Gotham Gazette Wed, 23 May 2018 10:37:14 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) What’s The [DATA] Point? 95, with City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland whats the data point

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

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

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

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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What’s The [DATA] Point? 95, with City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland Thu, 28 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
As Incident Reports Rise, City Officials Seek New Answers to Combat Domestic Violence de Blasio McCray Ferreras domestic violence

De Blasio & others announce new measures (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Increases in reports of domestic violence have gotten the attention New York City officials, from Mayor Bill de Blasio to the NYPD to members of the City Council. The de Blasio administration has taken a series of steps to address the problem and is promising more; while new legislation is expected to soon pass in the City Council.

On Monday, the Council’s Committee on Courts and Legal Services will hold an oversight hearing on New York’s Domestic Violence Courts and Integrated Domestic Violence Courts, which dedicate specific judges, counselors, and other resources to domestic violence cases. The committee, chaired by Council Member Rory Lancman, has indicated the hearing comes “as the number of domestic violence crimes in New York City continue to rise and domestic violence has become the leading cause of homelessness in the City.”

In 2016, there were 76,237 domestic violence incident reports in New York City, up from 75,241 in 2015. There were 59 intimate partner homicides in New York City in 2016, up from 49 in 2015, according to the mayor's office.

In November 2016, de Blasio launched a domestic violence task force, noting that while the city’s homicide rate has dropped 82% over 25 years, domestic violence homicides have remained stagnant, and the mayor received its report in May of this year, promising “$7 million to better apprehend abusers [and] ensure support for survivors.”

In August, Bea Hanson started as executive director of the Domestic Violence Task Force, according to a City Hall spokesperson, and she is working with First Lady Chirlane McCray and NYPD officials, including Commissioner Jimmy O’Neil, to implement task force recommendations. More will be announced next month, in October, which is domestic violence awareness month, according to the spokesperson.

The spokesperson added that the city is working to develop a better coordinated criminal justice and social service response to incidences of domestic violence. As the city’s overall crime rate has dropped significantly, domestic violence incidents have become an increasingly high proportion of violent crime.

“It’s a good thing that we’re hearing more and more,” said City Council Member Helen Rosenthal of Manhattan, a member of the Council’s Committee on Women’s Issues and co-chair of the Council’s Women’s Caucus. “That means that people trust the police enough to call more and more.”

One initiative in place to combat domestic violence, started by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, is the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, which runs New York City Family Justice Centers, which serve nearly 3,000 victims and their families every month. The Family Justice Centers, now located in every borough, offer both civil and criminal legal aid, healthy relationship training for youth, as well as social services, and are a “one stop shop” for information and resources related to domestic violence, sex trafficking, and even elder abuse, according to Elizabeth Dank, a deputy commissioner at the Office to Combat Domestic Violence (OCDV).

“One of the biggest programs out of our office [are] the New York City Family Justice Centers,” said Dank. “The first Family Justice Center was launched in Brooklyn in 2005, and it was the first one in the city and it was actually one of the first ones in the country. We have the largest network of Family Justice Centers in the country per municipality.”

According to Dank, the OCDV was one of the first government agencies in the country to be devoted to domestic violence, and it tries to do as much outreach as possible to remain a cutting-edge force in preventing and prioritizing domestic violence.

“We also have [partners] who help with benefits and economic empowerment classes, financial literacy classes, computer skills, and job training classes, so really the goal is that victims can come to one location and receive all of the services they need instead of having to jump around government agencies to get the services they need,” said Dank. “We do also do a lot of work around training.”

Training initiatives include the healthy relationship training, which focuses on raising awareness among young people about dating and sexual violence among. The OCDV also helps train advocacy groups, and works closely with the Domestic Violence Task Force, which is tasked with finding innovative ways to combat domestic violence.

In the Domestic Violence Initiative Report from October 2016, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office calls domestic violence “one of the most underreported crimes in the United States” with reporting rates of less than 30 percent, primarily due victims’ fear of retaliation by abusers, fear of losing child custody, fear of losing financial resources, or the belief that a report to the police will not change their situation. For domestic violence involving one or more immigrants, fear of deportation is also prevalent.

“One issue [people] have been focusing on is financial abuse and economic barriers to independence,” said Jae Young Kim, supervising attorney for the Domestic Violence Legal Education and Advocacy Program at the Urban Resource Institute, which is host to six victim shelters and offers legal aid to victims. “Even though we’re not in the 2008 recession anymore, the economy is still not great. I think when you’re dealing with [survivors] especially, economic stability is often times one of the top issues when people are deciding whether to leave a relationship or not.”

A large part of obtaining and maintaining financial independence for victims includes being able to leave their residence and find a new place to live, but according to Kim, the state law allowing victims to leave, RPL 227-c, is “completely unworkable.”

Diane Johnston, a staff attorney for Legal Aid Society, agrees, stating in her testimony at a hearing held by the City Council’s Committee on Women’s Issues that “While well-intentioned, the current law is unduly burdensome and effectively bars countless survivors from obtaining the intended relief,” citing the often difficult eligibility requirements as the problem.

