Gotham Gazette Wed, 21 Mar 2018 22:01:43 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) City Council Begins New Focus on Capital Budget, with Eye Toward 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 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]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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 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.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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 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.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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 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.

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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Now More Than Ever, the City Must Invest in Adult Literacy Wed, 24 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Time to Support New York Students with Billions Still Owed from Campaign for Fiscal Equity dromm idnyc visit

Council Member Dromm (middle), the author, at the Queens Library

Governor Andrew Cuomo's recently proposed budget plan for education is a mixed bag, but represents a major shift from his attacks on public education in years past. Ultimately, however, his plan falls short by allocating less than $1 billion in new education money this year at a time when public schools are still owed more than $4.4 billion in Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) funding.

The CFE was a lawsuit brought by parents against the State of New York over a decade ago. These parents charged the State with failing to provide public school students with an adequate education. In 2006, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding the State in violation of a student's constitutional right to a "sound and basic education" by underfunding schools.

Nearly ten years later students have still not received the money due to them. The State still owes New York City a staggering $2 billion, leaving our public schools woefully underfunded.

Even the $1.3 billion school aid increase provided in the 2015-16 budget was not enough to restore the massive cuts our schools suffered earlier in the decade. Public schools in immigrant and low-income communities are particularly affected, most of which are owed over 77% of outstanding CFE dollars.

Just imagine the transformative impact a $4.4 billion dollar investment in public education would have on our children's lives. If adequately funded, schools would have the ability to hire additional teachers and school support personnel. Among other things, these sorely needed dollars would provide our students with a more robust physical education and help expand arts education in our schools. These CFE funds would bring about a dramatic reduction in class sizes in New York's most overcrowded school districts. The possibilities are endless.

Credit where credit is due: I am excited that the Governor sees the value of the community school model and recognizes how successful community schools have been in New York City. Supporting students holistically—by offering support groups and child daycare for parents, access to physical and mental healthcare, mentors for students and other valuable services—will make them successful in many ways.
The $100 million he has allocated for community schools is welcome news, but falls short of the $500 million needed considering that these schools have grown exponentially over the past year.

I am hopeful that the Governor's budget plan signifies a renewed interest in public education. But it's high time he settles this ten-year-old debt. New York State must deliver the entire $4.4 billion in CFE funding it owes in order to truly do right by our children. Their futures deserve no less.

Daniel Dromm is a City Council member from Queens and chair of the Council Committee on Education. On Twitter @Dromm25.

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Time to Support New York Students with Billions Still Owed from Campaign for Fiscal Equity Sun, 24 Jan 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Overdue DOE Capital Plan To Be Released bdb school visit

De Blasio at a school visit (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

Once Mayor Bill de Blasio unveils his preliminary budget for 2017 on Thursday, Jan. 21, the City Council will begin to hold hearings and formulate its response. In conversations with Gotham Gazette, City Council members Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, chair of the finance committee, and Daniel Dromm, education committee chair, said that one of their top priorities during budget season will be addressing school overcrowding through the Department of Education’s capital spending plan. 

Capital spending allows for the expansion and rehabilitation of existing schools and the building of new schools.

Each year, the DOE five-year Capital Plan is meant to be included in the mayor’s executive budget, updated in the November financial plan, and then amended through a public review process for inclusion in the next budget. This review process lends the plan transparency as the DOE and School Construction Authority consult with Community Education Councils, Community Boards, City Council borough delegations, and other elected officials. The plan is again updated and typically released in February for approval by the Panel for Education Policy. The PEP then forwards it to the Mayor and City Council.

In the last two years, the process has been significantly off schedule. Last year, the DOE Capital Plan Amendment was delayed till May 2015 to align it with the city’s 10-year capital plan. The amendment proposed a $13.5 billion five-year DOE Capital Plan for 2015-2019, up from $12 billion the previous year. As a result of the delay, there was no update in November.

The amendment will now be introduced along with the preliminary budget on Thursday, OMB spokesperson Amy Spitalnick confirmed.

“It’s disappointing that this is the second year that (the capital plan) hasn’t come out on time,” said Council Member Dromm. “I’m hoping that it will be out shortly. We need time to look at it and examine it.”

The capital plan is especially important to Dromm, Ferreras-Copeland, and others who represent districts with some of the most overcrowded schools in the city. Schools in Queens, where both Dromm and Ferreras-Copeland reside, are the most overcrowded of any borough.

