Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/110 Sat, 25 Nov 2017 09:52:40 +0000 en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Amid Ongoing Uncertainty, De Blasio Makes Modest Budget Adjustment http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7330:amid-ongoing-uncertainty-de-blasio-makes-modest-budget-adjustment http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7330:amid-ongoing-uncertainty-de-blasio-makes-modest-budget-adjustment bdb budget presentation

De Blasio during a budget presentation (photo: Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio will release the mandated November budget modification on Tuesday, showing minor adjustments to the city’s nearly $86 billion budget for the current fiscal year, which runs through the end of June.

Spending for fiscal year 2018 (FY18) will be projected up from the $85.24 billion agreed upon by de Blasio and the City Council in June to $85.99 billion, according to the mayor’s office. The increase is largely due to more federal funding coming to the city for recovery from Superstorm Sandy and Homeland Security grants.

Otherwise, the budget adjustment includes a variety of new spending by the city and several areas in which the city is marking additional savings, according to the mayor's office. The city is projecting a $207 million reduction in city tax revenue, mostly in business taxes, while there is a projected increase in property tax revenue that will partially offset those shortfalls. The city budget has grown quickly under de Blasio and other November modifications have included larger increases in spending. The minimal nature of this mid-fiscal year adjustment appears indicative of the level to which de Blasio has funded his programs and priorities and the ongoing questions surrounding federal policies.

The November Plan, as it is known, will not reflect potential federal cuts or the possible effects of federal tax reform plans currently being debated, nor will it show any major new city spending.

"We came into office four years ago promising to bring opportunity to those who had been left without for so long. Today, we're on track to invest more in affordable housing than any administration in decades, we've created an entirely new grade and, bringing police and community together, we've seen the lowest crime rates in history,” de Blasio said in a statement. “While we will continue to provide for New Yorkers however we can, we must do so thoughtfully and strategically while the threat of funding cuts from Washington continues to loom."

The plan will show the addition of $47 million in city funds for FY18, largely for agency spending and an increase in pension contributions. The de Blasio administration says that the increases are more than offset by savings related to health care costs, debt service, and agency adjustments. While overall expenditures are projected to increase by $747 million, the FY18 budget remains balanced, as it must.

New spending highlights provided to Gotham Gazette by the mayor’s office include $7 million to upgrade the city’s 311 system and other major projects supported by the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications; $4 million for sending supplies and city works to Puerto Rico to assist with hurricane recovery; $4.5 million to develop a construction site safety program; and $10 million for creating the new procurement system, PASSport. There is also $7.5 million to reflect additional costs from new collective bargaining agreements with certain employees at the Department of Environmental Protection.

The modification does not include any significant additional expenditures toward fighting homelessness or any of de Blasio’s other major priorities, like expanding pre-school to three-year-olds, closing the Rikers Island jails, or spurring 100,000 good-paying jobs over ten years.

Some of the agency savings outlined in the modification include the Department of Transportation saving $400,000 by using less expensive video cameras and computer analysis contracts for projects where manual traffic surveys are insufficient and the Financial Information Services Agency saving $500,000 due to lower maintenance of new computer equipment, according to the mayor’s office.

The November Plan will show $59 million in additional projected spending for FY19. The FY19 budget process will kick into gear in January when the mayor releases his preliminary budget. Hanging over the current and next city budgets are potential changes in state aid to the city and a great deal of uncertainty in terms of federal aid and policy out of Washington D.C. The city budget has grown about 18 percent under de Blasio, up to the nearly $86 billion now projected for this fiscal year, in large part due to increases in the city personnel headcount (thousands more teachers, police officers, and others) and additional programmatic expenditures (including related to homelessness and other social services, where expenditures have increased dramatically).

The budget adjustment does not reflect any federal cuts, as most of what has been proposed in Washington, D.C. has yet to come to fruition. The high-profile threat to city taxpayers that is the proposed reduction of state and local tax (SALT) deductions from federal tax filings is still being debated in Washington and around the country. De Blasio, a recently reelected Democrat, is working to fight the proposed tax reforms, which are being pushed by President Donald Trump and many of his fellow Republicans in Congress. Even if there is significant reform to SALT, it would not cut federal funding to the city. It would, however, put additional financial stress on many city taxpayers, whose overall tax burdens would increase, in some cases significantly. This stress would likely lead to calls for reductions in city and state taxes, which could lead the city to lower taxes under its control and thus have less revenue to spend.

De Blasio’s prior November Plan budget modifications were more significant in scope -- his first, in November 2014, showed almost $2 billion in additional planned expenditure, largely having to do with federal Sandy aid, as well as tens of millions of dollars in added spending on de Blasio priorities like NYPD retraining of officers, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and a rental assistance program for domestic violence survivors.

Upon release of this November Plan, the City Council will review the budget adjustments and is expected to vote them through.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Amid Ongoing Uncertainty, De Blasio Makes Modest Budget Adjustment Mon, 20 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio's Record on Budgeting and Fiscal Health http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7300:de-blasio-s-record-on-budgeting-and-fiscal-health http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7300:de-blasio-s-record-on-budgeting-and-fiscal-health de Blasio city budget

De Blasio during a budget presentation (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


This article is part of a series on Mayor de Blasio's first term record as he seeks reelection this fall, in partnership with WNYC radio and City Limits. Find all pieces of the series here.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio inherited a city with a healthy economy and strong tax revenues, allowing him to add billions in new spending for his priorities and increase the size of city government while also saving substantial funds for a rainy day. Though fiscal monitors and budget experts generally agree that the city’s budget has been handled responsibly, they are cautious about the future. This is a mayor who has encountered few budgetary challenges, and numerous loom on the horizon, from slowing economic growth to federal policies that threaten to create a sharp financial crunch. There are also ongoing financial crises at the city’s public housing authority, NYCHA, and public hospital system, New York City Health + Hospitals.

