Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/63 Mon, 20 Aug 2018 05:28:53 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Working Families Party Puts It All On The Line http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7840:working-families-party-puts-it-all-on-the-line http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7840:working-families-party-puts-it-all-on-the-line Cynthia Nixon, Jummane Williams, and Alessandra Biaggi

Cynthia Nixon (left), Alessandra Biaggi (top right), Bill Lipton & Jumaane Williams (bottom)


The Working Families Party celebrated its 20th anniversary last month at Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg, with its rank-and-file cheering on a line up of politicians that have served as standard bearers, past and present. But it’s the future of the party that is especially uncertain as the upstart liberal organization lays it all on the line in backing insurgent candidates in state elections this year.

In doing so, especially in its decision to take on Governor Andrew Cuomo by backing Cynthia Nixon, some the party’s longtime allies have turned adversaries, portending a potentially diminished presence in the state’s political landscape if its gamble does not pay off over the next several weeks. At the anniversary celebration, which featured Mayor Bill de Blasio, among others singing the party’s praises for its push to create a more fair and equal New York, there was little sign of uneasiness about its bold choices this election year; an atmosphere of revelry prevailed, possibly the sign of progressive activists happy to be going for it all instead of triangulating with Cuomo and other more centrist Democrats as it had in the past.

There is also a sense among WFP leaders and supporters that the party is already where the Democratic Party is heading, and where it needs to be, with a more progressive vision of left politics reflective of a new post-Clinton, post-Cuomo Democratic era.

Created by community advocates and labor unions with a vision of pulling Democrats to the progressive left, the WFP has played a prominent role in championing the bread-and-butter issues that most affect working, low- and middle-income Americans. Through activism and advocacy around policy and funding, the party battles inequity, whether it be in housing, employment, wages, criminal justice, education, environment, or electoral access. In local and state elections, Democrats eager to brandish their progressive bonafides have coveted and sought the WFP’s endorsement, and the party’s vocal leaders and active network of members and volunteers.

But after years of being let down by elected officials they propped up, the WFP’s leadership made a drastic decision this year to endorse underdogs in key Democratic primaries. They backed Nixon’s challenge to Cuomo, a two-term incumbent seeking reelection, and New York City Council Member Jumaane Williams in his attempt to unseat Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul; and they are fiercely rallying behind progressive candidates who are trying to replace Democratic state Senators who until recently made up the Republican-allied Independent Democratic Conference (IDC).

The reaction to the WFP’s moves has been significant, and potentially crippling. Several unions that had filled the party’s coffers for years pulled their support for fear of angering the governor, who made explicit threats against anyone who would stay, according to a WFP leader. But advocacy groups and a progressive activist base rallied, resolute to take on Cuomo, whom they no longer trusted after a 2014 deal went bad, and the former IDC members, who had betrayed their Democratic party-mates.

While acknowledging its newfound vulnerability, WFP leaders and supporters also had a sense that they were on the right side of history, pursuing their true vision of where the Democratic Party should be (with the necessary help of the WFP), representative of the national trendlines -- the WFP did back Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary -- a feeling only bolstered in recent weeks by events like the shocking congressional primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom the WFP had not endorsed over Rep. Joe Crowley, but quickly sought to align with thereafter.

“I think the unions are dismayed by the way the Working Families Party has chosen to operate this cycle,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, in a phone interview. RWDSU was among those unions that left the party this year and Appelbaum is one of several labor leaders who say that Cuomo deserves to be reelected.

“They’re diverting energy and resources from the effort to send more Democratic congresspeople from New York to Washington, [and] our prime responsibility is to work to take back the House of Representatives…Our concern is that the WFP no longer is representing, in its current rendition, the interests of working men and women, despite their name, and that is why unions felt it was necessary to disassociate themselves.”

WFP leaders and allied elected officials say the party made a calculated wager, riding a groundswell of progressive sentiment that has moved the state’s political center, and that no matter how the chips fall on September 13, primary day, the party has already won.

“This is the party they founded 20 years ago...to pull the Democratic Party to the left and with a coalitional approach to building power,” Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander told Gotham Gazette at the WFP’s anniversary gala. Lander spoke of the “radical but also practical vision” of Jon Kest, the progressive organizer who founded the WFP as well as the advocacy groups New York Communities for Change and its predecessor, the now-defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

“The WFP’s always contained this dynamic tension,” Lander said, between “the strength of voice of grassroots activists” and “established but still progressive” institutions such as labor unions. “At this moment, given shifts in the broader zeitgeist...and of course because of the way the governor has approached this, the party is in a more activist movement space,” he said. Like the WFP, Lander is backing Williams for lieutenant governor and several of the challengers to the former IDC members.

Surely, if the WFP notches wins in the many primaries it is involved in -- the WFP offers a general election ballot line, but does much of its work backing its preferred candidates in their Democratic primaries -- it will strengthen the party, and conversely, losses will set them back, Lander said. Though, given the state of New York’s politics, “There’s no choice,” Lander said.

For nearly eight years, the WFP has cried foul about Democratic recalcitrance as key progressive policies have failed to pass the state Legislature. The WFP continues to advocate for issues that include healthcare for all, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, fair wages, fixing the city’s subways, increasing funding to under-resourced schools, the DREAM Act, campaign finance and voting reform.  

Cuomo and the members of the erstwhile IDC largely claim to support that agenda and have repeatedly blamed the Republican-controlled Senate for thwarting its planks. But Cuomo tolerated, if not supported, the presence of the IDC, and critics hold its members up as a major obstacle to full Democratic control of both legislative chambers. Democrats have a comfortable majority in the 150-seat Assembly but, with the return of the IDC to the mainline Democratic conference, hold 31 seats in the 63-seat Senate.

And though the State Democratic Party, at Cuomo’s behest, is focused on recapturing the Senate, which necessitates flipping seats in the general election, groups like the WFP insist on replacing rogue Democrats with candidates who better embody progressive values and they trust to not flee for a deal with Republicans.

The party is taking a “big risk,” Dorothy Siegel, WFP treasurer, conceded on the sidelines of the gala, where Nixon, Williams, de Blasio, and Ben Jealous, the WFP-backed Democratic nominee for governor in Maryland, took the stage one by one to celebrate the WFP’s history. “Because, the power structure doesn’t like to be challenged...and the WFP is a really small organization,” Siegel said. “The people who control the levers of power win. Individual people never win.”

Siegel lamented her belief that the state’s politics, the governor, and state Legislature are powered by special interests, largely real estate developers and Wall Street executives (she left out the extensive influence of labor unions). “The WFP is not powered by any of those powerful people. We’re only powered by people who pay us $5 a month,” she said. “It’s a true David and Goliath situation. If we lose the governor’s race, we run the risk of very powerful people being very angry. They can do a lot of things to us that would make our lives difficult.”

Siegel pointed to the investigation involving the WFP that stemmed from alleged campaign finance violations in the election of City Council Member Debi Rose on Staten Island in 2009. Two campaign workers were accused, and later cleared, of charges that they worked with the WFP’s consulting firm, Data and Field Services, to circumvent campaign finance law. The years-long episode cost time and money that the WFP could ill-afford. “Lots of people got laid off. We almost went out of business,” Siegel said. “They could do that again. Do not underestimate the power of super-wealthy people to trample people who want to take away their power.”

Is it worth the risk? “Absolutely. 100 percent,” she said.

One of the most consequential possible effects of the WFP backing Nixon over Cuomo -- who they endorsed in 2014 after he promised to bring the IDC to an end and enact many of the same policies he’s promising again this year, which he did not follow through on -- is that it could cost the party automatic ballot access. A “third party” like the WFP needs at least 50,000 votes for its candidate for governor to maintain its ballot line into the future, which Nixon could easily attain in the general election. But Nixon losing the Democratic primary would put the WFP in a tough spot. Its leaders claim they won’t play spoiler and risk electing a Republican by drawing general election votes away from Cuomo. The party could feasibly get behind Cuomo while removing Nixon from the gubernatorial ballot line. A back-up plan is in place to move her to an Assembly race, in which she would not run, they say.

[Read: The Cynthia Nixon-Working Families Party Back-up Plan]

“We’re confident that Cynthia’s going to win and that the insurgents running against the IDC are all going to win,” said Bill Lipton, NYWFP political director, in a phone interview. “There’s a progressive wave coming. In the unlikely event that she loses, Cynthia’s agreed to meet with the leaders of the WFP and we’ll have an important decision to make. We’re very confident about any of the possible scenarios.”

A Nixon win would shock the political world, and catapult the WFP to never-before-seen power for a minor party. While initial polls show Nixon losing badly, her campaign argues that polling has been skewed and that polls are unable to capture the insurgent energy among Democrats and behind her candidacy. On the other hand, polling shows Williams to have a very real shot at unseating Hochul, which would also strengthen the WFP and cause major headaches for Cuomo (candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately in the primary, but as a ticket for the general election).

