Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/176 Wed, 19 Sep 2018 20:45:48 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Assembly Race Poses Another Test for Queens Machine http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7805:assembly-race-poses-another-test-for-queens-machine http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7805:assembly-race-poses-another-test-for-queens-machine catalina cruz parade Queens

Catalina Cruz (photo: @CatalinaCruzNY)


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Democratic primary victory over Rep. Joe Crowley last month in New York’s 14th congressional district sent shockwaves throughout the country and signalled a monumental shift in Queens politics, where the Crowley-led county party has held significant sway in local elections for many years. The effects of Ocasio-Cortez’s win and Crowley’s loss, both nationally and locally, are still developing, but reverberations are certainly being felt in the already-competitive Democratic primary for New York Assembly District 39, where a county-backed incumbent is facing an independent challenger.

The district -- part of the 150-seat lower house of the state Legislature, all of which are on the ballot this fall, first in September 13 primaries -- covers the immigrant-heavy neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights, and large parts of those fall within Crowley’s congressional district. It is currently represented by Assembly Member Ari Espinal, who was elected in a low-turnout special election barely three months ago, with fewer than 800 votes. Espinal was previously an aide to Francisco Moya, who held the Assembly seat before being elected to the New York City Council last year.

Espinal’s challenger in the primary is Catalina Cruz, an attorney with government experience who most recently served as chief of staff to former City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland.

Espinal, whose cousin is Brooklyn City Council Member Rafael Epsinal, ran unopposed for the Assembly seat, having been endorsed by the Queens Democratic Party, which is chaired by Crowley and has played an influential role in not just Queens, but city and state elections for decades, as well as the selection of the powerful City Council speaker and a variety of other appointed positions. For a special election to the state Legislature, there are no party primaries, instead the party county committee selects its candidate for what is a singular public vote. In a heavily Democratic district like most in New York City, the party’s nominee is virtually  assured victory in a special election, and therefore gains at least some of the benefits of incumbency ahead of any subsequent intra-party challenges.

But the power of the Queens County Democrats’ endorsement is under question following Crowley’s landslide defeat to Ocasio-Cortez as he finishes his tenth term in the House. Queens Democratic insiders say Cruz is in important ways a stronger candidate than Espinal and that the Queens county machine -- a descriptor some take issue with -- is playing a minimal role in the race and has a far less threatening presence in the immediate aftermath of last month’s election. Some also point to the fact that the Queens county party has been defeated in a number of elections over the years by strong insurgent candidates, such as the victories of current City Council Members Daniel Dromm and Jimmy Van Bramer, as well as Ferreras-Copeland’s first win. Moya, meanwhile, helped orchestrate Espinal’s ascension and is actively campaigning on her behalf in an area where he has won several recent elections.

For her part, Espinal is confident about the race. “I welcome any challenge,” she said in a phone interview. “I’m from Corona, Queens. I was raised in this neighborhood. I welcome any challenge and it’s exciting. I feel like it’s the Democratic process, too. Why wouldn’t you want a challenge? You would want your voters to get engaged. This is how they get engaged more when they have to pick, to choose and say, ‘Who’s going to represent me the way I want to be represented?’”

Having been in office just under three months, Espinal has been prime sponsor on one bill that was passed by both legislative chambers, to extend a labor law relating to unemployment insurance proceedings, and another, called Carlos’ Law, which enacts punishments for developers that put workers at risk of injury or death, which passed only the Assembly. Espinal has also allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars to her community, she said. She signed on to the Dream Act, which aims to provide state financial aid to undocumented immigrants seeking higher education. She’s received support for her reelection bid from Moya, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Bronx Rep. Jose Serrano, and the Working Families Party.

Espinal is relying on her experience as a longtime community organizer and former Democratic district leader, promising voters that she will bring resources back to her community. She has pledged to fight for immigrant protections, affordable housing, school funding, small businesses, and workers rights, and other locally-important issues. And she pushed back against the notion that she is the establishment candidate in the race. “Quite so often you have politicians who are not from the area and just want to run for office because they just want the power. I’m not looking for the power,” she said. “What I’m looking for is to actually engage my community and tell them, ‘I’m here. I’m here for you because I’ve lived here and I know the issues...because I’m your neighbor.’”

Cruz, Espinal’s opponent, strikes a similar chord with her campaign pitch. “My entire life is a spectrum of the people of Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst,” she said in a phone interview. But one thing that sets her far apart from Espinal is that Cruz herself is a “Dreamer,” a child of undocumented immigrants who came to New York at the age of nine and who only recently gained permanent resident status in 2009. “I went from being an undocumented child who picked cans in the street with her mom to survive, to being a Dreamer who was going to undergrad and paying for school for herself to a working poor lawyer...to being a middle-class New Yorker, which is basically the spectrum of the people who are here in our community,” she said.

After graduating law school and working as a housing attorney, Cruz joined the Attorney General’s office, then headed by Andrew Cuomo, before he was elected governor. Cruz served afterwards in the Department of Labor as counsel in the division of immigrant affairs. She worked with former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito -- who has endorsed her -- to write the legislation that kicked ICE agents off Rikers Island. She also returned to working for Cuomo, heading up his Exploited Workers Task Force, after which she joined Council Member Ferreras-Copeland’s staff. Her former boss has endorsed her, as have Council Members Dromm and Van Bramer, Helen Rosenthal, and Margaret Chin.

“We’re a people-driven campaign,” Cruz said of her approach to the race. “We start with people and we end with people. We start with the idea that all of our policies should be informed by people.” Though her policy platform largely resembles Espinal’s, Cruz says she sets herself apart by virtue of her independence, experience, her focus on the residents of the district who cannot vote, and her pledge to refuse corporate and luxury developer money (the latter a promise like one made by Ocasio-Cortez, who attacked Crowley for the large corporate donations he received).

“We are running a campaign that’s very much driven by people that live in the district and we’re independent from any ties to a political organization,” Cruz said.

Those ties or the lack thereof may not be determinative in the Assembly race that does again put the power of the Queens County Democrats in the spotlight, observers who spoke with Gotham Gazette said. One former Assembly candidate from Queens said the path to victory lies in a robust ground game and organization. “You knock on enough doors, you meet enough people, and you raise enough money, and the barriers to entry are very low,” the former candidate said. “How many people are gonna vote in an Assembly race? A few thousand? How much money do you need to raise for an assembly race? $100,000? How many doors are you gonna knock on?...You put your walking shoes on and you can do it. So I think party power is very limited and Ari and Catalina will win or lose on the strengths of their own organic, local operation.”

Democratic insiders pointed out that the Queens Democratic Party’s endorsement comes with political validation but not necessarily the resources to bolster a campaign, such as funding or boots on the ground. It’s why they disputed the characterization of the county party as a machine that can determine the course of campaigns. The party does, however, pressure potential contenders against considering a challenge to an incumbent and often brings with its endorsement a slew of loyal elected officials who coalesce around the county’s candidate and use their own resources and networks to boost them. The party also has connections at the Board of Elections and often attempts to knock challengers off the ballot and at times activates a network of district leaders and county committee members to help with ballot petition signature-gathering, door-knocking, and flyering.