“It required someone to be current on their rent, have an order of protection, and then they would reach out to the landlord and say, ‘I need to terminate my lease for my safety,’ [then] notify their co-tenant, and if the landlord chose not to terminate based on that written request, then they’d be able to go to court to file [asking] the landlord to terminate their lease,” said Kim.

The process could take several months, during which the victim must remain current on their rent, even though they would not be living in their apartment anymore, thus severely limiting their options.

“Most people can’t afford to pay rent on two apartments,” said Kim. “This is New York City!”

The report also mentions that leaving an abuser “is no guarantee of safety” as “victims are at the greatest risk of homicide, severe physical and sexual assault, stalking, and menacing in the first few months after attempting to or succeeding in leaving an abuser.”

Kim confirmed this, and said that she has seen it happen while representing victims in court.

“You’re going to a place, usually once every six weeks for a year, and you’re safe in the courthouse but eventually you have to leave,” said Kim. “You have to go home, and it’s always a potential spot where an abuser can follow you, can stalk you, and I’ve seen that...It’s not safe.”

According to Kim, despite an often overwhelming police and legal presence, batterers will sometimes ignore protection orders and attempt to approach victims after court proceedings, even following them all the way back to her office.

The City Council Committee on Women’s Issues’ hearing, in late June, was in response to some of these concerns, and an attempt to try to improve the system and to provide more justice to domestic violence victims by making their process of breaking a lease easier.

At the hearing, the committee introduced two bills, Intros. 1610 and 1496, which would, respectively, , add “at least one hour of training biennially to persons licensed to practice cosmetology,” so that hairdressers can better spot domestic violence victims, and change the term “chronic offender” to include perpetrators who had “been identified in more than one domestic incident report” in order to identify those who are batterers in multiple relationships, and a resolution, Res. 1292, which calls for modifications to the state law, 227-c, to make it easier for victims to move out of their residences.

The change to current state law being sought would make it that the only thing needed from victims to break their lease would be a relevant police report. Police reports would be considered adequate on a case by case basis, crimes must be related to domestic violence to qualify.

“That’s the toughest one to get through, because this is an area the state regulates, and the state would have to pass legislation that will make it easier for people to break their leases,” said Rosenthal. “What the city will do, what we’ll do, is pass a resolution in support of specific ideas that will make it easier for people to break their leases. But it’s the state that has the power on this one. They will have to amend the Real Property Law to do that.”

Rosenthal stressed that the City Council will be working with state colleagues to get the legislation pushed through.

“I think the important thing here…is the distinction between using something in the criminal justice system in order to break a lease, versus something that requires less criminal justice intervention,” said Rosenthal. “It may be the case that getting a court order is not something [a victim] can do, so what we’re asking the state to do is make it easier.”

In addition to the lease legislation, the additional prevention and identification measure of requiring hairdressers to take a course on how to spot signs of domestic violence among clients was also introduced. Rosenthal was inspired both by a similar bill passed in Illinois, and by a conversation she had with a woman doing her nails while on vacation, who said that even though she often sees signs of domestic violence from clients, she didn’t know who to turn to.

“The conversation was fascinating…and as [it] went on, she said that she was a victim of domestic violence herself,” said Rosenthal. “That conversation was an eye-opener for me, and I’m really glad we’re trying to find a way to have similar legislation here in New York City.”

“Our goal is to have the legislation pass in October, which is domestic violence awareness month,” Rosenthal said this summer. “I think [it will pass] -- our conversations have been very constructive.”

Another measure that could pass next month is the “paid safe leave” legislation introduced by City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland in conjunction with the de Blasio administration, which would amend the city’s paid sick leave law to allow domestic violence victims to use paid sick leave when seeking help, refuge, or justice.

When Ferreras-Copeland and de Blasio announced the legislation, last October during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, de Blasio noted that in 2015, “the NYPD received on average one domestic violence report every two minutes.” In June of this year, NYPD statistics show over 16,000 police responses to domestic violence related calls. At a press conference earlier this year, NYPD officials responded a question from Gotham Gazette with a frank assessment of how challenging it is to drive down instances of domestic violence. Top NYPD leaders indicated that they are constantly assessing patterns and ways to work with partners to prevent domestic violence and bring abusers to justice, but that they are among the most complicated and delicate crimes.

Meanwhile, the report from de Blasio’s task force, published earlier this year, includes its own series of recommendations, all part of accomplishing four broad goals: “prevent violence and abusive behavior before it happens; increase early reporting and engagement by survivors; enhance the response of the criminal justice system; and create strategies for long-term violence reduction and innovative practices to hold offenders accountable.”

The recommendations also fit four broad categories: “Expanding child and youth prevention and intervention; Enhancing criminal justice system responses; Strengthening New York City communities; and Improving citywide coordination to maximize resources.”

The recommendations range from standardizing domestic violence data collection and reporting across city agencies to “OCDV will introduce evening hours one day per week at the three NYC Family Justice Centers (FJCs) with the highest client flow.” The city is also looking to integrate more services with those that are part of First Lady Chirlane McCray's ThriveNYC mental health care program.

