Gotham Gazette Wed, 18 Jul 2018 16:30:13 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Capital Project Delays are Stifling Growth and Hurting Communities de Blasio ribbon cutting park

Mayor de Blasio, Parks Commissioner Silver & others (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

If you’ve ever wondered about the conversations that take place in the well-appointed inner sanctum of the City Council’s member lounge, you may be deeply disappointed to find the truth. Seldom are the chats like those you’d see on House of Cards; nor is the room even smoke-filled these days. We’ve banned that. The most common thing you’re likely to overhear is this: “Why does it take a decade to build a dang playground in my district?”

As the city grows, New York’s ability to effectively and efficiently deliver public capital projects is diminishing. This is no secret. Efforts to improve the system are not bearing fruit; all the while excuses for the delays, cost overruns, and errors become more commonplace.

New York City needs a drastic overhaul of the management of its capital program. The new approach should include the formation of a new construction authority, the ability to award design-build contracts, the appointment of a construction czar with a proven track record, the re-calibration of contracts to reflect a shorter timeline, and the reexamination of the existing and often duplicative approval processes through multiple agencies.

Speak to any City Council member. They can point to examples within their district that highlight the problem. In mine, on Staten Island, we’ve been waiting since 2011 for a glorified gazebo at Conference House Park, and since 2009 for a plaza and pathways at Crescent Beach. At Bloomingdale Park, our Borough President waited so long for a simple stretch of sidewalk delayed by the Parks Department’s own tree regulations that he re-allocated the money to the State Department of Transportation, which is performing the work in a quarter of the time at half the cost.

The Parks Department may be first up in the Council’s crosshairs as it was the subject of an April Parks Committee grilling on this topic, and there has already been the rumblings of legislation to form a Parks Capital Authority. Yet, the agency is far from alone.

The Department of Design and Construction, which was originally launched in 1996 to be the solution to these types of problems, is now part of it. I half joke and half cringe when reminding my constituents that both a DDC-managed little league field and the replacement of the Goethals Bridge were approved and funded around the same time, but there will be cars driving to Jersey before any fly balls are shagged in Tottenville.

Mayor de Blasio did not cause this current problem, but since it now falls in his lap, he should look to form an independent authority as one way to combat its growth. I have heard him publicly and privately praise the work done by the School Construction Authority and the efficiency at which it operates. Respectfully, Mr. Mayor, please take this as a not-so subtle hint, as I trust it may be something you’ve already pondered.

The difference in cost and pace between the SCA and mayoral agencies is enough to drive many City Council members to scrap funding for those like Parks in favor of the SCA. For example, I’ve received rough estimates for a new playground at over $1 million and three years on the Parks side of a jointly-operated schoolyard, while a similar project on the other side of the invisible line controlled by SCA is half the cost and time. As a result, we’re getting several new SCA playgrounds this year on Staten Island.

However, to blame the agencies without acknowledging that some of the delays stem from the design and procurement rules they must follow would be disingenuous. Appointing a Capital Construction “Czar” would allow an overarching review of these policies, primarily to see if they are causing unnecessary delays without meeting their own goals.

A good place to start would be where agencies like the Parks Department often place the blame themselves: right at the doorstep of the Public Design Commission. In the age of data-driven results, it is unclear what the PDC points to as a quantifiable success. To many in city government, it is simply a mysterious all-delaying entity that occupies secluded office space in the rafters of City Hall’s cupola, like a project-killing Quasimodo. All Council members have at least one anecdote about construction being delayed by the PDC. But much like the Hunchback, there’s a belief that it, too, may be a fictitious tale, and one which the Parks Department conveniently uses to account for any postponement.

A new authority led by a czar could reevaluate the usefulness of obstructionist procedural check-offs like the PDC and seek innovative ways to streamline the flow of capital projects. We need a top to bottom review of internal timetables we set, and the contract deadlines we impose. Much of this has already been attempted in earnest by Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver. He should be commended, as there does seem to be a new focus by the agency on capital efficiency. Still, many of the factors are outside of his agency’s control and thus his reach extends only so far.

This new authority could also look at other municipalities for innovative ideas. Both Chicago and Los Angeles have significant capital programs, which go through similar procedural hurdles during design and contract procurement. However, both cities also split work between separate jurisdictions at the county and city level. Perhaps empowering borough presidents to shepherd and procure capital programs at our own county level could work in our favor.