As de Blasio seeks a likely reelection on Tuesday, budget watchdogs warn that the incumbent Democrat might face his biggest tests in a second term, to which there are no easy solutions.

Under de Blasio, the city’s operating budget grew to $85.2 billion for fiscal year 2018, an increase of $12.5 billion or 17.2 percent from the last budget that was modified under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Much of the new spending has come from an increase in the municipal workforce. The administration has added more than 31,000 employees in de Blasio’s first term for a total headcount of about 328,267 full-time and full-time equivalent employees, the highest it has ever been. That number is expected to grow to 329,055 by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2018. These new employees also come with future obligations in terms of pension and health care costs.

The administration has simultaneously put aside what the mayor and others often refer to as “historic” levels of reserves. This includes $1 billion each year in the general reserve, $250 million each year till 2021 in the capital stabilization reserve, and $4 billion in the Retiree Health Benefits Trust fund. Those reserves added up to a $9.8 billion or 11.1 percent budget cushion (reserves as a percentage of adjusted expenditures) at the start of fiscal year 2018, according to City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s report on the adopted budget. Stringer noted that the cushion remained at the same level as fiscal year 2017 since increased savings were matched by expenditures. He recommended an optimal cushion of between 12 and 18 percent, and has emphasized that the administration needs to create more savings through efficiencies at city agencies.

De Blasio has eschewed targeted cost-efficiency initiatives at city agencies, which were a signature of previous administrations. He has opted instead for a voluntary Citywide Savings Program which identifies savings at agencies, more often through re-estimates of expenditure rather than efficiencies. He recently announced a partial hiring freeze at city agencies, though some see this as something of a gimmick given how many employees he’s already allowed to be hired.

“My broad assessment is that [de Blasio] and budget director Dean Fuleihan have done an excellent job of managing the city budget,” said James Parrott, director of economic and fiscal policy at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “They’ve been fortunate that the revenue situation has been accommodating to an ambitious agenda and they’ve been fiscally responsible to build reserves.”

In keeping with his progressive agenda, de Blasio has massively increased funding for social services and related to homelessness, education, public safety, and mental health services, among other major investments.

The combined budgets for the Departments of Homeless Services and Social Services increased to $11.5 billion in the fiscal year 2018 budget, up from $10.6 billion in the modified fiscal year 2014 budget that de Blasio inherited from Bloomberg. Department of Education spending increased by $4.4 billion in the same period, owing in large part to the implementation of universal pre-kindergarten and its planned expansion to three-year-olds. NYPD funding increased by $600 million, largely from the hiring of 1,300 more officers, while the Department of Corrections saw a nearly $340 million increase in its budget despite a continued drop in the city’s jail population.

“I think we're in a sustainable position,” de Blasio told the New York Daily News editorial board in an interview last month. “I think it also interacts. I think the investments we're making are strengthening our tax base. Safer city, better schools, stronger tax base. So it works. It's not limitless. You're absolutely right. It's not like you can just add all the time. There's a point -- and we'll have to watch Washington in particular very carefully – there’s a point where we may have to make tough decisions. But to date, I feel they've been responsible, and thank god, and I knock on wood as I say it, the economy continues to cooperate.”  

Parrott noted that the administration’s strongest achievement, begun early in 2014, was the settling of 99.1 percent of expired municipal labor contracts, which provided thousands of employees with retroactive raises and dispelled significant uncertainty about how the administration would handle a “daunting challenge” in a fiscally prudent manner. “That was an amazing feat,” Parrott said. “He gets four gold stars just for that, even if he hadn’t done anything else.”

But, with an increase in the employee workforce and the new union contracts, the city also added significant long-term funding obligations. The last budget under Bloomberg predicted that salaries and wages would be about $26.3 billion in fiscal year 2018, while latest estimates show them to be about $1 billion higher. In total, the city will spend about $47 billion in salaries, wages, pensions and benefits for the city’s workforce this year, increasing to $52.5 billion by fiscal year 2021. (The city’s pension contributions are estimated to be about $9.57 billion this year and are expected to grow to about $10 billion by 2021. City employees receive guaranteed pensions, funded by taxpayers, but the administration can do little to reform pension obligations since they are controlled by the state government.)

“I think he’s just been very lucky,” said Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “He’s had a good economy. He hasn’t had to make any decisions. He’s just increased spending on everything.”

“The mayor has not used the good times to make any reforms in government spending, particularly on health care costs for government workers,” she added. The city will bear $10.1 billion in the cost of health care benefits this year, which will grow to $11.7 billion by 2019, and Gelinas insisted that the mayor should look to reduce that cost in the current round of contract negotiations. “The city should really be thinking about how to bargain that workers pay some of the costs without putting the burden on taxpayers.”

Currently, city employees pay no portion of their health care premiums, a fact that has been a point of contention over time but de Blasio has not shown any interest in changing.

“I think it’s easy to be responsible when times are so good,” she added. “The real test will be if we have a recession. No two-term mayor has avoided at least a mild recession.”

Most experts agree that some form of slowdown will hit the city’s economy, which is currently in the ninth year of an unprecedented expansion. Gelinas warned that though the city has reserves set aside, “it’s kind of easy to run through those.” In the 2008-2009 recession, she said, about $3 billion in tax revenue “sort of disappeared overnight.” In a similar situation, de Blasio would have to make some difficult choices, and signs of lower revenues are already evident. At the annual meeting of the State Financial Control Board in August, de Blasio said his administration had already projected a $416 million reduction in revenue in the 2018 fiscal year.