Another example of a specific recommendation is expanding “Child Trauma Response Teams,” which provide “a coordinated, immediate, trauma-focused response to children and their family members who are exposed to domestic violence.” This recommendation comes, in part, because of the fact that “children exposed to domestic violence are more likely to become involved in an abusive relationship in their teens or as an adult.”

by Jynn Schubert and Ben Max

by Jynn Schubert for Gotham Gazette
@JynnWasHere  @GothamGazette

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Note: this article has been corrected with accurate data on domestic violence reports in 2016 and 2015; and data for 2014 and 2013 was removed.

As Incident Reports Rise, City Officials Seek New Answers to Combat Domestic Violence Sun, 17 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Thank you, Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland 16107481763 1259807a17 z

Council Member Ferreras-Copeland tours Inwood library (photo: William Alatriste/New York City Council)

Last month, City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland announced that she would not seek re-election. Much ink has been, and will continue to be, spilled on the political implications of her decision. But when such an important leader decides to depart, we owe it to her and our city to consider the legacy she leaves behind.

Our city owes Council Member Ferreras-Copeland our sincere appreciation. In her years in the City Council, and leading the finance committee, she has consistently delivered for working-class New Yorkers, immigrants, and the communities across this city in greatest need.

Time and again, she has played a leadership role in the battles that matter most for our communities. She has fought to ensure that marginalized and under-resourced communities get the attention they need in the budget, and she has helped ensure the passage of progressive legislation to ensure equal opportunities and protections for all.

We have worked closely with the council member on dozens of issues over the years, but several bear mention.

In her native Queens, immigrant communities have faced overwhelming school overcrowding for years, with some children forced to study in closets or eat lunch at 10 a.m. because of insufficient facilities. She worked closely with community members and advocates and made this issue a top priority for the budget, ultimately securing billions of dollars in new capital funds for school construction.

She demonstrated a similarly strong commitment to Queens through her leadership in creating the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Alliance, which has helped protect the beloved park and ensure a bright future for the borough’s most important green lung.

Council Member Ferreras-Copeland was also one of the first elected officials to lead the charge for paid sick days for all New Yorkers. Her support throughout the campaign helped make this path-breaking legislation a reality.

She also demonstrated a clear and consistent understanding of the need for resources for adult literacy. She worked closely with Council Member Carlos Menchaca and fought hard to ensure that these programs, which serve the dual goals of immigrant integration and workforce development, be expanded. Their work together yielded millions of dollars in additional funding.

Always a strong champion for opportunities for young people, she also recognized the importance of confronting the school-to-prison pipeline by investing in alternatives to the criminalization of young people of color. Under her leadership in the finance committee, the Council created a new restorative justice initiative to implement alternatives to punitive discipline that promote healing, understanding, and accountability.

On issue after issue, she has stood with us and amplified the voices and needs of her communities.

Council Member Ferreras-Copeland has achieved all of this as a strong woman of color facing a political landscape that remains dominated by white men. She has faced down obstacles on a daily basis, and she has overcome them with the poise, wisdom and wit that have endeared her to so many of her colleagues across the five boroughs.

Julissa Ferreras-Copeland has been a pioneer and a tremendous leader for her district and our City. We thank her deeply for her service to our communities, and we know that her work will serve as a powerful example for the next generation of progressive leaders across New York.

Javier H. Valdés and Deborah Axt are the Co-Executive Directors of Make the Road New York, the largest grassroots community organization in New York offering services and organizing the immigrant community. On Twitter @maketheroadny @javierhvaldes @daxt.

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Thank you, Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland Mon, 17 Jul 2017 21:41:50 +0000
Julissa's Choice and Our Responsibility  tish and julissa

Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, left, & Tish James, the author, center-left

New York City’s political scene is reeling from the shocking news that one of its brightest stars is calling it quits. City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland announced that she won’t run for re-election so she can spend more time to with her family, which includes her young son.

As the city’s Public Advocate, I’ve worked closely with Julissa as she’s fought with unrelenting passion for the communities she represents. I’ve also watched her closely as she’s balanced the challenges of motherhood and political office.

As her friend and ally, I wholeheartedly support Julissa’s choice to forego re-election, and chance to be the next City Council Speaker. But I’m troubled by the fact that once again, it’s the woman who has to make impossible choices and deep sacrifices in a society engineered to give working men a pass on these matters.

Julissa’s struggle is emblematic of the challenges working women endure as they juggle personal and professional obligations.

While Julissa faced an unusual set of formidable personal circumstances because she and her spouse have been living in different states, her job offered a level of flexibility few women enjoy. The City affords its employees important benefits and Julissa’s powerful position allowed her some autonomy. One might argue Julissa has it better than most working women. But that’s precisely the point – if a gifted politician like Julissa Ferreras-Copeland – chair of the powerful City Council Finance Committee that shapes New York City’s $85 billion budget – has to drop her professional pursuits and make impossible choices, what does that say about other women struggling with even more challenging situations?

Society praises strong, ambitious women and encourages them to “lean in” and lead. But it does so without providing the foundation for their long-term success: adequate family leave, flexible work schedules, and equal pay.