If Lipton had concerns about the WFP’s undertaking in this election cycle, he betrayed none of them. “We’re not taking a risk. We’re fulfilling our mission. The risk would be for us if we stray from our mission,” he said, critiquing the Democratic establishment for relying on the same wealthy donors as their Republican opponents. “The mission of the WFP is to break up that cozy relationship between these parties and these oligarchs and demand that there be a party that is truly fighting for working people,” he added. “And Cuomo and the IDC fundamentally made the problem worse by not just taking money from the same wealthy donors that fund the Republican attacks on working people but actually openly supporting and aligning themselves with the Republicans. The danger for us would’ve been not standing up to these Trump Democrats. That would’ve been the greater danger.”

The WFP hasn’t been a pure supporter of every progressive candidate, as evidenced by its choice of Cuomo over Zephyr Teachout in 2014, among others. Though the party derived momentum after the recent primary victory by Ocasio-Cortez, the young democratic socialist who defeated ten-term incumbent Rep. Crowley in Queens, its backing of Crowley left many questioning the WFP afterward. Lipton said the party was now fully behind her and that their earlier decisions owed to the fact that Crowley was moving to his left and the party had already committed to challenging former IDC state senators. “In retrospect, we clearly made a mistake. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has inspired us and working people around New York and the nation,” Lipton said.  

The party also hasn’t made an endorsement in the state Senate District 18 race where Julia Salazar, also a democratic socialist, is posing a primary challenge to Democratic Senator Martin Dilan, an eight-term incumbent. Although, Lipton did not close the door on the prospect of an endorsement. “As of now, the WFP has made no endorsement in the race,” he simply said. The party is backing Andrew Gounardes in a competitive Brooklyn Democratic primary with Ross Barkan, the winner of which will try to unseat one of the few Republican elected officials in the city, Senator Marty Golden.

[Read: Running for State Senate, Julia Salazar Attempts Progressive Primary Upset]

Karen Scharff, co-chair of the NYWFP and, until recently, longtime executive director of Citizen Action of New York, an activist group and member of the WFP, insists the party will come through September 13 with several victories, similarly citing Ocasio-Cortez, among other progressives, who prevailed in the congressional primaries.

“The headline that came out of June 26 was not ‘Democratic establishment wins big.’ It was quite the opposite,’” Scharff said in a phone interview. “I think really that Cuomo and the IDC and the establishment Democrats took a major risk themselves by ignoring the growth of the progressive movement as it really built up steam over the past seven years going back to Occupy Wall Street and then Bill de Blasio’s election in New York City, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Bernie Sanders momentum, and they’re showing that they realize it.”

She noted that Cuomo has moved to his left in the last few months on several fronts, owing to the shifting dynamics of the Democratic base. “I think that the risk we’ve taken in our endorsements this year have already paid off in moving the dominant issues in our state in a direction that is gonna meet the needs of working families instead of the needs of hedge fund donors and real estate donors,” she said, insisting that the governor and state Legislature, no matter who wins, can ill-afford to ignore the WFP’s agenda next year. “I think this is the direction the electorate is moving in and the Democratic Party’s going to have to either move with it or risk being left behind,” she said.

“I don’t think WFP is out on a limb by itself here,” Scharff continued. “This is really part of the establishment versus the entire progressive and resistance movement….We’re definitely acting as part of a broader movement with a lot of allies.”

Public Advocate Letitia James, who first got elected to the City Council on the WFP line in 2003, also attended the 20th anniversary gala, though her presence was more muted. Despite being a longtime WFP poster star, she did not speak to the gathering, choosing to mingle on the sides. James is running for attorney general with the governor’s support and eschewed the WFP’s endorsement, which the party has reserved for either James or one of her primary opponents, Zephyr Teachout, hoping that one of the two prevails September 13. Asked about the party’s risky endeavors this year, which include the challenge against Cuomo, James demurred. “I was with WFP when they had fundraisers at churches and if you didn’t get there early enough, all the cheese and crackers were gone. They’ve come a long way,” she said.

“They took a chance on me several years ago,” she said, “and they are voting their values. I just wanted to come because they are my friends and because when I needed a party to run on, the Working Families Party was there and that’s something I’ll never forget.”

Theodore Hamm, associate professor and chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph’s College and longtime Brooklyn politics watcher, struck an optimistic note about the state Senate candidates that the WFP has endorsed, though he said that Nixon and Williams are unlikely to win. “The question, I guess, is if those people win but Cuomo holds on, then how will the new state Senate take shape with the some of the IDC figures no longer there and the challengers now taking those seats,” he wondered. “But that would certainly give the WFP influence, to a much greater degree than they’ve had thus far in the state Senate. That really should be where they put their energy.”

Even Hamm admitted, though, that after Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking upset, “There’s no certainties anymore of what will happen in the future. In the wake of her victory, even though they didn’t support her, it made it seem like their gamble was worth at least pursuing.”

At the WFP gala, Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke early and eagerly. His association with the party goes back to his years as a City Council member from Park Slope. “People try and bet against the Working Families Party all the time, the status quo loves to discount them,” the mayor said to whoops and applause. “But guess what? The Working Families Party is here to stay.”

[Read: New York Democrats’ Season of Choosing]

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Working Families Party Puts It All On The Line Thu, 02 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
What's The [Data] Point? 7.42%, with Labor Commissioner Bob Linn http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7829:what-s-the-data-point-7-42-with-labor-commissioner-bob-linn http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7829:what-s-the-data-point-7-42-with-labor-commissioner-bob-linn whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 48 -- 7.42% with Bob Linn [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

bob linn on wtdp ben maria

Bob Linn has one of the hardest, most complicated, and under-the-radar jobs in city government: he runs the labor relations department and negotiates contracts with the city's many municipal labor unions. Linn joined the podcast to discuss his career in labor relations, both from the city side and the union side, but mainly his work under Mayor Bill de Blasio negotiating contracts that impact hundreds of thousands of city works and the rest of New Yorkers who rely on those workers and how their contracts impact city finances.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
What's The [Data] Point? 7.42%, with Labor Commissioner Bob Linn Fri, 27 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Key Question in Closing Rikers: How to Design Replacement Jails http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7823:key-question-in-closing-rikers-how-to-design-replacement-jails http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7823:key-question-in-closing-rikers-how-to-design-replacement-jails rikers renditions

Jail space rendering via "Justice in Design"


The first part of the plan is clear: the jails on Rikers Island will be closed. Less clear is the second part: what, exactly, the replacement jails will look like.

Both Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, empaneled by then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, came to the same conclusion: Rikers – the isolated island, sandwiched between the Bronx and Queens on the East River, holding 10 of the city’s jails and over 7,000 inmates – must be shut down.

In June 2017, de Blasio announced a broad plan to do just that. His controversial proposal calls for continued reduction of the city’s plummeting jail population and the complete closure of all Rikers facilities within a period of 10 years, with remaining Rikers detainees transferred into jails in other parts of the city, using one facility in each borough other than Staten Island. For the plan to close Rikers to work, de Blasio has said, the city must get from the current 8,000-plus inmates across the city to about 5,000, while expanding or opening four facilities.

Challenges and questions remain, one of them being that the existing borough jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens don’t have the capacity to hold even 5,000 detainees (most of the individuals held in Rikers jails are pre-trial and have not been convicted of a crime, though some are serving relatively short sentences).

Shutting down Rikers jails requires the expansion or complete reconstruction of the current facilities, as well as erecting a new one in the Bronx. However, another challenge, which may pose far greater obstacles than merely laying down the bricks of these facilities, is establishing the foundation for a new way of thinking when it comes to designing and building jails.

“What we emphasized is that we’re trying to reimagine every step of the criminal justice system and, in particular, the jail facilities themselves,” said Jonathan Lippman, the former Chief Judge of the State of New York and the chair of the independent commission, which released a study advocating for the total shutdown of Rikers Island last April, preceding the mayor’s proposal, which differs in some ways. “So, wherever we’re having the kind of haphazard, decrepit, depressing conditions that you have now, we’re trying to look at ‘what should it be if you started from scratch?’”

The question of jail design is one of the most important facing the city as it moves toward closing Rikers Island, and aims to utilize the jails themselves as part of the equation in helping people transition after a jail stay of any length and reduce the chances they will ever be back.

Among others, one task force convened by the de Blasio administration is working on the issue, while a private architecture firm, Perkins Eastman, has been hired in a $7.5 million contract to take the task force’s input into consideration as it makes design and construction plans.

The culmination of the efforts of the task force and of Perkins Eastman will first be manifested into the Capital Scope Development Project Study, set for release by the end of this year, which will gauge the costs of the project as well as assess the capacity of the current borough facilities and explore how these facilities may be expanded or completely reconstructed.