The biggest uncertainty the city faces is cuts in federal funding and changes in federal policy on health care, taxes and infrastructure, though those have all remained a nebulous since before budget season. Efforts by the Republican-led Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act have repeatedly failed; and a tax overhaul currently making it’s way through the two houses faces bipartisan opposition over a proposal to change the state and local tax deduction, which is a boon to filers in high-tax states like New York. Should it pass, however, tax revenues in the city will take a major hit.

De Blasio made no significant adjustments for federal policies in his 2018 budget, insisting that the city periodically adjusts its budget to account for economic trends. The next budget modification is expected later this month. “We have an obligation and responsibility to provide New Yorkers with quality services now,” said Freddi Goldstein, a mayoral spokesperson on budget issues, in an email. “We cannot and will not let threats of cuts to federal funding that have yet to be realized deter us from strengthening New York’s future.” The city has been cautious in revenue estimates, and tax revenues are expected to grow at 4.5 percent over last year, in keeping with the administration’s plans.

Carol Kellermann, president of Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog, echoed Gelinas’ assessment of the mayor’s fiscal management. “He hasn’t really been tested in terms of fiscal policy,” she said, “because times have been so good so he hasn’t had to exercise as much restraint as CBC would’ve liked.” CBC gave the mayor’s last budget “mixed marks” over the growth in employee headcount and compensation costs.

Kellermann emphasized that many of the programmatic expansions made by the de Blasio administration are permanent and escalating in cost, making them harder to pare down in the future. “It’s very hard for public officials to cut back,” she said. “Every program has its constituency and it’s very hard to take those things away, and it’s very hard to layoff public employees.”

Both Kellermann and Gelinas also pointed out that the mayor has repeatedly touted the Retiree Health Benefits Trust fund as a reserve, even though it should be solely used to fund retiree health benefits and not in cases of a general shortfall.

The mayor has also significantly expanded capital investments to support his agenda. The ten-year capital budget increased by about $6 billion this year to $95.9 billion. The increase includes $1.9 billion in additional funding for affordable housing, $1.1 billion to create new borough-based jail facilities, $300 million to renovate 30 homeless shelters, among other investments. These investments also add to the city’s debt service -- the money spent to satisfy debt from borrowing each year -- which is $6.5 billion for fiscal year 2018, and is expected to grow to about $8.3 billion by fiscal year 2021. “If the interest rates go up, that’s gonna be a big burden down the road,” Kellermann said.

Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, de Blasio’s Republican challenger in the mayoral race, has repeatedly criticized the mayor’s ballooning budget and his “tax-and-spend” policies. At the first mayoral debate in the general election, on October 10, she attacked the mayor for the 300 new special assistants he has hired at City Hall, and his administration’s overall expenditure. “When we’re spending $15 billion more and we still have roads that are broken, we have subways that don’t run, we a homeless crisis, we have so many issues that are plaguing our city, then that is...the epitome of mismanagement,” she said, insisting that the city needs to streamline agencies.

She particularly noted the Department of Design and Construction’s consistent cost overruns for capital projects, which was a source of concern for the City Council as well when this year’s budget was adopted.

Two crucial areas where the city already faces a budget crunch, which would be further exacerbated by federal budget cuts, are NYCHA and Health + Hospitals. “These are two so-called independent authorities that all mayors, particularly this mayor, have forthrightly stepped forward to subsidize,” said Kellermann. “They were both meant to be self-sustaining and depend on federal revenue streams.”

NYCHA has a $17 billion capital backlog and though the mayor has made large capital investments -- including more than $1 billion to repair roofs at all NYCHA developments -- the agency’s woes are far from solved. The NextGen NYCHA plan has born some fruit, clearing the agency’s operating deficit for the first time in years, but progress would be threatened if the Trump administration follows through with funding cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.   

NYC Health + Hospitals, the municipal hospital system, handles about 5 million patient visits each year and serves about 500,000 uninsured New Yorkers. But the cash-strapped hospital systems depends heavily on the city bolstering its finances. Even though the city has increased funding to the system from $1.3 billion in 2013 to $1.8 billion this year, Health + Hospitals projects an expected budget deficit of $1.6 billion in fiscal year 2019, growing to $1.8 billion by fiscal year 2020.

“[De Blasio’s] been hoping and saying that they will reinvent themselves into a new model, but it’s just not happening,” Kellermann said, referencing the city’s plan to overhaul the hospital system. “It’s the same thing with NYCHA. The [NextGen NYCHA] plan has the prospect of bearing fruit. But will it fill the $17 billion need? No...Both are open questions for which there are no answers at this point.”

Parrott, who recently co-authored a report on Health + Hospitals for the New York State Nurses Association, said the city’s approach to restructuring the system has been flawed since it only focuses on finances without taking into account the larger eco-system of healthcare. The city and state must work together, he recommended, to create an integrated system that involves private hospitals doing their fair share for a more equitable health care system overall.

“The testing of the ability to manage these things will come sooner or later,” said Kellermann. “He gets an incomplete,” she added about de Blasio’s budget record, “That’s the grade I would give.”