Additionally, both cities have more liberal design-build laws. This is a policy that is already supported by Mayor de Blasio, who has tried to lobby the state to grant the city this power. For a Governor who is eager to criticize city government, it is unclear why Andrew Cuomo supports a potentially productive expansion of design-build elsewhere in the state, but not New York City.

These are just two ways New York could employ new ideas from elsewhere; but, if we do begin comparing our city to others, we may not be entirely happy with the blunt results. Skim the budget documents of Chicago, Cook County, Los Angeles, and Los Angeles County, and you’ll notice that all of their combined capital dollars are a fraction of what New York City plans to use, especially as our new ten-year capital plan now tops $95 billion.

The fact that New York spends a lot of money is nothing new. Our city budget is roughly the size of Poland’s budget, and the NYPD alone spends more than Mongolia. But when it comes to servicing our capital debt, New Yorkers have a right to raise new questions.

Debt service obligations are predicted to rise by 33% to $8.4 billion by 2021, and the percentage of tax revenue budgeted for it will trickle up to almost 15% in the same period.

Much of this growth is due to expanding interest payments on our ambitious capital program, which with a typical municipal general obligation bond we may be paying interest on for 20 years. It’s easy to accept this cost for a bridge when it’s constructed and the commuters are using it. It’s much harder for the public to digest the fact that we are paying interest on the bonds used to finance a playground or building while it’s delayed by our own morass.

The new statistic the administration should focus on and include in future capital plan slideshows is the amount of debt we are paying on projects that only exist as piles of paper aging on bureaucrats’ desks. Hopefully, by tracking that we can put even more pressure on City Hall to reform the way capital projects are worked through the system.

Joseph Borelli is a New York City Council member for the 51st District on Staten Island, a former state legislator, an adjunct professor at CUNY College of Staten Island, and a Lindsay Fellow at the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance. On Twitter @JoeBorelliNYC. (The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CUNY ISLG or any other affiliated entity.)

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Capital Project Delays are Stifling Growth and Hurting Communities Wed, 03 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Two New Reps Join the City Council borelli grodenchik council

CMs Borelli, right, & Grodenchik are sworn in next to the Speaker (photo by William Alatriste) 

The New York City Council has two new members, each with prior experience in elected office and bringing to the 51-member body the perspective of New Yorkers living in the city's outer-reaches. Both districts being represented by new members are populated by many car- and single-family-home-owners.

One new representative - Barry Grodenchik of Queens - brings a fairly moderate Democratic viewpoint to the Council's majority, while the other new Council member - Joseph Borelli of Staten Island - brings an outspoken style to the Republican minority. Both Grodenchik and Borelli were sworn in on Tuesday, November 24, and participated in their first official Council business at that afternoon's "Stated Meeting."

Earlier this month, the two former Assembly members were chosen through special elections to fill Council vacancies created by members who resigned to take other jobs: Mark Weprin left to work for Governor Andrew Cuomo and Vincent Ignizio to lead Staten Island Catholic Charities.

The New York City Board of Elections counted all absentee and military ballots and officially certified the elections, and the two members took office. They were given a standing round of applause by their colleagues when they were announced into Council Chambers at City Hall.

Grodenchik, most recently a deputy Queens borough president after his time in the Assembly, prevailed in a crowded Democratic primary and went on to defeat his Republican opponent, retired police captain Joseph Concannon. Grodenchik will now serve the remainder of Weprin's term through 2017.

No stranger to elected office and political work, Grodenchik says he's ready to hit the ground running: "My learning curve is much shorter than a new Council member's would usually be," he said. "I bring experience in government. This is what we campaigned on and obviously people responded to that."

While Grodenchik says he's excited to work with his new colleagues, many of whom he knows well, and about the progressive direction of the Council, he also represents a district that largely differs on some of the policies of Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, many Council members, and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Borelli, meanwhile, represents a district whose residents have even less affinity for the progressive direction the city is heading and the people leading that charge, starting with the mayor. Borelli is expected to bring a strong dissenting voice to the Council as he joins what will be a three-member Republican minority led by his Staten Island neighbor Steven Matteo and also includes Queens Council Member Eric Ulrich.

