Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/63 Wed, 19 Dec 2018 09:38:50 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Headley Case Again Raises Questions About NYPD Accountability Under De Blasio http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8150-headley-case-again-raises-questions-about-nypd-accountability-under-de-blasio http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8150-headley-case-again-raises-questions-about-nypd-accountability-under-de-blasio squad presser

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


When video was captured in 2014 of Staten Island resident Eric Garner dying with an NYPD officer’s arm wrapped around his neck, just months after the election of a progressive mayor promising a new day at the police department, it seemed like a watershed moment. The evidence was there for millions to see for themselves, across the city and country, and beyond. It seemed impossible that the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, would escape any accountability. But more than four years later there has been little beyond Pantaleo’s move to desk duty. Years of agitation and advocacy, lawsuits and desperate pleas occurred as a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo on criminal charges and a federal civil rights investigation has crawled to no end. Only recently -- amid ongoing criticism that there is still no real accountability for police officers who break the public trust, department protocol, or the law -- the NYPD announced a departmental trial.

Over the course of the past five years, there is little evidence that Mayor Bill de Blasio and the police department that he controls have taken steps to improve officer accountability, and the administration has even taken a large step backwards in terms of transparency (and the accountability that can come with it) regarding officers’ disciplinary records. Now, de Blasio is facing another round of questions about his management of the department, while he touts reform measures like de-escalation training and neighborhood policing that do not appear to directly connect to outcomes for officer accountability.

The recent arrest of Jazmine Headley, also caught on video that went viral, led to no action against two police officers who were seen violently pulling the young mother’s one-year-old baby from her arms and threatening bystanders with a taser. The NYPD, after a “strenuous” week-long review of the incident, declared its officers innocent and pegged the blame on two security guards, called “peace officers,” at the Human Resources Administration office where the incident took place. Separately, Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks, under whom HRA falls, suspended the two peace officers and announced that they would face disciplinary charges that could lead to termination. Tellingly, Banks also announced new HRA protocols that include directing peace officers to not request NYPD assistance -- unless there is an immediate safety threat -- “without first contacting the Center Director or Deputy Director or her/his designee to attempt to defuse the situation by addressing a client need.”

De Blasio, who came to power in 2014 vowing to reform the NYPD but has since failed to fully follow through in the eyes of many of his supporters, initially issued a tepid response to the incident and later defended the NYPD during a press conference and then an interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. He pointed to the peace officers and a situation that was “already out of control” when the NYPD arrived, and said it was “unfair” that critics lambasted the NYPD while ignoring the many reforms that have been enacted under his tenure.

“It’s very easy to critique when you’re not in charge,” said de Blasio, whose allies acknowledge several aspects of police reform he has instituted but say he’s fallen far short on accountability for badly behaving officers. “When you’re in charge you better get your facts straight.”

Elected officials and advocates were dismayed by the NYPD’s refusal to discipline the two police officers. “This defies belief. I am angry, confused and heartbroken,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson tweeted on Friday. “Anyone who watched that video I’m sure comes to the same conclusion. We still need Justice for Jazmin[e].”

“This incident was badly mishandled, and agencies’ independent reviews have determined which employees are the most responsible for escalating the situation,” said Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a de Blasio spokesperson, in a statement. “Now we will work to ensure that both agencies work together to improve their policies and protocols so we can prevent this incident from happening ever again. This will absolutely lead to immediate reforms on the part of both agencies.”

Joo-Hyun Kang, a spokesperson for the Communities United for Police Reform coalition, said the department “is continuing to protect its own officers at any cost.”

“On Mayor de Blasio’s watch, the NYPD has been completely unwilling to hold its own officers accountable for wrongdoing and misconduct,” Kang said in a statement, calling for the two police officers to be fired from the force. “It’s outrageous and wrong that no officers were even interviewed for the NYPD’s sham investigation into Jazmine Headey’s arrest, and that the names of officers have still not been released. An independent investigation into Jazmine Headley’s case and how the NYPD officers acted is clearly needed.”

The Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent police oversight agency, is also investigating the incident and it’s possible it may come to a different conclusion than the police department. However, even if the CCRB makes a disciplinary recommendation, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill would still have the final word and could dismiss even those findings. BuzzFeed News reported in March that hundreds of police officers had been allowed to remain on the force despite committing offenses for which they should have been terminated. The report prompted the NYPD to create an independent panel in June to review its disciplinary practices. The three-member panel was initially given four months for the review but requested an additional 90 days to complete its work, at the end of which it will issue a public report with its conclusions.

“In a day and age that we’re talking about building trust between police and communities, that incident undoes all the progress we’re trying to make,” said City Council Member Donovan Richards, who chairs the Council’s public safety committee, in a phone interview on Monday. “It further exacerbates the mistrust.”

Though he credited the mayor and commissioner for taking what steps they have to improve the public’s perception and relationship with police -- including the neighborhood policing program and the body camera program -- he flatly said accountability has not improved. As a response, he is preparing to introduce legislation that would mandate the creation of a “discipline matrix” that categorizes police conduct violations and details the specific punitive measures each violation would invite. Other jurisdictions have codified such guidelines to ensure that misconduct is punished in consistent and standardized ways, with little leeway for weakening disciplinary recommendations. Similar policies have been enacted and debated in other municipalities as well, including in Newark, New Jersey, which created a new civilian oversight board in 2016 that would use a matrix to determine responses to officer wrongdoing.

“What happened to bias training?” Richards wondered, citing the new training techniques that the department has been touting alongside de-escalation training as a solution since after Garner’s death in 2014. “Why do we need training to treat communities of color with respect? If this was a different zip code, this incident would absolutely have not happened.”

“If you have to get training to not pull a baby so harshly, you probably do not belong in the department. I don’t know how you train someone to not do that,” he added. Richards had called for the officers to be fired soon after the incident.

One significant hurdle to accountability has been the de Blasio administration’s reinterpretation of the state Civil Rights Code’s section 50-a, which protects police officers’ personnel records from public disclosure. Previous administrations have released a limited amount of information about officers’ disciplinary history. De Blasio’s administration did so as well up to 2016, when it claimed that the law had been misinterpreted for decades and changed its policy. The mayor said his hands were tied and that it was up to the state Legislature to scrap the provision.

Richards noted, however, that there has been “radio silence” from the administration on repealing 50-a. “There’s always time to get a better grade,” he said of the city’s record on police accountability, “The big test coming up is 50-a.” He is encouraged that a Democrat-controlled state Legislature will take up the issue if there is a vocal push for it.

Results of the NYPD commission and repealing 50-a could bolster the notion of a new era of accountability that critics are demanding. In the wake of the Headley incident, not only did those critics connect what they saw as police misconduct to the Garner incident, but also to other instances in the years since, including multiple shootings by police of unarmed individuals suffering from mental illness. An ongoing federal corruption trial involving several former top NYPD officials and two prominent donors to the mayor has also undermined the department’s reputation and the mayor’s commitment to reform.     

Short of any steps forward, Richards is concerned that the department is sending a message to other “bad apples” that they will be defended no matter what their behavior, further eroding any confidence that New Yorkers, especially communities of color, may have in law enforcement. De Blasio has staked some of his policing legacy on a neighborhood policing program he says is part of already drastically-improved relations between police and communities -- a claim many activists and elected officials say is overly generous. The administration also points to a reduction in both use-of-force incidents and complaints against officers as proof that its policies are working, while crime continues to drop and arrests are significantly down.

Recalling the video of Headley’s arrest, Richards worried about her baby and the trauma he went through.

“That baby will see that video some day,” he said. “Do you think he will trust the police?”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Headley Case Again Raises Questions About NYPD Accountability Under De Blasio Mon, 17 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Setting the Record Straight: Mayor de Blasio’s Housing Plan Can and Should Do More for the Homeless http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8135-setting-the-record-straight-mayor-de-blasio-s-housing-plan-can-and-should-do-more-for-the-homeless http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8135-setting-the-record-straight-mayor-de-blasio-s-housing-plan-can-and-should-do-more-for-the-homeless cluster apartments convert

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office)


Mayor de Blasio has been under constant fire for offering homeless New Yorkers access to just 5 percent of the units created and preserved by his 12-year, 300,000-unit affordable housing plan, even as homelessness has reached a new all-time record high. He has been confronted at his home, at the gym in Park Slope, and on the steps of City Hall, with a growing coalition of advocates, experts, elected officials, and homeless families demanding that the mayor increase that figure to 10 percent of the total, including 20 percent of all new construction. This would result in 30,000 units of affordable, permanent housing for homeless New Yorkers, with 24,000 units to be created through new construction, by 2026.