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This article is part of a series on Mayor de Blasio's first term record as he seeks reelection this fall, in partnership with WNYC radio and City Limits. Find all pieces of the series here.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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De Blasio's Record on Budgeting and Fiscal Health Sun, 05 Nov 2017 04:00:00 +0000
A More Transparent City, with A Page for Every Capital Project http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7288:a-more-transparent-city-with-a-page-for-every-capital-project http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7288:a-more-transparent-city-with-a-page-for-every-capital-project capital project dbalkin

Construction in Corona Plaza (photo via DOT)


Few things impact the lives of New Yorkers more than the city’s “capital projects.” These projects create, maintain, and improve the infrastructure New Yorkers use every day, including: streets, bridges, tunnels, sewers, parks, and so much more. In 2018, the capital budget will be $16.2 billion, approximately 17% the size of the city’s $85.2 billion “expense budget.” What are these projects? How can you find out about them? It’s not easy, but it should be.

The Capital Budgeting process is a complex endeavour. The City maintains a 10 Year Capital Strategy that it updates every two years, and an Annual Capital Budget that is passed every year by the City Council, and a Capital Commitment Plan that is prepared by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) three times a year, which outlines precisely how and when funds are being allocated to agencies on a project by project basis. The Commitment Plan is the most interesting because it’s the closest to the reality of how the city is planning to spend our money. It comes in fourvolumes” of PDFs containing 2,162 pages of table after table of information describing nearly 10,000 different projects. Printing this out results in a stack of paper about one foot tall.

In 2017, why isn’t all this information in an easy-to-use spreadsheet or database? The only reasonable answer is that the city doesn’t want the public to scrutinize this information too deeply.

Fortunately, recent advances in technology have made it much easier to turn PDFs into spreadsheets, and spreadsheets into web applications. And that’s what I’ve done at projects.votedevin.com, where you can now find a web page for every single capital project, organized by agency and sortable by project’s cost. Of course, our ability to display useful information about projects is limited by the information in the capital budget reports - but there’s more than enough information to pique any budget conscious New Yorker’s interest.

Here’s an example: Project HBMA23216 from the DOT is a $312 million construction project for the “Promenade over FDR E81st - 90th St Bin 2232167.” That’s a lot of money for a promenade. By Googling the project’s name, description, and various internal codes (FMS Number, Budgetline and Commitment Codes) we can find a lot more information, like the RFP Notice, proposed architectural plans, and more.

As you browse the budget, sorting the most expensive projects by agency, more questions arise: Why does the City’s 311 system need a “Re-Architecture” that costs over $20 million this year? Why isn’t the press reporting the over $120 million in renovations planned for the Brooklyn Detention Center (search BKDC)? Why does the “Vision Zero Street Reconstuction” [sic] go from $2 million in 2018 to $100 million per year in 2021-2023?

I’m sure good answers exist for these and other, more probing, questions. These projects are, after all, funded by us taxpayers. Making this information more accessible would not only create more opportunities for civic engagement, it would also allow the public, journalists, academics, and others to serve as watchdogs, which might result in millions of dollars of identifiable cost savings.

A quick trip to the New York City Charter reveals that the City is required by law to document its capital projects in a very specific way. Presumably the City follows its Charter, which means this information exists, so shouldn’t the city share more of it? Cost shouldn’t be the reason we don’t have access to this information. If the City spent just 1/100th of 1% of the capital budget on public documentation, they could easily fund an exceptional website with a team of data organizers and content publishers who could keep it up-to-date.

What would that website look like? It would certainly have a lot more information than what the city currently publishes in its PDFs and on their “Capital Project Dashboard,” which offers very little additional information about the 189 “active projects over $25 millions.”

Imagine if the City maintained a web page for every capital project that contained all related public information: project status, project scope summaries, location on a map, lists of hired contractors and their fees, and an activity log so we, the people, could watch as projects move through their various stages. Now that’s the types of transparency we should expect from our city government!

Who has the power to make this information public? Certainly the Mayor's Office, but it's easy to see why it doesn't. The Mayor is responsible for directing the people and agencies leading  these projects, so creating more avenues for additional scrutiny, which could easily lead to bad press, is hardly a priority. Fortunately, New York City’s Public Advocate, which is an entirely independent office, has some statutory jurisdiction within the Capital Budget process and could force the city to better document the capital budget.

Section 216 of the New York City Charter states, “Upon the adoption of any such amendment by the council, it shall be certified by the mayor, the public advocate and the city clerk, and the capital budget shall be amended accordingly.” While I’m not a lawyer, it sounds like the Public Advocate could threaten to stop certifying amendments to the budget until the city releases a database of all capital projects with additional information to help New Yorkers better understand how their tax dollars are being spent.

That’s precisely what the Public Advocate should do, and as a candidate running for that position, I commit to making that demand when elected. It’s up to you, the public and the media, to ask other Public Advocate candidates how they’d use their oversight power over the Capital Budget. Will they also pledge to demand "A Page for Every Project"?

Until the city offers a page for every capital project, I’ll will keep updating projects.votedevin.com so New Yorkers can learn more about what the city does with our money. It’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it.

combo capital project

(image of the city's capital commitment plan vs. our website) 


Devin Balkind is a candidate for New York City Public Advocate. He is also the President of the Sahana Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces the world’s most popular open source software platform for disaster management. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

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

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A More Transparent City, with A Page for Every Capital Project Wed, 01 Nov 2017 04:00:00 +0000
What's The [DATA] Point? $95 billion http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7272:what-s-the-data-point-95-billion-opeb-debt http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7272:what-s-the-data-point-95-billion-opeb-debt whats the data point


What's The Data Point? Episode 17 -- $95 billion [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

thad calabrese

This week's data point is $95 billion, the current value of all of the future retiree benefits, except pensions, already earned by current retirees and current workers of New York City. This amount, referred to as OPEB, or "other public employee benefits," is primarily the cost of health insurance for New York City employees, their spouses and families. Thad Calabrese of the Wagner School at NYU joined Ben Max and Carol Kellermann to discuss the report he authored for CBC on OPEB debt and what to do about it, "The Price of Promises Made: What New York City Should Do About Its $95 Billion OPEB Debt."