Coming from the Assembly minority, though, Borelli may actually have more opportunity to influence the policy discussions in the Council.

"I think it's a great time to be a member of the City Council because the spectrum of opinion is so wide," Borelli told Gotham Gazette. "I'm excited from a policy advocacy standpoint just to be able to present my opinion."

Besides their obvious disadvantage, he said the Republican minority is "a small but stalwart band."

Both Borelli and Grodenchik plan to make an impact over the next two years, as they described to Gotham Gazette in recent interviews, and will then be up for reelection in 2017, when the entire Council is on the ballot, including 11 seats where the current members are term-limited - chief among those being the speaker.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Mark-Viverito said, "Council Members-elect Barry Grodenchik and Joseph Borelli staunchly represented Queens and Staten Island in the New York State Assembly and now bring their strong records of public service to the City Council. I look forward to working with our incoming members to deliver results for New Yorkers across the five boroughs."

Gotham Gazette spoke at some length with both incoming Council members, Grodenchik and Borelli, about their experience and their priorities:

Barry Grodenchik, Queens Democrat, District 23
"I knocked on close to 5,000 doors in the course of the campaign. The two complaints that I heard over and over was water and sewer rates and property taxes going up each year," Grodenchik told Gotham Gazette. "Taxes on condos and co-ops are unfair. There's no question about it. That's something I'm going to gauge my colleagues on," he added.

Along with these issues of home ownership and affordability, Grodenchik cited transportation as a key concern. Situated on the edge of Queens, District 23 lacks much of the mass transit infrastructure in other parts of the city. There are no subway or Long Island Rail Road stops. "We live in what has been rightly called a mass transit desert," he said. "It can take an awfully long time to get from my district to the downtown business district," he said.

While he did not say he has any specific legislation in mind, Grodenchik is gathering a policy agenda and continuing to talk with constituents. He's been attending community and private meetings across the district, which covers Queens Village, Bayside, Douglaston, Fresh Meadows, Glen Oaks, New Hyde Park and Little Neck. One week this month he had more than a dozen meetings with representatives from community boards, civic, and cultural organizations, he said.

Grodenchik also has plans to visit every public school in his district over the next few months to familiarize himself with school officials and parent-teacher associations to "make sure they're getting what they need to be the best schools in the city," he said.

As a "good Democrat," Grodenchik has a strong contingent of progressive colleagues, some of whom he has known for years. He admires the progressive direction that the Council has taken in the last two years and says he will likely see eye-to-eye with them on most issues, but not all. "I think people can disagree without being disagreeable," he said, stating his ardent opposition to congestion pricing proposals as an example. "I see it as a tax, particularly for people in Queens. It's a non-starter as far as I'm concerned," he said.

But he looks forward to being a part of a Council that has become more equitable, he said, under current Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, with resources allotted to members and districts in a clear, fair fashion.

Grodenchik has a long history of serving Queens. He worked under Queens Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn; he was Chief Administrative Officer for Borough President Claire Shulman for more than ten years. He was also a deputy borough president under Helen Marshall. In 2002, he was elected to the New York State Assembly where he served till 2014 (Grodenchik ran an abbreviated campaign for Queens BP in 2013 before dropping out of the race during the primary - he went on to become eventual winner Melinda Katz's director of community boards.)

Government, at any level, is complicated, Grodenchik says, but "You have to be able to come to the table with people you like and people you don't like to craft a solution that works for both community and the move the city forward in the best possible way."

Joseph Borelli, Staten Island Republican, District 51
Borelli, a state Assembly member, ran unopposed for District 51 on Staten Island, winning the seat formerly held by Vincent Ignizio. The district covers the southern end of the borough including neighborhoods such as Arden Heights, Bay Terrace, Oakwood, Great Kills, Richmond Valley, Huguenot and Princes Bay. Like Grodenchik's, it is also seen as a transportation desert.

For Borelli, the transition to the City Council is relatively easy. "The district is pretty much the same so I'm just sort of moving my bullseye over a bit," he said. With a strong idea of the work ahead, Borelli is making the rounds of the district. He has spent time during the last two weeks in meetings with his predecessor about issues to pursue and with city agencies to discuss capital projects in the district.