For Lippman, the new network of jail facilities that will replace Rikers would imitate a “more normative environment that supports rehabilitation while simultaneously providing the neighborhoods with a couple of amenities,” as indicated in his commission’s study. Crafting such jails would mean to upend the existing conditions on Rikers – a place that Lippman calls an “accelerator of human misery,” with rotting floorboards, sewage backups, impaired heating and cooling systems and incessant violence, according to the commission’s report – and, instead, enhance access to natural light, activity spaces, direct supervision and community involvement.

The study also indicated the importance of a facility’s geographic location, since proximity to courthouses can cut travel costs of moving detainees from the jails to courthouses and back, and visitors should have easier access to visit their detained loved ones, which is part of reducing recidivism. Rikers Island is accessible to the outside world by one bridge, and anyone attempting a visit to the island can only go by car (although private parking is limited) and bus -- there is no subway access.  

“I think jails today, modern jails, can actually be a boon to the community,” Lippman said, citing the prosperity of Boerum Hill, the Brooklyn neighborhood where the Brooklyn House of Detention currently stands, “and rebut the idea that being in close proximity to the jail makes people unsafe or that it’s ugly or that it’s destructive to the community.”

In another report produced by the Lippman commission and the Van Alen Institute, providing room for civic services, retail shops or community spaces would be a basic function of a jail facility built with the intent of fully integrating into the community it’s in. Such a building would open up part of the first floor to the needs or desires of the community – say, for an art gallery, or a medical clinic, or a social services agency – while the upper floors would be where the jail operates.

“This is an opportunity for us, not to recreate what we have, but to really begin to think outside the box in terms of what we want,” said Stanley Richards, a member of the independent commission and the executive vice president of The Fortune Society, an organization that provides reentry services for formerly incarcerated people.

Richards additionally co-chairs the design committee of the mayor’s task force, where he works on developing design principles that will guide architects and general contractors in the design of the borough facilities.

“The only principles that were guiding the design and the development of the facilities that we currently have is, ‘How do you keep people detained and keep them away from society? How do you punish people?’ And that’s how they were built,” said Richards, who is formerly incarcerated himself, having spent two years in a Rikers jail. “That is not the design principles that we’re operating from.”

One important question on the table is what will be done with the existing, in-use Brooklyn and Manhattan jails, which are in especially busy areas of the city -- will they be refurbished or torn down and constructed anew, using modern design principles?

While the decision to expand or overhaul the existing facilities has not yet reached an official decision, Richards said, “Based on the design principles that we’re coming up and based on the capacity we need to build in the borough houses, it is highly unlikely that it will be done in the existing facilities. I believe it will require new facilities.”

The recommendations of the commission also provide a basis for what these new facilities have the potential to look like. A network of cells that surround a common living area, for example, can make way for a system of direct supervision, where a correctional officer can oversee more detainees with improved lines of sight. Grouping detainees into housing units based on similar needs or risk-levels also allows officers to apply a more responsive approach when dealing with detainee misconduct, since the traditional approach has been to rely on punitive segregation, or solitary confinement, even for detainees who engage in low-level misconduct.

The commission also recommends that inmates have access to a sort of “town center,” or an area that would include a clinic, pharmacy, dining hall, and programming spaces, thus providing detainees more freedom of movement, and they should be furnished in a way that imitates normative settings, with fittings as basic as seated, porcelain toilets and upholstered furniture, all of which contributes to the humanization their detention. The de Blasio administration has already announced programs to provide more education and job training to inmates, and has launched the “jails to jobs” program to facilitate short-term employment for those finishing a sentence in a city jail.

The mayor and the City Council settled on the sites of the Rikers-replacement facilities in an announcement this past February, with the projected borough facilities in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens to be held at the location of the standing detention centers, and the jail in the Bronx being at a city-owned tow pound lot in Mott Haven, though the Bronx site quickly became the subject of controversy and it is still unclear exactly where a Bronx jail will be built.

All sites will additionally undergo a single public review process, the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, set to kick off either by the end of this year or at the start of 2019, involving hearings with the local community boards, borough presidents, City Council members, and the City Planning Commission. One combined ULURP was announced by the mayor and Council Speaker Corey Johnson in order to speed the process, though some have questioned if that will allow enough local input in each affected community.

“New York City is a very different environment to build in and each borough is quite different,” said Elizabeth Glazer, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and co-chair of the Justice Implementation Task Force. “And, so there’s always going to be that sort of tug between the function that the jail must serve and the function that we want it to serve, and how space provides opportunities or constraints as desires.”

In May, the city’s average daily jail population fell to 8,402 – the lowest number it has reached since 1981. In a follow-up report produced by the Lippman commission, it is projected that the city could close Rikers as soon as 2024 and even have the new facilities constructed before then. Still, while it is one thing to build the new facilities, it is another to maintain them in a way that keeps them from defaulting back to today’s conditions on Rikers Island.

“It’s not a resource issue, but it is an institutional issue about how you treat people, how you classify people, how you house people, how you make security decisions,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance and the city’s correction commissioner from 1995 to 1996. “All of that kind of goes to very poor training issues and a lot of this is gonna be complicated.”

Jacobson, who is also a member of the task force’s committee on Culture Change, recalled dealing with staff inefficiency and deteriorating infrastructure during his time as correction commissioner.

“The design is necessary but not sufficient to completely change the way jails operate,” he said. “You can do an incredible amount just with design, but in the end, those places have to be run with a sort of principle of human dignity.”

Jacobson made reference to the jail facilities in downtown Denver and in San Diego, places that emulate the humanizing principles indicated in the commission’s study; they enhance access to communal living spaces, lines of direct supervision and even natural light. From the outside, they hardly look like a jail.

“They’re still gonna be jails, but they don’t have to look or feel anything like those jails do,” Jacobson said. “You want to make it less stressful, less anxiety producing, safer, et cetera, et cetera. You can’t do all that with design, but you can do an incredible amount just with design.”

***
by Chelsey Sanchez, Gotham Gazette
@chelseynsanchez  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Key Question in Closing Rikers: How to Design Replacement Jails Tue, 24 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Awaits State Permission to Open ‘Overdose Prevention Centers’ http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7819:city-awaits-state-permission-to-open-overdose-prevention-centers http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7819:city-awaits-state-permission-to-open-overdose-prevention-centers de Blasio opioid

Mayor de Blasio & HealingNYC (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


More than 1,400 New Yorkers died of drug overdoses in 2017, most of them the result of opioid abuse, and one of the next steps the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to take in fighting rampant opioid addiction is to open safe injection sites, which the administration is calling “overdose prevention centers.” There is currently no timeline for the four planned pilot sites to open, the city’s health commissioner said during a recent interview, as the de Blasio administration waits for approval from its state-level counterparts.

At a safe injection site, individuals struggling with addiction are allowed to inject and consume drugs under the supervision of medical professionals. Over 100 safe injection sites operate around the world in more than 60 cities, and the first North American location launched in Vancouver, Canada in 2003. It prevents approximately 35 cases of HIV and three deaths a year, according to a 2008 study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania.

Safe injection sites are generally thought to reduce the health risks of drug addiction by providing sterile and safe equipment, like needles, access to medical staff, and treatment referrals, with the hope that users will seek a pathway out of drug use. They also concentrate drug use in controlled locations, reducing the public disorder associated with public injections and improper syringe disposal. According to New York City officials, no one has ever died inside a safe injection site.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene plans to run a one-year pilot program establishing four safe injection sites, with one each in Manhattan’s Washington Heights and Midtown neighborhoods, Brooklyn’s Gowanus, and Longwood, in the Bronx --- all at sites currently run by community non-profits that offer needle-exchange programs and would run the “overdose prevention centers” with the city’s blessing and a beefed up police presence nearby.

As DOHMH released a report studying the possibility and recommending the pilot, de Blasio, a second-term Democrat, gave his blessing, pending certain next steps. The decision immediately provoked blowback from Republicans and some moderate Democrats, like the Staten Island district attorney, Michael McMahon. Some don't want city government sanctioning any drug use, others worry about impacts on communities where the sites may be opened, either in the first round or beyond.

De Blasio has said that the program “will save lives and get more New Yorkers into the treatment they need to beat this deadly addiction.” The city plans to open facilities only after a six-to-twelve-month period of outreach to residents of the planned neighborhoods, and once it receives a permission of sorts from the State.

Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett discussed her support of the opening of the sites and the larger context of the city’s efforts to fight drug abuse and addiction in New York City during a recent appearance on the “What’s The [Data] Point?” podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission.

She said that a recent modeling exercise showed that these sites could save up to 130 lives a year. New York City recently reached record numbers of overdose-related deaths, with 1,441 New Yorkers killed in 2017.

“These deaths are all preventable and we want to ensure that people survive opioid use,” she said. “These sites will save lives, they will reduce transmission of preventable diseases like HIV or Hepatitis B or C, and they will provide people with a first step towards being in a safer place, including being on treatment.”

Bassett also said that the facilities would provide safety and protection for those struggling with addiction, particularly women, who may be subject to predatory activity while under the influence of opioids.

The plan, however, is contentious.