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Carol Kellerman of CBC (@cbcny), and special guest Thad Calabrese of the Wagner School at NYU. Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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What's The [DATA] Point? $95 billion Wed, 25 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
What’s The [DATA] Point? 95, with City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7218:whats-the-data-point-95-with-city-council-member-julissa-ferreras-copeland http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7218:whats-the-data-point-95-with-city-council-member-julissa-ferreras-copeland whats the data point


What's The Data Point? Episode 13 - 95 with City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

For this episode of the podcast, we were joined by City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who has chaired the powerful finance committee and is leaving the City Council at the end of the year. Ferreras-Copeland could have run for one more term, and was seen as a leading contender to become the next City Council Speaker, but decided not to seek reelection this year. She explains why on the podcast, part of a wide-ranging discussion about politics, the city budget process, and much more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax) & CBC (@cbcny) & guest Julissa Ferreras-Copeland (@JulissaFerreras). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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What’s The [DATA] Point? 95, with City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland Thu, 28 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
What's The [DATA] Point? 2008 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7106:what-s-the-data-point-2008 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7106:what-s-the-data-point-2008 whats the data point


What's The Data Point? Episode 7 -- 2008, [You can download What's The Data Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

For this episode of the podcast we spoke with John Breit, a CBC Trustee, PhD Physicist, and former risk adviser to Merrill Lynch and the New York City Comptroller’s Office for the pension funds. Breit had a front row view of the economic collapse of 2008 and is an expert on the city's pension system, which is an essential piece of the city's fiscal health. In our discussion, Breit helps explain the problems with the city's pension system, the major liabilities involved, and more. It's a complicated topic that New Yorkers should know about, whether you are a current or former public employee, or not.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis (@MariaDoulis) of CBC, and special guest John Breit, a trustee of CBC (@cbcny):

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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What's The [DATA] Point? 2008 Thu, 03 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Calls for Vetoes as 'Benefit Sweeteners' Head to Governor's Desk http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7043:calls-for-vetoes-as-benefit-sweeteners-head-to-governor-s-desk http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7043:calls-for-vetoes-as-benefit-sweeteners-head-to-governor-s-desk cuomo pension reform

(photo: The Governor's Office)


As the dust settles on the scheduled legislative session in Albany and subsequent “extraordinary session” called by Governor Andrew Cuomo, much of the focus has been on the extension of mayoral control of city schools, finally passed Thursday after serious brinkmanship. There has also been plenty of talk centered on what didn’t happen: procurement, ethics, and electoral reform, the Child Victims Act, and more.

The Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), a fiscal watchdog, is also calling for scrutiny of other items that did pass, though with little fanfare. Specifically, CBC is pointing to 26 bills that it calls “benefit sweeteners,” enhancements of public benefits that it estimates will cost state and local governments at least $34 million by the end of fiscal year 2018. In fact, in order to pass an extension of mayoral control of city schools, legislators and the governor also agreed on one public benefit enhancement that will increase disability pensions for certain uniformed workers.

While that pension “sweetener” clearly has the governor’s blessing, according to Dave Friedfel, CBC’s director of state studies, the organization will send a letter to Cuomo urging him to veto about 10 of the other 26. This includes urging a veto of a “sweetener” that “clarifies eligible beneficiaries of New York City sanitation workers pension benefits, and provides a special accidental death benefit to the beneficiaries,” according to the bill summary, which is estimated to cost $8.9 million in immediate past service and then $6.8 million per year starting in fiscal year 2018, leading to an instant increase of $15.7 million in employer costs for New York City, the most of any of the bills identified.

Fourteen of the bills relate to reforms of death and disability pensions, mostly expanding eligibility criteria for various benefits to different classes of uniformed personnel, including firefighters, court officers, parole officers, and emergency medical service providers. Seven bills relate to expansions of pension benefits, one to health insurance, and three to miscellaneous topics, like repealing the retirement age of 60 for Garden City police officers.

CBC’s criteria is whether bills enhance benefits “without providing enhanced services to taxpayers or off-setting savings.” The watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, had been tracking 130 such bills throughout the session, most of which did not pass. For those that did, the attention is now on Cuomo to be judicious, CBC says.

Friedfel stressed that the discussion anchored around “whether these types of issues need to be addressed through a benefit enhancement,” and not on whether they were valid issues.

For example, several bills that were introduced, including one that passed, would extend leave for public employees to receive cancer screening. “Certainly we’re not advocating that people go without those screenings...but it’s unnecessary for the state’s taxpayers to grant additionally for those things,” said Friedfel, adding that some bills had not been requested by localities or employers but the state was unilaterally imposing extra costs.

“Benefit enhancements should be part of the contractual negotiating process,” he said, referring to collective bargaining between government and labor unions.

CBC’s discrete cost estimates per bill range from effectively zero to $15.7 million, for sanitation worker disability bill, in the first year. Thirteen of the bills did not have CBC estimates; of these, 10 had been passed with no fiscal note.

Maria Doulis, vice president of CBC, said in an email that the session brought “a greater volume of bills passed by the Legislature, but the bills themselves are not very costly when compared to some measures that have been floated and even passed in years past. That is encouraging.”