“It’s overdue, it’s late,” Ferreras-Copeland said of the plan. When the Council does get it, she said she will work closely with Dromm to appeal for an additional $1 billion to address the issue of overcrowding.

The DOE capital plan estimates that adding around 38,000 seats would help alleviate the problem, but critics say that number is too low. A June 2014 report by Class Size Matters, a nonprofit that advocates for smaller class sizes, estimated the shortage of seats at around 100,000 (Dromm believes it’s more likely between 50,000 and 75,000).

“If you look at all the development going on in the city, particularly the mayor’s plan to add 200,000 affordable housing units, then there’s a dire need for additional seats,” Dromm said. He wants most of the new money in the capital plan put towards building new schools rather than refurbishing existing ones. “We need physical seats. We need brick-and-mortar buildings to be built,” he said.

Class Size Matters’ executive director, Leonie Haimson, doubts that the update to the capital plan will be good enough, even if it is better. She called for doubling the number of seats from the last plan and investing $125 million each year from the city coffers, which would be matched by state funds. She was also critical of the DOE’s slow movement on the plan, which is now already in its second year and unapproved.

“We should have more time, not less time to analyze the plan considering the failures of the DOE in the past,” she said. “There needs to be more public process and more genuine interest on the part of the DOE to listen to people.”

Besides a greater investment in the capital plan, Class Size Matters also advocates for an independent commission to improve planning and efficiency in siting new schools.

“The mayor’s made a big push towards increasing pre-K and housing but paid very little attention to where those kids are going to go to school,” Haimson said. “I don’t think you can create good neighborhoods without schools. We’re the richest city in the richest country in the world and we have severe school overcrowding and waiting lists for kindergarten.”

[Related: What To Watch For As City Budget Season Begins]

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette.
@samarkhurshid     @GothamGazette

Overdue DOE Capital Plan To Be Released Wed, 20 Jan 2016 03:02:04 +0000
The Week Ahead in New York Politics, October 26 New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This week will be dominated by the World Series, we know that. The New York Mets begin their quest for the title against the Royals in Kansas City on Tuesday night, followed by another game in KC on Wednesday and then games in Queens on Friday, Saturday, and, if necessary, Sunday. If the series continues, games six and seven would be the following Tuesday and Wednesday (Nov. 3 and 4) back in Kansas City. On Sunday, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced a wager over the series, with the loser having to wear the jersey of the winning team to work for a day. There are other aspects of the bet, too, with significant home-state items to be sent from loser to winner.

Now, on to politics sans sport.

It was a quiet political weekend. Mayor de Blasio, City Council Member Dan Garodnick, and others touted the new Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village sales deal to the complex's tenant association on Saturday afternoon. [Read CM Garodnick's thoughts on the sale in this Gotham Gazette op-ed]

On Monday, de Blasio has no public events scheduled. Governor Cuomo is in New York City Monday, though, to make an announcement at 1:30 p.m. at Chelsea Piers.

There is a lot happening Monday and beyond. Services will occur this week to honor Police Officer Randolph Holder, who was killed on October 20. As has been the case since Holder was shot and killed, criminal justice reform and policing are sure to be sources of significant attention this week.

Thursday is the three-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy hitting New York; there are sure to be both rememberances of the people and property lost, as well as assessments of progress made in recovering from Sandy and preparing for the next big storm.

See our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max:***

The run of the week in detail:

At the City Council on Monday:

  • At 10 a.m. the Committee on Consumer Affairs will meet to discuss a bill that would ban the sale of personal care products or over the counter drugs that contain microbeads, as well as pass a resolution on the Microbeads-free Waters Acts.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Environmental Protection will meet to discuss bills related to the use of biodiesel.

On Monday morning, current and former elected officials and others will honor recently-retired former Assemblymember Joan Millman. Comptroller Scott Stringer is among those who will speak.

At 12:30 p.m. Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will visit the High School of Fashion Industries to kick off College Application Week and make an announcement.

On Monday at 1 p.m. at City Hall, Congressional Rep. Nydia Velazquez will announce new legislation aimed at reducing the number of guns in New York and nationwide. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries; Public Advocate Letitia James; Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams; Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson; Leah Gunn Barrett, New Yorkers Against Gun Violence; and NYC families impacted by gun violence will also participate.

At 3 p.m. Monday, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz will hold a Hometown Rally to cheer on the Mets as they start Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday night in Kansas City. Other elected officials, including City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Public Advocate Letitia James are set to participate.