In setting his agenda, Borelli already has a few concrete priorities. "There are some major land use issues here that are especially important to us," he said of the construction of an outlet mall in Rossville at a massive liquefied natural gas storage site.

"These are big projects in this, some would say, backwater of New York City that require the same attention from the city planning and building department as some of the higher-profile projects in Brooklyn or Manhattan," he said.

He also hopes to improve the city's solid waste plan for e-waste which, he said, seems to work better in areas with high-rise buildings than it does in his community. "Why should it be more difficult for my community to get rid of a TV?"

A Republican, Borelli is not particularly on board with the Council's liberal bent, expressing his concern for many of the proposals recently put forward such as those to reform the NYPD and Riker's Island, and the decriminalization of minor offenses like public urination and open container violations.

"Some of the new proposals don't jive well with a bedroom community like Staten Island," he said, citing a bill recently introduced by Council Member Mark Levine which would prohibit credit checks for renters.

Borelli believes that "progressivism" doesn't speak to many people who live in the outer boroughs, who aren't represented by "these squeaky-wheel groups" who lobby the Council on issues and who feel the movement has lost touch with middle class New Yorkers.

"What group out there hopes for more public urination?" he asked rhetorically. "I'm against progressivism and in favor of restoring some rational thought to policies like that."

In doing so, he firmly believes he has his community's support. "My constituents really have my back," he said, "and it's very empowering when you feel like that."

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

This article has been updated to reflect the two new members officially taking office - it had originally been published in the lead up to their formally joining the Council.

Two New Reps Join the City Council Fri, 20 Nov 2015 18:51:10 +0000
2015 General Election Results Cuomo voting Nov 2015

Gov. Cuomo votes on Tuesday (via the Governor's Office on flickr)

Although there weren't many high-profile races in yesterday's election, New York City now has two new members of the City Council (one in Queens, one on Staten Island), two new District Attorneys (Staten Island and the Bronx), two new Assembly members (Queens and Brooklyn), a new state Senator (Brooklyn), and a few new judges.

On Staten Island, former Congressional Rep. and City Council Member Michael McMahon, a Democrat, defeated Republican Joan Illuzzi to become District Attorney. The seat was left vacant when former DA Daniel Donovan was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Democrats now hold the DA position in all five boroughs. 

The Bronx got its first new DA in 26 years as Darcel Clark was elected to the seat. Clark, a New York Supreme Court judge, replaced Robert Johnson who resigned to run for Supreme Court justice.

A Democrat also won the City Council seat from Eastern Queens. Former Assembly Member Barry Grodenchik beat his Republican opponent, Joseph Colcannon, a retired police captain. The seat belonged to Mark Weprin, a Democrat who left the Council to join Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration. The Staten Island City Council seat went to Republican Joseph Borelli, an Assembly member who ran unopposed to replace Vincent Ignizio, who had resigned for a job as a nonprofit leader. Borelli joins the Council's Republican minority, returning it to three members in the 51-seat body. Both Grodenchik and Borelli will have to run in 2017 to retain their seats.

As was the case with the two Council seats, the three special elections for New York City-based seats in the state legislature remained with the same political party. All three state legislative seats stayed Democrat. With a whopping majority, Democrat Assembly Member Roxanne Persaud won a Brooklyn Senate seat over Republican Jeffrey Ferretti, owner of a real estate company. The seat was left vacant when former State Senator John Sampson was convicted in July on federal charges of obstruction of justice and false statements.

The two Assembly seats were also won by Democrats. Pamela Harris, a retired corrections officer, defeated Republican Lucretia Regina-Potter to become the only African-American to represent a majority white district in the city. The district covers parts of southern Brooklyn and the post was left vacant when the former rep resigned to take a private-sector job.

In the special election to complete the term of Democrat William Scarborough -- who was forced from office after accepting a plea on corruption charges -- Democrat Alicia Hyndman beat her opponent with a wide margin. Hyndman, Harris, and Regina-Potter will all have to run for re-election next year, in 2016 when all of the state legislature goes up for election, to retain their seats.

In one of many unopposed races, Democrat Richard Brown won the seat of Queens DA for the seventh consecutive term.

by Samar Khrushid

2015 General Election Results Wed, 04 Nov 2015 12:17:43 +0000