As an elected official, I have pushed for measures and proposed legislation for mandatory paid family leave and banning salary history to close the gender wealth divide, aimed at easing the burden of the balancing act for New York women. However, our national policies and priorities must shift to ensure that women have the support to excel at the highest echelons without sacrificing their personal lives for professional success.

According to the Pew Research Center, when it comes to government supported family leave, the United States ranks dead last, offering no mandatory paid time off. Experts say that parental leave bolsters women’s employment and helps boost future earnings, based on evidence from countries and states with paid leave policies. It increases the likelihood that women will return to their jobs after giving birth, allowing the country to retain some of its best, most industrious talent in the workforce.

There are also clear benefits for generous paid sick leave policies, which ultimately add to companies’ bottom lines by reducing employee absences and departures and improving productivity. Generous gender neutral policies that give working parents and family caretakers paid leave and subsidized childcare aren’t just good for families, they’re also good for business.

Beyond these public policy approaches, as a nation we must reset our collective mindset to imagine a paradigm where women alone don’t have to make gut-wrenching choices between career and family.

Of course, that cannot happen if our leaders don’t reflect the makeup of the

With Julissa not returning to the City Council and four female lawmakers term-limited, we could be down to just eight women in the 51-member City Council -- potentially fewer based on the outcomes for some incumbents seeking re-election. This is on top of the fact that only 20% of the U.S. Congress and 25% of our State Legislature is made up of women.

This isn’t a numbers game. And it’s not even about our government. It’s about how our society values working women and what steps we’re willing to take to make it possible for today’s working women to thrive.

As I continue to tackle this issue, I’ll be inspired by Julissa Ferreras-Copeland and the countless other Julissas out there contributing to our workplaces, our families, and our communities with devotion and passion that our society simply cannot afford to overlook.

Letitia James is the Public Advocate of New York City. On Twitter @TishJames.

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Julissa's Choice and Our Responsibility Tue, 13 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Last City Budget Hearing Sets Stage for Final Negotiations ferreras

Council Member Ferreras-Copeland (photo: John McCarten)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Last City Budget Hearing Sets Stage for Final Negotiations Thu, 25 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
At First Executive Budget Hearing, Council Pushes Unfunded Priorities mmv budget

Speaker Mark-Viverito (all photos: John McCarten/City Council)

The City Council held its first hearing on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $84.86 billion executive budget for fiscal year 2018 on Thursday, and Council members gave the mayor a mixed review for his updated spending plan. They praised de Blasio for increasing funding for a number of recommendations made by the Council and for taking steps to control the capital budget. But, Council members expressed concern that crucial priorities remained unfunded, or underfunded, even as the latest budget plan increased projected spending by $700 million over the preliminary budget released in February.

The hearing kicks off the final weeks of public Council hearings, private negotiations, and lobbying by interest groups and advocates, with the mayor and Council due to agree on an adopted 2018 budget by July 1, the first day of the new fiscal year.

At Thursday’s hearing, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito commended the administration for increasing funding for the Administration of Children Services, for including funds for borough-based jails and an adolescent facility -- measures that are key to the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex -- and for reducing excess capital appropriations by $3.2 billion. The speaker noted that it was a “bittersweet day” for her, since this is the last executive budget process she will participate in (she is term-limited out of office at the end of the year).

Mark-Viverito said she is disappointed that the budget did not expand the Summer Youth Employment Program, a six-week paid jobs program for youth 14-24 years old, from the current baselined 65,000 slots to 80,000 slots for fiscal year 2018. She is “dismayed” that the budget did not eliminate all school lunch fees, which would have done away with the stigma associated with free lunches available to low-income students, she said.

The speaker also said that though the budget deals with excess capital appropriations, it does not include a comprehensive plan to reform the capital planning process, which is home to faulty projections and consistently over budget and late building projects. “My colleagues and I remain worried that this budget continues the practice of committing funds that significantly exceed the city’s ability to actually execute projects,” she said.

Mark-Viverito, Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who chairs the finance committee and is a key player in budget negotiations, and other Council members also pushed the administration to increase the city’s reserve funds to prepare for the threat of funding cuts under the Trump Administration and the Republican-led Congress.

Ferreras-Copeland similarly expressed approval of several of the administration’s funding commitments, including for air conditioning in school classrooms, repairs at NYCHA buildings, and construction and renovation of animal care centers. She also applauded the mayor’s “3-K” initiative, to expand pre-kindergarten to all 3-year-olds in the city. But, she maintained that the budget “clearly falls short in a number of critical areas,” and fails to fund several Council priorities.

jfc budget“This cannot simply be explained as a matter of budgetary caution,” she said, citing the city’s pattern of budget growth and the $700 million in new funding from de Blasio’s preliminary budget. Ferreras-Copeland (pictured, left) criticized the lack of funding for senior services and the SYEP program, the failure to fund the Emergency Food Assistance Program (EFAP), and the $6.25 billion increase in the ten-year capital budget without accompanying efficiency measures.

She said the mayor’s executive budget does not adequately account for the dangers from Washington D.C. and that spending was growing faster than revenues in a time when the city is facing signs of a predicted economic slowdown. “The executive budget does not go far enough to truly display a commitment to fiscal prudence pledged by the administration,” she said.