Later, Mark-Viverito will speak at the 2015 Roy & Lila Ash Innovations Award for Public Engagement in Government, where she and the City Council are receiving an award for their Participatory Budgeting program. [Read more about the award and the participatory budgeting program in our new in-depth report: Participatory Budgeting Grows in NYC - Why Isn't Every Council Member Doing It?]

Then, Mark-Viverito "speaks at 2015 Shine Event for LGBT Immigration Equality."

At 7 p.m. Monday the Bronx Young Democrats will discuss the achievements and current initiatives of young female Bronx leaders. The event will feature Darcel Clark, Democratic candidate for Bronx District Attorney; City Council Member Vanessa Gibson; State Assemblymember Latoya Joyner; and Marsha Michael, Attorney & Law Clerk.

At 7:15 p.m. the Immigration Equality event “SHINE”, celebrating women’s leadership in in the LGBT community, will honor City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and  Denise Chambers, Immigration Equality client and asylum winner from Trinidad.

On Monday evening, several uptown Manhattan Democratic clubs are hosting Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer for a discussion of relevant issues. City Council Member Mark Levine will also participate in the dialogue.

Monday evening is the Riders Alliance gala. Public Advocate Letitia James is among those set to attend.

Monday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting event: CM Mark Treyger (District 47, Brooklyn) 6 p.m.

On Tuesday, at 8:30 a.m., Stroock, the public affairs law firm, will host a Government Leadership forum  “What is the Future of Organized Labor?” Vincent Alvarez, President of the New York City Central Labor Council; Gregory Floyd, President of Local 237 Teamsters; Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers; and Harry Nespoli, President of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association will be on the panel. Robert Abrams, former New York State Attorney General and Chair of Stroock's Government Relations Practice Group, and Alan M. Klinger, Co-Managing Partner and Co-Chair of Stroock's Litigation Practice Group, will moderate.

On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is in Westchester County meeting with elected officials and touring different areas.

At 10:30 a.m. the New York Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) will meet on a number of matters including its ongoing search for a new Executive Director.

At 11 a.m. Vocal-NY, City Council Member Jumaane Williams, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and others will hold the Fair Chance Rally. The purpose of the rally is to raise awareness about the Fair Chance Act, which makes it illegal for New York City employers to ask about one’s criminal record until after a job offer is made, and is going into effect.

At the New York State Legislature on Tuesday: the Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation and Assembly Climate Change Work Group will have a roundtable discussion on Climate Change.

At the City Council on Tuesday: at 11 a.m. the Committee on Women’s Issues; the Committee on Health; and the Committee on Education will meet for a joint oversight hearing on sex education in NYC schools. They will discuss three bills that would: require the Department of Education to provide a report on student health services to the Council; require the DOE to report annually on information about health education and HIV/AIDS education for students in grades six through twelve; require the DOE to submit an annual report on the sexual health education received by instructors in public middle and high schools.

Prior to that City Council hearing, at 10 a.m., there will be a "press conference to call for comprehensive sex education in NYC schools" led by Council Members Laurie Cumbo, Chair of the Committee on Women's Issues; Daniel Dromm, Chair of the Committee on Education; and Corey Johnson, Chair of the Committee on Health; as well as representatives from Planned Parenthood of New York City; NARAL Pro-Choice New York; New York Civil Liberties Union; and Reproductive Healthcare Advocates.

On Tuesday at 2 p.m. at 250 Broadway, "State Senator Jeff Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester), together with Public Advocate Letitia James, Council Member Annabel Palma and Make the Road New York, will release a bombshell investigative report "The American Scheme: Herbalife's Pyramid 'Shake'down.""

At 4 p.m. Safe Passage Project will hold an event composed of two parts. The first will be discussing the unmet needs of recent migrant children and young parent from Central America. City Council Member Rory Lancman will make opening remarks. There will be multiple related panel discussions thereafter.

Tuesday evening, Governor Cuomo is set to deliver remarks at the Business Council of Westchester’s Annual Dinner.

At 6 p.m. the city Panel for Educational Policy will have a public meeting in Manhattan. At the event the Chancellor will give an update on current policies and the panel will discuss a number of important topics including: Race and Diversity in School Admission, Aggregation of Community District Budgets Together with a Proposed Budget for Administrative Expenditures of the City Board and the Chancellor, and more; while also taking public comment.

