Overseeing Six Crises

By Mark Berkey-Gerard

21 October 02
Councilmembers Eva Moskowitz, Bill DeBlasio, and Yvette Clarke hope to improve schools, reduce homelessness, and rebuild the fire department.

Following the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, the New York City Council held a series of "oversight hearings" investigating the practices of the police department's street crimes unit that fired 41 shots at the unarmed man.

It was at City Council hearings that New Yorkers first discovered the lopsided racial make-up of the special unit, learned that the number of stop-and-frisks had nearly doubled in a year, and heard Police Commissioner Howard Safir give a detailed explanation of police policy.

The hearings eventually led to a law passed in September of 2001 that required police to disclose more information about how it trains officers and fights city crime. The street crimes unit was eventually disbanded and its officers reassigned.

Oversight is not a word that is used much in the news or even by public officials. Yet it is one of the primary, if often underused, tools of the City Council.

"Oversight is the most potent power the council has as a counter balance to the mayor," said Douglas Muzzio of the Baruch School of Public Affairs. "They can literally walk in and look at what a city agency is doing, how they are spending their money, and what services they are or are not providing."

The council's powers are similar to those of the United States Congress and other legislative bodies. It has the ability to investigate city agencies and ensure that the laws they pass are being followed.

Oversight is also among the most difficult and least rewarding jobs of the council. Witnesses can be evasive, hearings go on for hours, and the voters rarely notice. There are no laws or resolutions to pass. And the success of the hearings depends on persistent council members who are willing to dig into and master a particular subject.

The City Council, which began the year with 38 new members, has now been in office for nearly a year. This fall's election will not affect the make up of city government. (With the exception of a race to fill the district 38 seat of Angel Rodriguez who pled guilty to bribery charges and resigned in August).

Now with some experience, the council is hoping to focus its oversight powers on some of the city's biggest issues.

In the forthcoming months they will look at the city's revamped education system, a fire department that is struggling to recover from September 11, the police department's new anti-terrorism responsibilities, the growing homeless population, and efforts to rebuild lower Manhattan. A schedule of hearings is available on the City Council's web site.

In addition, the council must tackle a serious fiscal crisis. By November, the mayor and the City Council must come up with a plan to close a $700 million budget gap, either by making cuts to services or raising taxes. And by next summer, the budget deficit will grow to $5 billion.

Here are the six issues that many agree are among the most critical facing New York, and what the City Council hopes to do about them.

Education

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg gained control of the city's public schools earlier this year, the Board of Education was disbanded and a new city Department of Education was formed.

Some say the new city agency could give the council a stronger role in education than it has had in the past.

"In the past the council has identified problems and asked the right questions," said Eva Moskowitz, who chairs the education committee. "They just weren't addressed."

The council's recommendations for improving the city's schools largely involve money. Last year, the council proposed a personal income tax to raise some $400 million for education. The mayor rejected the idea. The council is also trying to use its power to lobby the state legislature, the governor, and the mayor to increase funding for the classroom.

The education committee has scheduled hearings over the next few months focusing on issues like reading instruction, parental involvement, and what should be done with community school boards now that they have been stripped of most of their power.

"We have to go beyond figuring out what structure will replace the community school boards," said Moskowitz. "We have to create real parental involvement and make the system accountable."

The mayor apparently does not believe the council's oversight role will produce the necessary results. Bloomberg recently commissioned a $3.75 million study, financed by private funders, to examine many of the same issues.

Fire

At a recent City Council hearing, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta testified that the fire department's outdated radio system hampered the rescue efforts on September 11, 2001.

It was not the first time the City Council heard about the department's radio problems. In April 2001, the council held a similar hearing to investigate why the city spent $14 million on 1,800 faulty radios. Those same radios were still not working or available when firefighters went into the Twin Towers.