For one, it may violate federal law. The legality of safe injection sites has never before been tested in court, but a Department of Justice attorney in Vermont stated last year that workers at safe injection sites would be exposed to criminal charges, and the sites’ property would be vulnerable to federal forfeiture.

Bassett said that the city has requested that the state Department of Health “provide a legal umbrella” for the plan, but that nothing has yet been developed.

"Unfortunately, the timeline is really dependent on actions that the city doesn’t entirely control," Bassett said. "The mayor made a couple of conditions, he said that he wanted to see the state provide a legal umbrella for a demonstration project that Deputy Mayor Herminia Palacio wrote to the State Health Commissioner requesting this research designation and there’s been some back and forth on that but it hasn’t been acquired. The next thing was to have the elected official who represented the district where the OPC, as we call them now, was planned should support its implementation, and finally that there would be a community consultation process whereby communities can express their concerns and efforts can be made to address those concerns. That’s the process but at the moment it doesn’t have a timeline. Obviously as health commissioner, I’m confident that these would save lives."

Jonah Bruno, the New York State Department of Health director of communications, wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette that the city’s plan is currently being evaluated.

“We are reviewing the City’s proposal,” Bruno wrote. “We support the mission of reducing opioid related deaths and have been studying multiple options for combating the opioid epidemic.”

Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan highlighted the legal risks of safe injection sites during a televised forum on the opioid crisis broadcast by NY1 in May, during which Bassett also participated.

“First and foremost, they’re not legal,” Brennan said. “They’re not legal under state law and they’re not legal under federal law.”

“When you look at the potential benefit from the safe injection site and you balance it off against the downsides,” she continued, “I think you just come up saying, ‘this just isn’t a good deal.’”

The plan is also controversial for reasons beyond its legality. Bassett said that, while de Blasio supports the proposal, he has several preconditions for its enactment, including the approval of elected officials representing districts slated to host sites and the implementation of a community consultation process.

Bassett acknowledged on What’s the [Data] Point? that the facilities would only be a relatively small part of the city’s broader response to the opioid epidemic. While they are projected to save hundreds of lives, the city has thousands of overdose deaths to eliminate, and a much more expansive set of programs that opening the injection sites.

Last year, as part of its HealingNYC plan to reduce drug overdose deaths by 35 percent over the next five years, DOHMH unveiled a campaign to encourage judicious prescribing, including one-on-one educational visits with clinicians. Bassett said that doctors should prescribe opioids less often, for shorter durations, and at lower doses.

“[The overdose prevention centers] would never be enough, and we really shouldn’t start thinking of them as a magic bullet,” she said. “They’re part of a multi-pronged response.”

What it boils down to, Bassett said, is that people with a drug addiction “don’t want to die. They want to be in a safe place...We want to make sure people survive opioid use.”

[LISTEN: What's The [Data] Point? 1,441, with City Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett]

***
by Jordan Kimmel & Daniel Yadin
@GothamGazette

]]>
City Awaits State Permission to Open ‘Overdose Prevention Centers’ Sun, 22 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Releases Preliminary Report http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7807:mayoral-charter-revision-commission-to-release-preliminary-report http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7807:mayoral-charter-revision-commission-to-release-preliminary-report de Blasio McCray voting

Mayor de Blasio votes (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


With less than two months left to complete its work, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision commission released a preliminary report on Tuesday outlining five broad issue areas -- campaign finance, municipal elections, civic engagement, community boards, and redistricting -- that it will continue to explore in public hearings and community events over the next two weeks.

The report was prepared by the commission staff after two initial rounds of hearings held in the last three months across the city at which members of the public, advocacy groups, subject matter experts, and elected officials recommended improvements to the City Charter. “New Yorkers have been engaged since the start of this process and this report reflects the wide range of issues we discussed in all five boroughs,” said Cesar Perales, commission chair, in a statement.

Though the commission was empowered to examine the entire charter, it closely followed the mayor’s brief in empaneling it: that it look at improving electoral participation and reducing the effects of money in city elections. At a meeting on Tuesday at Pratt University, the commission members discussed their positions and concerns on the staff report. 

An outline of the commission report was provided to Gotham Gazette and other news outlets Monday evening. To reform the campaign finance system, the staff recommends in its report that the commission should consider ballot proposals to lower donor campaign contribution limits and enhance the Campaign Finance Board’s voluntary public matching funds program, which currently matches small-dollar contributions at a 6-to-1 ratio and is seen as a national model. The CFB caps the amount of matching funds a participating candidate can receive at 55 percent of the spending limit for the position they are seeking. The report recommends a proposal to increase that cap. Those suggestions are in line with the ones made by the CFB to the commission.  

Carlo Scissura, secretary of the commission, urged caution about the level of increase in matching funds, noting that more and more candidates run for office each election cycle. "Let’s be careful of the city budget," he said. Commissioner John Siegal worried that lowering contribution limits could affect people's First Amendment rights and could only be justified with a "compelling anti-corruption rationale", while Commissioner Sharon Greenberger said the commission should carefully consider the timing of rolling out changes to the campaign finance system.  

The staff report is less definitive on improving municipal elections through voting reforms, urging the commission to continue reviewing proposals such as instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting, and improved language assistance services. Perales said there was no unanimity among his colleagues on instant runoffs. Some found it "intriguing" while others like Commissioner Larian Angelo wanted more data on its benefits and drawbacks. Perales also noted that the commission can do little to change election law, which falls under state jurisdiction. "This is going to be a tough one," he conceded. 

Voter participation could also be improved through civic engagement, the report states. The commission has been assessing a proposal, put forward by Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander, to create a new Citywide Office of Civic Engagement. At hearings, commission members have spoken of the idea approvingly, and the staff report suggests that they evaluate how that office would function, how it would be structured and whether it can bolster the city’s DemocracyNYC and participatory budgeting programs. On Tuesday, though, Perales said it was another area where the commission lacked consensus. Scissura, for instance, said he was "a fan of less bureaucracy," and did not support the creation of a new office. Participatory budgeting was a more popular subject, with a few commissioners agreeing to explore ways to expand it across the city. 

On community boards, the staff recommends term limits that can diversify board composition, a standardized appointment process, increased resources, and ensuring representative membership. Commissioner Marco Carrion, who is also Commissioner of the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, said Tuesday that the commission report was a "very good starting point" on how to democratize community boards.

The most complex and perhaps most politically charged question before the commission was whether they could make improvements to the process of redistricting City Council boundaries. There are currently 51 Council districts across the five boroughs, the lines of which will be impacted by the next U.S. Census, set for 2020. But, the charter commission may recommend to voters a change to the redistricting process, which could even include changing the number of Council districts.

The charter commission report does not take a hard position on redistricting other than recommending that the commission keep studying it, keeping in mind “procedures to address the effects of the redistricting process on the voting power of racial and ethnic minority groups,” including perhaps independent review mechanisms. The report also underscores the importance of limiting the role of elected officials in districting commissions and putting in place plans to mitigate the effects of a potential undercount in the 2020 census from the addition of a citizenship question by the Trump administration, a plan that is currently the subject of litigation. On Tuesday, it was clear that the commissioners were not in full agreement. Commissioner Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, stressed that redistricting needs to be "more inclusive" to reflect the city's diversity, and Perales said the commissioners "need to see alternatives" to the current process to make an informed decision. 

“This preliminary staff report reflects a focus on civic life and democracy in New York City — a theme that is particularly appropriate and relevant in contemporary times,” said Matt Gewolb, executive director of the commission, in a statement.

The commission’s final report is expected by the end of August and its proposals, which will be presented as ballot referenda in the November general election, are due by September 7 at the latest. The mayor’s commission is also distinct from another one created through legislation by the New York City Council, which held its first meeting on Monday evening at City Hall and aims to put its proposals on the November 2019 ballot.

[Read: Chair Says Charter Commission Will Step In Where Politics Has Slowed Reform]

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with coverage of the commission's meeting on Tuesday, July 17.  

]]>
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Releases Preliminary Report Mon, 16 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Scott Stringer on His ‘Agency Watch List,’ De Blasio’s Housing Plan & Restructuring NYCHA http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7796:scott-stringer-on-his-agency-watch-list-de-blasio-s-housing-plan-restructuring-nycha http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7796:scott-stringer-on-his-agency-watch-list-de-blasio-s-housing-plan-restructuring-nycha scott stringer comptroller

Comptroller Scott Stringer and Deputy Comptroller Marjorie Landau (photo: @NYCComptroller)


Comptroller Scott Stringer, the city’s chief fiscal officer who placed three city agencies on a new “watch list” in February due to concerns about their escalating spending and questionable return on investment, said recently that his office will be holding public hearings to provide stronger oversight, better transparency, and more urgency for reforms.

“We need more robust public hearings to the agencies, we need to demand more accountability from our government, and if we’re really going to be a progressive government, we need to ask whether the programs we’re putting forth are meeting the needs of struggling New Yorkers,” Stringer said during a recent appearance on the What’s The [Data] Point? podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission. “I’m going to continue to think about ways the comptroller’s office can hold these agencies accountable.”