In response to questions over whether the governor intended to veto any of the bills or disputed the fiscal impacts outlined by CBC, Cuomo spokesperson Abbey Fashouer said in an email, “We haven’t seen the report or reviewed and analyzed all of the bills passed by the Legislature, but priority number one is protecting New York taxpayers.”

When the special legislative session was called, reports suggested that Cuomo would seek additional agreements on enhanced disability benefits.

Ultimately, the bill passed by the Legislature Thursday allowed “certain uniformed members of public retirements systems” -- including NYPD officers, FDNY firefighters and other city employees -- to receive accidental disability benefits even if they’re not eligible for a “normal service retirement benefit” and do so “despite being disapproved from receiving a federal social security disability pension.”

The expected cost of this provision would be $8.9 million in fiscal year 2018, then inch up to $12.5 by fiscal year 2022, for a total of about $55 million in those five years, paid for by New York City. Friedfel said the measure “didn’t need to be done in a special session” but it wasn’t “something we’re objecting to.”

At a press conference Thursday afternoon in Albany, Cuomo said of the $55 million estimate, “I don’t even think we’re going to get to the 55, frankly. I think the actual need will be below that.”

At his own press conference at City Hall, Mayor Bill de Blasio reacted to the legislation passed in Albany, celebrating the extension of mayoral control. The mayor said he thought the intent of the pension portion of the bill “was to be considerate to our uniformed officers who stay on the job beyond the minimum number of years, and to respect their reality, particularly if they become disabled.” He stated no objection to it.

“I’m always sensitive to adding to pension burdens, because that’s a big long-term issue, but this was a modest cost and a fair concept,” he said in response to a question from Gotham Gazette.

Cuomo has in the past shown willingness to veto bills passed by the Legislature that would add to the financial burdens related to benefits. He twice vetoed a bill allowing honorably discharged military veterans who had transitioned to the public sector to purchase three years of public pension credit before finally signing it last year, once the Legislature had appropriated funds. He also vetoed nine separate pension “sweeteners” last year.

One of Cuomo’s first major legislative initiatives was reforming the largesse of the state pension system, a reform that will save the state an estimated $80 billion over 30 years. Doulis called it “one of the Governor's early and most significant fiscal accomplishments” and said he had been “pretty good about holding the line and rejecting most sweeteners.”

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

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Calls for Vetoes as 'Benefit Sweeteners' Head to Governor's Desk Thu, 29 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
What's The [DATA] Point? Podcast http://www.gothamgazette.com/podcasts/what-s-the-data-point http://www.gothamgazette.com/podcasts/what-s-the-data-point


What's The [Data] Point? is a podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission looking at important issues in New York policy and government. GG, which is published by Citizens Union Foundation, and CBC are both watchdogs dedicated to analyzing and explaining New York public policy and holding government accountable. The podcast will touch on a variety of issues that have significant impact to the everyday lives of New Yorkers as well as the workings of city and state government. It is hosted by Ben Max of Gotham Gazette and Maria Doulis of Citizens Budget Commission, and produced by JaVon Rice of GG and Kevin Medina of CBC, with special guests on some episodes. Each episode is titled with a significant data point that helps frame the discussion.

The podcast launched in June of 2017; find and listen to episodes through the links below, and/or download them wherever you get your podcasts (iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, etc). And, let us know what you think! We're on Twitter @TweetBenMax & @GothamGazette & @MariaDoulis & @cbcny.

What's The Data Point? Episode 20 - 44 days — Ben Max of GG, Carol Kellermann of CBC, & City Council Member Dan Garodnick discuss his time in office and a variety of issues that he has worked on and is continuing to work on his final days in office.

What's The Data Point? Episode 19 - $67 billion — Ben Max of GG, Carol Kellermann of CBC, & Jay Kriegel of Related Companies and Americans Against Double Taxation discuss State and Local Taxes or SALT, for short.

What's the [DATA] Point? Episode 18 - 348 and 74 — Ben Max of GG, Carol Kellermann, Riley Edwards, & Tim Sullivan of CBC discuss the effectiveness of LDC, IDAs, & BIDs in New York City

What's the [DATA] Point? Episode 17 - $95 billion — Ben Max of GG, Carol Kellermann of CBC, & Thad Calabrese, a  discuss the current value of all of the future retiree benefits, except pensions, already earned by current retirees and current workers of New York City

What’s The [DATA] Point? Episode 16 - 1936 — Listen to Gerald Benjamin, a distinguished scholar from SUNY New Paltz and proponent of calling a convention, discuss the controversial topic that has many in New York focused on either securing approval or voting it down. He sat down with Ben Max of GG and Carol Kellermann of CBC.

What's the [DATA] Point? Ep 15 - 60+ — Listen to an excerpt from a live Citizens Budget Commission event where two experts discussed government debt and financing, including lessons learned from Detroit and Puerto Rico that may help New York City.

What’s The [DATA] Point? Ep 14 - 4 — Ben Max of GG & Greg David of Crain’s New York discuss his recent in-depth article on Mayor Bill de Blasio and de Blasio's record as mayor.

What's the [DATA] point? Ep 13 - 95 — Ben Max of GG, Carol Kellerman of CBC & City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland discuss why the soon-to-be former Council member decided against running for reelection, despite being the leading contender to become the next City Council Speaker.

What's the [DATA] point? Ep 12 - 77,651 — In this episode, listen to excerpts of a speech the city's housing commissioner, Maria Torres-Springer, gave at a Citizens Budget Commission event on Wednesday, September 20, followed by 15 minutes of Q-and-A with the commissioner. 7206

What's the [DATA] point? Ep 11 - $66 billion — In this back-to-school episode, Ben Max of GG and Dave Friedfel and Riley Edwards of CBC discuss the amount New York school districts receive in revenune and myths about school overcrowding. 

