Gotham Gazette Thu, 19 Jul 2018 21:22:22 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) De Blasio and City Council Agree on $89.2 Billion Budget, Funding Key Council Priorities de Blasio Corey Johnson budget City Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio and City Council Agree on $89.2 Billion Budget, Funding Key Council Priorities Mon, 11 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Three City Council Members Don't Support 'Fair Fares' citycouncil cojo

Speaker Johnson on the subway (photo via City Council)

A budget proposal to provide half-priced MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers has the New York City Council’s full weight this year. Well, almost.

Only three City Council Members -- Joe Borelli, Steven Matteo, and Ruben Diaz, Sr. -- in the 51-member body have so far declined to support Fair Fares, the proposal that would cost the city about $212 million to offer discounted fares to nearly 800,000 city residents living below the federal poverty line.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has made an unprecedented push for the proposal to be funded in the next city budget, due by July 1, which will outline roughly $90 billion in spending. Johnson, his Council colleagues, and his aides have employed social media campaigns and on-the-ground outreach to convince Mayor Bill de Blasio to agree to the necessary funding. The mayor has shown nominal support for the idea but has insisted that it should be funded by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which is controlled by the state and effectively answers to Governor Andrew Cuomo, or through an added tax on high income earners.

“The Fair Fares proposal is not a representation of the needs of my constituents, who continually face the longest and costliest commutes in the city,” said Council Member Matteo from Staten Island, one of three Republicans in the Council and the minority leader, in a statement. “It is certainly not a budget priority for me.”

Matteo and fellow Staten Island Republican Council Member Joe Borelli, who is also unsupportive of Fair Fares, are among those behind a Council push -- supported by Johnson -- to convince de Blasio to fund a $400 property tax rebate to homeowners with household incomes under $150,000, another initiative the mayor has thus far spurned.

Last month, the Council organized a digital Day of Action, followed the next week with a street-level effort at subway stations across the city, to build a crescendo around Fair Fares targeted largely at an audience of one: the mayor. Of the 51 members, 47 had signalled their support for the proposal. Since then, Council Member Chaim Deutsch from Brooklyn has also signed on. In a brief phone interview, he told Gotham Gazette, “I support it 100 percent.”

Borelli was less enthused. “Where have all these ‘Fair Fares’ supporters been while my constituents pay $6.50 for a bus to Manhattan, or shell out $15 tolls to subsidize a subway system we don’t have access to?,” he said in a text message. “Do they not understand that the middle class will be on the line to pay for this subsidy?”

Politico New York reported last month that Speaker Johnson was considering cutting certain Council initiatives from the budget to fund Fair Fares, which could mean that individual members may see some of their own priorities unfunded in the final budget if the mayor doesn’t concede to the Council’s demand. Johnson has declined to confirm the report, and a new report by Politico indicated on Wednesday that the speaker appeared to be close to getting de Blasio to agree to some initial version of a Fair Fares program in an imminent budget deal.

“I’m still undecided,” said Council Member Ruben Diaz Sr., a Democrat from the Bronx and the fourth of the four Council members who didn’t sign the Fair Fares letter, when reached by phone on Wednesday. “I’m inclined to support it but I’m looking at other things to see what happens.”

When asked to elaborate on his concerns, Diaz Sr. refused. “I’m telling you as much as I can tell you,” he said.

[Read: City Council Pushes Property Tax Rebate as De Blasio Stalls Broader Reform]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Three City Council Members Don't Support 'Fair Fares' Thu, 07 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio and City Council Tangle Over How to Spend $1 Billion de Blasio corey johnson meeting

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio says he doesn’t have the money. The City Council says it is very much there.

On April 26, the mayor released his executive budget proposal for the 2019 fiscal year, an $89.06 billion spending plan that he called “a downpayment on a more fair future for New Yorkers.” But the plan didn’t include major priorities previously outlined by the City Council, namely $212 million to fund half-priced MetroCards for thousands of low-income New Yorkers, a one-time $400 property tax rebate for middle-income homeowners that would cost $187 million, and a $500 million infusion of funds towards the city’s reserves.

About $900 million in total -- nothing to sniff at, even amidst plans to spend $89 billion.