During the discussion, Stringer not only explained his watch list, but also repeatedly criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio over what Stringer sees as an insufficient affordable housing plan; explained his belief that New York City public housing needs a new management structure; and said that the city is not budgeting responsibly.

As part of his analysis of the city budget, Stringer singled out the Department of Homeless Services, Department of Education, and Department of Correction as agencies whose spending was of most concern, forming his initial “watch list,” which includes a new web portal with detailed information about the three and plans for more robust examination of their spending and effectiveness.

In addition to public hearings, Stringer’s office inspects agencies through audits, investigations, and reports. The comptroller’s office is also responsible for approving contracts that city agencies enter with outside vendors. While Stringer mentioned on the podcast a general plan to hold his own public hearings on the watch list agencies, his office declined to provide more information in response to follow-up questions.

Stringer included the Department of Homeless Services on his watch list after determining that despite citywide spending for homelessness across all agencies more than doubling from $1.1 billion in 2013 to an anticipated $2.6 billion in 2019, the number of individuals living in shelters has grown from 49,000 in 2013 to more than 61,000 in early 2018.  

Stringer said unravelling the homeless crisis in New York City starts with taking accountability for unnecessary expenditures.

“I think we have to look at changing policy and I think we have to look at making sure every dollar counts because if we continue to house people in commercial hotels that cost $100 million and if we continue to stuff people into these terribly conditioned homeless shelters, that’s the core of what we believe in that has to change,” Stringer said. “Budgets are priorities, but you have to be smart about expenditure and analyze whether that money is doing the right thing by the people.”

While Mayor Bill de Blasio has put a variety of plans in place to combat homelessness, it has been one of the central struggles of his time in office. Stringer and de Blasio are both Democrats who were elected to their current positions in 2013 and reelected in 2017. They will both be term-limited out of office at the end of 2021; Stringer is widely expected to run for mayor in the upcoming election cycle.

When resetting his approach to homelessness a second time, in early 2017, de Blasio announced a plan to open 90 new shelters while leaving notoriously troubled cluster site shelter apartments and expensive commercial hotels. He also said the plan, which includes ongoing and enhanced mechanisms like rental subsidies and free lawyers for housing court, would result in a very modest decrease in the homeless population.

"What is the plan to really reduce homelessness?,” Stringer said. “Do not even say to me that, well, ‘our plan is to reduce homelessness by 2,500 in five years.’ At the cost of $3 billion? You’ve got to be kidding me. I mean everybody wake up here."

As for the Department of Education, another “watch list” agency, Stringer’s office has found that the DOE was spending inefficiently and he has questioned its ballooning central staff. In a trial test of eight schools, Comptroller audits found that one third of computer hardware was unaccounted for with no follow-up actions to implement basic controls. Stringer’s staff also discovered that despite a $1 billion investment in high-speed broadband, one in three teachers are still displeased with the service. Moreover, in what Stinger’s office called “a rampant waste and lack of accountability,” $2.7 billion in no-bid contracts were doled out by DOE.

“I don’t want to see a 24% increase in administrative costs at DOE,” Stringer said on the podcast. “I want money to go into the classroom.”

Stringer included the Department of Correction on his watch list in order to highlight increases in spending and violence despite a decrease in inmate populations at city jails. Since 2008, the average daily inmate population dropped from 13,850 to 9,500 in 2017 (and as of July 2, it was just about 8,200). However, the average annual cost to house an inmate more than doubled over that same period. Over the last decade, the number of violent incidents at city jails more than tripled.

“At Department of Correction, this is something amazing, population is going down, but violence is going up,” Stringer said on the podcast. “And now we’re spending $270,000 a year [per inmate] on holding 9,000 inmates on Rikers Island. OK, this is madness.”

The agency watch list relates to overall budgeting by the mayor and the City Council, and to the effectiveness of spending on key city services, as well as how much the city is spending overall, its long-term financial commitments, and its reserves. Mayor de Blasio and the Council recently passed an $89.2 billion budget for fiscal year 2019, which began July 1. The size of the city budget has increased dramatically under de Blasio, and Stringer has been sounding alarm bells all along about the rate of spending, the lack of a recommended savings program that was used under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and potentially insufficient reserves for the inevitable economic downturn.

On the podcast, Stringer said the city’s projected “budget cushion” — reserves as a percentage of city operating expenses — must be bolstered.

“I do think that there’s been a lost opportunity as it relates to putting more money aside for a rainy day,” Stringer said. “And we have now a record budget of $89 billion...I think we are going down a road that could cost us or hurt in the long run.”

The current budget reserves are about 9 percent of projected 2019 spending, about $8.5 billion in reserves, lower than what Stringer says is the optimal range of 12 to 18 percent. The “budget cushion” debate is a long-running one between the mayor and the comptroller. De Blasio has repeatedly stated that the city has “record” reserves, which is true in terms of absolute numbers, but as a percentage of spending, Stringer remains concerned.

Reserves are vital, Stringer explains, because when crisis inevitably hits the city, it often hurts the most vulnerable people, which was was the case after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, he said. Stringer has called on de Blasio to compel his agency commissioner to “scrub” their departments for savings, recommending the type of program Bloomberg used where he insisted on commissioners identify a certain percentage of their budgets for slashing, even if the cuts were not followed through on. De Blasio has not required this of his agency heads, instead instituting a voluntary savings program.

“Well, let’s go scrub the agencies for efficiencies,” Stringer said on the podcast. “That’s something that hasn’t happened in four years. Lets go agency by agency. Say to commissioners, ‘Look, there’s new technology. You haven’t looked at how to save money in an agency in four years.’ Previous mayors used to scrub those budgets and say, ‘Hold on with those expenses.’ That’s one way to do it. The city, the mayor’s refused to do that, I disagree with him. Get in there, get those savings, put is aside for that rainy day.”

As for de Blasio’s affordable housing plan -- which seeks to build or preserve 300,000 rent-regulated units by 2026 -- Stringer had perhaps his harshest words.

"There’s no real affordable housing plan to meet the needs the poorest New Yorkers," Stringer told podcast hosts Maria Doulis and Ben Max. “[W]e need a robust new housing plan," Stringer said.

"We need to think about a new subsidy program. Problem is, right now, for-profit developers is a lot of cases are, yes, they're building more density, and bigger projects in places in Brooklyn like East New York, but the reality is the affordable housing that they’re proposing, the [affordability] is not reflective of the population of the community, so the affordability is not affordable in the community, and we are gentrifying people out of the communities they built,” Stringer said.

And on the New York City Housing Authority, NYCHA, home to more than 400,000 residents of public housing that is falling apart and in need of more than $30 billion of repairs and upgrades, Stringer said it is time to change the governance model.

"That’s why I said to all who would listen, that we need to change the management structure at NYCHA,” Stringer said on the podcast. “It is abysmal. You’ve got a seven member board that doesn’t know what’s up. You’ve got a Chair, and then a [general] manager -- depending on the politics within NYCHA, one has power, the other one doesn’t, vice versa. Even in this crisis, you know, we don’t have a counsel, a chief financial officer in NYCHA, these positions are going unfilled, there’s no capacity in NYCHA.”

“I mean look, City Hall, wake up, do your part,” Stringer said, to ensure there’s “a structure in place” to oversee spending of billions of dollars and work with the federal monitor that will soon be hired based on a consent decree the city has entered with federal investigators. “But at the end of the day, the monitor doesn’t run it, management runs it, so we need one Chair, one person in charge,” Stringer continued. “Also, this is a time to get private industry involved, let’s get the best in the business from around the city, from all walks of life to begin looking at this amazing challenge before NYCHA falls apart.”

De Blasio’s office declined to respond to the comptroller’s criticisms and proposals.

***
by Jordan Kimmel, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Scott Stringer on His ‘Agency Watch List,’ De Blasio’s Housing Plan & Restructuring NYCHA Tue, 10 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio ‘Jails to Jobs’ Program Launches http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7788:de-blasio-jails-to-jobs-program-launches-close-rikers http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7788:de-blasio-jails-to-jobs-program-launches-close-rikers Rikers jails to jobs

On Rikers Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Judith is a newly-minted head chef. She had previously been a line cook, and was nervous about interviewing for a job running her own kitchen, but decided to take the plunge after some convincing. When it came time to speak to the hiring manager, Judith, in her own self-assessment, “killed it.”

Before Judith was head chef, before she was a line cook, before she knew kitchen skills, she was incarcerated. But it was her time in “Rosie,” the Rose M. Singer women’s jail on Rikers Island, that placed her on her trajectory to becoming a chef.

In April 2017, four months before her release from Rikers, Judith began participating in the workforce development programming offered onsite by the Osborne Association, a New York-based nonprofit that provides social services for the currently and formerly incarcerated. Osborne offers a number of professional education workshops and certification programs on Rikers, and Judith began training intensely with the group.