The progressive mayor who campaigned to end the “tale of two cities” has responded dismissively, sometimes with anger – and always with a series of excuses that don’t hold up to closer examination. Let’s take a look:

The mayor says his Housing New York 2.0 plan addresses the affordable housing crisis for everyone, and adding more homeless units would take access to housing away from other New Yorkers who need it. But here’s the thing: New York City’s affordability crisis disparately impacts those with the lowest incomes. There is no shortage of private market apartments affordable to higher-income households: the vacancy rate for units renting above $2,500 per month is in fact a whopping 8.74 percent, while the vacancy rate for apartments renting for less than $800 per month is only about 1 percent.

Yet a full 20 percent of the mayor’s housing plan is for households making between $70,000 and $142,000 annually, at rents ranging from $1,700 to $3,500 per month, while at the same time dedicating a mere 5 percent to help homeless New Yorkers. Fully 10 percent of the apartments created through the mayor’s plan will have rents at or above $2,500 per month, a level at which there is currently a glut of vacant units. The mayor’s housing plan should target its help for those who need it most.

The mayor says his housing plan is just a small part of what the city is doing to address homelessness. That much is true, but it is not a fact to be proud of. Mayor de Blasio plans to build only 200 new apartments per year for homeless New Yorkers out of the 10,500 apartments per year to be constructed between now and 2026. Other programs implemented by the city that serve homeless people with disabilities, help pay off rent arrears, or provide subsidies for market-rate apartments can’t meaningfully reduce homelessness unless the city also sets aside far more newly-constructed housing for the homeless. The numbers bear this out: homelessness continues at record levels five years into de Blasio's New York, with more than 63,500 people sleeping in city shelters each night, including over 23,000 children. They are paying an extraordinary price for bad policy, as is our city as a whole.

And finally, the mayor says that adding more homeless housing to his plan is not financially feasible. But the House Our Future NY Campaign is urging Mayor de Blasio to designate just 10 percent of his overall housing plan, including 20 percent of the new construction target, for homeless New Yorkers: 30,000 units overall, with 24,000 to be created through new construction. Funds the mayor has already committed to the plan, including over $1.3 billion in city funds each year for the next eight years, show that the mayor has the resources to significantly reduce homelessness. He simply lacks the will.

The mayor’s obstinacy in the face of record homelessness and an ongoing housing crisis for low-income New Yorkers belies his professed values as a progressive leader. Without swift course correction, this wrong-headed approach will lock the City of New York in a state of ever-expanding homelessness for the foreseeable future. The only way out is with bold solutions. Mayor de Blasio must immediately dedicate 10 percent of his housing plan, including 20 percent of all new construction, to house homeless New Yorkers. Tens of thousands of our neighbors languishing in shelters and on the streets – indeed all New Yorkers – deserve a housing plan that offers a responsive and robust answer to record homelessness, not more equivocation in the false promise of fairness for all.

A full examination of the Mayor’s claims can be read in a new policy brief released by the Coalition for the Homeless here.

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Giselle Routhier is Policy Director for Coalition for the Homeless.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Setting the Record Straight: Mayor de Blasio’s Housing Plan Can and Should Do More for the Homeless Mon, 10 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio Finishes Year 5 & The Push for 'Fair Elections for New York' http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8120-max-murphy-podcast-de-blasio-the-push-for-fair-elections-for-new-york http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8120-max-murphy-podcast-de-blasio-the-push-for-fair-elections-for-new-york mxm logo

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


December 5, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio Finishes Year 5 & The Push for 'Fair Elections for New York'

wbai hirsh jw 400bMayor de Blasio is nearing the end of his fifth year in office, and in the first half of the show the hosts take stock of recent news surrounding the mayor and questions of his leadership.

In the second half of the show, Max & Murphy were joined by two leaders of the new "Fair Elections for New York" coalition that is made up of activist groups, labor unions, and other organizations seeking to pass a slate of reforms related to voting and campaign finance in New York: Jess Wisneski of Citizen Action New York and Alison Hirsh of 32BJ SEIU. Wisneski and Hirsh outline the planks of the policy push and the political dynamics at play as they seek to pass policies like early voting and a public-matching campaign finance system with Democrats fully in control of state government in 2019.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio Finishes Year 5 & The Push for 'Fair Elections for New York' Wed, 05 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Next Steps for 3 City Charter Revisions Passed Election Day http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8073-next-steps-for-3-city-charter-revisions-passed-election-day http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8073-next-steps-for-3-city-charter-revisions-passed-election-day schools chancellor reg

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Voters approved three ballot proposals on Election Day to amend the New York City charter, the city’s foundational governing document -- the local constitution. The proposals related to the city’s campaign finance system, civic engagement, and community boards. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who empaneled a charter revision commission last year that put the proposals on the ballot, argued that the proposals would strengthen democracy in the city.

“The question in front of voters was simple: Are we going to be a city that works for everyone,” de Blasio tweeted after the measures passed. “New Yorkers answered with a resounding ‘YES, YES, YES!’”

Now that all three proposals are to be added to the charter, they will have to be implemented within the next few years. At the same time, another charter revision commission created through City Council legislation is also holding public hearings and is expected issue its own recommendations for the 2019 general election ballot.

Each of the three proposals approved this year included language around implementation, though some aspects will be left to certain individual and group decision-makers.

Proposal 1 - campaign finance reform
Proposal 1, which lowers campaign contribution limits in city elections and enhances the city’s public-matching campaign finance program, passed with 80.3 percent approval.

New York City’s voluntary public matching funds program, often seen as a model for the country, currently matches the first $175 of each campaign contribution at a ratio of 6-to-1. Proposal 1 raises the public match to 8-to-1 for the first $250 of a donation, thus increasing the impact of smaller donations, and will lower individual contribution limits to citywide candidates from $5,100 to $2,000, with lower offices like borough presidents and City Council members also seeing public match increases and lower contribution limits.

The goal is to empower small-dollar donors, giving their contributions a greater impact and disincentivizing candidates from depending on larger, wealthier donors and PACs. In theory, it allows first-time candidates not backed by deep-pocketed donors to run more competitive races.

The percentage of a candidate’s overall spending limit that can be received in public funds will be increased from 55 percent to 75 percent, and candidates will be allowed to receive public funds earlier in their races -- a change that could help insurgent candidates or candidates without deep-pocketed allies, but also could help incumbents rack up higher totals earlier.

Under the text of the amendment, the new campaign finance regulations will take effect on January 12, 2019. But, candidates who choose to participate in the public funds program and run for office in the 2021 primary elections can choose to opt out of the new rules, thus sticking with the current limits and system. Candidates must declare their intentions by July 15, 2019.

For non-participating candidates, meaning those who opt not to participate in the matching program, the limits and thresholds remain the same as they were before January 12.

All candidates participating in the public matching program will be brought under the new regulations starting in 2022.

The language of the amendment also includes a clawback provision should any of the changes to contribution limits and matching fund ratios be struck down in court. In such an instance, all the changes would be nullified except for the expansion of the public matching funds cap from 55 percent to 75 percent.

In all, the charter commission estimated that the new system would increase the amount of public funds disbursed to candidates by roughly 47 percent relative to the very busy 2013 city election cycle, which will in many ways be mirrored for 2021. In the 2013 cycle, the Campaign Finance Board doled out $38 million in public funds. Under the new rules, disbursements would have been an additional $18 million, for a total of $56 million, according to the charter commission’s staff research.