What's the [DATA] point? Ep 10 - 30% — Ben Max of GG, Carol Kellerman of CBC, & guest Deputy Mayor Richard Buery discuss the city's goals for awarding contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses and how Buery is leading the effort to reach those goals.

What's the [DATA] point? Ep 9 - $1.5 Billion — August 16, 2017 — Ben Max of GG, Maria Doulis of CBC, & guest Alex Matthiessen, President of Blue Marble Project and Campaign Director for Move New York, discuss the "congestion pricing" plan that aims to help repair and improve the city's mass transit, roads and bridges, while reducing traffic and creating more equity in tolling around the city.

What's the [DATA] point? Ep 8 - $17 Billion — August 10, 2017 — Ben Max of GG, Maria Doulis of CBC, & guest Shola Olatoye, chair and CEO of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the country's largest public housing authority, with over 400,000 people residing in its thousands of units across the city.

What's the [DATA] point? Ep 7 - 2008 — August 3, 2017 — Ben Max of GG, Maria Doulis of CBC, & guest John Breit, a CBC Trustee, PhD Physicist, and former risk adviser to Merrill Lynch and the New York City Comptroller’s Office for the pension funds.

What's the [DATA] point? Ep 6 - 100,000 — July 27, 2017 — Ben Max of GG, Maria Doulis of CBC, & guest Alicia Glen, Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development discussed the rezoning of East Midtown, the de Blasio administration's new jobs plan, and the recent tweaks to the administration's housing plan.

What's the [DATA] point? Ep 5 - 30 Days — July 13, 2017 — Ben Max of GG, Maria Doulis of CBC, & guest Jamison Dague, director of infrastructure studies at Citizens Budget Commission discuss issues facing the city's subway system, recent announcements made by Governor Andrew Cuomo that relate to the MTA, CBC analysis of transit system problems, and what to watch for as the MTA enters its summer "state of emergency."

What's The [Data] Point? Ep 4 - $32.5 billion — July 6, 2017 — Ben Max of GG, Maria Doulis of CBC, & guest Janno Lieber, new Chief Development Officer at the MTA discuss the state of the subways, MTA management and budgeting, major projects the MTA is undertaking and balancing them with upgrading and repairing the current subway system.

What's The [Data] Point? Ep 3 - $780 million — June 29, 2017 — Ben Max of GG, Maria Doulis of CBC, & guest Comptroller Tom DiNapoli discuss the lack of reform in Albany after the bid-rigging scandal in the Governor Cuomo's economic development programs that will see several of the governor's associates and donors on trial this fall.

What's the [DATA] point? Ep 2 - 44% — June 22, 2017 — Ben Max of GG, Maria Doulis of CBC, & guest Alyssa Katz of the Daily News editorial board discuss New Yorkers' satisfaction with city services, quality of life in the city, and more, based on results from CBC's survey of New Yorkers.

What's the [DATA] point? Ep 1 - $85.2 Billion — June 9, 2017 — Ben Max of GG and Maria Doulis of CBC launch the What's The [Data] Point? podcast with a breakdown of the recently-passed city budget for fiscal year 2018, which begins July 1, 2017. What you need to know!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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What's The [DATA] Point? Podcast Tue, 27 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
What's The [DATA] Point? $85.2 Billion http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6983:what-s-the-data-point-85-2-billion http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6983:what-s-the-data-point-85-2-billion whats the data point


What's The Data Point? Episode 1 -- $85.2 Billion. [You can download What's The Data Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

In the first episode of What's The Data Point? from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission, we discuss the city's recently-adopted $85.2 billion budget for fiscal year 2018, which begins July 1, 2017.

Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax) and Maria Doulis (@MariaDoulis) of CBC discuss the largest pieces of the budget pie, risks to city finances, contentious items that were resolved, and more. Listen:

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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What's The [DATA] Point? $85.2 Billion Thu, 08 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Last City Budget Hearing Sets Stage for Final Negotiations http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6957:last-city-budget-hearing-sets-stage-for-final-negotiations http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6957:last-city-budget-hearing-sets-stage-for-final-negotiations ferreras

Council Member Ferreras-Copeland (photo: John McCarten)


The City Council held its final hearing on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $84.86 billion executive budget proposal on Thursday, with Council members raising issues that have persisted throughout budget season and expressing concerns about the federal budget proposal released this week by the Trump administration.

“The city adopts the Fiscal 2018 budget at a time of great uncertainty about the future of critical programs and services that help many of our most vulnerable populations,” said Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, chair of the Council’s finance committee, in a prelude to a deal that must be reached between the Council and de Blasio by the July 1 start to the new city fiscal year. Many are expecting a deal much sooner than that deadline, though.

Ferreras-Copeland called the White House’s budget proposal “devastating,” pointing out that it outlines cuts to food stamps, Medicaid, housing programs, and the earned income and child tax credits. She worried that many city agencies hadn’t developed contingencies to cope with those potential cuts.

Although Ferreras-Copeland commended the de Blasio administration for funding key initiatives -- air conditioning in public school classrooms, immigrant support services, planning for borough-based jails in the effort to close the Rikers Island complex -- and reducing excess capital appropriations, she criticized the lack of funding for universal school lunch, senior services, youth jobs, and the Emergency Food Assistance Program. The budget, “as it currently stands, does not appropriately reflect the vision of both the Council and the Mayor,” she said.