At 6:30 p.m. during The Hispanic Leadership Awards, City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer will lead a celebration honoring several people for their outstanding leadership in the Latino community, including Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who will receive a Distinguished Public Service Award.  

At 7 p.m. City Council Members Donovan Richards and I. Daneek Miller will hold a Southeast Queens Transportation Town Hall. Representatives from DOT, MTA, TLC, and NYPD will attend.

Tuesday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting events:

  • CM Mathieu Eugene (District 40, Brooklyn) 6:30 p.m.
  • CM Paul Vallone (District 19, Queens) 7 p.m.

At the New York State Legislature on Wednesday: The Assembly Standing Committee on Aging along with the Assembly Task Force on People with Disabilities, the Assembly Subcommittee on Community Integration, and the Assembly Subcommittee on Outreach and Oversight of Senior Citizen Programs, will hold a joint public hearing regarding the “New York State Office for the Aging’s study on the benefits of creating an office of community living”

At 6:30 p.m. several groups host “Why She Ran: A Conversation With Women in Politics” discussing the challenges women face in New York politics and encouraging women to run for office. Public Advocate Letitia James, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Member Julissa Ferreras, and Council Member Helen Rosenthal will speak at the event. Sponsors of the event include the Working Families Party, Eleanor's Legacy, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Higher Heights for America, Ladies of Labor, Shirley Chisholm Institute, NOW-NYS, Women's Organizing Network, and WIN NYC.

Also at 6:30 p.m., school district 3 will host a Town Hall meeting with Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Wednesday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting events:

  • CM Paul Vallone (District 19, Queens) 6 p.m.
  • CM Melissa Mark-Viverito (District 8, Manhattan/Bronx) 6 p.m.
  • CM Helen Rosenthal (District 6, Manhattan) 6 p.m.
  • CM Ritchie Torres (District 15, Bronx) time TBA
  • CM Eric Ulrich (District 32, Queens) 8 p.m.
  • CM Paul Vallone (District 19, Queens) 7 p.m.
  • CM Jumaane D. Williams (District 45, Brooklyn) 6:30 p.m.

On Thursday beginning at 8:30 a.m. the Urban Land Institute will hold a conference about the best new practices to help fund public transportation infrastructure in the New York metro area in the face of withering public funding, including solutions through partnerships with the private sector.

At the City Council on Thursday:

  • At 10:30 a.m. the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections will meet to hear communication from Orlando Marin of the City Planning Commission
  • At 1:30 p.m. will be a City Council Stated Meeting; prefaced, as always, by the Speaker’s pre-stated press conference at 12:30 p.m.

At 5:30 p.m. United States Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates will discuss the administration’s top goals and priorities at the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School; following the speech will be a Q&A session.

At 5:30 p.m. The Hopkins-Hunter Forum for Education Policy, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and The Hunter College Gifted and Talented Program will host “The Excellence Gap: The State of Gifted and Talented Education,” an event that will discuss the income based education gap among students, and talk about suggestions on how to address the issue in the future.

At 6 p.m. Mayor Bill de Blasio will be hosting a fundraiser for his 2017 campaign, as reported by Politico New York.

Thursday’s City Council Participatory Budgeting events:

  • CM Mathieu Eugene (District 40, Brooklyn) 6:30 p.m.
  • CM Corey Johnson (District 3, Manhattan) 4:30 p.m.
  • CM Donovan Richards (District 31, Queens) time TBA
  • CM Paul Vallone (District 19, Queens) 7 p.m.

Friday and the weekend
On Saturday and Sunday, Mayor de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray will hold two Spooky Parties at Gracie Mansion, inviting families with children 5-10 years old to come tour their haunted house. Families must have tickets through the ticket giveaway being held prior to the event.

On Sunday at 2 p.m. a large group of Democratic political clubs and progressive organizations will hold a Democratic Party Presidential Candidate Forum. Representatives from the Clinton, Sanders, O’Malley and Lessing campaigns will participate.. The forum will be moderated by Ronnie Eldridge.

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Colin O'Connor, Konstantine Beridze, and Ben Max

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, October 26 Sun, 25 Oct 2015 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Considers Regulation of Grocery Personnel Decisions daneek miller presser

Council Member Miller (photo by John McCarten)

The City Council Committee on Civil Service and Labor saw heated debate at a Friday hearing on a proposed law to protect grocery and retail store workers from job volatility. The bill, known as the Grocery Worker Retention Act, aims to regulate personnel decision-making during store ownership transitions.