In last year’s elections, when there were fewer competitive races, the CFB gave out about $18 million in public funds, which would have seen an additional $8.5 million in public funds under the amended charter.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, who unsuccessfully attempted to increase the public funds cap to 85 percent through legislation, was glad to see voters pass the improvements to the system. In a phone interview, he implied that concerns about the cost of the new system were overblown, and said that enhancing the system is key to eliminating real and perceived conflicts of interest.

“It’s far less than the city lost on Rivington, and whether it was a case of actual corruption or just appeared improper, it had significant cost to our city,” Kallos said, referring to the scandal around the city’s sale of Rivington House and related allegations of pay-to-play involving the mayor. “Just the defense of our city cost about $6 million,” he added in reference to the mayor’s legal bills accrued during law enforcement investigations of his fundraising that saw no charges filed. “So whether it is to save $100 million around Rivington or the $6 million in legal fees, it pays for itself.”

He continued, “When the next mayor’s going to have a budget in excess of $90 billion, [$18 million] to make sure that that elected official would only be accountable to the voters without the influence of big money is worth every penny.”

Gotham Gazette: Proposal 2 - civic engagement commission
Proposal 2, which creates a civic engagement commission tasked with implementing a citywide participatory budgeting program and other initiatives, passed with 65.5 percent approval.

The new citywide participatory budgeting program, expanding efforts undertaken annually in City Council districts (currently in 31 of the 51 CDs), would have to be implemented by the commission by July 1, 2020. Participatory budgeting allows residents to vote on projects to spend a certain amount of funds in their Council districts.

The commission will also be tasked with improving translation services at voting sites and providing resources to community boards, as well as more generalized partnerships with community organizations to increase civic engagement.

The commission would remain a fixture after implementing its designated programs, and would be required to report annually on its programs, many of which can be by its own design.

The commission will consist of 15 members: 8 appointed by the Mayor, 2 by the City Council Speaker, and 1 by each Borough President. The mayor’s majority of board picks worried some that it would be a power-grab of sorts, given the wide latitude afforded to the commission with its mission of “enhancing civic engagement and strengthening democracy.” But in that respect, it is actually something of an improvement from the proposed Office of Civic Engagement, which would be completely under the mayor, per a bill introduced by City Council Member Brad Lander, who supported proposal 2 and celebrated its passage.

The commission will be empaneled on April 1, 2019.

Proposal 3 - community board reform
Proposal 3, which establishes term limits for community board members and institutes a set of new requirements around the community board application process and more, passed with 72.3 percent approval.

Community board members, who are appointed by Borough Presidents and currently allowed to serve an unlimited number of two-year terms, will now be allowed only to serve four consecutive two-year terms. At that point, members will be term-limited out, but they will be allowed to be reappointed after a two-year interregnum. Current community board members will be allowed to serve an additional four terms no matter how long they have served as of 2019. Thus, no current member will be term-limited off their board until 2027.

To prevent heavy turnover that year and the following year, appointees commencing their term in 2020 will be allowed to serve five terms.

Borough Presidents will also be required to seek out diverse candidates for community board appointments, ensuring that different geographic areas are adequately represented. The proposal mandates that borough president reach out to community organizations active in the district and also allows civic groups and neighborhood organization to submit nominees to the Borough President. Community boards as constituted today are often criticized for being older and whiter than the communities they serve. Younger and more diverse voices on community boards could lead to very different outcomes. Borough presidents will also be required to make applications for community board member positions available on their websites with detailed requests for information about members, including work and community experience, demographic information (which would be optional) and conflicts of interest disclosures, among other things.

While community boards do not have a binding vote on land use and development matters, local City Council members often strongly consider and align with their home community boards. Four of the city's five current Borough Presidents expressed strong opposition to proposals 2 and 3 (Brooklyn's Eric Adams was the lone exception) and worked unsuccessfully to defeat them.

The civic engagement commission approved in proposal 2 will also be required to provide additional resources to community boards, such as “urban planning professionals and language access resources.”

Though it received a higher vote share than proposal 2, proposal 3 was widely seen as the most controversial of the three during the election season. While proponents noted that community boards are often older and whiter than the communities they represent, opponents said the measure would lead to a brain drain to the benefit of real estate developers. The worry was that an influx of new members without land use knowledge would allow developers to run roughshod over community interests. In the end, voters took the side of the proponents.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Brachfeld contributed to this piece.

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Next Steps for 3 City Charter Revisions Passed Election Day Sun, 02 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Criticizing De Blasio's Approach, Stringer Releases Alternative Affordable Housing Plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8111-criticizing-de-blasio-s-approach-stringer-releases-alternative-affordable-housing-plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8111-criticizing-de-blasio-s-approach-stringer-releases-alternative-affordable-housing-plan stringer housing presser1

Comptroller Stringer (photo: @NYCComptroller)


City Comptroller Scott Stringer unveiled an ambitious plan on Thursday to address New York’s affordable housing crisis, criticizing Mayor Bill de Blasio for not doing enough and calling for investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funds, increasing the share of affordable housing units for homeless and very low income people, and funding it by shifting tax burdens towards the wealthiest New York homeowners.

The plan, entitled “NYC For All: The Housing We Need,” is intended, Stringer said, to address issues with the affordable housing program embraced by not only the de Blasio administration, but administrations going back to the days of Mayor Ed Koch. Stringer characterized the proposal as a “war on poverty.”

“I believe it's time to change our approach,” Stringer said at a press conference announcing the plan. “We need to break the mold.”

Stringer noted that despite New York’s record number of jobs, low unemployment, and high population, the city’s aging housing stock has not kept up with demand, and rents have consequently risen in price dramatically, particularly in the past ten years. Most left behind, Stringer explained, are extremely and very low-income New Yorkers who face severe housing pressure, numbering 515,000 people, according to an analysis by his office, who are severely rent-burdened, meaning they pay more than 50 percent of their income in rent.

“Behind the numbers are real people,” Stringer said. “They’re actually working New Yorkers. The home health aides for our aging parents, the cashier at the local supermarket, the person who empties the trash and vacuums the office floors late at night. People we see and rely on every day.”

According to the report released on Thursday, the majority of units under de Blasio’s 300,000-unit affordable housing plan are being allocated for households with incomes of up to $75,120, which is categorized as “low-income” by the Stringer report, while far fewer units are allocated to very low and extremely low-income households. Extremely low-income households, which are characterized as those making less than $28,170 per year, are allocated about the same number of units under the plan as “middle-income” households, where household income reaches up to $154,935.

The report notes that this allocation does not accurately represent those who are actually in need of affordable housing, the main thrust of Stringer’s argument that the city’s plan is not appropriately calibrated to need, a point he and a variety of other elected officials and advocates have stressed for years but de Blasio has regularly challenged, saying he believes the plan must include segments for a broad spectrum of New Yorkers looking for affordable places to live.

The 515,000 extremely and very low-income households who are severely rent-burdened represent the vast majority of the 580,000 households citywide that are severely rent burdened or living long term in a shelter. However, only 75,000 units, or 25 percent of the proposed units under the de Blasio plan, are intended for those households.

“The current plan is simply out of line with where we need to build,” Stringer said.

To ameliorate the problem, Stringer’s plan calls for $500 million in additional annual funding for extremely and very low-income housing, including $375 million in capital costs and $125 million in operating subsidies. This would support the construction and maintenance of affordable units for the poorest New Yorkers, for whom construction is more expensive if landlords are going to charge lower rents.

The number of units would remain the same as under de Blasio’s Housing New York 2.0 Plan, which calls for building 120,000 new affordable units as part of the larger plan for 300,000 affordable units, most of which are those being “preserved” under affordable rent regulations. Stringer’s report noted that 34,000 apartments were already completed or are underway, and 85,000 remain to be built. Under the Stringer plan, 98 percent of those 85,000 units would be constructed as deeply affordable.

The plan also calls for tripling the number of units set aside in the Housing New York plan for homeless New Yorkers, from 5 percent to 15 percent, echoing a push by homeless advocates and a recent City Council bill introduced by Council Member Rafael Salamanca of the Bronx; and applying that percentage to both new construction and preserved units. Stringer cited statistics from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), stating that the city has not even met its 5 percent stated goal, with only 1 percent of units allocated to homeless families.

