaign ahead.

Listen to the full conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy, with guest @JumaaneWilliams. You can listen to the episode through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Bronx Electeds, Residents Cry Foul as Mayor and Council Announce Jail Site


Bronx jail site NYPD tow pound

Planned Bronx jail site (photos: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


When Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced last week that they’d reached a deal to speed up the closure of Rikers Island by creating or expanding jail facilities in every borough except Staten Island, it seemed to be a clear sign of a productive partnership between the administration and local elected officials.

The mayor and speaker made the announcement at a news conference at City Hall, alongside four Council members -- Diana Ayala, Karen Koslowitz, Stephen Levin, and Margaret Chin -- willing to accept the political risk of a new or expanded jail in their districts. The city will launch a unified land use review application for all four jails, the mayor and speaker said, combining the arduous and lengthy multi-stage approval process for siting certain municipal facilities.

But the proposal to build the Bronx jail -- the only one of the four that is not either a current or former jail facility -- immediately raised the hackles of elected officials from the borough other than Ayala, a newly elected Council member whose districts spans East Harlem and part of the South Bronx.

“Look the site in the Bronx is a site owned by the City of New York. It is a very smart site in terms of its closeness to the courthouses,” de Blasio explained at the news conference, when asked about a critical statement put out by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who had not been kept in the loop by the administration or the Council. “There is going to be a full community process, but let's be clear, we're going to talk to everyone, we're going to listen to everyone, we're going to try in every way possible address community needs and address other benefits that communities need.”

De Blasio emphasized, “That being said, up here are the people who ultimately have to make the decision – the Council, represented by the Speaker, the members who represent those individual districts, and me and my administration.”

Ayala was aware of the criticism she may face for supporting a site in her district. “We all know that this siting process is bound to be controversial,” she said. “In the Bronx in particular, we are not repurposing an existing detention center but instead building a brand new facility that will require additional careful thought, serious consideration and robust community engagement, and I really wanna underline that…We also know that in the Bronx, too often we see a concentration of city facilities in our borough and there is rightfully some resistance to that. But we in the Bronx also understand the urgent need for criminal justice reform.”

Top Bronx officials were taken aback that this was the first they were hearing of a new jail intended for their backyard. Any consultations that had happened had excluded Borough President Diaz Jr.; Assemblymember Michael Blake, whose district neighbors the one where the proposed site is located at 320 Concord Avenue, currently an NYPD tow pound; and Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, the Democratic Bronx County party leader whose support helped Johnson win the speakership.

“I was surprised to learn that the administration has already selected a site for a new jail in The Bronx,” said Diaz Jr. in a statement that preceded the mayor and speaker’s Wednesday news conference. The proposed site had been first revealed by the Wall Street Journal the previous night, just after de Blasio delivered his State of the City address. “I hope that, going forward, this lack of outreach is not a harbinger of the amount of community input the people of my borough will have in this process,” Diaz Jr. said. (At the news conference, Johnson showed some contrition immediately, apologizing to Diaz Jr. and promising a “robust, meaningful” community engagement process.)

“It is simply disrespectful that a decision of this magnitude of proposing to open a new jail in the South Bronx was made behind closed doors, without engaging the broader Bronx community,” said Assemblymember Blake, in a statement released Wednesday night.

Crespo, the Democratic Bronx county boss, took to Twitter, calling out the mayor and speaker. “We spent so much time talking the last few months how did this rikers plan in my district never come up?” he wondered.

“I think we were all caught off guard with how far ahead the city seems to be when no one in the Bronx was informed of the process,” Crespo later elaborated, in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. “Once you decide on a site, that’s gonna have an impact for generations.”

Crespo and the other electeds aren’t opposed to the administration’s goal: building capacity in the boroughs so that Rikers can close. But, he said the Concord Avenue site is not the best option, and the city should explore alternatives. The community and the borough already host their fair share of municipal facilities, Crespo insisted, echoing widespread criticism that the city has long chosen to place seemingly undesirable facilities such as jails, homeless shelters, and waste treatment plants in low-income communities of color. “Make no mistake about it, this borough has been handling an unfair share already for a long time,” he said.

“There’s major investments and their success would also be endangered,” he said of the Mott Haven neighborhood, where new development is underway literally across the road from where the jail would be situated.

The rapid outpouring of criticism didn’t seem lost on Speaker Johnson, who quickly seemed to equivocate on the Bronx site. “I am committed to facilities in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan,” Johnson told NY1. "We are not wedded to an individual location. If there is a better location I am happy to have that conversation."

Responding to an assertion that he was backpedaling, Johnson said in a subsequent tweet that he is “not at all” backing away from the site, but reiterated that the main goal is closing the jails on Rikers Island and that he is “not wedded” to one location. “If there's a better one,” he wrote, “I'm all ears. No other location has been presented.”

If the Bronx elected officials were stunned by the announcement, it’s little wonder that those who live in the neighborhood around the proposed site were likewise surprised and offended to learn of the plan.

bx jail site 2The site is located in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, north of the Harlem River, with large industrial and manufacturing spaces running between the waterfront and the Major Deegan Expressway.