“It seems like [Cruz] has real momentum and...everyone’s going to attest the strength of her campaign to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but I think the reality of it is the dynamics of that race were shaped well before the congressional race,” said a Queens Democratic operative who asked to remain anonymous to discuss things freely.

“I think people have an impression of the Queens county organization as a faulty machine,” the operative said, insisting that a loss by a county-backed candidate did not mean the so-called machine is faltering. “I think the reality is that’s not what the organization is...In my experience, they support somebody and their support will provide the significant assistance of validation from other elected officials. That’s very helpful...but it was never designed to overcome bad campaigns or great opposing candidates.”

If the incumbent candidate backed by the Queens Democrats loses to an independent challenger, the optics are far from ideal coming so close on the heels of Crowley’s loss. But the county has invested little in the race, said another Democratic insider from Queens who knows both Espinal and Cruz and who decried the term “machine” as a “loaded expression” for a county party that simply tries to elect its own members to office.

But the Queens county organization is undoubtedly powerful. The “machine” moniker stems from the fact that the party holds sway over more than just candidate endorsements -- its backing often also means a candidate will not receive a primary challenger. The county organization selects judicial nominees, and allies of Crowley have made hefty profits from being appointed as guardians in Surrogate’s Court. The party’s executive secretary is Michael Reich, whose partner Gerard Sweeney in the law firm Sweeney, Reich and Bolz, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of Surrogate’s Court business. The county also selects one of the ten commissioners on the New York City Board of Elections, who decide which candidates qualify to appear on the ballot.

The City Council speaker’s race has more often than not also been decided by the influence of the Queens and Bronx county parties; Council central staffers are frequently picked from the county’s ranks; and Council committee chairs are influenced by county allegiances. And though Crowley may no longer represent the House next year, City & State reported that he’s expected to be reelected county chair by district leaders for another two-year term in September. The county organization did not return a request for comment for this article about its support for Espinal.

“I don’t think it would be a fair characterization to say this is a test of the county organization because I’m not sure they have all hands on deck for this one,” the insider said. The insider insisted that neither candidate needs the county party’s help to win the race, which would be won on the merits of their candidacies, and that Crowley’s fall is more likely to have an effect on the state Senate District 13 race, where Jessica Ramos is challenging Senator Jose Peralta, formerly of the rogue Independent Democratic Conference, which empowered Republicans. “I don’t think the Catalina-Ari race is affected by the Crowley result as much,” the insider said. “I just don’t get the sense that that changed everything...They weren’t dependent on Crowley for the win. Peralta was kinda depending on the county guys propping him up, keeping him strong and I feel like that has turned and now Ramos, if I had to bet, will win that race.”

Cruz herself drew a parallel with Ocasio-Cortez’s win, noting that voters turned out in higher numbers for the progressive challenger than Crowley in his own backyard, which encompasses large parts of the Assembly district, to vote out the incumbent. “[Ocasio-Cortez] believed in the everyday person and the everyday person believed in her so much that they went out and overwhelmingly voted for her,” she said. “And that’s where we find ourselves, in the exact same situation.”

But even she denied that she was poking the bear through her candidacy. “I wouldn’t call it testing their power because I never said I’m running against the machine,” Cruz said. “I’ve always said I’m running for the people. We have an organization that was just shown what people powered campaigns can do and we’re about to show them a second time.”

If anything, the race may show that the Queens party’s once-coveted support has turned sour, seen by some as a signal of establishment politics that has been too out of touch with regular voters. “I think it definitely suffered,” said the Democratic insider of the county party’s endorsement. “It’s very raw and very recent, the whole Joe thing...I don’t know if this is a permanent problem or just a temporary one. But the timing right now is bad for those people.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Assembly Race Poses Another Test for Queens Machine Mon, 16 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.’”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Push for Budget Transparency Falls Far Short Wed, 20 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Must Protect Due Process for All in The Trump Era http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7725:new-york-city-will-protect-due-process-for-all-in-the-trump-era http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7725:new-york-city-will-protect-due-process-for-all-in-the-trump-era mayorsoffice rikers island

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Under the Trump administration, we are seeing escalated attacks against immigrant communities across the country. Raids, workplace sweeps, and the detention of Dreamers, asylum seekers, and other immigrants have led to the daily separation of families.

More than any other city, New York City has been proactive in responding to these attacks. At the center of our efforts to support our immigrant community is the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) — the nation’s first universal legal defense program for immigrants facing deportation.

Over the last four years, NYIFUP has set the national standard for protecting the due process rights of immigrants and keeping families together.  

Research shows that detained immigrants with access to legal counsel have a 48% probability of success in immigration court, as compared to 4% without access to counsel.  

Moreover, the New York City Council has made significant investments in complementary initiatives, including providing representation to immigrant children, survivors of domestic violence, asylum seekers, and those applying for U.S. citizenship.  

Our comprehensive legal services effort ensures income is not a barrier to obtaining quality, trustworthy representation for many immigrants at risk of deportation.

Unfortunately, Mayor de Blasio has dangerously limited due process to many more at risk of deportation by quietly implementing a policy that excludes immigrants, including veterans, with certain convictions from qualifying for representation through our legal defense programs.

New York City already mandates universal appointment of counsel in Family Court and Housing Court. Appointed counsel in those courts is based on financial need, not on a person’s criminal record.

A criminal record may, at times, be a factor for a judge deciding the merits of the case, but it’s never a factor in deciding who deserves an attorney. We must have the same standard in our immigration courts that we do in family and housing.

Elected officials, especially those who proclaim a progressive identity, should not fuel the nation’s deportation machine by limiting due process at a time like this.

Instead, we have a duty to do everything in our power to ensure a level playing field in a system that is heavily weighted against people of color and immigrants, who all too often are ensnared by a system set up to criminalize them.

The mayor’s approach is dangerous. We reject his exclusionary policy and urge him to restore our legal services programs to universal representation models without discriminatory exclusions.

Our legal services programs do not determine who gets to stay in the country and who doesn’t — that is the role of our courts. Instead, our publicly funded programs help immigrants understand the proceedings they are in, as well as their legal rights and obligations.

Making certain individuals ineligible for legal services strips them of a meaningful opportunity to have their day in court — leaving immigrants subject to deportation to countries where their lives may be at risk and allowing for the senseless separation of families.

We would do well to remember the words of retired Immigration Judge Paul Grussendorf, who explained, “it is un-American to detain someone, send them to a remote facility where they have no contact with family, place them in legal proceedings where they are often unable to comprehend, and not to provide counsel for them.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that states are the laboratories of democracy. We add that cities are the spark of genius that drives innovation in our democracy.

New York City has led the way in protecting the rights of immigrants. We must expand on that progress — not turn back. Other cities across the nation are looking to us as beacons of progress.

As descendants of immigrants and LGBTQ members of the New York City Council, and as New Yorkers, we are committed to eradicating inequality, discrimination, and barriers to fairness in our great city.