[Related: De Blasio Increases Spending and Savings in $84.86 Billion Executive Budget]

Representing the administration, Dean Fuleihan, director of the Office of Management and Budget, offered little in the way of pushback, defending the administration’s budget outlay plans but promising to continue working closely with the Council on their concerns. The executive budget, he said, “funds New Yorkers’ priorities, and it does so responsibly.”

Fuleihan stressed, as he has in the past, that the budget maintains historic levels of reserve funds - with $1 billion annually in the general reserve, $4 billion in the Retiree Health Benefits Trust Fund, and $250 million each year for four years in the Capital Stabilization Reserve.

fuleihan budgetFuleihan (pictured, right) also pointed out that the city has found $2.8 billion in savings since the November modification of the current budget, including $700 million in the executive budget alone. By the final adoption of the budget, Fuleihan promised, the city will find more savings, particularly from a partial hiring freeze at administrative and managerial levels at some city agencies. Noting the risks from federal funding cuts, he said, “Mindful of these risks, we will continue to make strategic investments and approach our budget process with caution.”

Fuleihan’s assurances didn’t seem to set the speaker’s mind at ease. Mark-Viverito expressed worry that the city’s spending growth could eventually be a problem. “While in the short term, what we’re seeing seems to be OK, in the long term there are concerns that this could be unsustainable,” she said. The city budget has increased dramatically under de Blasio and Mark-Viverito -- given the mayor’s executive budget, it would be up $12.2 billion since the last modification under Mayor Bloomberg in November 2013.

Fuleihan, however, sought to allay those fears, pointing out that the city adjusts and reevaluates the budget continually through the year and would be able to respond as needed. “Your point that we constantly need to be cautious and concerned and find additional ways of savings and maintaining our high levels of reserves, we should be working with you to that goal,” he said.

Mark-Viverito also raised the question of whether the city should return to instituting a Program to Eliminate the Gap or PEG, a Bloomberg-era mechanism that set targeted goals for reducing spending at city agencies. De Blasio did away with the PEG, instead opting for a voluntary Citywide Savings Program that he insists is more effective. Fuleihan echoed that point at the hearing, insisting that this administration’s process had been more collaborative. “We have achieved more savings that way,” he said.

The speaker also asked for estimates, that the budget currently doesn’t include, of how the recently announced plan to close Rikers Island jails over ten years would affect the city budget. Fuleihan had few answers, pointing out that the plan -- which there is currently almost no details for -- affects multiple agencies and also relies on the Raise the Age legislation just passed by the state that will be phased in over the next few years and will transfer 16- and 17-year-olds off the island.

Ferreras-Copeland later brought up the SYEP program, stressing that the administration’s commitment to youth jobs seemed lacking. “Essentially this agency is saying “no” to far more young people than we are saying “yes” to,” she said.

Fuleihan insisted that the city has baselined 65,000 slots for the program, showing that the administration is indeed committed to SYEP. He also noted that a joint youth jobs task force created by the Council and the administration to study the issue only recently released its recommendations and that those would be incorporated before the adopted budget. “I had no doubt that this was going to be another priority that we’re going to be working together on adoption now that we have the task force recommendations,” Fuleihan said.

The hearing touched on a number of other budget items, small and large, and many related to individual Council members’ purviews as chairs of Council committees. For instance, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, chair of the cultural affairs committee, brought up funding for the arts; transportation committee chair Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez questioned the administration’s refusal to back discounted Metrocards for low-income New Yorkers; and Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of governmental operations, pushed for budgeting to be linked with agency performance. In his typical refrain, Fuleihan repeatedly said OMB would work with the Council members on their individual concerns.

One of the larger issues addressed at the budget hearing was the city’s capital plan -- not the level of funding, but rather the process of allocation. Council members said the city has often allocated excessive funds for projects that are often delayed and that no plans exists to account for cost overruns.

The ten-year capital plan, which funds the city’s infrastructure needs and is paid for by issuing bonds to borrow money, increased to $95.85 billion in the executive budget, a $6.25 billion or 7 percent increase from the February preliminary budget. Fuleihan insisted that the increase was necessary, with much of it going to creating affordable housing and to repair and maintain public housing infrastructure, and that the city’s level of debt was under the longstanding benchmark of 15 percent of tax revenue. “We look at the capital plan as affordable given any standard that the city has used for decades,” he said. “Can we make improvements on the timing? Yes. Will we work together to do that? Absolutely.”

Council Member Brad Lander pushed Fuleihan to go further, insisting that there’s “a need for systemic reform” of capital project management. “Will you form with the Council a task force to look systemically at capital projects management reform?” Lander asked. Fuleihan seemed open to the idea of resolving issues before the adopted budget but did not commit directly to the idea of a task force. “We should discuss what’s the best way to do that,” he said.

Another prominent issue discussed Thursday was funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program. The entire Council signed on to a letter to the mayor released Thursday, calling on him to include $22 million in baseline funding for the program, up from $8 million currently outlined. “The epidemic of hunger in our city disproportionately affects women, children, seniors, and communities of color and it’s critical that we can guarantee that no New Yorker is turned away from a pantry or soup kitchen,” the letter reads.