“I took advantage of...everything I could get my hands on,” she told Gotham Gazette, and ended up leaving Rikers with certificates in food handling, culinary arts, building maintenance, and job safety.

Upon her release, Osborne’s housing staff helped her secure a home, and its employment team reviewed her resume, coached her on interview skills, organized her paperwork, and placed her in an apprenticeship in a kitchen. When the apprenticeship ended, Osborne helped Judith find permanent employment and supported her emotionally as she progressed professionally.

“They kept encouraging me that it’d be okay, that I need to keep pushing forward. It wouldn’t have happened without them,” she said.

The Osborne Association is one of several organizations in New York City providing services to those incarcerated in city jails, both during their confinement and after their release. Most have been operating for decades — Osborne was founded in 1933, and its peer group, the Fortune Society, has operated since 1967 — and receive city funding. But it’s only been within the past year that the city government has mobilized the Osborne Association, the Fortune Society, and six other incarceration-services organizations — Samaritan Daytop Village, Fedcap, Housing Works, Friends of Island Academy, the Women’s Prison Association, and the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College — to provide short-term transitional employment to every individual leaving a city jail after serving a sentence.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that lofty goal, which he promised to actualize through the new “Jails to Jobs Initiative,” in March 2017. Jails to Jobs is now a component of the mayor’s ten-year plan to shutter the city jails on Rikers Island by reducing the jail population, combating recidivism, and opening or expanding modern borough-based facilities. The mayor’s announcement was scant on details on the program, simply promising that “everyone leaving city jails after serving a sentence will be offered paid, short-term transitional employment to help with securing a long-term job.”

Employment after incarceration has been shown to reduce recidivism by 22%, and de Blasio says that the city needs to reduce its jail population to 5,000 — almost a 50% drop from figures at the time of his announcement — in order to make feasible the closure of Rikers. In 2017, the average total population of those incarcerated on Rikers or the city’s other jail facilities stood at 9,148. On Monday, July 2, the total city jail population was 8,208, including 6,138 on Rikers, down from 9,206 one year prior.

Roughly 8,500 people leave city jails each year after serving a sentence (many more are incarcerated after an arrest but do not necessarily serve a sentence in a city or any jail or prison). It is not clear what capacity the city needs to ensure through provider agencies to make sure that each of those individuals has access to a “paid, short-term” job. The program is in its infancy. There is no set duration for “short-term,” a mayor’s office spokesperson said, indicating that it depends on the needs of the client and the service-provider.

Employment is, by most empirical measures, both crucial to successful post-incarceration reentry and disproportionately difficult to attain for the formerly incarcerated. In 2017, 80% of those who served a sentence in a New York City jail had been unemployed at the time of their arraignment, and the National Institute of Justice estimates that between 60 and 75 percent of formerly-incarcerated individuals are jobless up to a year after their release.

This joblessness does not seem to be for lack of effort. A survey conducted by the Urban Institute reported that 79% of formerly-incarcerated individuals sought employment once out of jail, but data show that justice-involved individuals consistently face legal, perceptive, and racialized barriers to employment. More than 80% of employers in the United States perform criminal background checks on potential employees, and a government-published study conducted in New York City found that a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a job callback by almost 50%.

Still, white justice-involved applicants were twice as likely to hear back from a potential employer than black justice-involved applicants were. In a city that jails black and Latino people almost exclusively, this racial disparity has far-reaching effects.

Guaranteed employment for the formerly-incarcerated, then, would radically alter the conditions of thousands of New Yorkers leaving a city jail, and Jails to Jobs seems to be the first initiative of its kind in the United States. It may prove to be a massively complex undertaking.

The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) is spearheading the initiative in collaboration with eight criminal justice nonprofits. “The bulk of the initiative,” said Patrick Gallahue, MOCJ’s senior press director, “includes paid transitional employment and supportive services in the community.”

The city works with groups that provide an array of services. For instance, the Friends of Island Academy holistically focuses on the needs of formerly-incarcerated youths while the Women’s Prison Association offers gender-specific services, and Housing Works helps the formerly-incarcerated secure stable housing, a well-documented struggle for justice-involved individuals.

Several leaders of the city’s partner organizations spoke to Gotham Gazette of Jails to Jobs’ collaborative nature, whereby affiliated groups freely refer individuals to other organizations that may be better suited to their needs. For instance, if a Brooklyn resident sought assistance from the Fortune Society, based in Long Island City, Queens, staff there said they might refer them to the Osborne Association, which runs a center in Brooklyn Heights.

The Jails to Jobs initiative officially commenced on January 1 of this year, but most organizations began providing services under the program’s auspices in the spring, meaning the program has only recently launched in earnest.

The network of groups finding employment for formerly-incarcerated people is labyrinthine, and Jails to Jobs runs slightly differently between organizations. When MOCJ solicited programming proposals for Jails to Jobs, it wrote that the city would “strongly favor proposals that demonstrate partnerships through subcontracting or formal cost-sharing arrangements.” As a result, most Jails to Jobs participants are placed into internships through subsidiary organizations.

As of mid-June, the Osborne Association had employed 30 formerly-incarcerated individuals via three different, smaller groups — the Center for Employment Opportunity, Exponent, and the Hope Program — though it hopes to reach 150 people by the end of this year and 200 by the next.

The Center for Employment Opportunity primarily provides day labor cleanup crews and employs Jails to Jobs participants for four to five hours a day at $13 an hour. Exponent, a substance-use program, provides services and certifies in counseling. Programs have not yet begun at the Hope Program.

The Fortune Society, for its part, hopes to place 300 individuals in employment by the end of the year, and had enrolled 128 as of mid-June, 2018. That enrollment figure, as with all similar statistics from service providers, includes more than just the individuals who are currently employed in a paid, temporary internship — Jails to Jobs also funds hard skills training, including culinary, construction, and CDL driving certification.

“It’s going to look different for each person,” said Katharine Samberg, the Fortune Society’s Manager of Trainings and Transitional Programs. “Some don’t have job experience, and the transitional work program is for people who need to get a footing and realize they can be a beneficial employee.”

Experiences vary along lines of gender, as well. In 2015, women comprised roughly 6% of the city jail population, and their experiences before, during, and after incarceration differ from those of men, said Nyasha Rivera, who oversees the Jails to Jobs program at the Women’s Prison Association.

“We are not using tools that were created for men or are gender-neutral,” Rivera told Gotham Gazette. Since they are often the primary caregivers of children, meaning they must live in bigger homes, be nearer to sources of support, and are often more undesirable to landlords, women typically face less housing stability post-release than men do, which depresses their ability to find employment. And gender-specific “trauma that women experience prior to incarceration, during incarceration, and in the reentry process...serves as a barrier,” Rivera said.

The Women’s Prison Association offers, through various partnerships, employment tracks in culinary arts, building maintenance, and front-of-house restaurant work. As part of Jails to Jobs, the Association offers eight paid weeks of job training followed by a two-week paid internship, a different program than those run by other service providers.

Still, explained Jim Hollywood of Daytop Samaritan Village, “all Jails to Jobs contracts across the city have a similar construction to the programs.” Job training services begun during incarceration place individuals in contact with service providers, who continue employment support after release, which comes, in part, in the form of a city-subsidized temporary internship.

MOCJ allocated almost $9 million -- $8,885,492 -- to the Jails to Jobs program in its first year, which it’s spent mainly in the form of grants to service providers. That money pays for the minimum wage salaries of program participants for up to 21 hours a week, assuaging, the hope is, any sense among employers that to employ a formerly-incarcerated person is to undertake a risk.

Employers can choose to supplement the schedules and salaries of their formerly-incarcerated employees beyond what the city guarantees. Such is the case of Alexandra, who spent 18 months on Rikers Island and a little over a year in state prisons. She connected with the Fortune Society while on Rikers through taking its anger management, family safety, and job training workshops. Upon release, Alexandra entered into an internship at a home health services facility that employs her for over 40 hours a week, paying the half of her full-time salary that the city, through the Fortune Society, does not cover.

Like Judith, Alexandra (Gotham Gazette agreed to withhold last names) credits her connection with an incarceration-services group for her stable re-entry process. Immediately following her release from the Taconic State Prison, where she was sent after time on Rikers, staff at the Fortune Society helped Alexandra open a Medicaid account, apply for food stamps, and begin learning skills necessary for re-integration. She called it a “one-stop shop” in an interview with Gotham Gazette, and is now poised to be hired full-time as a coordinator at the home health services facility once her internship ends this month.

It is difficult to ascertain whether the successes of Judith and Alexandra are representative of most participants’ experiences with Jails to Jobs; most organizations only began running the program two or three months ago. But each service provider, as per the terms of MOCJ’s solicitation for proposals, already has extensive experience in reentry programming in New York City.