We are committed to universal representation and due process for all immigrant New Yorkers.

Justice is on our side.

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Carlos Menchaca and Daniel Dromm are members of the New York City Council, representing parts of Brooklyn and Queens, respectively. Menchaca chairs the Council’s immigration committee, while Dromm is chair of the finance committee. On Twitter @cmenchaca and @Dromm25.

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

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New York City Must Protect Due Process for All in The Trump Era Fri, 08 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Takes Harder Line on Mid-Year Budget Modifications http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7651:city-council-takes-harder-line-on-mid-year-budget-modifications http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7651:city-council-takes-harder-line-on-mid-year-budget-modifications speaker corey johnson council members

Speaker Johnson, center, CM Dromm, and Finance Director McKinney, background (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


Last month, before the New York City Council issued its budget demands for next fiscal year to Mayor Bill de Blasio and before the mayor eventually ignored nearly all of them in his Executive Budget plan, the Council called in administration budget officials to testify on a modification to the current year’s budget.

In past years, budget modifications have been subject to the same perfunctory hearing. Budget officials present a quick overview of proposed mid-year changes in spending and revenue estimates, and the Council briefly reviews and approves them, allowing the administration to divert additional resources to agencies that need them and to cut back in other areas. More often than not, the modification is presented to the Council as a fait accompli.

This year, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and finance committee chair Council Member Daniel Dromm took a different tack. Officials from the Office of Management and Budget sat as several Council members took them to task, critiquing everything from the substantial uptick in spending on homelessness to their consistently low projections of the city’s revenues. And instead of voting on the modification there and then, the Council held another hearing the next day to approve it, with no changes.

What seemed to be mostly a performative power play, however, was a preview of things to come. In the vein of increased independence from the administration and a refusal to rubberstamp the mayor’s budget dictates, the Council speaker made clear he was establishing a new status quo.

Going forward, a spokesperson for Johnson explained, the Council will take a stronger stance on proposed budget modifications, pressing the administration ahead of time on anticipated and proposed changes to see if the Council should even move forward with receiving a modification request. Hearings on budget modifications will no longer be cursory, the spokesperson said, and the administration will have to work harder to justify requests.

"This is about budget transparency, which is what I promised before becoming speaker and which remains a priority,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “This is taxpayer money, and it’s important that we know as much as possible so we can make the right decisions when it comes to funding, and so we can keep the public informed.”

The new approach comes as the administration and Council are amid negotiations on the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, with the Council pushing harder for cuts to spending, increased reserves, and more transparency by way of adding additional units of appropriation to break up large lump-sum pots of money. “The Council has made its position clear. More units of appropriation will help us make more informed decisions when it comes to funding, and will give the public the ability to see where their money is going,” Johnson said in a separate statement.

Freddi Goldstein, a mayoral spokesperson on budget matters, noted that the administration gives the Council enough time to review the budget modifications, which usually accompany the preliminary budget for the next fiscal year. The most significant budget modification takes place in November, four months into the fiscal year. The budget itself is subject to weeks of hearings where the Council hears testimony from budget officials and agency heads, affording them the opportunity to examine modifications as well.

“OMB is focused on transparency, which is why we already provide the City Council with any budget modifications with ample time for review and have always welcomed any and all questions the Council may have,” Goldstein said in an email.

Last week, in presenting his $89 billion Executive Budget proposal, de Blasio also insisted that negotiations with the Council have been “collegial and productive” and that the administration was working on adding the transparency that the Council has requested. “We’re going to work with the Council,” he said, when Gotham Gazette inquired about units of appropriation being added to the budget, though indicating none had been added in this new round of updates. “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.”

For budget watchdogs, the Council’s new strategy is promising, if not limited.

“It’s clear the Council is trying to assert itself in budgeting,” said Maria Doulis, vice president of Citizens Budget Commission, an independent fiscal watchdog. “But nothing they do is going to change the fact that it is an executive-centered budget process. It’s driven by the mayor.”

Indeed, since de Blasio took office, the budget has steadily risen by billions each year. The Council has repeatedly called for more agency efficiencies and savings but has largely capitulated as they also advocate for funding their own priorities worth hundreds of millions, which is happening again this year, highlighted by Johnson’s push for both Metrocard subsidies for low-income New Yorkers and property tax rebates for middle-class homeowners (while de Blasio has been resistant to both).

“It’s good that the Council wants to increase its scrutiny of the budget,” Doulis added. “But it should remain focused on the big picture issues and topics that affect the long-term fiscal health of the city.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Takes Harder Line on Mid-Year Budget Modifications Wed, 02 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
In Response to De Blasio Proposal, City Council Sets Stage for Tense Budget Negotiations http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7604:in-response-to-de-blasio-proposal-city-council-sets-stage-for-tense-budget-negotiations http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7604:in-response-to-de-blasio-proposal-city-council-sets-stage-for-tense-budget-negotiations speaker johnson presents preliminary budgetresponse 3 credit william alatriste

Speaker Johnson and colleagues (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The New York City Council appears to be gearing up for a tense budget fight with Mayor Bill de Blasio, releasing a telling early counter on Tuesday in its official response to the mayor’s $88.7 billion proposed budget for next fiscal year, put forth just after a tense hearing with budget officials about modifications to the current budget.

The Council’s response to de Blasio’s preliminary budget, the first under Council Speaker Corey Johnson and released after weeks of hearings, calls for millions in new spending, additional reserves for a rainy day, and more accountability and transparency in the city’s budgeting process.

The priorities enumerated in the document are a clear indication of the type of independence that Johnson has promised since taking office, with a focus on “strengthening the social safety net, fighting for the middle class and handling taxpayers’ money responsibly,” as Johnson put it at a news conference at City Hall.

Among key recommendations, the Council is calling on the mayor to fund “Fair Fares,” a proposal formulated by a group of transit advocates to provide half-price MetroCards to 800,000 low-income New Yorkers. The Council had pushed for the proposal last year as well but de Blasio shot it down repeatedly, even a proposed pilot program, insisting that it was the state’s responsibility to fund it, given that the MTA is a state-run entity. Fair Fares did not make it into the recently-passed state budget, and the Council is now calling for $212 million for the program, which it estimates would also benefit about 16,411 veterans living in poverty and would extend the program to veterans attending city colleges.

Johnson and the Council are also pushing for a $400 property tax rebate for homeowners with incomes below $150,000 -- which would cost about $187 million and cover about 487,000 households, they said -- and called on the mayor to form a long-promised property tax reform commission jointly with the Council to examine structural problems and propose reforms.

Almost every item highlighted in the budget response seems likely to elicit consternation from the mayor. Though the administration has put nearly $5.5 billion towards reserve funding, to prepare for an anticipated economic slowdown, the Council is calling for another $500 million. The Council is also insisting on another $2.45 billion in capital funding over four years for the embattled public housing authority, NYCHA, to repair heating and water systems and to build more senior housing.