While maintaining that “progressives need to be fiscally responsible,” de Blasio explained to reporters at City Hall why he’d chosen instead to fund other items, including additional money toward city schools that the state had refused to provide in its recently passed budget, a new cybersecurity initiative, pedestrian safety infrastructure, childhood literacy programs, social services at homeless shelters, and repairs in public housing. He said that due to more revenue than projected, the city was able to cover several “hits from Albany,” including less school aid than expected, and still have money for new spending from prior budget outlines, while maintaining strong reserves.

City Council members, led by Speaker Corey Johnson, swiftly pushed back, saying that the mayor was being short-sighted in not funding those three Council priorities and continuing its counteroffensive as negotiations head into their next phase ahead of the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.

But are the mayor and the Council really talking about the same pool of money? Does de Blasio’s spending plan really fund his priorities while leaving the Council’s off the ledger unless he agrees to make cuts?

At the crux of the difference between the mayor and the Council are differing estimates of revenue projections, savings, and efficiencies put forward by the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget and the Council’s finance division.

In its official response to the mayor’s preliminary budget, his first spending plan for next fiscal year, the City Council found roughly $1.82 billion in additional resources to expend between the current fiscal year (FY18) and next (FY19) -- including reestimates of spending, savings and agency efficiencies, and a more generous tax revenue forecast than the administration’s. And Speaker Johnson called for spending about $1.61 billion of that amount over the two fiscal years on the Council’s priorities and unfunded state mandates -- including funding the MTA’s Subway Action Plan, implementing raising in the age of adult criminal responsibility, and funding a juvenile justice program that lost state funds -- leaving $211 million on the table for the 2020 fiscal year.

An economist in the City Council’s finance division explained to Gotham Gazette that OMB’s tax forecast tends to be far more conservative than the Council’s. For instance, OMB overestimates how much money to set aside to account for people not paying their taxes, the economist said. Lower forecasts of revenue also give the administration more flexibility for mid-year budget modifications, which often increase spending by hundreds of millions. Downplaying possible, even expected, revenue is a common, and in some ways prudent, budgeting tactic.

After the release of the preliminary budget in January, the Council predicted about $652 million in additional tax revenue in 2018 and $599 million in 2019, for a total of $1.25 billion. The Council also found $528 million in agency efficiencies and savings, rolled over $300 million from the general reserve from 2018, and accounted for $257 million in lost revenue from taxi medallion sales and state sales taxes. The result: the aforementioned $1.82 billion in new resources. Of that, $899 was pegged for the three main demands in the upcoming budget (discounted Metrocards, property tax rebates, more into reserves), $227 for other agency spending, and $485 for unfunded state mandates [see table below].

city council projections fy18 fy19In total, after adjusting spending -- by largely prepaying next year’s expenses in the current budget -- and new revenue, the Council’s plan would bring the 2018 budget up by $727 million (from recent prior adjustments to the current year's plan) and the projected 2019 budget up by $230 million (from the mayor's preliminary spending plan).

The de Blasio administration clearly has different plans. OMB’s latest forecast, included in the mayor’s executive budget, found $973 million more in city tax revenue in 2018 and $77 million in 2019, totalling $1.05 billion (while accounting for the lost sales tax and medallion revenue.) They also found $754 million in savings and efficiencies, surpassing the Council’s numbers. And the $300 million general reserve was available to them as well. In total, for an apples-to-apples comparison with the Council’s projections, the administration had about $2.1 billion at its disposal.

But the mayor directed large amounts of funding to various agencies, increasing new agency spending across both fiscal years by $1.48 billion, and directing $530 million towards the unfunded state mandates, leaving little funding from that same pot of resources to spend on the Council’s priorities.

Johnson and Council Member Daniel Dromm, the finance committee chair, said in a statement that they were “disappointed” with the mayor’s executive budget. But they were optimistic that new revenue combined with savings and efficiencies, “has the potential to go a long way towards our goals of strengthening the social safety net, fighting for the middle class, and being responsible with taxpayer money.”

Johnson has been especially vocal about the “Fair Fares” Metrocard initiative, arguing that it is a matter of equity and opportunity that would clearly help de Blasio reach his goal of making New York “the fairest big city in the country.” The speaker, a Democrat like the mayor, has also stressed the property tax rebate, though other Council members have made it more of a priority in their public statements.