“Mayor Koch, as our research showed, set aside just 10 percent of units in his housing plan for the homeless,” Stringer said. “And the shelter population went down by more than a third in just three years. We can do that again.”

De Blasio has repeatedly opposed such calls, including when recently challenged by a homeless woman, who is an activist with Vocal New York, at his gym and on the radio.

Stringer’s plan also calls for at least 20,000 additional units to be developed on 600 plots of vacant, city-owned land by community land trusts or land banks controlled by non-profit entities.

To pay for these reforms, Stringer is proposing a sweeping change to the city’s property tax system that he says would increase annual city tax revenues by $400 million, through a more progressive tax system that raises rates on wealthy homeowners and eliminates a “double tax” on the middle class.

His plan would involve scrapping the “mortgage recording tax,” which Stringer characterized as being an extra tax on middle class homeowners.

“This system is patently unfair,” Stringer said. “It’s a penalty on the middle class who can’t pay all cash to buy a home.”

The current property tax scheme provides for both a tax on the cost of the transaction, and a tax on the value of the mortgage, with three brackets: under $500,000, between $500,000 and $1 million, and over $1 million. This system favors those who purchase apartments in cash, who tend to be wealthier and buy more expensive units, and do not have to pay the mortgage tax. Under the system, middle class homeowners often pay more than wealthy condo owners.

Stringer noted that in 2016, 80 percent of condo sales and 90 percent of townhouse sales in Manhattan were all-cash deals. Those cash deals escaped being subject to the MRT. The greater percentage of a transaction that is financed with borrowed money, the higher the tax incidence, putting a greater burden on buyers without the resources to do a cash deal.

While ditching the MRT, Stringer proposes creating a more graduated, progressive taxation system based only on the value of the transaction, taking into account high prices of some real estate by upping the top echelon from $1 million to $10 million. For properties over $10 million, the tax rate would be increased to 8 percent. Below $500,000, the rate would be 1 percent. Stringer hopes that, beyond funding affordable housing, the reformed tax structure could help encourage more middle- and working-class homeownership in the city.

The tax reforms would have to be approved by Albany. Stringer, who is widely expected to run for mayor in 2021, said that the new Democratic majority of the state Senate set to take power in January means that the tax reform is, for the first time in a long time, a possibility.

“We are beginning the conversation with legislators,” he said in response to a question. “And they are going well. Again, I want to stress that the state of play has fundamentally changed, we all know it’s changed. I believe that, obviously there are priorities like renewing and strengthening the rent laws, and they have a lot on their plate, but this can get done now because we have like-minded people who understand the housing crisis.”

Getting the mayor on board with the plan may be a different story. Stringer said that de Blasio has recognized some issues with the housing plan, but noted that City Hall has not given a firm answer on certain things.

“He has recognized that the plan originally put forth was not meeting the needs of the people who need the housing the most,” Stringer said, referring to the fact that de Blasio has made some tweaks to the plan, even while resisting some of the other calls for more sweeping changes.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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Criticizing De Blasio's Approach, Stringer Releases Alternative Affordable Housing Plan Thu, 29 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
A Closer Look at the Tax Incentives in the Amazon Deal http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8110-a-closer-look-at-the-tax-incentives-in-the-amazon-deal http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8110-a-closer-look-at-the-tax-incentives-in-the-amazon-deal govcoumo realestate

Cuomo, de Blasio & an Amazon rep celebrate (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Amazon’s decision to put a corporate campus in Long Island City after a year-long, somewhat-public search for a host city and a series of incentives from New York City and State has drawn skepticism and outrage in Queens and beyond for a number of reasons.

Some activists and elected officials oppose the secretive process by which Amazon got its land, tax breaks and grant, others feel like the company isn’t a corporate entity the city and state should be welcoming because of labor, political and other practices. But all of the opponents to the Amazon deal seem to agree that that package of roughly $3 billion in incentives the trillion-dollar corporation is getting from New York is out of bounds, an inappropriate giveaway based on old economics, in the midst of both a strong overall city economy with low unemployment on one hand and affordable housing, public housing, and transportation crises on the other.

And while a look at the programs in question reveals that Amazon doesn’t appear to be getting tax incentives or breaks that wouldn’t be available to other large employers who set up shop in New York, economists and budget watchdogs suggest the outrage over the tax break package Amazon is getting presents an opportunity to reexamine New York’s use of subsidies to entice companies. (Note: there is one discretionary capital grant in the deal for roughly $500 million that is separate from the $2.5 billion in city and state tax incentives.)

Where does the money come from?
The three largest incentives Amazon is getting from New York come from three as-of-right (that is, incentives available to any company that meets the requirements) programs: the Excelsior Jobs Credit Tax Program, the Relocation and Expansion Assistance Program (REAP) and the Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program (ICAP). The latter two tax breaks are incentives established by the state government that affect the city tax rolls, while the former program affects state tax rolls.

“They’re state created, like 421-a,” John Kaehny, the Executive Director of Reinvent Albany, told Gotham Gazette about ICAP and REAP, with reference to the tax break known as 421-a that seeks to incent housing development with some affordability included. “So the New York City Department of Finance administers them, but they have to, they're made to by state law. Basically it's money that the state is directing be taken out of the city's tax revenue.”

Along with their as-of-right nature, all three programs require a company actually delivers jobs in order to take advantage of the breaks. In that sense, Amazon is no different from a hotel company or mobile phone infrastructure company or real estate company in applying for the programs. In the case of the Excelsior program, Amazon is taking advantage of a refundable tax credit equal to 6.85 percent of the total wages per new full-time job they create, and a capital investment credit equal to 2 percent of a company’s total qualified investments that result in new jobs.

For the city tax breaks, ICAP is a tax abatement program that may last up to 25 years, available to companies who undertake new commercial construction in areas outside of some exempted sections of Manhattan. It appears Amazon will be eligible for a 15-year ICAP that begins to decline in year 12. REAP is a per-job tax credit in which companies from either outside New York City or below 96th Street in Manhattan get a $3,000 per employee credit for 12 years for each employee that moves into the new office outside the REAP area.

In addition to the above programs, Amazon is also getting a cash grant from the state called an Empire State Development Capital Grant that’s potentially worth $505 million and is supposed to help defray some of the costs from building the new corporate campus. And because New York State is taking over the land where the office will be located and making it tax-exempt, Amazon will make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) that the city has said will be equal to the property tax bill the company would pay on the land otherwise. Half of the money from the PILOT will go to the city’s general fund, and half of it will go towards infrastructure improvements around Long Island City.

All told, the tax breaks from the jobs credit, ICAP and REAP and the capital grant could wind up adding up to $3 billion in incentives to Amazon, if the company delivers the 25,000 jobs it’s promised over the course of 10 years.

What’s the problem exactly?
In his media appearances and statements to defend the incentive package, Governor Cuomo has suggested that these kinds of tax breaks are just the cost of doing business in America. But some economists, like James Parrott, the Director of Economic and Fiscal Policies at the Center for New York Affairs, say the programs are working off of a somewhat dated economic model, especially since he found that the city gave up almost $6 billion in tax revenue in Fiscal Year 2018 thanks to a stew of incentive programs like ICAP and REAP.

The predecessors to ICAP and REAP arrived in “a different historical economic context, coming on the heels of the 1970s when there was a lot of corporate headquarters movement out of New York City,” Parrott told Gotham Gazette. “With the loss of 600,000 jobs between 1973 and 1979, it was a really difficult economic period for the city. So in the 1980s the city put in place, and ramped up its commitment to subsidize corporations to stay in New York City, to relocate to New York City and to add employment.” But these days, Parrott says the city’s economy is healthy enough to function without massive incentives.

“We're now at a point where the total employment level in New York City is 4.3 million, almost 700,000 to 800,000 higher than it's ever been before,” he said. “Arguably New York City doesn't need to do anything to subsidize new economic development investments, given the very rapid employment growth we've had in recent years.”