The Council is calling for a reassessment of spending on homeless shelters and for education spending to be increased to “Fair Student Funding” levels. Members are demanding that the mayor’s next budget iteration, due out later this month, include a plan for $485 million in unfunded mandates foisted on the city by the state. The Council is proposing $227 million in new and baselined agency funding. And, it is emphasizing the need for more transparency in both the expense and capital budgets, proposing 123 new units of appropriation that would provide a more detailed breakdown of budgeting and pay the way for greater accountability.

Johnson emphasized that the increase in funding that the Council is advocating is offset by revenues, savings, and agency efficiencies and reductions. “I believe this is a pretty aggressive response to what was presented to us and we expect a real negotiation from now until the executive budget,” he said, later insisting that the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget had set lower estimates for revenues and agency savings than the Council.

“When we go down, we’re adjusting the available resources in what OMB gave us by $1.8 billion,” he said. “We believe that our forecast, in between what [the Independent Budget Office] is saying and what OMB is saying, we view it as $1.8 billion...We’re not just spending a lot of money. We’re also cutting back on savings in certain agencies, especially DHS [Department of Homeless Services].”

The mayor’s office quickly responded to the Council’s proposals. "Times are increasingly tight, and the $418 million we just spent to fix the state-run subways, which the Council supported, will only make this year’s budget process all the more lean,” said Freddi Goldstein, a mayoral spokesperson on budget matters. It was a clear reference to Johnson’s position that the city pay for half of the $836 million MTA Subway Action Plan, which the city is being forced to do under a provision that was included in the state budget earlier this month. (That $418 million includes $254 million in operational costs -- which is included in the Council’s response -- and $164 million in capital costs.)

The Council’s more “aggressive” approach was already on display Tuesday morning, at a rare finance committee hearing on proposed modifications to the budget for the current fiscal year ending June 30. More often than not, in the past few years, the Council has easily approved the periodic budget modifications so the city can adjust spending as needed. But this year the adjustment was the subject of a standalone hearing, led by Council Member Daniel Dromm, chair of the finance committee.

The administration had requested the Council’s approval on $970 million in spending reallocations across city agencies. But Council members seemed unwilling to pass up the opportunity to ask hard questions of OMB officials, mostly relating to a $152 million proposed increase in spending on the Department of Homeless Services.

“They want a modification, they have to come to the City Council,” Johnson flatly explained, when Gotham Gazette asked whether the Council was using the budget modification as leverage over the administration. “We’re not a rubber stamp. We have oversight questions, we have questions that need to be answered.”

Dromm, who had earlier emphasized to Gotham Gazette that the hearing was simply about more transparency, added, “It’s a new Council, it’s a new situation. We have new expectations and we expect the administration to live up to those expectations.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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In Response to De Blasio Proposal, City Council Sets Stage for Tense Budget Negotiations Tue, 10 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Fulfilling Johnson Promise, City Council Significantly Increases Its Operating Budget http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7559:fulfilling-johnson-promise-city-council-significantly-increases-its-operating-budget http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7559:fulfilling-johnson-promise-city-council-significantly-increases-its-operating-budget Johnson Dromm City Council budget

Council Members Cumbo, Johnson & Dromm (l-r) (photo: John McCarten)


The City Council’s Committee on Finance voted on Thursday to increase the Council’s operating budget to $81.3 million, an increase of nearly 27 percent from the current fiscal year’s budget of $64 million, following through on Speaker Corey Johnson’s promise to increase internal resources and produce a stronger role for the legislative body in areas such as land use and oversight.

The City Charter allows the Council to decide its own budget, with no required oversight and without any interference from the mayor. After the budget is approved, the Council can insert its spending plan into the mayor’s executive budget, which follows after preliminary budget hearings have concluded and the Council issues its response to the mayor. A new city budget is due by the July 1 start to fiscal year 2019.

As the city’s budget has increased dramatically over the last few years, the Council’s spending has followed suit, though at a different scale. In the previous four-year session, the Council inherited a $51.5 million budget in 2014, with $38.6 million for Personal Services (PS), a budget line that covers salaries for Council members, aides, and committee staffers. The rest covered Other Than Personal Services (OTPS), expenses such as rent and office supplies.

By the current fiscal year, ending June 30, the Council’s budget had grown to $64 million, an increase of 24 percent over four years under former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Spending on salaries and staff pay increased significantly to $49.2 million, owing to a pay raise that Council members voted themselves in 2016, increasing their annual salaries 32 percent from $112,500 to $148,500 (while also banning most forms of outside income and removing bonuses for leadership positions). That same year, Mark-Viverito also allocated an additional $25,000 to each Council member to boost staff member salaries.

Johnson came into office vowing greater independence from the mayor and increased oversight of city agencies. Among his top priorities were beefing up the Council’s land use division, to ensure, among other things, that Council members could play a more proactive role in the administration’s many proposed neighborhood rezonings across the city.

“I am fulfilling a promise I made during the Speaker’s race to enable the Council to fulfill its mission as the legislative body of New York. I have always been clear that doing that would mean an increase in staff and resources," Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "This budget reflects that. For example, two core functions of the Council are to legislate bills and negotiate the city budget, and this budget increases staffing and adds resources to the Legislative and Finance divisions. I’ve added staffing for the Charter Commission and Oversight and Investigation Unit, which I promised during the Speaker’s race. And we have also added to Land Use, another core function of the Council. I am excited to see what a fully empowered City Council will do moving forward.”

“I think that we need to do a better job about having the resources in our land use division so that we are fully staffed up to be more proactive,” Johnson told reporters in January. On a number of occasions Johnson compared the small Council land use staff to the much larger City Planning Commission. “Since we’re the final arbiter when it comes to land use matters, we should have a large land use division that can do some of the work up front, even before our community boards give a recommendation,” Johnson said.

He also committed to stronger oversight of city agencies, with a newly empowered Committee on Oversight and investigations led by Council Member Ritchie Torres. The Committee is setting up its own investigative unit with former prosecutors, professional investigators, and former journalists.

“The Council’s taking on a whole lot of new...responsibilities to a certain extent in terms of oversight and investigations and other areas of the budget, I think which is going to make the Council a more equal partner with the mayor,” said Council Member Daniel Dromm, chair of the finance committee, after Thursday’s hearing. “And I think in order to be able to do that, that’s why we needed the increase in the operating budget for the City Council.”

Much of the new funding, about $9 million, is for 111 new committee staff hires, increasing the total headcount of committee staff from 147 to 258. Another $2.9 million is being doled out equally to Council members so they can increase their staff pay or hire more staff for their district offices. The OTPS funding increased by about $4.1 million.

Most of the major divisions of the Council will see a significant increase in funding to account for additional staffing. The new Oversight and Investigation unit will be comprised of 20 staffers with a budget of $1.5 million. The finance division will see its headcount increase to 66 positions, up from 39, with a budget of $5.2 million, up from $3.1 million. The land use division, which budgeted for 14 staffers last year, will have 21 staffers with a $1.8 million budget, up from $1.25 million.

Most of the divisions will see a headcount increase, save for a “Policy and Innovations” division that is being eliminated entirely.