Council Member Stephen Levin, chair of the general welfare committee, who has oversight of the program, said the executive budget doesn’t build on last year’s adopted budget, but rather cuts back on funding. Fuleihan refuted that notion but assured Levin that the administration would collaborate with the Council on allocating adequate funding. “We would work with you and we would work with the agency,” Fuleihan responded. “I think that’s fair.”

For the next few weeks, the Council will hold individual hearings to examine agency budgets and then issue an official response to the administration. The two sides will then move to closed-door negotiations before coming to a final agreement on an adopted budget for the next fiscal year that begins July 1.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

At First Executive Budget Hearing, Council Pushes Unfunded Priorities Thu, 04 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Increases Spending and Savings in $84.86 Billion Executive Budget de blasio budget

The Mayor presents the budget (photo: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayor's Office)

Nearly $200 million more in spending and $587 million in savings were added to the budget for the 2018 fiscal year in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s latest iteration of the city’s spending plan released on Wednesday.

The mayor presented an $84.86 billion executive budget, which increased proposed spending from the $84.67 billion proposed in the preliminary budget in January. The new spending is targeted at early childhood education, job creation, veterans services, anti-eviction legal services, and other areas. The mayor also unveiled an updated version of the city’s ten-year capital plan, which he added more than $5 billion to from January in order to fund more affordable housing and infrastructure projects.

De Blasio framed the need for the new initiatives in now-familiar language about the city’s affordability crisis and maintaining the city’s core commitments to New Yorkers amid uncertainty over proposed federal funding cuts under the Trump administration.

“This budget continues the work we started four years ago, recognizing that for so many people in this city, it is still a great challenge to make ends meet,” de Blasio said. “We’re trying everywhere we can to relieve those burdens and make it easier on our people to live a good life in this city.” The fundamental goal of his budget proposal, he said, was to make sure the city is both stronger and fairer in the future.

De Blasio and the City Council will now continue budget negotiations, including another round of Council hearings, before a final deal is reached ahead of the July 1 start of the new fiscal year. It is the final budget of what de Blasio hopes is the first of two terms; the Democratic mayor is seeking re-election this fall.

A number of new investments were outlined Wednesday, several of which had been announced in the lead up to the executive budget. These include an expansion of the successful universal pre-kindergarten program to some three-year-olds in the city at an initial cost of $36 million in fiscal year 2018, increasing to $177 million in fiscal year 2021. The proposal is expected to save eligible families $10,000 annually, and provide $2,400 in additional income every year to one in four families, the mayor said. On Tuesday, the mayor had announced that the city would begin installing air conditioning in all city classrooms, which will cost $28.75 million over the next five years.

Under the ambit of promoting affordability, particularly in the housing market, the mayor spoke of various funding allocations in the 2018 operating budget and longer term capital funding commitments (which are largely paid through debt incurred from borrowing and raising funds). These included a $1.9 billion capital investment to provide affordable housing for seniors and low-income New Yorkers, by adding 10,000 affordable units for households making up to $40,000 a year. Of these, 5,000 units will be dedicated to seniors and 500 to veterans.

De Blasio also touted full funding for anti-eviction legal services for low-income New Yorkers, along with legal counsel for tenants in housing court, which will cost $93 million each year.

The executive budget also includes $355 million to repair facades at 150 public housing developments, which will supplement the $1 billion he announced for NYCHA roof repairs in the preliminary budget.

The massive increase in capital investments add up to $6.25 billion more than the preliminary budget’s proposed capital expenditure, bringing the city’s ten-year capital plan spending to $95.85 billion through 2027.

Among the initiatives to promote affordability are investments in job creation, including $12.8 million for the next three years to train 3,000 New Yorkers in construction jobs in the green economy. There’s also $136 million for the Made in New York campus, a hub for the garment, film and television industries that will create 1,500 jobs and will open in 2020 in Brooklyn.

“We know we cannot invest in everything, but we have to invest where our dollars will go the farthest, where we will have the biggest impact for the money that we spend,” de Blasio said.

Other new planned investments are aimed at public safety and improving quality of life in the city. The administration will put $6.9 million towards a citywide initiative to combat domestic violence. The NYPD will receive $700,000 to expand ShotSpotter technology, which uses audio sensors to detect gunfire in real-time, in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island. The mayor touted a $16 million investment in legal services funding for immigrants facing deportation and other related challenges. And $38 million in fiscal year 2018 will be allocated to HealingNYC, the city’s initiative to reduce opioid overdose deaths by 35 percent in five years.

Quality of life initiatives include a $100 million investment in the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, to construct an esplanade along the East River, and $1.8 million for 14 sidewalk-cleaning trucks under the CleaNYC program. The city will even expand curbside e-waste collection services to the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens over the next three years, after an initial pilot on Staten Island and expansion soon throughout that borough and part of Brooklyn.

The mayor noted risks in the budget from the federal government, as well as both positive and negative impacts from the recently passed state budget.