The Council has also pushed for more transparency in the mayor’s budget and has been critical of the administration’s most recent budget modification request, which was approved in April. It has urged de Blasio to find more savings, but hasn't necessarily advocated to spend fewer dollars, but rather to spend the money available better, with greater efficiency across city agencies.

OMB’s tax revenue predictions are likely to be revised further upwards, more accurately reflecting projected revenue through June, by the time the budget is adopted. On Monday, the Council will began hearings on the executive budget, with OMB officials testifying on the latest updates to the administration's spending plan, including defending priorities and explaining where the money is coming from and how much is available. Commissioners from the more than 40 mayoral and city agencies will also appear before the Council in the coming weeks, then negotiations move almost exclusively behind closed doors.

On Monday several Council members harshly criticized officials from OMB on the administration’s refusal to fund the three big Council priorities. Speaker Johnson expressed “deep disappointment and frustration with what is contained in this executive budget, or more accurately what is excluded from this budget.”

Johnson repeatedly emphasized the lack of respect with which the mayor was treating him and his colleagues. “[W]ith the release of the executive budget, it is not clear that [Mayor de Blasio] wants to work with us to collaborate on a budget that embodies the priorities of both the administration and the Council,” he said.

Johnson noted with derision that the lack of funding for the Council’s priorities was clearly because of a lack of political will on the part of the mayor. Of the 50 proposals in the Council’s budget calling for new expenditure, the administration funded, partially and fully, only 11, Johnson said. At the same time, the administration added $965 million in new spending for the 2019 fiscal year alone after the preliminary budget was released three months ago. “I really do not want to hear this morning that there’s no new money,” Johnson said. “You all found plenty of money for what was important to you.”

Fair Fares occupied much of the hearing, with several Council members flabbergasted by the mayor’s steadfast refusal to fund what would seem to be a no-brainer for a progressive. De Blasio has insisted on a state-approved tax on the wealthy to fund the proposal, and OMB Director Melanie Hartzog reiterated that argument for each member that inquired, insisting that the mayor does support the proposal but does not want to send more city funds towards the state-run MTA and instead wants “a dedicated funding source” for Fair Fares.

“It’s not subsidizing the MTA, it’s helping poor people,” Johnson retorted, noting that the mayor had chosen to subsidize the city’s ferry service, at $6.50 for each ride, in a system that carried fewer than 4 million passengers last year, compared with nearly 6 million daily riders on the subways.

As was also expected, Council members at the hearing pushed for the property tax rebate and for adding more funding to reserves. And they took issue with the fact that other programs and initiatives -- including NYCHA senior centers, after-school programs and summer youth programs -- were also left underfunded in the mayor’s budget plan, while spending in certain areas like homelessness was skyrocketing with few concrete results. Council Member Mark Gjonaj said the administration was “spending like drunken sailors” while the city continued to become more unaffordable for everyday New Yorkers. Without significant changes to the budget, he said, “I don’t see how I can support this budget plan and will work to encourage my colleagues to reject it.”

[Read: De Blasio Presents $89 Billion Executive Budget Plan]

[Read: In Response to De Blasio Proposal, City Council Sets Stage for Tense Budget Negotiations]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with details from Monday's initial executive budget hearing at the City Council.

De Blasio and City Council Tangle Over How to Spend $1 Billion Sun, 06 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
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.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

In Response to De Blasio Proposal, City Council Sets Stage for Tense Budget Negotiations Tue, 10 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio’s Progressivism Doesn’t Include Right to Public Transit de Blasio subway

Mayor de Blasio & First Lady McCray (photo: Edwin J Torres/Mayor's Office)

In his three-and-a-half years as mayor of the nation’s largest city, Bill de Blasio has focused his administration on bridging gaps between the haves and the have-nots, expanding opportunity for those left behind during the city’s recent boom years. He’s instituting universal pre-kindergarten, funded record levels of affordable housing, provided legal help to immigrants facing deportation and tenants facing eviction.

De Blasio has espoused a progressivism centered on equity and heavy on ensuring equal rights and opportunities to all, no matter one’s socioeconomic status or income. One area that this expansive view of equalizing entitlements doesn’t encompass, however, appears to be transportation. As much of the recent public dialogue around the city’s transit system centers on mounting delays and decrepit infrastructure, many low-income New Yorkers remain unable to access the system at all. Many in de Blasio’s New York can’t afford the freedom that comes with the opportunity to ride the public buses and subways.