The Council also included placeholder funding to staff a potential Charter Revision Commission, which the Council is hoping to create through legislation independently of Mayor de Blasio’s recently announced commission. The budget line, which simply reads “Charter,” funds 20 committee staffers with $1.7 million.

“It’s clear the Speaker wants the City Council to take on a more aggressive role and that may require beefing up analytic capacity and staffing,” said Maria Doulis, vice president of Citizens Budget Commission, an independent fiscal watchdog. “But just like with other city agencies, that increase should be justified...the Council has to articulate clearly the goals and what it hopes to accomplish, and demonstrate that it’s still keeping its operations lean and demonstrate to the taxpayer that it’s delivering results for the investment.”

Doulis said it was “reasonable” for the Council to want to enhance capacity in key areas, including land use. But insisted it should be “within limits.” She also agreed that the Council’s budget should undergo public oversight as well. At Thursday’s hearing, as is usual with the Council’s budget, there was little discussion and the vote concluded in less than five minutes. The detailed outline of the budget had yet to be uploaded to the Council’s website, where the committee hearing agenda is posted in advance.

“They review everything else,” Doulis said. “There should be a review of their own spending.”

“There’s been plenty of discussion around it as far as I know,” Council Member Dromm said, when asked by Gotham Gazette if the Council should hold an oversight hearing of its own budget. He pointed to the speaker race -- in which each candidate, including Johnson, indicated that they would increase the Council’s budget -- and news coverage of the Council’s enhanced responsibilities. “I think there’s been a lot of opportunity to discuss this.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Fulfilling Johnson Promise, City Council Significantly Increases Its Operating Budget Thu, 22 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Begins New Focus on Capital Budget, with Eye Toward Transparency http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7554:city-council-examines-capital-budget-with-eye-on-transparency http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7554:city-council-examines-capital-budget-with-eye-on-transparency vanessa gibson

Council Member Gibson (photo: William Alatriste)


As the New York City Council continues to examine Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $88.67 billion preliminary budget for 2019, a newly created committee under Council Speaker Corey Johnson is paying extra attention to the ‘other’ budget - the capital plan - the administration’s proposed spending on schools, parks, jails and other long-term infrastructure projects.

Over the last few weeks, the new Subcommittee on the Capital Budget chaired by Council Member Vanessa Gibson, under the purview of the Committee on Finance, has been conducting oversight of agency-specific capital spending and, on Tuesday, the committee turned its eyes to the administration’s overall $45.9 billion preliminary capital budget for 2019-2022.

That capital budget proposes authorizing $11 billion in new spending for the 2019 fiscal year alone. The city’s fiscal year begins July 1.

Separate from the proposed capital budget is the capital commitment plan. While the budget is set aside for all capital needs not previously allocated, the commitment plan accounts for the money the city actually intends on spending on capital projects in sum. At Tuesday’s hearing, Council Members analyzed the $79.6 billion capital commitment plan for 2018-2022, including $19.3 billion that would be spent for fiscal year 2019 (including funds rolled over from previous years).

“For too long, the majority of our attention, the public’s attention, and the advocates’ attentions has been on the expense portion of the budget,” said Speaker Johnson, in his opening statement at the hearing, referring to the city’s annual spending on operations, typically simply referenced as the city budget. “This has left mayoral administration after administration to manage the capital budget process largely without the rigorous review it deserves,” Johnson said, giving indication to why he created the new subcommittee. This is the first budget process since Johnson was elected speaker by his 50 Council colleagues.

Johnson, and several of his colleagues after him, criticized successive administrations for allocating a majority of funds in the early phases of years-long projects, rolling over unused funds, and lumping in dozens, if not hundreds, of projects under broad budget lines.

Gibson pointed out the glaring discrepancy between how much the city was appropriating for capital projects and how much was being spent each year. “This is certainly not a new phenomenon, this is not a new concept,” Gibson said, noting that between fiscal years 2012-2017, the city had on average appropriated $36.7 billion annually, planned to spend $15.3 billion on average, and spent only $8.5 billion.

“As always, we will approach the capital budget process with caution,” said Melanie Hartzog, director of the Office of Management and Budget, in her opening remarks Tuesday, emphasizing that the city was being careful about its spending on debt from infrastructure projects. Hartzog, recently promoted to the position by de Blasio, noted in her testimony before the Council the impact of the federal and state budgets on New York City, including proposed cost shifts for MTA capital to the city -- a proposal from Governor Andrew Cuomo that is being debated in Albany -- and the devaluing of a federal tax credit that incentivizes the creation of affordable housing. She also reiterated many of the new and ongoing investments made by the administration in traffic safety, flood mitigation, transit infrastructure, schools, affordable housing, economic development and public housing.

Hartzog said the administration has taken steps to provide more accurate assessments of capital needs, by investing at least $50 million for agencies to plan and review projects before funding is put toward them. The administration has also increased staffing at agencies with large capital needs to focus on project planning and management, she said.

A key factor in possibly speeding up capital projects, Hartzog said, is design-build, a streamlined process that would allow the city to solicit combined design and construction bids for infrastructure projects. To use design-build, the city requires approval from the state, where passage has been elusive thus far, though there is the possibility this year of authorization for specific projects. It’s one of many key issues that the de Blasio administration has been pushing in Albany as Cuomo and the state Legislature negotiate the state budget.

“Applying the design-build approach would shave hundreds of millions of dollars from the cost of projects and reduce completion times by 18 months on average,” Hartzog said at the hearing. The city wants design-build for projects like rebuilding a portion of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, major NYCHA repairs, and building out jail capacity to replace Rikers Island facilities, among others.

The hearing was by-and-large amicable and Hartzog repeatedly promised to work with the Council on improving its capital process, having ongoing discussions with Council Members about proposed projects in their communities and conducting more regular reviews of capital spending. But the Council could not extract concrete commitments on reforms they hoped to see.

Johnson pushed for a 15 percent cap on the difference between excess appropriated funds and the capital commitment plan, using an industry-standard ratio for budgeting capital projects. “Basically, the Council is annually presented with a capital budget to adopt that gives twice the authority to spend over what is planned...It’s my opinion that it is time for a new status quo,” he said.

Hartzog, however, said the administration has increased the level of spending in the commitment plan “significantly” and reiterated that they are working to “rightsize” agency-specific capital plans. She noted that the 15 percent contingency funding applies to projects and cannot be used as a standard for appropriations. OMB Deputy Director Charles Brisky also emphasized that contingency funding allows needed flexibility for projects and that examining the difference between appropriations and commitments could be misleading.

“If you think that there’s more to be done, we’re open to working with you and your staff to get that done,” Hartzog added.

Council Member Daniel Dromm, chair of the finance committee, focused his attention on how the city plans to raise funds for capital projects, and the debt it incurs in the process. He noted that though the city’s borrowing has largely hewed close to expectations, the administration continues to overestimate the debt it will incur down the line.

“This overestimation skews the picture of the city’s debt affordability over the plan and provides the administration a convenient source of savings for subsequent citywide savings plans,” Dromm said in his opening statement, referring to the administration’s voluntary savings program for city agencies, which the Council has criticized for an inadequate focus on creating actual efficiencies.