Introduced by Council Member I. Daneek Miller, chair of the labor committee, the act (Intro. 632) would require grocery stores that undergo a change in ownership to retain employees for a 90-day period and to review their performance on an individual basis thereafter, keeping employed those who've performed satisfactorily. In case of employee cutbacks, those with seniority or experience would be required to be retained. The act also affords these employees legal recourse in case any conditions are violated.

Although the bill drafting process began over a year ago, said Council Member Miller, a former labor leader himself, now may be the time to maximize the benefits envisioned. In July, supermarket giant A&P declared bankruptcy and will be selling dozens of its stores, which would stand to have an effect across the five boroughs. Many locations will be up for auction, with thousands of employees facing job insecurity.

The unions that altogether represent roughly 50,000 grocery workers in New York City -- around one-fourth of the city's retail workforce -- are heavily in favor of the bill.

The law is beneficial to workers, owners, and customers, said David Mertz, New York City Director for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. "A worker retention policy such as in this legislation protects working families, provides a stable and experiences workforce for owners and thus maintains a safe and reliable service to customers," he said at Friday's hearing.

Others who testified in the law's favor included union representatives, non-profit health and safety groups, and individual grocery store employees.

Representatives of the retail and grocery industry are displeased with the bill, viewing it as an overreach by the Council. Employers see the liberal legislative body as trying to impose excessive regulation of employment decisions by private entities.

Jay Peltz, general counsel and vice president of government relations for the Food Industry Alliance of New York State, questioned the legal authority of the City in passing the bill in so far as it aims to maintain health and safety standards at stores. Peltz was insistent Friday that the bill would do more harm than good, disincentivizing investors from purchasing supermarkets, which means "the neighborhood around [a store] would be deprived of a better store with wider assortments, healthier choices, and more jobs. This would hurt the health and well-being of an area, not help it."

The hearing saw a thorough back-and-forth between industry representatives and Council Members Ben Kallos and Daniel Dromm, who refused to accept the opposing arguments being made. Dromm personally recounted the predatory practices of a supermarket owner in his district and repeatedly refuted and dismissed counter-arguments.

The bill is not the first of its kind. Local Law 39 from 2002 gave protections to building service workers in much the same vein as this law would do for grocery store employees. A more parallel example is a law passed statewide in California earlier this year that even withstood a challenge at the State Supreme Court.

The Council labor committee also quickly discussed and unanimously approved Intro. 903 which would provide health insurance coverage to the family members of deceased employees of the Department of Sanitation. The law was requested by Mayor de Blasio in response to the on-duty death of a sergeant from the Department of Sanitation in July this year.

The Grocery Worker Retention Act currently has 20 sponsors in the 51-member Council. After Friday's hearing it could be tweaked, or not, before being voted on in a subsequent committee hearing before heading to the full Council for approval - if it has enough support.

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

City Council Considers Regulation of Grocery Personnel Decisions Fri, 25 Sep 2015 18:27:21 +0000
Proposed Rikers Visitation Rules Stir Debate Johnny Perez of the Jails Action Coalition

Johnny Perez of the Jails Action Coalition (photos: Meg O'Connor) 

On Tuesday, City Council members, faith leaders, and activists spoke out against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed restrictions for visitors to Rikers Island jails. At a rally on the steps of City Hall organized by the Jails Action Coalition, speakers called de Blasio’s plan to limit visitors and physical contact by those who do visit inmates counterproductive and wrong.

The proposed visitation limits were first announced when de Blasio visited Rikers Island in March, and are part of a 14-point plan to reduce violence among inmates and among inmates and guards.

 “We have to keep weapons, drugs, and other contraband off this island,” de Blasio said at Rikers on March 12. “The only weapons that should be used on this island should be used by people wearing uniforms, not by inmates who got weapons, who got drugs, who got contraband illegally and inappropriately.”

The proposed rules seek to limit the physical contact inmates may have with visitors, broaden the criteria for restricting visitors by allowing the Department of Correction to consider factors like criminal record, and establish a visitor registry. 

Yet, critics say the limitations would deter visitors, needlessly make an already arduous visitation process more difficult, and disproportionately affect black and Latino families, as well as poor people unable to afford bail.

 “I want to remind everybody that the overwhelming majority of people who are on Rikers have not yet been convicted of the crime for which they are being held,” City Council Member Daniel Dromm, of Queens, said at the Tuesday press conference. The jail complex has an average daily population of about 11,400 – roughly 85% of whom are pretrial detainees.