Though he continues to stress that his administration refuses cash grants to companies, de Blasio also continues to defend the Amazon deal, including the use of the subsidies involved, again doing both during his weekly NY1 appearance on Monday. “[W[hat we need to move towards is a society where it’s not about cities competing” over companies, the mayor told host Errol Louis. “The specific incentives were automatic and part of state law,” was also part of his defense, and he suggested that if people want to see an end to the as-of-right programs, people should debate that in the future.

Parrott said he could understand the use of the Excelsior programs upstate, given the region’s struggling economy and what he said was a better oversight process than the program’s predecessor, the extremely troubled and criticized Empire Zone program. But the entire program also has an annual cap ($183 million in 2019 and steadily decreasing to $36 million in 2024 per the Citizens Budget Commission) that will have to be raised by the state Legislature if Amazon creates all of the jobs it’s promised, leaving Parrott to wonder, “why on Earth, if you have these limited tax credit resources, you spend those in New York City? The one place in the state that that least needs economic development subsidies?”

Kaehny sees some self-promotion as a motivating factor in giving state money to Amazon, specifically on the part of the governor. “Cuomo wants to create a narrative that shows that he had some agency, that he was the one that closed this deal with Amazon, that he did something that caused this deal to happen,” Kaehny said. “If Amazon says, ‘Well we don't care about the subsidies at all, we really just wanted New York City and this terrific dynamic place with a huge job market of talented people, the kind that we want working for Amazon and we don't really need subsidies,’ well then what's Cuomo’s role in landing the deal?”

It’s an especially pertinent question according to Kaehny and others who insist that Amazon was probably going to come to New York anyway. Both before and after identifying Long Island City as one of its landing spots, Amazon officials said that the ease of recruiting tech talent was the key ingredient in their search. A request for information that Amazon sent to Somerville, Massachusetts included one question about the incentive package the city could offer, but multiple questions about quality of life and the area’s working populations.

That in turn raises the issue of where New York should actually invest, in businesses or in infrastructure, according to Jonas Shaende, the chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute. “Should we just give [companies] tax subsidies outright or should we invest in what makes New York so attractive and so vibrant and so great? In the things that that are the real factors in in their decision making, things like the transportation system, the affordable housing the access to to labor, to education facilities those kinds of things.”

Shaende wasn’t alone in that line of thinking, as redirecting state subsidies from corporations towards local infrastructure was a centerpiece of the Marc Molinaro and Stephanie Miner campaigns for governor.

It’s real money
Another one of the governor’s defenses of the incentive package is that New York isn’t actually paying Amazon anything at all, but rather is letting the company pay slightly less in taxes than it would otherwise. In his “op-ed” published to the governor’s official website, Cuomo writes:

“Our proposal offered that, when and if those revenues are realized, the government would effectively reduce their $1 billion payment by about $100 million for a net to New York of approximately $900 million. New York doesn't give Amazon $100 million. Amazon gives New York $900 million.”

It’s a rhetorical sleight of hand that doesn’t pass muster with any expert Gotham Gazette spoke to. “I mean, that's just fundamentally wrong because essentially all economists left, right, wherever agree that a tax abatement or tax credit is a form of expenditure by government and is rightly called a subsidy,” Kaehny said, pointing out that the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (which sets the rules for financial reporting by government entities) now has a rule that counts subsidies as expenditures.

And in the case of the capital grant Amazon is getting, the cash is very much real. “It's clearly a case where it's a budget choice [Cuomo's] making, here's $500 million in taxpayer resources we're going to give to Amazon rather than use it for something else,” Parrott said.

“[Cuomo] happens to have a reserve of resources, out of which it’s very likely that this money is going to come,” Parrott said, talking about New York settlements reached with banks who are alleged to have committed mortgage securities and other financial fraud. “Although there wasn't anything said in the memorandum of understanding with [Empire State Development] and the state and the city that said where the capital monies are going to come from, my guess is it will come out of the reserve,” he said. Cuomo has indicated he does not need legislative approval for the capital grant, but legislators, especially those opposing the deal like Queens state Senator Michael Gianaris, are exploring all their options to block or change the deal.

The Citizens Budget Commission was measured in its critique of the grant, comparing the reimbursement-style payments as better than upfront costs the state has taken on with, for instance, the $750 million solar panel plant it built in Buffalo. But CBC still criticized the ongoing lack of oversight for where the money would come from. The grant has also been criticized in multiple corners as a sop to Cuomo-friendly construction unions, with critics charging the state is essentially paying Amazon to use union labor.

And the subsidies also open New York up to the double whammy of even more companies asking for the kinds of tax breaks Amazon is set to receive while at the same time trying to provide services and pay for them in a state budget operating under the governor’s self-imposed 2 percent cap on annual spending increases.

“It’s not a fiscally responsible way of running government,” Shaende said. “It could be potentially highly problematic for the state, because the state still relies on taxes. And we have the 2 percent spending growth cap, we have all sorts of measures that that the governor adopted to show that he's running a very fiscally responsible shop. He saves money, let's say, by cutting services, by finding efficiencies, in joint services between municipalities. So he saves, you know, a couple of nickels here a couple of dimes over there, and then he just splurges like this.”

Could this spur change?
As lawmakers scramble to find a way to stop or change Amazon’s incentive package, there’s at least some hope among reformers that the publicity surrounding the deal can lead to a change in how the state and city use tax incentives. The incentives all going towards one company has already brought more attention to the ways New York uses them than their use for the Hudson Yards development, Parrott said, despite the fact that “the total cost of the Hudson Yards tax breaks rival the amount of the city and state subsidy to Amazon.”

The surrounding outrage may also give new life to the proposed subsidy tracker known as the “Database of Deals,” an idea that Reinvent Albany’s Alex Camarda pointed out “is not rocket science” in Assembly testimony for more accountability in the state’s economic development funds last year. It is a transparency measure Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has called for but Cuomo has opposed; it passed the Republican-led state Senate earlier this year, but was not given a vote in the Democrat-led Assembly.

According to Shonede, the database not only could provide transparency to what’s going on in the state, but a better template for future spending.

“As a community of experts, we need to stress some basic accountability, how many jobs we get per dollar spent, and what kind of jobs they are,” Shoende told Gotham Gazette. “And if we do that, in a consistent and serious way, a basic accounting of these efforts, it’s going to be obvious that the best way to improve the situation with income inequality, and lack of good jobs in vulnerable communities and improving the business climate have to do with what the traditional role of the government is supposed to be. And that is making sure that people are safe, that they are well prepared for the market, and that the infrastructure is such that it minimizes the business costs for the businesses that you see operate in the neighborhoods,” he said.

And so in his own way, despite resisting intensive oversight of the state’s economic development initiatives, the governor may have inadvertently dragged the state’s subsidy programs further towards daylight. “This is kind of a like peeling the onion of Albany dysfunction and scurviness in a microcosm, this deal,” said Kaehny. “Because there's all this stuff baked in here that's been going on for a long time time. But it's like for the first time people in New York City were like ‘Oh s***,’ but reality is they've been doing this for many, many years.”

***
by Dave Colon, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated with more clear description of Amazon's eligibility for ICAP.

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A Closer Look at the Tax Incentives in the Amazon Deal Wed, 28 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Homelessness & Affordable Housing Development http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8108-max-murphy-podcast-homelessness-affordable-housing-development http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8108-max-murphy-podcast-homelessness-affordable-housing-development mxm logo

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


November 28, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Homelessness & Affordable Housing Development

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

gr mp 400pxThis week's Max & Murphy is part of housing week for the Agenda 2019 project, which is setting the stage for next year in New York City and State government and politics. Giselle Routhier, Policy Director at Coalition for the Homeless, joined the show to discuss homelessness in New York City, evaluating Mayor de Blasio's approach and what the State should do to address the issue. Then, Molly Park, Deputy Commissioner for Development at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), joined the show to discuss the city's affordable housing plan, HPD's approach to development, changes to the plan that have occurred over time, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

agenda19v2 a

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Homelessness & Affordable Housing Development Wed, 28 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Considers De Blasio Nominee for Department of Investigation http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8102-city-council-considers-de-blasio-nominee-for-department-of-investigation http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8102-city-council-considers-de-blasio-nominee-for-department-of-investigation mg headshot

Margaret Garnett (photo via City Hall)


Margaret Garnett, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pick to replace recently fired Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters, received praise from City Council Members and the support of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson at a Monday hearing on her nomination. Currently serving as the Executive Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Justice in the New York State Attorney General’s office, Garnett’s nomination hearing came amid significant controversy over de Blasio’s firing of Peters, who claimed on his way out that de Blasio’s behavior and motives in taking the unprecedented step of letting him go were highly questionable.