A 2016 report by the Community Service Society (CSS), an anti-poverty nonprofit, based in part on a survey of over 1,700 New Yorkers, found that among working-age, low-income individuals, cost was the biggest problem with the city’s subways, putting it ahead of delays, crowding, and lack of service. The report also called for fare subsidization for the poor, a proposal that has seen various iterations known collectively as the “Fair Fares” plan.

Mayor de Blasio, who has hitched his legacy to ending the “tale of two cities” he decried during his 2013 campaign, has repeatedly refused to dedicate city funding to subsidizing low-income New Yorkers’ MetroCards, instead calling on the state to do so. De Blasio’s reticence on transit assistance is bewildering to activists. “We expected this would be something that this mayor in particular would embrace,” said Nancy Rankin, VP of policy, research, and advocacy for CSS, adding that the group was “puzzled because the arguments or excuses he’s put forward really don’t hold water.”

These arguments mainly center around the claim that contributing to low-income constituents’ fares is the responsibility of the state-run Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which controls the subway and bus systems. Asked about transit aid proposals at a press conference last month, the mayor said that “the State of New York should make that a priority. I think that’s a commendable priority. We can’t afford that right now.”

During recent budget negotiations, the City Council made Fair Fares a priority, but de Blasio refused to budge, even declining to fund a pilot program to test the subsidized waters.

The CSS report mentions several program specifications, and ultimately suggests that the city offer half-off fares to the roughly 800,000 New Yorkers who make 100% or less of the federal poverty rate, currently about $24,000 for a family of four. Factoring in estimates for take-up and the higher rates of ridership for people newly able to afford it, CSS expects the program would cost $115 million the first year and $194 million the second. Earlier this year, the Council requested $50 million for a pilot program, an idea that was axed by the mayor before a budget deal was reached in June.

The trouble with the expense explanation is that the plan is backed by Comptroller Scott Stringer, the city’s top fiscal officer, as well as prominent non-partisan budget watchdog Citizens Budget Commission (CBC). Maria Doulis, vice president at CBC, addressed the cost argument bluntly: “If it was a priority for the mayor, it would be accommodated in the budget,” she said.

The question itself of state versus city funding isn’t relevant to constituents, said Rankin. “As a taxpayer, I pay city taxes and state taxes. So do you take it out of my left pocket or my right pocket?”

In an emailed statement, Stringer said the Fair Fares proposal “isn’t just the right thing to do morally – it makes economic sense,” and lamented that low-income New Yorkers had to “choose putting food on the table and traveling our city.” Access to transportation often provides individuals more opportunity to participate in job interviews and to get to and from work.

A key question for de Blasio and others around the transportation affordability dilemma is whether other planks of the mayor’s progressive agenda, and the New Yorkers that would participate in them, are suffering as a result of inaccessibility.

“Trains and buses are how you connect to your job, how you connect to services in other neighborhoods, it’s how people avail themselves of the benefits of being in the largest city in the United States,” said Doulis. In relation to the city’s poverty-reduction efforts, she said “a natural way to bolster those outcomes is to facilitate access to transportation.”

Being unable to access public services due to the cost of transportation was a reality for Robert Rush, now a member of the transit advocacy group Riders Alliance, as he was growing up in the Bronx. “I went to four different elementary schools in my first five years of education,” he said, in part because his mother couldn’t afford to get to some ofca the schools he attended.

“My mom had to enlist her co-workers, other people to come pick me up because she wasn’t able to. Sometimes I would be like the last person getting picked up at 6 p.m.,” said Rush, who nonetheless managed to do well enough in school to win a scholarship to Phillips Academy and begin studying at Harvard. He also raised the issue of access to city decision-makers, saying that “if you want to go down to city hall, raise some complaint, but you can’t afford the train there because you can’t even afford your bills, what does that say?”

At a time when the mayor has seemed frustrated by his lack of influence over the city’s vast transit system, a transit subsidy is an action the city could take unilaterally and with relative ease. “This is something he can do without Albany, without begging the state for funding, or permission. He was the power to help 800,000 New Yorkers,” said Rebecca Bailin, campaign manager for the Riders Alliance.