Others, like Tanya Krupat, Program Director for the NY Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, say that what is “most concerning is the way they’re talking about looking into the backgrounds of visitors and making an assessment about whether that person is deemed a threat, including a threat to the ‘good order of the facility,’ which is very vague.”

Krupat added, “the potential for arbitrary subjective implementation of these is what’s really worrisome. Where are the checks and balances? They have over 1,000 visitors coming in every day, and over 3,000 children visiting each month, so who is making these decisions?“ 

De Blasio and his corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, have been credited by prison reform activists for other changes they’re making at Rikers, including around treatment of mentally ill and younger prisoners. The proposed visitation limits fall into a different category - and the city’s Board of Correction will hold a public hearing in the near future before voting on the plan.

Advocates for the incarcerated and their families fear that the proposed changes will harm the mental well-being of those imprisoned on Rikers Island by denying inmates the much-needed sense of support and connection that visits from loved ones bring. “I believe the proposed plan to restrict visitation has the capacity to deteriorate the already-fragile family unit of people of color, contributing to depression, isolation, loneliness, and increased recidivism,” Reverend Que English, Chair of the NYC Clergy Roundtable said.

Asked about this criticism, a spokesperson for the mayor, Monica Klein, wrote Gotham Gazette to say, “Commissioner Ponte understands how important family relationships are in the rehabilitation and re-entry of inmates, and DOC’s proposed visitation policy will allow the Department to foster the kind of positive visitation environment that help inmates’ well-being while maintaining the safety and security of the facilities.”

Some see the stricter visitation rules as a give by de Blasio in order to obtain support for other reforms he’s making and seeking at Rikers, such as his work to reduce solitary confinement and separate younger offenders and detainees.

The proposed rules would restrict the amount of physical contact between inmates and their visitors to a “brief embrace and kiss between the inmate and visitor at both the beginning and the end of the visitation period.” There is currently no limitation on physical contact like hugs and hand-holding during visits. 

Speaking about the importance of physical contact with a loved one, Anisah Sabur, who was incarcerated on Rikers for eight months in 2008, said, “being in a place surrounded by people that you don’t know, to see somebody that you know, be it your loved one, your mother, your brother, that hug and that holding of the hand is very important for somebody on the inside who doesn’t know when they’ll get that again. That love and affection is truly needed for somebody to keep their sanity.”

Significantly, critics of the proposed policy changes have pointed out that a majority of the contraband at Rikers is not smuggled in by visitors. During a May 12 Board of Correction meeting, board member Dr. Robert Cohen noted that the BOC’s recent report using data from the Department of Correction showed that 80% of weapons recovered on Rikers are constructed on site, meaning they were not brought in by visitors or staff.

Additionally, as Dromm (pictured below) mentioned during the rally Tuesday, a 2014 investigation conducted by Mark Peters, Commissioner of the Department of Investigation, “found that the majority of drugs that were getting into Rikers Island were being brought in by corrections officers themselves.”

CM Daniel Dromm

City & State NY reported that the city has said “371 [visitors] were arrested in fiscal year 2015,” meaning that with over 1,000 people visiting Rikers every day, a small fraction of those visitors are contributing to the flow of contraband into the jail complex.

“You’re changing policy [in response to] less than 1% of the visitors who come in,” Krupat said at the press conference yesterday. “That’s not how policy is made.”

However, the de Blasio administration says it is responding to an increase in those arrests - the 371 was up 307 in the prior fiscal year, and drugs recovered during visits were also up.

 In March, when Mayor de Blasio and DOC Commissioner Joe Ponte announced the 14-point initiative to reduce violence at Rikers, de Blasio said, “we know that the reality is that so many inmates acquire weapons and acquire drugs through visitors. In fact, we know that many criminal gangs use the visitation process to pass weapons and pass drugs to their fellow gang members here in these facilities. They also pass messages. You’ve seen it in the movies – it happens in real life.”

“So, to address this problem at the root, we need a much stronger, much stricter visitor policy,” the mayor continued, “which will limit physical contact between visitors and inmates and will, in fact, restrict the right of certain individuals to visit, in the first place, if they do not pass a security screen.”

 The mayor said that the proposed changes would bring Department of Correction policy closer in line with that of other large jail systems around the country that place limits on physical contact between inmates and visitors and restrict visitors based on security concerns.