For instance, $53 million in proposed cuts by Governor Andrew Cuomo to senior centers and health services did not ultimately go through. The state budget also allocated $200 million for NYCHA and another $200 million in water infrastructure funding for the city. However, the state did shift $68 million in costs to the city for foster care and special education services, and did not give the city the authority to use design-build in infrastructure projects, which de Blasio said could have potentially saved the city $450 million. He promised to continue to fight for design-build authority.

But the mayor was confident in the city’s ability to manage challenges as they arose, particularly as it concerned the federal budget, cuts in public housing grants and proposed cuts in anti-terror funds for the NYPD. When asked how he could justify the increased spending in the budget, de Blasio emphasized that the unprecedented uncertainty emanating from the White House would not give the city pause, particularly since proposals that would have been damaging to the city have so far failed -- including the Trump administration’s executive order on immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries, another order cutting federal funds for sanctuary cities, and the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

“We came to a strategic assumption that we think is the right one, that if you have no idea where something is going and no one else does, it’s dangerous to start making decisions based on that reality,” he said. “And It’s counterproductive because it will stop us from making investments that we may need to make that we believe in.”

“We’re just not gonna be paralyzed by uncertainty, we have to keep investing,” he added, stressing that the city has multiple opportunities in the year to modify its budget and ample rainy day funds to meet funding deficits in real time. “We can slow down spending, we can speed up spending..we have a lot of latitude,” he said. “So if we see a danger, we can start acting on that danger very quickly.”

The city has indeed set aside considerable funds in reserves and identified a good deal of savings. Reserves are at the highest in the city’s history, a fact that de Blasio has touted in part to justify increased spending. The city’s general reserve holds $1 billion each year, the Retiree Health Benefits Trust fund holds another $4 billion, and the Capital Stabilization Fund, created under de Blasio, is set to hold $250 million each year for the next four years.

Between the November update to the current fiscal year 2017 budget and Wednesday’s proposed executive budget for 2018, the city found $2.8 billion in savings. That includes $700 million in savings identified this year, with $587 million coming from agency savings, surpassing the mayor’s promise in January that agencies would identify another $500 million in efficiencies in time for the latest spending plan.

Separately, the city projects $1.3 billion in sustained healthcare savings each year through the labor union contracts signed by the administration, mostly in 2014 and 2015. The mayor also announced a partial hiring freeze of certain managerial and administrative staff, and said that by the time the adopted budget passes, the Office of Management and Budget will be able to put a number to how much that will save the city. The government workforce has increased by tens of thousands of employees under de Blasio, but he is now promising to not fill some middle- and upper-level agency positions that are vacant or become vacant.

The City Council, in its response to the preliminary budget released early in April, called on the mayor to increase savings without cuts to essential services, while also pushing certain targeted investments. On Wednesday, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, chair of the finance committee, commended the administration for incorporating some of their prior recommendations and funding additional support for NYCHA, legal services for immigrants and air conditioning for classrooms.

Yet, Mark-Viverito and Ferreras-Copeland, on behalf of the Council, remained concerned that the budget didn’t go far enough in certain areas, and said in a joint statement that the administration needs to “take additional steps to strengthen vital City services.” They noted in particular that the mayor did not increase reserves, “which is an important measure under the current national political uncertainty,” they said and that senior services remained unfunded as did slots for the Summer Youth Employment Program.

“The Fiscal 2018 Executive Budget is a good starting point and we look forward to working with the Mayor in the coming weeks to negotiate a budget that protects our vulnerable communities and uplifts families across the City,” they said.

Although the city’s financial management and ample savings and reserves have been generally praised by fiscal monitors and ratings agencies, the mayor has received criticism for ramping up spending so drastically and growing the size of the municipal government. Under de Blasio, the city’s budget has added $12.2 billion in spending (assuming the adopted budget will reflect the excutive budget's $84.86 billion), a 17 percent increase from the final budget under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which stood at $72.7 billion when it was modified in November 2013.

The Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit fiscal watchdog, reiterated this criticism on Wednesday, pointing out that spending increases were not matched by increased reserves and that budget gaps were growing down the line. The group also criticized the dramatic increase in the capital budget. “In an atmosphere of political and economic uncertainty,” the CBC said in a statement, “the New York City Executive Budget for Fiscal Year 2018 should have exhibited more spending restraint.”

[Related: With No 'Trump-Specific Adjustment,' De Blasio Unveils $84.7 Billion Budget]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio Increases Spending and Savings in $84.86 Billion Executive Budget Wed, 26 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Members Opt Out of Campaign Finance Program Lander Council members

City Council members, with Brad Lander center (photo: William Alatriste)

A first-time entrant into the New York City electoral system stands almost as much a chance of running a solid campaign as long-time political insiders and incumbents. That’s because the New York City campaign finance system includes a public matching funds program, which helps levels the playing field by incentivizing local small-dollar contributions, matching them at a 6-to-1 ratio. In doing so, it also reduces the influence of special interests in elections and helps prevent conflicts of interest or pay-to-play arrangements. The program, run by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, is seen as a national model.

This year, with few competitive races in the 2017 city election cycle, a number of sitting City Council members seem to be eschewing the program, with some having spent significant sums in the past three years and others having already raised more than they could legally spend if they participated. The level of non-participation may to some degree undermine the overall system, though the vast majority of candidates will still participate, and raises questions about those Council members choosing not to opt in. A potential wave, however small, of Council members not participating also drew a rebuke from Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday.