Residents and others expressed a mix of astonishment, resignation, anger, and resentment as Gotham Gazette told them on Friday that the city intended to build a jail within blocks of their homes and places of work.

“I thought they were gonna do a mall,” said Jesus Ortiz, 50, who runs an auto-repair shop across the street from the NYPD tow pound that occupies the block.

The site is sandwiched between East 141st and 142nd Streets, next to Bruckner Boulevard, in a neighborhood with a mix of housing and commercial properties. Enclosed by metal sheet walls, the tow pound is almost a hill overlooking its neighbors, with impounded cars visible from the street through a peripheral treeline that is leafless in February.

“They’re trying to rebuild the South Bronx to make it nice,” said Ortiz, “That’s not the way to rebuild, by putting a jail here.” Having worked there 15 years, Ortiz said he’s seen rapid development in recent times. Even the building that houses his auto shop was recently bought out, he said, and the landlords gave him a one-year lease till 2019. He’ll soon be gone from the neighborhood too.

“They’re buying all around,” he said.

Adam Bele, 40, loads containers at the lumber supply warehouse that sits behind 320 Concord. “Nobody wants to be near a jail,” he said. His biggest concern, one that others shared as well, is for the children that attend the several schools in the neighborhood.

“You don’t want children hanging around a jail,” said the father of two infants who will likely attend one of those schools, he said.  

As with other residents, Bele was wary of the process for choosing the site. “It’s like they know it’s gonna be unpopular so they tried to hide it and do it quick, quick, quick,” he said. He had a simple piece of advice for the mayor. “Be transparent. Listen to this community, and take our recommendations into consideration.”

But Bele empathizes with the city’s rationale that detainees deserve to be housed closer to their families in humane and modern facilities, and that Rikers needs to close. “You don’t want them treated like animals, they’re human like us,” he said. The mayor and speaker have promised to seek community feedback on the proposed site and, as required by the city’s land use review process, community boards will get an opportunity to hold votes, albeit nonbinding, to approve or reject the proposal. Borough presidents also get to weigh in with advisory opinions.

Along Concord Avenue, in what could eventually be the shadow of a new jail, sit rowhouses, a few of them old and abandoned and showing signs of disrepair. “For Sale” signs hung in a few windows.

In one of those houses lives Nereida Chavez, 38, a stay-at-home mom with four kids. “Oh my god!” she exclaimed on hearing that her biggest neighbor could one day be a jail.

“I don’t like the idea of having a jail here,” she said. “It’s just scary.”

She worried that a jail could mean more traffic along a little-traversed street. “We have our kids and they love to play out here with their bikes,” she said. And, it might also mean that parking, which has become an issue already owing to the large lumber and oil and gas companies around them, might worsen. “We hardly have any parking here. It’ll be even more complicated if they put a jail here,” she said.

But Chavez was more concerned that she hardly had an opportunity to be heard on an issue that quite directly would affect her. “It makes me worried that things happen around us and we don’t know anything,” she said. “They also put shelters around us. They don’t let us know until it’s there.”

bx jail site 3At a bodega on East 141st Street, Mel McKenzie, 33, was buying milk. Gotham Gazette asked if the homemaker knew about the city’s plan to build a jail, three blocks from her home.

“For real?” she said.

“I’m not with it,” she frowned. “It should stay an impound lot....[A jail] won’t bring the community together. It’ll probably make us scared. And it’s too close to home.”

Another shopper, Nancy Lopez, 43, chimed in. “Why move it so close when there’s other areas where they could put it?” she wondered. “Put it across Bruckner where it’s more industrial. There’s kids that walk by everyday on Concord.”

The city’s plan to close Rikers and replace some of its capacity in borough facilities near courthouses entails building for about 6,000 inmates, with the goal of getting the jail population down to about 5,000, according to the mayor.

McKenzie acknowledged that its a laudable objective to help detainees, most of whom are pre-trial and not convicted of any crime, remain connected to their communities. “That makes sense,” she said, but she also expressed concern about what school-going children would take away from it. “That’s the message they’re sending? You’re gonna be close to home if you get locked up.”

“What happens if a prisoner escapes?” said Lopez, who said she is on disability and lives on Concord Avenue in the same row as Nereida Chavez. Instead, she proposed a “positive” alternative. “Why don’t they build affordable housing?”

Both women had one shared concern, however, that neither of them had received an opportunity to weigh in. “They should notify the public,” McKenzie said.

“As it’s happening, not when it’s already decided,” added Lopez. The city will present plans to the public, particularly through the community board, when the site is set for its place in the land use review process. It may be up to local residents to seek out opportunities to hear more and provide their feedback.

Presenting the site as a “fait accompli” would undermine the process, said the Bronx borough president in his statement, but it’s what one resident seemed to expect from the administration. “The city does whatever it wants,” said Hector Camilo, 55. “It doesn’t matter. You can’t argue with the city.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been corrected to note that Assembly Member Michael Blake does not represent the district where the proposed jail site at 320 Concord Avenue is located. He represents a neighboring district. 



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