In fact, de Blasio has a larger goal of lifting 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty by 2025, and several programs to accomplish it. Broader transit access could help accelerate those efforts and work in tandem with them. “The success of big, bold investments from the city – be it for job training, legal services, or otherwise – hinges on New Yorkers having the ability to get around,” said Stringer.

Doulis brought up the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (CUNY ASAP) system, which among other things provides participating students with free MetroCards, something she called “one of the key benefits” of the program. “People that enroll in these programs have far higher graduation rates than other community college students,” she said, in large part because they can get around.

Yet the mayor has seemed unwilling to acknowledge the necessities of New Yorkers who need to get around, lashing out at those who jump turnstiles to avoid paying fares they can’t afford. “There’s no way in hell anyone should be evading the fare, that would create chaos,” he said at a recent press conference, adding, “Everyone has to pay their fare.” He has not put forward any comprehensive proposal to address the inaccessibility of public transit.

Asked by Gotham Gazette what he would say to New Yorkers who can’t afford public transit but need to get around, de Blasio pointed to his larger efforts to create opportunity and lift New Yorkers out of poverty. He reiterated that no one should be evading the fare.

In an email, Ben Sarle, a spokesperson for the mayor, said “New Yorkers have a right to a transit system that works, obviously.” In an apparent reference to the recent attention on needed subway repairs, Sarle’s limited response was a reply to several questions from Gotham Gazette, including whether Mayor de Blasio believes in a right to public transportation for all New Yorkers. Sarle also did not respond to questions asking what the administration’s transit affordability plans are and did not elaborate on how the “right” he cited would be guaranteed.

The city already funds various MetroCard subsidy programs, including reduced-fare cards for seniors and people with disabilities and half-fare or free limited-use cards for students based on their distance from school. As part of the mayor’s recent deal to have his control over city schools extended for two years, the city will provide MetroCards to charter school students whose classes begin before school busing starts for the year.

It also wouldn’t be the first large city to develop a program that helps its poorer citizens get on the available public transit. King County in Washington state, which includes Seattle, was one of the first and largest areas to launch a discounted transit program, in early 2015. The ORCA (one regional card for all, the name of the system’s transit card) Lift program provides subsidized fares to residents under 200 percent of the federal poverty level. A survey conducted by the county executive one year into the program’s operations found that 42 percent of users had taken the bus and light rail more frequently since they’d received the cards. Other cities with transit affordability programs include San Francisco and London.

An obstacle may be the mayor’s focus on a separate transportation agenda. “The two big transportation proposals from the de Blasio administration have been ferries and BQX, and it’s not clear how much those programs will benefit low-income NYers,” said Doulis, referring to newly opened city ferries and the planned Brooklyn-Queens Connector, a streetcar that would run between Astoria and Sunset Park.

The BQX, which would charge the same amount as an MTA bus or subway fare, is estimated to cost $2.5 billion to develop, or about 13 times what it would cost to run the Fair Fares subsidy program for a year at full take-up. The BQX’s daily ridership by 2035 is projected to be 48,900. While the proponents of that project insist that it’ll pay for itself with increases in area productivity and taxes – an idea critics have disputed – proponents of Fair Fares say the program will also spur the economy.

“I think that the city should be looking at funding at least a part of it, because it directly helps city residents, but then will indirectly help the city's economy by keeping more money in the pockets of riders,” said Brooklyn City Council Member Stephen Levin of Fair Fares.

For low-income New Yorkers like Rush’s family, the advantage is much more clear and immediate. “It’s hard to even go outside, because there’s nowhere to go except around your block. You can’t go anywhere else,” he said.

by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio’s Progressivism Doesn’t Include Right to Public Transit Sun, 16 Jul 2017 23:39:26 +0000
'Fair Fares' Proposal Dominates Transportation Hearing CM Ydanis Rodriguez

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez (Photo: William Alatriste)

A campaign to provide discounted MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers took center stage at a City Council hearing on Monday, with council members and transit advocates calling for greater equity in the public transportation system.

The City Council’s Committee on Transportation conducted oversight of the Department of Transportation’s citywide initiatives to examine how they can better serve New York City residents. Central to the proceedings was the issue of transportation equity, the concept that transportation should be used as an equalizer and a conduit between low-income communities and the job-laden business centers of the city. Council members and transit advocacy groups expressed concern that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has failed to prioritize fairness in the system, even as it moves forward on a number of transit projects including the citywide ferry service and the Brooklyn-Queens Connector.