Data points for the program are tricky to come by. For example, Gallahue, the MOCJ press director, told Gotham Gazette that the city does “not have a precise number” regarding the expected demand for jobs among recently-released individuals. Though at this time it is known that approximately 8,500 people leave city jails after serving a sentence each year, MOCJ could not say how many individuals who had served a sentence could be expected to be looking for a job at any given time.

No organization told Gotham Gazette of having to turn away an individual for lack of space in an employment program; if anything, most are eager to grow. But, in the words of City Council Member Rory Lancman, who chairs the Committee on the Justice System, without a figure from the city, it is nearly impossible to assure that “every person serving a city sentence would have access to this job training, job placement program...it’s incumbent on the city to explain how it’s going to meet its commitment of serving every person serving a city sentence.”

Anecdotally, a minority of those released from city jails, even those who’d been involved with a service provider while incarcerated, seek post-release services. Judith said that she is the only one of her roughly 20 peers who’d been enrolled in Osborne’s classes on Rikers to seek out the organization’s help once off the island.

Her two closest friends from Rosie “have every excuse [to not go to Osborne]...For one, it’s easier for her to sell drugs on the street, and, for the other one, it’s her boyfriend.”

Improved outreach would help, she said — for some, organizations should “take them by the hand.”

The employment services Jails to Jobs has added resources to have changed Judith’s life, she said.

“I’m so grateful to that program. They did a wonder job on me. A wonder job.”

***
by Daniel Yadin for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

]]>
De Blasio ‘Jails to Jobs’ Program Launches Thu, 05 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Push for Budget Transparency Falls Far Short http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7756:city-council-push-for-budget-transparency-falls-far-short http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7756:city-council-push-for-budget-transparency-falls-far-short De Blasio City Council members

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
City Council Push for Budget Transparency Falls Far Short Wed, 20 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
New Deputy Mayor Phil Thompson Outlines His Portfolio, Which Includes Everything http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7736:new-deputy-mayor-phil-thompson-outlines-his-portfolio-which-includes-everything http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7736:new-deputy-mayor-phil-thompson-outlines-his-portfolio-which-includes-everything mayor first lady strat policy

Thompson, with the Mayor and First Lady (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Bill de Blasio and Phil Thompson go back decades, working together in the administration of Mayor David Dinkins, but they spent many years apart before rejoining the same team earlier this year, when de Blasio announced the appointment of Thompson as the new Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives.

Replacing Richard Buery in the role, Thompson begins his tenure in the de Blasio administration for the start of the Democratic mayor’s second and final term, and after nearly two decades teaching at MIT, writing books and essays, and working on a wide variety of projects as a consultant. He returns to city government with recent experience around the world, including in Brooklyn and South America, where he has helped coordinate community and economic development programming, environmental sustainability efforts, and other projects.

“When the mayor offered me this job I was teaching a course in the Amazon and I was working with community groups in a city that had been devastated by an avalanche of boulders. following an unprecedented weather event,” Thompson told Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission during a recent appearance on the “What’s the [Data] Point?” podcast.

“The mayor called me and said, ‘Have you ever thought about coming back into government?’ and I said, ‘Hell no…I’m in the Amazon, I’m not thinking about New York!’” Thompson said, laughingly, before turning serious about the “divisiveness and narrow-mindedness” that he thinks is permeating the country under President Donald Trump.

“To be honest with you, I really am worried about this country,” he said. “The opportunity to serve and make a difference…Everybody who can do something ought to do what they can do…I never really thought of myself as a patriot, per say, but I really feel that’s what it is. I need to do something for the country.”

And much of what Thompson believes he can do is to contribute to significant advances for New York City, providing models for elsewhere, and help advance a new era of urbanism and Democratic politics. During the podcast discussion, Thompson made clear he is someone who thinks about large trends and how to harness or respond to them, and that he wants the de Blasio administration to pursue new, big ideas to advance social, economic, and environmental justice before the mayor is forced from office due to term limits. He said workforce development would be a major focus for him, and explained how it ties in with racial and environmental factors.

“I actually want to drill down...into workforce and where the economy is going and then aligning our business development, which his under me -- small business development, MWBEs, and workforce programs -- with where things are going and where I think things are going,” Thompson said. “I think we’re on the verge of three major changes in the city, but also in the country, that are going to be the most dramatic changes in the history of this country.”

The first, Thompson says, is climate change. He believes retrofitting city buildings, including schools and NYCHA complexes, to make the facilities more energy efficient should be a priority for the city, which already has a plan, announced by de Blasio in 2014, to retrofit approximately 3,000 buildings before 2025. De Blasio has also announced a proposal to see private building owners forced to retrofit. Thompson wants to see these efforts integrated with jobs programs for New Yorkers, especially in underserved communities.

“We know that the biggest danger in New York is probably heat in Manhattan...and we know there are going to be rising oceans,” he said. “My own view is: if your problem is heat, you don’t build walls to keep the ocean out, you figure out a way to bring the water in. Does that mean Manhattan becomes Venice? Maybe.”

The second major challenge facing the city and beyond, Thompson believes, is the digital revolution, namely the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and automated jobs, and he wants government to invest money to pursue innovation. “There are two types of jobs for the future: One, where you tell robots and computers what they’re going to do, and the second, where robots and computers tell you what you’re going to do...so how do we make sure our kids are telling computers and robots what to do?” he said.

“In my opinion the government should be developing infrastructure around AI,” he said. “We’re going to have smart cars soon, which are going to be guided by traffic managers who exist in a cloud, which are going to be AI traffic managers. That infrastructure ought to be designed and owned by government because if it’s owned by a private company they’re going to own everything.”

The third issue facing society as a whole, Thompson says, is an growing bloc of voters who will change the way politics and government happen across America. “Eighty percent of American cities are majority of color now, and if you look at young white people in cities, 80 percent of them voted for [President Barack] Obama twice. If you put those two facts together, that was the coalition that elected Bill de Blasio -- people of color, young white folks, and progressives. That coalition can be replicated across the country and I think that’s the coalition that will turn the tide in this country. It’s very promising and it’s never happened before.”

“[It will] turn the tide on American politics and governance, period,” Thompson said, as the hosts interjected a note about the Electoral College.

A large potion of Thompson’s vision involves educating young people so they will have the tools to thrive in this vastly changed world. He hopes to align education and training programs with summer camps and innovation areas to “actually develop and train young people for what’s coming, and not for what’s going to disappear in five years.” He argued for project-based experiential learning, particularly in economic growth areas. And he agrees that changes in education should extend all the way through schooling.

“For example, there’s an immense investment now in DNA research -- future prescription drugs are going to be for your particular DNA -- and it requires skill in what’s called computational biology,” he said. “That’s the future, so working backwards...we’re trying to say, ‘how will we integrate the summer youth job experience with computational biology exposures?’”

When asked, Thompson used his own personal story of opportunity to express support for de Blasio’s recently announced plan to integrate the city’s elite specialized high schools, by moving away from a single test determining entry.

For the 18 years prior to joining the de Blasio administration, Thompson has worked as an Associate Professor of Political Science and Urban Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He’s on loan to the city for two years from MIT, a leave that can be extended another two years if the sides agree, according to a City Hall spokesperson.

Thompson has spent time in New Orleans, Peru, and Haiti on post-disaster planning, he said, and he’s worked in Columbia on post-conflict building, and, for the last four years, he’s been working on a community health initiative called Vital Brooklyn -- a $1.4 billion plan designed by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration to revitalize Central Brooklyn that includes a $700 million investment in healthcare, the area that Thompson has helped inform.

In the early 1990s Dinkins era, Thompson oversaw housing coordination and became the Deputy General Manager for Operations and Development at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

In returning to city government he said he has an “understanding” of what de Blasio is trying to achieve in New York City, and that the mayor’s “been the same” for as long as they’ve known each other. “We all started out together like, ‘how do we actually make change for people who are suffering?’ That's really what it’s about,” Thompson said of how he and de Blasio see the work of government.

It’s unclear if Thompson will be roped into helping NYCHA recover from scandal and implement the terms of a consent decree with federal prosecutors announced on Monday (several days after Thompson appeared on the podcast). It is clear that he is approaching his job as one that stretches across virtually all city agencies, overlapping at times with other deputy mayors, and that allows him leeway to think in systems and at large scale.

Having only been in his new job a couple of months, Thompson was mostly able to speak broadly to his portfolio, which includes certain policies and programs launched under Buery, like the expansion of pre-kindergarten to all three-year-olds, but also new areas, like the administration’s democracy agenda to increase civic participation. He is tasked by de Blasio will coordinating the city’s effort to ensure an accurate Census count in 2020. Part of that work, he said, will be convincing traditionally undercounted populations, such as immigrant communities and African-American communities, to participate in full.

Thompson outlined several concrete ideas he is interested in pursuing, such as for creating jobs in the city to address not only unemployment, but also to improve health outcomes and strengthen communities in areas such as Brooklyn and the Bronx.

“When you look at what leads to coronary heart disease, of which there’s a lot of in these places, it’s stress mainly due to poverty and unemployment. [There’s] stress due to lack of stable housing, and then there’s bad food habits - it’s expensive to get healthy food,” he said on the podcast.