The DOI commissioner, charged with running the agency that independently investigates corruption and wrongdoing in city government, is the only mayoral department-head appointee that requires approval by the City Council. Peters, the treasurer for de Blasio’s first mayoral campaign, used his position to examine systemic failings in the mayor’s administration and issued several scathing reports on the public housing authority, the police department, and the children’s services department, among other agencies. But Peters’ work drew the ire of the mayor, who reportedly considered removing the commissioner for months.

The mayor was presented with a justifiable opportunity after an independent investigator, prosecutor James McGovern, issued a report that said Peters had exceeded his legal authority in attempting to take over an independent office that conducts oversight of the Department of Education, among other transgressions.

In responding to the report and his termination, Peters questioned the mayor’s motives in a letter to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Ritchie Torres, who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Investigations. Peters pointed to instances where the mayor and his aides had sought to suppress critical reports by DOI and speculated that de Blasio was attempting to bring an end to potential ongoing investigations into the mayor’s office. Those actions, he said, could chill the independence of the next DOI commissioner.

De Blasio responded that Peters was fired for cause and alluded to other troubling behavior not in the McGovern report, while adding that he regretted nominating Peters in the first place and saying the former prosecutor had delusions of grandeur. A BuzzFeed News report on Monday appeared to poke holes in Peters’ critique of the mayor, citing unnamed former and current DOI employees who said that Peters himself quashed a report about NYPD officers who lied in official statements and were not disciplined.

Naturally, Peters’ conduct and the saga around his dismissal by de Blasio formed the basis of Monday’s City Council hearing, held by the Council’s Committee on Rules, Elections and Privileges, chaired by City Council Member Karen Koslowitz. Council Members questioned Garnett on the approach she would take if she was confirmed to replace Peters in leading an office with dozens of investigators and the power to make arrests, and pressed her on how she would withstand influence from the administration and handle investigations, if any, that are already underway related to the mayor’s office.

“To do its job, It is imperative that DOI remain independent from the entities it is obligated to monitor, including and especially the mayor,” Speaker Johnson said in his opening statement. “The DOI commissioner must not be beholden to any political figure and she must be capable of withstanding political pressure that would affect the integrity of DOI’s work.”

Garnett emphasized her prosecutorial experience and her apolitical beliefs in her testimony. She also said that the findings of the McGovern Report, based on which Peters was fired, were “very shocking” and said she herself would expect to be terminated under those circumstances.

The Council members and Garnett seemed reconciled to a degree of professional tension between the legislative body and the independent agency. The McGovern report, Johnson said, raised the question of whether there needs to be structural changes to prevent the types of actions for which Peters was removed. “Who watches the watchman?,” Johnson asked.

But Garnett seemed to reject that idea, emphasizing rather that DOI remain independent and create an internal culture of integrity to prevent even the commissioner from abusing their power. “It’s very important...that prosecutors and law enforcement investigators be independent from political influence or political control, partisan concerns,” Garnett said, “and in order for that independence to be effective, that often means limited oversight by elected officials and other bodies.”

Garnett said she could cite “dozens of examples” from her career of withstanding political pressure into investigations, and said bluntly that if she was ever asked to end a particular inquiry or affect its outcome, “The first thing I’d do is hang up the phone.”

“I’m not a political person, I have no political ambitions...I would much sooner risk being fired than risk damaging my professional reputation,” she later said. Garnett is a veteran prosecutor and previously served as Assistant United States Attorney for the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. She has prosecuted tax fraud, embezzlement, narcotics cases and violent crimes, supervising the Violent and Organized Crime Unit for four years. She was later appointed Chief of Appeals for the Criminal Division. In the Attorney General’s office, besides heading the criminal division, Garnett oversees investigations of deaths of unarmed civilians in police interactions through the Special Investigations and Prosecution Unit.

Council members also used the hearing as an opportunity to delve further into Peters’ actions as commissioner, seeking assurances from Garnett that she would not make the same missteps. Among Peters abuses of power was the firing of a whistleblower in his own department, which Johnson said, and Garnett agreed, might necessitate strengthening whistleblower protections through legislative action.

Garnett shared the Council members’ apprehensions about Peters’ disclosure, in his letter to the Council, of the possible existence of investigations into the mayor’s office. But she also promised to look into any such investigations and said she would follow the facts and evidence without backing down as Peters’ letter suggested.

“I can assure you that I will not be chilled,” she said, “and to the extent that anyone, Mr. Peters or in the administration or otherwise, thinks that I will be intimidated or chilled, I think they’ll be sorely disappointed.”

Peters’ actions also prompted Council members to seek clarity on DOI’s role and authority over the NYPD inspector general, which is housed at DOI, and the Special Commissioner for Investigation at DOE, which Peters had tried to bring under his control. Garnett shared their concerns and was asked repeatedly about SCI’s structure in relation to DOI, even though she said she could not adequately address the question since she had yet to examine it. Council Member Mark Treyger in particular questioned whether that structural relationship should be reimagined considering that SCI has not conducted any systematic review of DOE for years despite the agency accounting for the largest share of the city budget.

Council Member Torres, who was critical of the mayor’s decision to fire Peters, said Garnett was “exceptionally qualified” to replace him. He said his “greatest frustration” with DOI was the lack of acknowledgement of the Council’s requests for probes of city agencies or particular issues. Garnett made no promises about instituting a formal reporting structure, as Torres proposed, but she agreed to have conversations with members about their concerns.

Members praised Garnett’s testimony and lengthy resume and, in the end, her confirmation to the post seemed assured (a vote is likely to be taken in committee then the full Council in the coming days). Shortly before departing the hearing, Johnson said he was impressed with Garnett’s testimony and qualifications and would support her nomination. “I feel confident in your ability to lead this agency,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Considers De Blasio Nominee for Department of Investigation Mon, 26 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Agenda 2019: Long List of Transit Questions Starts with Saving the Subways http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8094-agenda-2019-long-list-of-transit-questions-starts-with-saving-the-subways http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8094-agenda-2019-long-list-of-transit-questions-starts-with-saving-the-subways gov an cuomo littering

Gov. Cuomo on the tracks (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

2019 will be a pivotal year for New York City transportation, unlike any this city has seen in decades. Not only is there near-universal agreement that the city’s transportation landscape, from the subways to the buses to the traffic and everything in between, is fundamentally broken, there is also a growing consensus on many of the steps needed to fix it, starting with—but by no means limited to—congestion pricing.

The problems start, of course, with the subways. For the first time in a generation, there is a leader at the MTA, New York City Transit President Andy Byford, that activists, politicians, and the riding public believe in. And he’s getting results, at least enough of them to instill confidence in new-found competence. On-time subway performance has been steadily rising since a low of 58.1 percent in January to 70.3 percent in October. Overall delays are also trending in the right direction. The $836 million Subway Action Plan work has mostly been done, which also seems to have had an effect in reducing the number of “Major Incidents” that snarl commutes.

Byford and his management team are always quick to admit there’s still much more work to do, but his efforts to improve “the basics” by reducing train dwell times, making sure all of the safety equipment in the system works properly so trains can go as fast as safely possible, and other “safe seconds” initiatives appear to be paying off.

On top of that, the state Legislature, which has final say on many of the key issues facing the city’s transportation landscape, turned solidly Democratic in November, opening the door to changes that may otherwise have been off the table. Some legislators at least appear eager to tackle the transportation issue head-on. Plus, Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, has made transportation a key tentpole issue of his early tenure by passing a temporary Uber/Lyft cap and the Fair Fares program for discounted MetroCards. In many ways, the stars are very much aligned.