Hartzog pushed back, calling it a “little bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison.” Her colleague, Brisky, explained that city borrowing was for projects that are years into construction or had already been completed, while the commitments were for future projects. “That’s a little bit harder to project,” he said.

When Gibson pushed for more detail on individual capital projects, yet again the budget officials demurred. “Are you willing to commit with us to looking at...how we can itemize some of those budget lines to look at specific projects and delineate a little bit of the large, overly-broad general budget lines the Council has typically received?” Gibson asked.

Hartzog agreed, but added, “I will say that, and I’m sure you agree with me, what we don’t want to do is cause any delay in any projects getting done.” She cited the Department of Environmental Protection which has large pots of capital funding set aside for emergencies that are hard to predict.

Although fiscal monitors have generally praised the de Blasio administration’s handling of the city’s finances, the Council’s criticism tracks with reports by independent watchdogs that the city’s capital planning needs to be more efficient.

“Rightsizing and right timing the capital plan is necessary for a more effective and more transparent capital planning process,” stated a recent report by Citizens Budget Commission. “Reducing planned commitments in the early years of the plan to a more attainable level would require the City to clearly articulate its capital priorities and immediate needs. It would also facilitate improved tracking of capital projects and allow for more accurate projections of City borrowing.”

[Read: Under 'Threat' from D.C. and Albany, De Blasio Presents $88.67 Billion Preliminary Budget]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Begins New Focus on Capital Budget, with Eye Toward Transparency Tue, 20 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Begins Examination of De Blasio Budget Plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7519:city-council-begins-examination-of-de-blasio-budget-plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7519:city-council-begins-examination-of-de-blasio-budget-plan Speaker Corey Johnson podium

Council Speaker Johnon (photos: John McCarten/City Council)


City Council members pressed budget officials from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration for more transparency and a better accounting of spending and revenue plans at a Monday hearing on the mayor’s $88.67 billion proposed preliminary budget for the 2019 fiscal year, which begins July 1. It was the first hearing of what will be weeks of public discussions, and the first under the new City Council speaker and new Council finance committee chair.

“I want to focus on what will be a recurring theme of these hearings -- ensuring that the City budget is fair, transparent, and accountable to New Yorkers,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in his opening statement, kicking off the series of hearings at which agency heads and top city officials will present to the Council their funding priorities for the next fiscal year while defending their programs and practices.

“For too long, administration after administration has presented the budget to the Council in a manner that makes it difficult for us to do our Charter-mandated duty of budget oversight and review,” Johnson said, decrying the “frequent usage of vague and over-inclusive units of appropriation” that make city spending hard to track, and the lack of measurable connections between budgeting and results.

Johnson also expressed concern about the ballooning of the city budget under de Blasio, noting that the city expects to spend as much as $95.2 billion by the 2022 fiscal year, and promised a “renewed focus” on the city’s capital budget. Johnson has created a special capital budget subcommittee for that purpose.

Over the course of several hours, the Council heard testimony Monday from representatives of the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Finance, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and representatives of the Independent Budget Office. The hearing saw a few testy exchanges between Council members and new OMB Director Melanie Hartzog, indicative of the increased independence that Johnson has promised under his leadership. Members pushed hard when Hartzog gave them answers that they believed lacked sufficient detail and Hartzog, in turn, seemed to dig in when faced with repeated critical questions.

Council Member Daniel Dromm, the new chair of the finance committee, emphasized in his opening statement that the Council would have a clear eye on “accountability, performance and efficiency” in the upcoming budget hearings. “Even within an $88 billion budget, resources are scarce and our city’s needs are great,” he said. “With so many competing, worthy priorities, we owe it to our constituents to honestly evaluate all levels of the budget.”

Although Dromm noted that de Blasio had proposed little in the way of new spending -- $393.5 million in additional spending for the current fiscal year and $364 million for the next -- he said particular items called for increased oversight.

Among those are spending on homelessness, which has increased by $2.8 billion under de Blasio, including a $150 million baseline increase in the preliminary budget for shelters. “Obviously, the Council supports spending money in order to combat homelessness and to provide everyone in the shelter system with a safe and permanent home,” Dromm said. “But that does not mean that we will authorize the administration to spend carte blanche.” He said the Council had yet to hear a “clearly articulated strategy” on homelessness from the administration.

Dromm also questioned whether the mayor’s Citywide Savings Program (CSP), a voluntary program for city agencies, was finding “real efficiencies” and pushed for reporting by the administration on the CSP’s implementation in the annual Mayor’s Management Report.

“Our emphasis in the preliminary budget is caution,” OMB Director Hartzog told the Council, stressing that the $750 million in new spending across the two years in the budget was offset by $900 million in savings. Hartzog took over her portfolio two months ago after her predecessor Dean Fuleihan was appointed first deputy mayor by de Blasio.

In her testimony, Hartzog warned of nearly $1 billion in fiscal threats the city faces from the state and federal budgets that will affect everything from education and public safety to affordable housing, health care, and transit funding. “Facing great risks from both Albany and Washington, we respond with caution by adhering to the same foundational principles of fiscal management that we have in the past,” she said.

In keeping with past years, the city has set aside “strong reserves that serve as a buffer to the unexpected,” Hartzog said. The preliminary budget includes $5.5 billion in reserves, including $1 billion in the general reserve, $250 million in the Capital Stabilization Reserve, and $4.25 billion in the Retiree Health Benefits Trust Fund.

Hartzog touted the city’s “targeted, prudent investments” in the new budget, including the expansion of pre-kindergarten for more three-year-olds in the city, efforts to increase the city’s affordable housing stock, funding to protect tenants from construction harassment, increased capital funding for the New York City Housing Authority, spending on mental health services and the full rollout of the NYPD’s body camera program, among others.

Hartzog also said that funding for DemocracyNYC, a voter engagement program announced by the mayor in his State of the City speech last month, would be included in the executive budget which is released after the Council has held weeks of hearings and had an opportunity to respond to the preliminary spending plan.

It was clear early on that Johnson did not intend to take it easy on the administration, jumping straight into property tax reform as he questioned Hartzog. The mayor had promised action on property taxes in January but has yet to make any policy moves. Despite repeated pushing from Johnson, Hartzog was similarly noncommittal. “As the mayor said, you’ll hear more from us very soon,” she said, without providing a concrete timeline.

In several instances, when Council members expressed disappointment with the funds allocated to certain programs and agencies, Hartzog promised to have ongoing conversations with them. But, at Dromm’s urging, Council members avoided going deeper into agency-specific questions, a break from previous years when members grilled top budget officials on various aspects of city government. There will be specific agency budget hearings beginning Tuesday.

One issue that several members returned to, however, was the city’s spending on housing homeless New Yorkers in cluster sites and emergency hotel shelters. Hartzog repeatedly told members the city could not delineate that spending, owing to constant updates and reestimates of costs related to homelessness spending. Johnson noted that the preliminary budget included a $169 million increase in baseline funding for shelters, but with few results to show for it.