Yet critics view the proposed limitations as a step backwards for de Blasio’s self-professed progressive administration, which was praised by advocates for the incarcerated earlier this year after city officials agreed to make sweeping reforms aimed at increasing safety for inmates of the violence-stricken jail complex.

“The mayor ran on not having a tale of two cities, and this is kind of a tale of two cities issue,” said Krupat. “Most people are pre-trial, they just can’t afford their bail. If you’re poor, you’re on Rikers and now maybe your family can’t come and see you, but if you have means, you’re out in the community at home eating dinner with your family. It’s kind of shocking from a progressive administration to go after visitors as part of an agenda to reduce violence at Rikers.”

The Board of Correction must approve the policy before the proposed changes to visitation rules can go into effect. The BOC announced Tuesday that it will hold a public hearing on the proposed rules, though the date has not yet been set.

by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette

Proposed Rikers Visitation Rules Stir Debate Wed, 09 Sep 2015 16:55:54 +0000
Community Board Reform Bills, Including on Term Limits, to Be Heard dromm kallos

CMs Dromm, middle, and Kallos, right, have intro'd reform bills (photo: William Alatriste)

At a hearing of the City Council's Committee on Governmental Operations Thursday, issues of community board function will be taken up through bills to introduce term limits for board members and to add professional urban planners to board staff.

The term-limit bill, introduced by Council Member Daniel Dromm in December last year, would allow community board appointees to serve up to six consecutive two-year terms. Currently, there is no limit on how many terms a community board member can serve. The bill, co-sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, who chairs the government operations committee, would enact the six-term limit starting for members appointed in April 2016.

The bill provides exemption for current board members who would be grandfathered along current no-limit rules. Community board members are appointed by borough presidents; there are 59 boards in the five boroughs.

"This is just one of the areas in which community boards should be reformed," said Lauren George, associate director of good government group Common Cause New York. "In terms of increasing representation, this will be a big step in improving the way community boards represent the changing dynamics of the city. When experienced members basically get a lifetime membership, they tend to have entrenched interests. They don't reflect the neighborhood, age and ethnic diversity, or sometimes even gender diversity."

George also said recruitment to community boards is extremely challenging, which is especially true in certain parts of the city, and term limits could encourage new people to join.

"Citizens Union supports reforms to strengthen community boards through increased resources, such as urban planning staff, as well as the institution of term limits," said Rachael Fauss, director of public policy at Citizens Union, in support of the principles behind both bills to be heard Thursday. She added, though, that "Term limits, which we believe should be phased in, rather than grandfathering in current members, will ensure that the representation of boards is able to keep pace with changing demographics, such as emerging immigrant communities."

Ed Jaworski is president of Madison Marine Homecrest Civic Association and a first-year member of Community Board 15 in Brooklyn. He said he had been applying for more than ten years before he finally got appointed. "The appointment process has to be depoliticized and more transparency is necessary," he said. "But that doesn't seem to be on the horizon so at least term limits are a first step."

"You need rotation," Jaworski added. "You need fresh blood and you need to remove people who aren't contributing. Over time, they just become Yes People."

At Thursday's hearing, Jaworski will testify in favor of Dromm and Kallos' bill and even suggest that the entire appointment process of community boards be reviewed. "If some of these people are political appointments, let the politicians move them on and up," he said.

Kallos expects strong support from good government groups and from community members at the hearing. "I think having term limits will provide healthy churn," he said on Wednesday. "It's a good step and there's precedence for it in government. It provides a good incentive and gives time to people to get things done, learn the trade, and then pass it on."

Neither bill being heard Thursday will be voted on, a committee vote on the bills would come at a subsequent hearing, perhaps after tweaks to the bills. It is expected that there will be opposition voices at the hearing, especially on the term-limit bill, which does not appear to have support from the borough presidents.

Kallos is the prime sponsor for the urban planner bill, which he introduced last month. It is likely to see little opposition.

The bill would provide for an urban planner position for each community board and create planning offices under the five borough presidents. Common Cause's George said her organization supports both bills. "Boards are crying out for support. Expertise and planners are essential," she said.

Jaworski agreed. "That's a very good proposal. There's no planning going on at the boards. And City Planning doesn't do planning, they do rezoning."

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union

Community Board Reform Bills, Including on Term Limits, to Be Heard Wed, 29 Apr 2015 22:09:41 +0000