But the challenges are just as monumental as the opportunities. The MTA has a precarious financial situation, ridership is declining, and some miscalculations now such as cutting service or raising fares too high could have dire consequences. Congestion pricing still has its detractors, particularly in the outer boroughs who, reasonably, want commitments to better bus service in exchange. They need to be convinced. The city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, is still curiously indifferent to all things transit with the exception of his beloved ferries, a tiny, heavily-subsidized slice of the overall pie, and his still-far-off BQX streetcar.

And the single most important person in this conversation, Governor Andrew Cuomo, has been too selective regarding what MTA issues he’s interested in and when, resulting in a revolving door of MTA leaders, whom Cuomo appoints. The agency needs a consistent, dedicated head who can team with Byford for long-term fixes. Cuomo will soon nominate someone for the position after Joe Lhota’s departure.

A year from now, we’ll probably have a pretty good idea of what the future of the city’s transportation will look like. Perhaps decades from now, New Yorkers will look back on 2019 as the year the tide finally turned towards real fixes for the beleaguered transit picture, with a reliable subway system, buses that move, and other essentials. Or, despite the crises and challenges New York faces, maybe it will be perceived as a missed opportunity.

The L Train Shutdown
Believe it or not, the L train shutdown, that dark specter of fear and misery looming in the distance for years, is finally upon us. Starting on April 27, the L train will run at a reduced frequency and only in Brooklyn, diverting almost 300,000 riders per day. The MTA and NYC DOT have created an elaborate mitigation plan they claim can accommodate every rider. The agencies anticipate four out of every five displaced L riders will use other subway routes (most notably the J, M, Z, G, 7, E, A, and C) and the rest will use some combination of special bus services across the Williamsburg Bridge, ferries, or bikes; 14th Street will become a busway for most of each day and the Williamsburg Bridge will be HOV-3 to accommodate all those buses.

But there is simply no way to have hundreds of thousands of commuters change their habits all at once in an orderly fashion. The big question, then, is how the MTA and DOT adapt.

“We'll be watching closely to see whether the MTA and DOT can work together to adapt to real-world transportation needs on the ground,” said Hayley Richardson of TransitCenter. Some of the adjustments they’ll keep an eye on: will the HOV-3 window on the bridge, from 5 AM to 10 PM, be sufficient? Will HOV-3 in general be restrictive enough, given that their modeling largely uses assumptions from crises before Uber and Lyft had shared-ride options and thus could easily meet the HOV-3 restriction? Perhaps they’ll need to institute pop-up bus lanes created with standard issue road cones.

Another looming question is whether the HOV-3 restriction and bus lanes will be properly enforced. Given the volume of buses the MTA expects to run across the bridge and 14th Street—one or two buses per minute in some cases—even one blocked bus lane could be catastrophic during peak hours. It’s up to the NYPD to enforce it, and there has been little indication that the department prioritizes such work.

Whatever the case, riders—whether former L commuters or those on the lines that will be swamped with more passengers—are going to be dealing with a lot of changes. Will the MTA be able to communicate effectively? It, too, has left a lot to be desired in that department.

There’s a lot riding on the MTA and the city to get this right. Aside from the obvious need to get people where they need to go, it is a huge opportunity for the MTA to show riders it is improving, deserves more taxpayer and rider money, and will use it wisely because it is a competent, efficient organization. Because, well, the MTA is going to be asking for a lot of money.

Sorting Out the MTA’s Budget Mess
Earlier this month, MTA Chief Financial Officer Bob Foran presented a sobering financial picture to the MTA Board. In short, the MTA projects a $991 million deficit by 2022 even with biennial fare and toll increases. Foran argued the MTA needs a new, recurring revenue stream in order to balance the budget beyond 2020. And this is just the MTA’s costs of providing day-to-day service; the next five-year capital plan—which would include Byford’s Fast Forward Plan to revitalize New York City Transit, plus the needs of LIRR and Metro-North—is estimated to cost around $60 billion, or nearly double the current capital plan. Who will pay for it and how is the single biggest question facing New York City transportation this year.

For his part, Cuomo has been consistent on one MTA issue: he wants the city to pay more. He wanted the city to pay more in 2015 towards the current capital plan, he forced the city's hand into paying half of the Subway Action Plan, and he regularly pledges—and had suburban state Senators sign on—to make the city pay its “fair share” going forward.

Before Lhota resigned as MTA chair earlier this month, he stated the Board would not take a position regarding preferred revenue streams until the MTA Sustainability Advisory Working Group, created by this year’s state budget, issues its report on this topic, which is expected by the end of the year. That report will likely set the tone for discussions in Albany once the new legislative session begins in January, which is largely dictated by the governor’s State of the State address and Executive Budget presentation.

In the meantime, Governor Cuomo declared on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show on Monday that “the MTA is going to be a top priority for me this year” and that he favors congestion pricing as the additional revenue stream in need.

Congestion pricing, which would charge drivers who enter Manhattan’s Central Business District, will accomplish far more than give the MTA additional money (perhaps more than $1 billion per year depending on what the exact model looks like). It will also address one of New York’s other major transportation issues: traffic. According to the FixNYC panel convened by the governor last year to study congestion pricing, vehicles in the Central Business District moved at a mere 6.8 miles per hour in 2016, and only 4.7 miles per hour—a brisk walking pace—in the “Midtown Core.” By reducing the number of vehicles in Manhattan, congestion pricing would help speed things up.

Because of the MTA’s dire financial outlook and Manhattan’s desperate need for traffic relief, congestion pricing is a two-birds-one-stone type deal. Combined with a revamped state Legislature more amenable to congestion pricing, there’s a growing consensus it will pass this coming session.

“We certainly expect to see congestion pricing done this year in the budget process,” Tri-State Transportation Campaign executive director Nick Sifuentes predicted, before adding “and we also know additional resources of funding will be necessary if we’re going to see Fast Forward fully funded.” What those additional revenue sources might be is a question the MTA Sustainability Advisory Working Group will presumably address.

MTA Cost Control
But that’s just the revenue side of the equation. The MTA also has a highly-publicized cost control issue, spending orders of magnitude more on big projects than comparable cities. It’s a problem Cuomo has finally vowed to tackle. “There is inefficiency that goes on at the MTA that has to end,” he told Lehrer. Easier said than done, especially for a governor who has been extremely tight with the Transportation Workers Union and taken little apparent interest in how MTA contracting is managed.

While the MTA has said that tackling high capital costs is a key goal for almost a year now, there has so far been very little payoff. Presentations by the MTA Board’s procurement and cost containment task forces in June have been the only public-facing initiatives within the authority to keep the ball moving forward. Nor has there been any transparency on why, exactly, the Fast Forward Plan will cost $40 billion, how that number was arrived at, or whether the cost can be lowered by prioritizing some initiatives over others.

The MTA will also be re-negotiating its biggest labor contract with TWU Local 100 and its more than 40,000 members, whose contract expires in May. Payroll, health care, and pensions account for more than half of the MTA’s $16.7 billion 2019 budget.

The main question is to what degree lawmakers will push the cost control issue when determining new revenue streams in the upcoming state budget. Will they insist on rigid cost containment guards to make sure the money is spent wisely? Or will they throw a bunch of money at the MTA and hope the problem doesn’t present its ugly head again until they’re long gone from office?

The latter approach may be the more cynical one, but it’s also the historically preferred one in Albany. Nevertheless, Assemblywoman Amy Paulin has already vowed to break form and “conduct [a] rigorous, public oversight during the legislative session” on the MTA. Danny Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance expects lawmakers this time around to take a more active approach in ensuring the MTA is doing something about outsized construction costs. “Lawmakers and fare, toll, and taxpayers want to know that the money they raise and set aside for transit will be used efficiently and responsibly,’ Pearlstein said. “Ramping up toward the next MTA capital plan, look for the authority to articulate and implement new cost control measures.”

Get Buses Moving Again
For all the talk of fixing the subway for tens of billions of dollars, fixing the city’s bus service—which serves almost two million riders a day but has seen ridership plummet by almost 10 percent since 2012—is a relatively cheap and easy proposition by comparison. Instead of a matter of dollars, it’s largely a matter of will.