“It’s concerning to the Council that we keep adding hundreds of millions of dollars on an annual basis but we haven’t seen a significant decrease in the homeless population,” Johnson said to Hartzog at one point.

Johnson also failed to get a commitment from Hartzog on providing more units of appropriations in the budgets for city agencies that lack detail and transparency. He noted, for instance, that the Department of Corrections has one budget line for jail operations, despite running several jails across the city. Hartzog said she could not commit then and there to creating more units but promised to work with the Council on its concerns.

Other members followed Johnson’s lead, some forcefully pushing their priorities that included funding for the summer youth employment program, increased contracting for minority- and women-owned businesses, senior services, health coverage, and more.

Council Member Rory Lancman, a vocal critic of the de Blasio administration, raised the issue of funding for the ailing MTA and scandal-ridden NYCHA. “They are two areas where the mayor has to some degree or another, I won’t say abdicated, that’s too judgmental, but has offered the view that they are either not his problem or the origin of the problems lie elsewhere,” Lancman said.

Hartzog tried to float arguments that de Blasio has put forward -- that the state should fund the MTA and new MTA revenue streams should include “lockboxes” to keep the money in the city, and that the administration had made unprecedented investments in NYCHA in the absence of federal and state funds. Lancman, though, cut Hartzog off and insisted she focus on the budget before them.

Although tensions did not boil over, it was obvious that the Council was not pulling its punches. Johnson acknowledged as much at the end of his round of questioning. “It’s never personal,” he told Hartzog. “It’s just doing our job.”

Comptroller Scott Stringer, who testified in the afternoon, praised the mayor’s budget proposal for including more funding for the expansion of 3-K for All, capital funds to repair and replace NYCHA heating systems, and for closing the first jail on Rikers Island.

But Stringer had a warning for the Council and the administration. “I am concerned that we are beginning to see warning signs of a slowing economy,” he said, emphasizing as he has done for years that the city needs to set aside more rainy day funds. “More than ever, our spending decisions must be data-driven and evidence-based. We must ensure that no dollar is going to waste,” he added. Two signs he pointed to were significant job losses in the last quarter of 2017, after years of sustained employment growth, and a reduction in the city’s cash balance -- from $5.4 billion in fiscal year 2017 to only $1 billion in the current fiscal year -- from slowing growth of non-property tax revenue.

Stringer had clear prescriptions for the city. He has called for a “budget cushion” between 12 and 18 percent of the city’s operational budget, while the city’s reserves currently stand at only 9 percent or $8.5 billion.

“A more robust savings program is critical to building up our reserves and reducing the likelihood of cutting city services down the line,” he said. “But it is not enough to find a few efficiencies here and there. It’s time to start applying a much more rigorous test to our spending – are we getting real results for our investments?”

He also reiterated that he would be closely examining the budgets and expenditure of city agencies on his “watch list” -- the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Education,2 and the Department of Correction. “Let me be very clear here in saying that I wholly agree with, and share, the mayor’s goals of reducing homelessness, improving our public schools, and closing Rikers,” he said. “But we must ensure that we are working toward these goals as efficiently and effectively as possible. Because as things stand now, I’m concerned that we are in a weaker position than we should be.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Begins Examination of De Blasio Budget Plan Mon, 05 Mar 2018 05:00:00 +0000
New City Council Committee Chairs Have Plenty on Their Plates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7419:new-city-council-committee-chairs-have-plenty-on-their-plates http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7419:new-city-council-committee-chairs-have-plenty-on-their-plates City Council Speaker Corey Johnson members

Members of th new City Council with Speaker Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The new class of the New York City Council took greater shape on Thursday with the appointment of chairs and members to the 40-plus committees and subcommittees that oversee the broad legislative, land use, and oversight roles of the 51-member body. Most returning Council members were reassigned to lead different committees while some remained in the positions they’ve served the past four years. New Speaker Corey Johnson also chose to create a few new committees to boost staff levels in certain areas and to better address specific issues that were subsumed under broader committee purviews.

In their new roles, many of the committee chairs will have to navigate a slate of issues, which in many cases will likely lead them into direct confrontation with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. This holds particularly true for the powerful land use and finance committees, both of which have new Council members at the helm. Speaker Johnson has also pledged broader independence from the mayor than his predecessor, indicating that members will be allowed, and even encouraged, to take the administration to task. He has pledged an enhanced oversight and investigations committee to lead the way in that regard.

Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr. of the Bronx was appointed chair of the land use committee, which is tasked with overseeing and reviewing land use applications, zoning amendment,s and landmark preservation in the city. Since the committee has the final say on any development projects that require city government approval, it plays a prominent role in determining the success of the mayor’s affordable housing program, in particular thus far by approving comprehensive, and controversial, neighborhood rezonings in communities such as East New York and East Harlem.

The city is exploring similar rezonings -- to create more affordable housing while also injecting economic energy and other benefits into neighborhoods -- in the Bay Street corridor on Staten Island, Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, and Flushing, Queens, among other communities. “Our city is at a crossroads, including my community in the South Bronx,” Salamanca said in a statement Thursday. The City Council, he said, “should be on the front lines on shaping the planning, development and all other land use actions in a way that listens to and addresses the concerns of all New Yorkers.” Freshman Council Member Francisco Moya is heading up the subcommittee on zoning and franchises which falls under Salamanca’s purview.

The finance committee, led by its new chair Council Member Daniel Dromm of Queens, also has a tough task ahead as it heads into budget season. Dromm will lead the Council’s negotiations with the administration over the $86 billion-plus city budget. The mayor is expected to release his fiscal year 2019 preliminary budget proposal later this month and the administration has been bracing for cuts in federal funding, threatened by the Trump administration, and a widely expected economic slowdown after years of continuous growth.

Last year, the Council advocated for increased savings and reduced agency inefficiencies even as they called for new funding for Council priorities. “I intend to use this position to move a progressive budget forward working closely with Speaker Corey Johnson who I thank for giving me this opportunity to serve,” Dromm said in a statement.

The Council’s budget hearings will no doubt also touch on the city’s $96 billion capital budget. Numerous Council members called last year for increased transparency in how capital projects are funded and managed, insisting that the city needs to reduce financial waste and cut down on project delays.
Johnson has now gone so far as to create an entirely new subcommittee to oversee the capital budget, chaired by Council Member Vanessa Gibson. “Many members, including myself, have been frustrated by the capital process itself,” Gibson told Gotham Gazette outside the Council chambers on Thursday. She said the new committee will allow expanded oversight of capital spending, particularly by individual city agencies. “At the end of the day, we just wanna say to the public, to New Yorkers and to all of my colleagues that we are spending your money wisely,” she said.

The transportation committee continues to be led by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who has been a vocal supporter of the Move New York congestion pricing plan, which would impose tolls on the East River bridges to raise funds for mass transit infrastructure and reduced fare MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, while also lowering tolls on other bridges.