Ferreras-Copeland said the administration had failed on a few fronts, particularly in reforming the capital appropriation process and providing transparency. She cited, for instance, the mayor’s announcement of a partial hiring freeze for administrative and managerial positions. “Because the Administration did not issue guidance on this plan until well into the budget hearings, agencies were unable to provide us any detail about how it would affect them,” she said. She also called for increasing city reserves, from the current 10.7 percent of adjusted spending to somewhere between 12 and 18 percent.

Dean Fuleihan, de Blasio’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, defended the proposed budget while promising to continue working with Council members on their priorities. Fuleihan presented a grim assessment of how President Trump’s budget would affect the city, insisting that the administration has “responded to the uncertainties and challenges we face by maintaining historic reserves and expanding our savings program, while continuing to make investments that strengthen New York’s future.”

Reform of the capital projects management system seemed of particular importance at the hearing and Ferreras-Copeland wondered why projects experienced consistent delays and cost overruns. Council Member Brad Lander later released an issue brief at the hearing, prepared in concert with other members, that showed 44 percent of capital projects that cost more than $25 million were severely late and 42 percent of projects were severely over budget. On average, the brief noted, projects were $30 million over-budget and 700 days late.

“This is not the fault of the de Blasio administration but we have a shared responsibility to do more to fix it,” Lander said.

Fuleihan agreed with that sentiment, while insisting the administration was making incremental improvements. “We need to work together...we need to be careful, we need to be thoughtful about this,” he said. The city will pass both a new fiscal year operational spending plan and a revised 10-year capital spending plan. The capital plan is revised every other year.

Fuleihan also promised to provide more detail about lump sum appropriations for a number of city agencies, an issue that Ferreras-Copeland said prevents the Council from full oversight. He also explained the implementation of the administration’s partial hiring freeze, which includes a variety of caveats, as the mayor had indicated it would.

Another issue that has been raised throughout the budget process is increased funding for nonprofit human services providers that are contracted by the city. These providers are increasingly facing financial insolvency and Council members have been advocating for the administration to provide contract increases. Fuleihan noted that it was an “inherited” problem and that the city has done more in the last three years than prior administrations. This year, the mayor’s preliminary budget also included a six percent wage increase over three years, at a cost of $200 million, for employees of these nonprofits. “Do we need to do more? Obviously,” Fuleihan said. “We’re saying we need to do more and we’re committed to doing more.”

Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, chair of the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations, pushed the administration on a $150 million capital need for city libraries and for $40 million in increased allocations for cultural institutions facing the threat of federal funding cuts.

Fuleihan stressed that the city has made significant investments in libraries, including capital allocations and operational funds for six-day service. “There’s always significant needs there, I’m not minimizing that...It’s another area where I think we all need to see some improvements,” he said of library capital projects. Cultural institutions, he said, were “part of the conversation we’re having,” and vowed that the administration will fight back against any proposed cuts.

Both Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez and Council Member Laurie Cumbo reiterated a request for funding “Fair Fares” to give discounted Metrocards to low-income New Yorkers. It is one of the few budget requests that the mayor has absolutely refused to fund, insisting that the state or state-controlled MTA should provide the funding. Fuleihan repeated that rationale at the hearing. “The mayor is more than sympathetic towards this but he feels that the appropriate place to fund it is the MTA,” he said.

Cumbo also asked for the administration’s plan to expand the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), an ongoing point of negotiation between the administration and the Council. Fuleihan, pointing out that the city has increased SYEP slots by almost double in the last three years, said expanding the program was not as simple as funding more slots. “There are two things: how much capacity are we actually able to do over the summer, and if we agree on moving forward, how do we move forward,” he said. “So I think there’s still questions for us to work though.”

Following Fuleihan, Comptroller Scott Stringer also presented the Council with his preliminary analysis of the White House budget proposal and its impact on the city, finding that the city could lose $850 million in social services, housing and education funding. “We have to anticipate the impact of these significant cuts,” he said, “and be prepared with a sound and responsible city budget.”

And although he said that the city’s economic outlook remains strong -- with a projected surplus in fiscal 2017 that will “equal or exceed” the previous year’s $4 billion surplus -- he said revenue and job growth were slowing. “I remain concerned that we are not adequately prepared for a potentially rocky road,” he said.

“We’re not being alarmist, I’m not here today to say we’re in doomsday,” he later added, “but, look, part of why we’ve been successful as a city is, we navigate what comes our way. We’re forward thinking about it...This is our moment to be very strategic and cautious.”

Stringer listed a few of his own priorities for the budget, calling for reductions in the cost of citizenship applications to relieve the financial burden on 670,000 eligible immigrants. He also reiterated the need to fund human services nonprofits, releasing an accompanying analysis of the industry, and finally insisted on procurement reform at the Department of Education.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli also released an analysis of the federal budget proposal on Thursday, calling for increased reserves to weather economic uncertainty and the potential rollback of the Affordable Care Act. “The President's proposed budget would make steep reductions in programs upon which city residents rely and poses a major risk to future city budgets,” DiNapoli said in a statement.

With Thursday’s hearing, the public facing part of the budget process comes to an end, save for the rallies and press conferences that may occur to lobby for additional funding for specific causes. The City Council and the mayor will now move to closed-door negotiations to hammer out the final tweaks to the spending plan. Last year, the final budget deal reduced spending by about $100 million from the proposed executive budget. Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Mayor de Blasio ceremoniously shook hands on that budget agreement on June 8, the earliest agreement in 15 years. The next budget is due by July 1, the start of the 2018 fiscal year.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Last City Budget Hearing Sets Stage for Final Negotiations Thu, 25 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000