Congestion pricing would likely help speed up bus service in some parts of Manhattan, but more needs to be done to make bus service throughout the five boroughs an attractive option, say both Sifuentes and Pearlstein, whose organizations have partnered with other advocacy groups to form the Bus Turnaround Coalition. The coalition calls for, among other measures, redesigning the city’s bus routes, which in many cases have not been touched in decades. The MTA just finished redesigning Staten Island’s express bus network and plans to tackle the Bronx next.

But it’s not just an MTA problem. The roads and traffic signals are controlled by the city DOT and monitored by the NYPD, and thus far Mayor de Blasio has not made speeding up bus service a priority—or even a topic—of his administration’s efforts. “The city (DOT) really needs to step up its commitment on buses,” Sifuentes urged, which he says ought to include more bus lanes and more robust and expanded transit signal priority, which gives buses as many green lights as possible.

There is something Albany can do, which is probably the most important thing to speed up buses. Both Pearlstein and Sifuentes plan to pressure the state Legislature to drastically expand the use of camera enforcement for bus lanes rather than relying on the NYPD to write tickets. For his part, Byford wants those cameras mounted on the front of buses, ensuring anyone who blocks a bus lane gets a ticket regardless of whether or not there’s a cop nearby.

agenda19v2 aNew Fare Payment System
The Bus Turnaround Coalition also calls for all-door boarding to speed up loading times, which can only be done with a new fare payment system. Luckily, the MTA is mere months from introducing this.

Starting in May, riders will be able to use contactless payment such as Apple Pay, Google Pay, or contactless-enabled credit cards that Chase and Visa will be rolling out in the coming months, to pay their fare on the 4/5 subway line between Grand Central and Atlantic Ave/Barclays as well as Staten Island express buses. The MTA plans to roll out contactless payments to every other bus and subway station by October 2020. By the time MetroCards are no longer accepted in 2023, riders who don’t have credit cards or smartphones will be able to purchase NFC-enabled transit cards like the ones in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, London, and pretty much every other major city from new station vending machines and local stores.

This new payment system will not only make bus boarding faster if implemented properly, it can also accommodate a more sensible fare structure that eliminates the need to face the existential question of adding value or adding time. This model, known as fare-capping, means people pay per-ride until they hit a pre-determined maximum for a period of time, perhaps a day, week, or month, at which point each additional ride is free for that time period. This ensures nobody pays more than the “unlimited” amount and further incentivizes folks to use public transportation no matter how many trips they plan to make.

Although fare-capping can’t happen until every subway station and bus has the new fare payment system in 2020, the 4/5 line rollout will be something to watch next year, particularly in concert with the city’s Fair Fares program that gives half-priced MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers. Going forward, contactless payments would make implementing that system simpler and cheaper. Although it’s not getting nearly as much attention, the New Fare Payment System may well be the most transformative change for the city’s transportation next year.

Other Important Transportation Issues on the Table, But with Less for 2019
-With the House flipping Democratic, there is slightly more reason for optimism that something—anything—might develop in securing funding for the $30 billion Gateway project, although President Trump would have to renege on his vow to veto any federal funding for the project. It would be nice if they also found ways to reduce that price tag, too.

-2019 will likely see a series of “announcements” by Cuomo about progress on Penn Station’s redevelopment, but none of the major renovation projects such as the Moynihan extension are scheduled to be completed until 2020.

-Placard abuse continues to run rampant throughout the city, with little attention from Mayor de Blasio, who has repeatedly vowed to crack down on the widespread practice and repeatedly failed to do so. Reining in this overtly corrupt practice would do wonders for city streets, but there’s no reason at this point to believe 2019 will be any different than previous years.

-Returning to Fair Fares, which is designed to provide half-price MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers, the program is set to begin in 2019. It’s widely seen as a major step forward for the city, but some questions linger, such as how smoothly the implementation will go and whether there will be an option for single-ride Fair Fares down the road, since the initial program will be limited to seven-day and 30-day passes, an issue advocates and some elected officials have said needs to be solved.

-For Long Island commuters, two massive improvements are on the distant horizon—East Side Access and Third Track—but both are still years away, with scheduled completion dates of December 2022. Again, progress worth monitoring along with and aside from inevitable Cuomo “announcements.”

-That point also applies to LaGuardia Airport, which will still be a lot of trouble in 2019 and probably for much beyond, too. Terminal B, the center of the new design, won’t open until 2020 and Concourse A won’t be done until 2022, but work is ongoing the governor will be there.

-And the city’s much-maligned streetcar project, the BQX, is still technically alive despite needing $1 billion in federal funding to become a reality, according to city officials who have changed their tune on funding since de Blasio announced the BQX in 2016. Don’t expect much if anything to change in 2019, as the Friends of the BQX’s own timeline says the city won’t complete its Environmental Impact Statement process until September 2020.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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Aaron Gordon is a freelance journalist and founder of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter about the subway. On Twitter @A_W_Gordon

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Agenda 2019: Long List of Transit Questions Starts with Saving the Subways Tue, 20 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
'Doubt Upon the Mayor's True Motives': Investigations Commissioner Responds to Firing by De Blasio http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8089-doubt-upon-the-mayor-s-true-motives-investigations-commissioner-responds-to-firing-by-de-blasio http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8089-doubt-upon-the-mayor-s-true-motives-investigations-commissioner-responds-to-firing-by-de-blasio Mark Peters

Mark Peters (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters, in his final days on the job after Mayor Bill de Blasio fired him on Friday, refuted the mayor’s stated reasons for the termination in a bluntly worded letter sent Monday to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Ritchie Torres who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, and released to the news media (read the full letter below).

Peters, who was once treasurer to de Blasio’s first mayoral campaign, has had a tense relationship with City Hall over the last few years. Under his leadership, DOI has conducted several investigations into city agencies that have angered the mayor and embarrassed his administration. Peters was asked to resign Friday afternoon but refused, following which he was terminated in a meeting with First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan. De Blasio announced that Margaret Garnett, New York State’s executive deputy attorney general for criminal justice, was being nominated to replace him -- the DOI commissioner is the only city agency head that must be approved by the City Council.

Along with repeated clashes with City Hall, part of the pretext for Peters’ firing was the finding of an independent investigator that the DOI commissioner overreached his authority and made misleading statements to the City Council and to top administration officials about his attempt to bring a Department of Education investigative office under his control. “The DOI Commissioner is supposed to be most pristine of all – that’s not pristine,” de Blasio said at a Friday news conference, where he said he regretted appointing Peters to the post and explained his decision to fire him.

Under the city Charter, Peters was allowed an opportunity to give a public explanation. In his letter on Monday, he pointedly sought to rebut the administration’s rationale for letting him go. He insisted that the independent investigator’s report on his actions, while pointing out issues for which he had apologized, “contains multiple factual errors that the Mayor now repeats” and said that the mayor’s interactions with DOI and current investigations into the administration “must cast doubt upon the Mayor’s true motives.” Peters said the mayor’s actions could have a chilling effect on the independence of the next DOI commissioner and said he was willing to appear before the City Council to apprise them of investigations into the administration “so that the Council at least has a record of these investigations in the event that they are unreasonably delayed or discontinued by my successor.”

He detailed interactions with the mayor and other members of the de Blasio administration, including one phone call on which he alleges de Blasio screamed at him over an imminent report and instances whereby he alleges that administration officials repeatedly attempted to stop him from releasing damning reports, such as those into NYCHA and the Department of Correction.

"The suggestion that anyone at City Hall – including the Mayor – tried to stop any DOI review is entirely false,” de Blasio spokesperson Eric Phillips said in a statement Monday morning. “What is not in question is that Margaret Garnett is the most qualified, independent person to lead DOI and restore credibility in its important work."

Council Member Torres, in a statement on Monday, said Peters’ letter “reveals a pattern of interference with DOI investigations and intimidation against DOI officials that borders on the unethical and should be illegal.” He did not, however, say whether the Council would call Peters in to testify at a hearing.

Peters' full letter: 

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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'Doubt Upon the Mayor's True Motives': Investigations Commissioner Responds to Firing by De Blasio Mon, 19 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000