The issue that dominated the debate was the 'Fair Fares' campaign to lower public transportation fares for low-income New Yorkers, launched last year by the Community Service Society, a nonprofit that fights poverty, and transit advocacy group Riders Alliance. The campaign is anchored in a 2016 report by CSS that found that 1-in-4 low-income city residents cannot afford the cost of MetroCards. As previously reported by Gotham Gazette, the mayor has been staunch in his refusal to put up the estimated $200 million to implement the cost reductions proposed by Fair Fares, which would provide half-price MetroCards for the roughly 800,000 New Yorkers living below the poverty line.

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the committee, said in his opening remarks that MetroCard costs were “preventative” for many New Yorkers, forcing them to “forego job opportunities, education, cultural experiences, doctor appointments, and more.” Rodriguez found support in other council members, including David Greenfield, Antonio Reynoso, and Donovan Richards. Just prior to the hearing, many of the council members rallied with colleagues, transit advocates and union representatives on the steps of City Hall, calling on the mayor to fund the Fair Fares proposal.

At the hearing, the council members asked DOT representative Eric Beaton to explain the mayor’s refusal to provide the required funding in the city budget. Beaton fell back on the mayor’s argument that the city could not afford the proposal and that the state-run MTA should fund it instead. He also pointed out that the city recently committed to a historically-high $2.5 billion contribution to the MTA’s capital plan and that there was simply no room in the budget for an extra $200 million.

Councilmembers Reynoso and Greenfield weren’t satisfied with the response, and Greenfield cited the $13 billion increase in the city budget under de Blasio as proof that the administration has the ability to cover “everything under the sun.” Reynoso echoed his sentiment, telling Beaton that the budget “is not a legitimate excuse” for failing to provide low-income New Yorkers with affordable public transportation.

The committee also touched on issues of transit access for residents of Far Rockaway and Southeast Queens, two areas notorious for their status as “transportation deserts.” Council members Richards and I. Daneek Miller, who represent those two neighborhoods respectively, stressed that their constituents are burdened with commutes of up to two hours, arguing that bus services in areas lacking subway stops must be made a priority so that residents are able to make the commute to Manhattan. Though Beaton agreed that bus efficiency must be improved, he again deferred to the MTA, saying that bus routing was the MTA’s responsibility.

David Jones, president of the Community Service Society and a mayoral appointee to the MTA board, pressed his organization’s push for Fair Fares, noting that unaffordable transit fares also create ancillary problems such as an increase in fare evasion, placing an added burden on the transit police and criminal justice system. These arrests lead to more criminal records for young people, Jones contended, simply because subway and bus fares are too expensive. Jones and Veronica Vanterpool, another MTA board member, have both called on the mayor to fund Fair Fares.

Jones was joined on the panel by Bronx resident Norma Ridez, who testified on behalf of Riders Alliance. Ridez, an unemployed single mother of three, said that between the cost of getting her children to daycare and grocery shopping, she “can’t afford a metrocard to get to [job] interviews.”

Though DOT’s Beaton and the committee members were frequently at odds, the two sides were momentarily allied in admonishing the MTA for failing to send a representative to the hearing. Public Advocate Letitia James was particularly critical, in both her opening and closing statements, expressing her “deep disappointment” that MTA representatives were not present to discuss their “unreliable system.”

Monday’s hearing and the preceding rally demonstrate wide-ranging support for transit affordability reform, but the fate of Fair Fares remains uncertain since neither the city nor the MTA are willing to be held responsible for the bill. MTA communications director Beth DeFalco noted in an email that the MTA already spends significant amounts on low-income riders, including $625 million specifically for seniors, schoolchildren and people with disabilities in New York City. “The MTA always tries to keep fares as low as possible and still provide safe, reliable service,” DeFalco said.

With no end in sight to the Fair Fares gridlock, low-income New Yorkers are left holding their breath on lower transportation costs. Attempting to underscore the impact of this funding stalemate, Councilmember Greenfield reminded those at the hearing, “You can’t get out of poverty if you can’t get to your job.”


by Luke Foley, Gotham Gazette

With reporting by Samar Khurshid

'Fair Fares' Proposal Dominates Transportation Hearing Tue, 14 Feb 2017 00:00:00 +0000