It’s a sentiment similar to that in a 2016 paper, in which Thompson and his co-authors argued racial discrimination felt by children of color at schools, and in legal and health systems, can trigger a physiological stress response that leads to additional health problems in these demographics. By addressing the source of this stress by reducing discrimination, increasing employment, and reducing poverty, Thompson thinks the overworked health system will be somewhat relieved, too.

“Addressing something like our exorbitant expenses in healthcare ultimately means keeping people out of hospitals but that means really addressing unemployment,” Thompson said.

A starting point, he said, could be using some of the city’s massive procurement budget to build local furniture to service hospitals and schools. “One of the things we’re really interested in is maybe a furniture factory to make furniture for hospitals, and the hospitals are really interested in that,” he said. “They buy a lot of furniture, as do our schools. Why not make it locally? Why not have a company that’s locally owned or worker owned, or a co-op?”

Thompson’s seen success in this first-hand, and believes it can be replicated across New York City. He was involved in a 2013 paper that analyzed the merits of a 2005 case study, in which University Hospitals (UH) in Cleveland, Ohio, constructed five major medical facilities, as well as expand a number of existing facilities, with the goal of boosting community wealth in the process.

Working with the mayor’s office, as well as local building trade unions, UH vowed that 80 percent of contracts would go to businesses that were regionally owned in Northeast Ohio, with five percent of contracts going to female-owned businesses and 15 percent to minority-owned businesses. Beyond 2010, all purchases from UH over $20,000 now require at least one bid from a local, minority-owned firm -- UH spends at least $800 million to contractors each year.

Thompson and his co-authors called the Cleveland case study “pathbreaking” in the 2013 paper, and touted it as a “powerful model for how a place-based institution can...better the long-term welfare of the community in which it is located.”

Another example, Thompson said on the podcast, of different departments coming together to deliver comprehensive change to the city is the Healthy Buildings Project in the Bronx. The project saw 50 buildings retrofitted with the goal of removing mold, roaches, and rodents to reduce repeat asthma cases. At the same time, the apartments were retrofitted to increase energy efficiency and the savings this caused -- in reducing energy bills, and in selling power back to the grid -- helped pay for the asthma retrofit.

“That takes bringing together a bunch of different city departments and state and funding streams and figuring out the financing, which is all complicated. But that’s the kind of thing we need to do in order to really address the health disparity crisis,” Thompson said, adding the “silo approach” so often seen in government is “not very strategic and not very smart.”

“It’s definitely a challenge, it’s always been a challenge,” Thompson said of bureaucracy and government silos, especially in a government the size of New York City’s. “That’s a lot of what I’ve been doing in my prior life, before coming here, is trying to break through those silos.”

“I wrote a book about the Dinkins experience and about black mayors and the point of the book was really to explain the problematic of trying to use City Hall to change policies on behalf of low-income people when they're all sorts of entrenched interests that basically push in the other direction,” he added.

Going forward, Thompson is eager to see the de Blasio administration take on the big issues like climate change, technology, and education in a way far different from the “narrow-mindedness” of the Trump administration. Asked if part of his job is to help de Blasio become less risk averse and get more creative, Thompson said has been bold in pursuing universal pre-kindergarten, which he called “4-K,” and the broad mental health program being led by First Lady Chirlane McCray.

“I don’t think the mayor is risk averse. I don’t think the mayor had any idea 4K would work when he first started it - I think that was just a bold thing and ThriveNYC was a bold thing,” Thompson said. “I also don’t think the government’s role is risk averse...I came from 18 years at MIT, I got to tell you, computers and the internet came from 20 years of consistent funding from government, which took the risk out of it. You could screw up a thousand times, which they did, but the government said ‘it’s real strategic for us to develop these systems,’ No venture capitalist would have put the money in over a 20-year period not knowing what was going to happen.”

“The government's role is exactly to socialize risk,” Thompson continued. “The government's role is to say, ‘this is something, as a city or as a country, we have to do so we’re going to invest.’”

***
by Caitlin Bishop, Gotham Gazette
@caitybishop  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

]]>
New Deputy Mayor Phil Thompson Outlines His Portfolio, Which Includes Everything Wed, 13 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio and City Council Agree on $89.2 Billion Budget, Funding Key Council Priorities http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7731:de-blasio-and-city-council-agree-on-89-2-billion-budget-funding-key-council-priorities http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7731:de-blasio-and-city-council-agree-on-89-2-billion-budget-funding-key-council-priorities de Blasio Corey Johnson budget City Hall

De Blasio & Johnson shake on it (photo: William Alatriste)


Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on Monday announced an agreement on an $89.15 billion budget for the 2019 fiscal year that includes key Council priorities that the mayor had been hesitant to fund for months.

“This budget is profoundly responsible, it is balanced, it is progressive and it is early,” de Blasio said at the ceremonial budget handshake with Johnson and other Council members at City Hall on Monday evening, about three weeks before the July 1 deadline that is the start of next fiscal year.

The latest spending plan is a slight uptick from the mayor’s $89.06 billion executive budget proposal released in April, and a total $480 million increase from the $88.67 billion preliminary proposal put forward by the administration in February. Overall, it reflects a $16.45 billion increase from the $72.7 billion budget that de Blasio inherited when he took office in 2014. Asked about that significant growth, de Blasio said on Monday, “It’s an investment model, it’s a strategic investment concept,” insisting that much of the city’s prosperity over the last few years stemmed from his administration’s responsible spending and fiscal management.

The money has certainly been there to spend, even as the budget has grown so large, the city has put record sums in reserves, though watchdogs do warn of long-term fiscal impacts of the large growth in public sector headcount de Blasio has overseen.

It was Johnson’s first budget as speaker and he notched a massive victory, convincing an initially reluctant de Blasio to provide $106 million to partially fund the ‘Fair Fares’ program that will provide half-priced MetroCards to New Yorkers that live below the federal poverty line. The Council members in attendance struck an especially celebratory tone.

“I believe that Speaker Johnson said the words ‘Fair Fares’ to me an unfair number of times,” de Blasio mused of Johnson’s almost single-minded focus on the issue in the lead up to the budget deal. The speaker headed a concerted campaign for the program, using digital and social media and grassroots advocacy. All but three members of the City Council had expressed their support for it by this week; it was clearly the speaker’s top priority in negotiations with the mayor.

De Blasio said Monday that the program will launch in January 2019 and run through the rest of the fiscal year, and will be implemented by the city rather than the MTA, in a similar fashion to the Human Resource Administration’s cash assistance and food stamp programs. Following the six-month rollout, the city will evaluate participation and cost to decide on future funding, Johnson later said as he insisted that both he and the mayor will continue to push for an additional millionaires tax approved in Albany to fully fund the program.

The mayor also added $225 million in funding to reserves, conceding nearly half of the Council’s $500 million demand for more rainy day funds. About $125 million was added to the general reserve, bringing it to $1.25 billion each year, and $100 million to the Retiree Health Benefits Trust Fund, increasing it to $4.35 billion, while the capital stabilization reserve remained static at $250 million.

De Blasio also touted other top items that had been outlined in earlier iterations of the budget, namely $125 million in increased fair school funding, added resources for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), an expansion of 3-K for all, and funding for police body cameras.

“This spending plan will strengthen our social safety net and do more for New Yorkers who are struggling to get by on less,” Johnson said as he thanked the mayor for “good faith” negotiations over the last few months.

“We are taking a sharp-eyed, sober approach to the future,” he added, detailing a few of the initiatives funded in the budget, including $150 million in additional capital funding over three years to improve accessibility for the disabled at city schools and an expansion of of the summer youth employment program from 70,000 to 75,000 slots.

Johnson also highlighted the hundreds of millions of dollars that the city previously committed to the MTA Subway Action Plan, as Johnson had wanted it to but de Blasio did not, after the state budget forced the city's hand. He also stressed additional investment in supportive housing, to accelerate the pace of units opening.

The deal, according to a press release from the mayor's office, also increases and baselines funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program "to $20 million annually" and adds $3.5 million "for additional litter basket pickup" to avoid trash can overflow on street corners.

The final budget does not include a $400 property tax rebate for thousands of homeowners -- another key Council priority -- since the administration and Council announced late last month that they would convene a property tax commission to review the system and propose reforms. The commission is expected to begin its work with the July 1 start of the new fiscal year and will hold ten hearings to seek public input.

The budget agreement announcement came hours after another, more tense news conference at City Hall where de Blasio addressed the city’s agreement, announced Monday morning, with federal prosecutors to accept a federal monitor for NYCHA. The deal also requires the city to provide billions more in funding for the ailing housing authority over the several years, and that funding will be reflected in the capital budget when it passes the City Council later this month, de Blasio said.

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
De Blasio and City Council Agree on $89.2 Billion Budget, Funding Key Council Priorities Mon, 11 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000