"It's a process of constantly monitoring the situation, ensuring that the proper funding is allocated, finding out if deadlines are met," said Councilmember Yvette Clarke who chairs the committee on fire and criminal justice. "Obviously poor judgement was used in the past. Now the new administration has to be given a chance to rectify the situation."

The fire department said it could take up to two years to establish the communications system it needs to effectively fight fires in the city's skyscrapers and subways.

The Uniformed Firefighters Association has called on the council to subpoena fire department records related to the radios. The council has declined, saying that the threat of the subpoena is powerful enough to get the answers it needs.

Police

Since September 11, 2001, the New York City police department has added thousands of hours of new anti-terrorism training and work to their regular duties of fighting crime. The department has moved into areas that used to be controlled by federal law enforcement, expanded its intelligence, and set up a medical office to coordinate with federal agencies and the city's Department of Health on biological weaponry.

The cost of all of this is high. Last year the city's police overtime increased to $610 million, up 80 percent from the year before. "We can't maintain that level of overtime," said Mayor Bloomberg.

There is also concern about how the police, fire department, and the city's Office of Emergency Management would coordinate their efforts in the event of another disaster. At recent hearings, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly testified that the departments could communicate better, but should keep their emergency operations separate.

Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., chair of the public safety committee, has raised the question of if the city should designate one agency that has final say in an emergency situation. Vallone said the council would make recommendations based on its hearings in a few months.

Homelessness

There are now more homeless people in New York City than at any time in the last 20 years. There are more than 33,000 people in the New York City shelter system, including more than 16,000 children.

Councilmember Bill DeBlasio, who chairs the general welfare committee, has a series of hearings planned to find out what the city is doing to address the issues, if those actions are legal (sometimes the courts rule that they are not), and what can be done to prevent more people from losing their homes.

One way the administration hopes to move families into subsidized housing is with section 8 vouchers. The federal government provides housing vouchers to help low-income families pay rent. The Bloomberg administration has allotted 6,000 vouchers for the homeless this year, up from 2,700 last year. The council sees this as a hopeful sign.

However the council is wary of the mayor's plan to deny people emergency housing if they violate shelter rules and to build more homeless shelters in low-income neighborhoods.

Councilmember DeBlasio said recent hearings have helped change the situation for the better. "I believe our hearings prodded the administration to put more money into programs for people leaving welfare than the Giuliani administration did," he said.

Rebuilding NYC

While the governor and the mayor have focused much of their attention on what should be rebuilt at the World Trade Center site, the City Council has been trying to deal with the lingering after-affects of the attacks.

Since January, the council has held more than a dozen hearings focusing on issues such as air quality, helping residents and business in lower Manhattan get aid, and bringing attention to areas like Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

The hearings to date also led to a City Council proposal for building affordable housing downtown. The federal government has issued $1.6 billion in Liberty Bonds to build new housing. The council has no control over the bonds, but is trying to persuade the mayor to use no less than 55 percent of the money to build low-income and affordable housing. The council is also looking for a way for some of the money to be used outside of lower Manhattan.

"Frankly, we are not going to get all $1.6 billion used in lower Manhattan," said Speaker Gifford Miller. "There just are not enough projects to get it done quickly, but there are projects around the city that can benefit from this kind of funding."

Money

Over the next few months, more and more oversight hearings will focus on one issue: the budget.

The mayor and City Council are currently struggling to cut up to $700 million by November. By next June, they must come up with a way to close a $5 billion budget gap, the second such deficit in as many years.

In its budget hearings, each city agency will testify before the City Council that they are doing the best they can with limited funds. Advocates and lobbyists will testify that more people are sleeping on the street, that senior citizens are going hungry, and that classrooms are overcrowded. And many voters will tell their council members that they can not afford new taxes.

The council must figure out how to improve services and at the same time make ends meet.

"The mayor's way of dealing with the budget was to say that there should be across the board cuts and that there should be `no sacred cows,'" said Speaker Gifford Miller. "The council felt that there was a different and better approach -- to prioritize. I believe we were elected to office to help make those difficult decisions."

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