De Blasio has opposed both congestion pricing and the “Fair Fares” campaign, insisting that fair fares should be funded by the state and that congestion pricing is a “regressive tax” that hurts outer borough commuters. He has instead proposed a so-called millionaires tax, which Rodriguez also supports, that would accomplish both goals - subsidized MetroCards and new transit revenue. However, like congestion pricing, the tax would have to be approved by the state Legislature where it has already been rejected by Governor Cuomo and the state Senate, portending perhaps that the fair fares fight will be fought locally yet again. Cuomo appears on the verge of pursuing some version of congestion pricing.

In keeping with Johnson’s promise to stand up to the de Blasio administration, the Council now has an expanded Oversight and Investigations committee, led by Council Member Ritchie Torres of the Bronx. The committee is expected to have a full-time investigation staff made up of professional investigators, former prosecutors, and journalists. In an interview with the New York Times, Torres indicated a number of different issue areas he would approach for added oversight. “The abuse of placards. The use of eminent domain. The disposition of public land. Deed restriction. The disbursement of city subsidies. All of it is on the table,” he said.

On Thursday, Torres told Gotham Gazette that the New York City Housing Authority’s lead contamination issue, which has been a black eye for the de Blasio administration, was a “continuing concern” for him. “I have not set the investigative priorities of the committee just yet, but given my former position as chairman of the public housing committee, given my interest in the subject, NYCHA is going to be figuring prominently in my oversight priorities,” he said.

Torres’ role will crossover with the work of other committees, such as the Committee on Public Housing, which he led last term and will this term be led by Brooklyn Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel. The public housing authority needs $25 billion for infrastructure improvements, with few forthcoming state and federal funds this year. The authority’s numerous public failures continue to haunt the administration and invite criticism from the Council and community activists. And although the city has put a NYCHA overhaul plan into motion and seen some successes and promising developments, problems are not likely to abate any time soon.

“As chair, I will ensure that critical issues are addressed, from heat, to lead, to security issues,” Ampry-Samuel said in a statement. “I look forward to visiting every housing development in the city and the opportunity to hear from the residents and the resident leaders.”

Johnson also chose to expand the role the Council plays in scrutinizing the city’s criminal justice system. Council Member Rory Lancman of Queens was chosen to lead the newly formed Committee on the Justice System, which has oversight of city courts, district attorneys, legal service providers and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Manhattan Council Member Keith Powers will be heading the Committee on Criminal Justice, which has oversight of the Department of Correction and Department of Probation. Both committees will play a prominent part in the plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex, which is contingent on reducing the city’s jail population to less than 5,000 -- it is currently just under 9,000 detainees -- while also creating borough-based jail facilities. Lancman told Gotham Gazette he expects to “aggressively oversee and try to reform” the city’s justice system. “You’ll see a very robust agenda coming out of my committee,” he said.

Lancman and Powers’ committees were carved out of the earlier Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services and the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, which Lancman led last term. Powers, who is new to the Council like Ampry-Samuel and others, said that move “recognizes that Rikers Island and the corrections system is really its own issue that needs to be tackled in the next coming years.”

“There are a lot of thorny issues,” Powers said of the closure of Rikers, “and I think a big part of it is really making sure that we put on the right timeline and that we make sure we manage all the different constituencies that are involved here.”

New York City Health + Hospitals, the cash-strapped municipal hospital system, continues to be a big area of concern for the Council and in particular Johnson, who led the health committee for the last four years. Johnson created a separate Committee on Hospitals to oversee the system, appointing new Manhattan Council Member Carlina Rivera as chair.

Council Member Mark Levine, chosen to be the new health committee chair, noted a number of issues he will address, including the opioid crisis, racial disparities in health outcomes, animal rights and the threat of bioterrorism. He has promised to push for a single payer healthcare system in the city -- a priority for the speaker -- and told Gotham Gazette he expects “there will be times when the Council and the administration are on different sides of an issue,” and that its incumbent on members to advocate for the Council’s priorities. “That’s the job of a good committee chair,” he said.

See the full list of new Council leadership, committee chairs, and committee members.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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New City Council Committee Chairs Have Plenty on Their Plates Thu, 11 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Now More Than Ever, the City Must Invest in Adult Literacy http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6951:now-more-than-ever-the-city-must-invest-in-adult-literacy http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6951:now-more-than-ever-the-city-must-invest-in-adult-literacy dromm 2

Council Member Dromm, one of the authors (photo: Make The Road NY)


Three million immigrant New Yorkers currently call our city home, adding to its vibrancy and vitality. Since Donald Trump’s election, immigrant communities have been fearful: hate crimes have gone up, immigrant workers face more exploitation, and families are scared of separation and deportation. For those of us working as community advocates and elected officials, we are now driven more than ever to find the policy solutions that will help our immigrant communities thrive and remain resilient, rather than live in fear.

Mayor de Blasio and City Council leaders have taken policy positions that do just that: committing to non-cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), pioneering an IDNYC program, maintaining strong worker protections, and increasing funding for universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) and the Community Schools initiative. Now, to more effectively protect and support our communities, we also need to deepen our investment in adult education and baseline in into the city budget.

Just a year ago the Mayor and Council invested $12 million for adult literacy, an increase that advocates called historic at the time. City leaders invested because the need is great, and for the thousands who study every year, the English classes offered by adult literacy providers give immigrants a pathway to economic mobility, social integration, parental support of children’s academic success, improved health outcomes, and greater civic engagement.

As immigrant communities live in fear and anxiety over federal immigration policy, it is essential that they are able to read and understand English—even as our city government is defending their rights and providing some protective services. Without English proficiency, many immigrants are left isolated and at risk of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous “notarios” who promise immigration relief for a fee, but never deliver. They are even more fearful than ever of accessing health and social services, challenged when applying for or improving work, and less able to support their children’s learning, or to report or stand up against employer, landlord, or police abuses.

Under the Trump administration, New York City’s largest source of federal adult literacy dollars (WIOA) is at risk of significant cuts. Even if the funding is maintained at a reduced level, current policy will likely make it more difficult to serve undocumented and low-level learners over time. For all of these reasons, this is the moment for the Mayor and Council to build on the momentum from last year’s investment and use their leadership to make New York City a model of adult literacy service provision. It is not too late, despite the fact that the Mayor’s most recent Executive Budget did not renew last year’s $12 million investment in adult literacy. A budget deal must be reached by July 1. The time is now.

Without the $12 million again this year, spots will be lost in literacy classes for over 5,500 adult students throughout the city, and an opportunity to deeply support immigrant New Yorkers will be lost. Last fiscal year's investment was critical to providers and students, and should be transformed into a baselined, multi-year investment in the field of adult education, allowing the city to update reimbursement rates for community based providers offering cost effective and critical services. In order to make our city a true 'sanctuary' city, we need to make it a city of opportunity for immigrants by ensuring that they have access to the literacy classes they need to thrive now.

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Daniel Dromm is a member of the New York City Council. Theo Oshiro is the Deputy Director of Make the Road New York. On Twitter: @Dromm25 & @TheoOshiro.

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

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Now More Than Ever, the City Must Invest in Adult Literacy Wed, 24 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000