Those who opt to participate in the CFB’s public matching funds program must meet two fundraising thresholds -- a minimum number of contributions from the district or other geographic area covered by the office they seek, and a minimum amount of matchable contributions. For instance, City Council candidates who opt in to the program must receive at least 75 contributions from residents of their district, and contributions up to $175 are matchable with public funds.

The CFB usually issues matching funds the month before the primary, which is on September 12 this year. It also matches a maximum of 55 percent of the spending cap for the seat. For the City Council, the spending cap for candidates who participate in the system is $182,000 each for the primary and general elections. Candidates who do not have an opponent do not receive public funds.

In the 51-seat City Council, more than 40 members are seeking reelection this year in something of a quirk given that some members are pursuing their third term, grandfathered in through the term-limit extension passed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council in 2008.

At least 10 Council members have already surpassed the out-year (the years prior to election year) limit of $49,000 on campaign spending for participants in the program, campaign finance filings show. If any of them were to participate in the program, their over-the-limit spending would be deducted from the election year spending cap.

Certain Council members, such as Julissa Ferreras-Copeland and David Greenfield, have even spent more than the primary limit already and are effectively precluded from participating in the matching funds program since they then would have zero dollars to spend on the first leg of the race. In out-years, Ferreras-Copeland, who is pursuing the position of City Council Speaker, which is elected among Council members in January, spent more than $277,000. Her total spending is $318,000. Greenfield spent nearly $308,000 in out-years, with a total spending of $326,000, largely to air the Council member’s radio program. Greenfield’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

[Related: Council Member Airs Weekly Radio Show Through Campaign Funds]

“Councilwoman Ferreras is not participating because the Councilwoman has successfully raised enough money to communicate effectively with voters,” said a campaign spokesperson in an email, insisting that her choice to not participate in the program “in no way means that she doesn't support it. Quite the contrary. By voting for a stronger program it shows a commitment to increasing participation in the electoral process for challengers regardless of the effect it may have on her own election.”

The public funds program, adopted in 1988, has consistently encouraged competition and allowed candidates with a lack of access to deep pockets, either their own or their donors, to run against wealthier ones. Participation in the program has been overwhelming in the last few cycles. In 2013, 92 percent of candidates in the primary were participants, and 54 of the 59 city elected officials participated. In 2009, participation was 93 percent, and 56 of 59 officials were participants.

It’s currently unclear which members may or may not opt in -- only Council Members Stephen Levin and Robert Cornegy Jr. have officially indicated to the CFB that they will participate. The official deadline for opting in is June 12, less than two months away.

Incumbent Council members who won’t be participating presented varying rationale for their decisions, even as they all acknowledged the public funds program as a model for campaign finance systems nationwide.

“I can raise money without the matching funds,” said Queens Council Member Peter Koo. “Why use public funding if I can do it privately?”

Koo praised the program as an equaliser for first-time candidates. “It’s good, for some people it’s necessary,” he said. “Especially for newcomers, they want to try politics. Their ability to raise funds is not as good as some businesspeople. The system is good as long as they use it fairly and they obey all the rules.”

Council Member Brad Lander doesn’t envision taking matching funds, he said, and has spent $228,000, with just over $219,000 in out-years. But he said he would voluntarily commit to the $182,000 spending cap that applies to participants. “It is a great system and it makes it much more possible for people to run,” he said of the matching funds program, “and if an opponent runs against me in the primary or general election, this system will make sure that they can run against me on an equal playing field.”

“It’s not as simple as participating and not participating,” added Lander, who said he has spent the bulk of his money for “useful, pedestrian public purposes.” Campaign filings show that he has paid at least $80,000 to one firm for fundraising services. “By voluntarily committing to the funding cap, I’m making sure that my race will be fair and competitive and that any opponent who participates in the matching system will be able to utilize it and spend the same amount that I am.”

Last year, the Council moved through a robust set of reforms to the campaign finance system, some of which were prompted by complaints by Council members and candidates who have participated. Some of the nearly two dozen reforms, on the other hand, were those asked for by the Campaign Finance Board after its analysis of the 2013 election cycle and championed by good government groups.

[Related: City Council Rushes Through Campaign Finance Bills]

Lander was one member at the forefront of Council hearings on the proposals, insisting that the reforms would encourage participation and make it easier to run for elected office. Asked if that push for reforms was at odds with his decision to not participate, Lander said, “I don’t think so. I think by committing to the election-year spending cap, I’m fully honoring not just the spirit but the entire goal of the system, [which] is to enable challengers to run against incumbents, everybody to participate on a level playing field. All of that exists in my race.”

A few reasons can explain why Council members may spend significant amounts of money and not participate in the public funds program. It is no coincidence that of the 10 Council members who have passed the outyear limits, at least five have indicated their interest in running for Speaker of the City Council next year. For others, a lack of an opponent might mean that participation is irrelevant.

“Over the years, a number of incumbents who did not face significant opposition have opted not to participate in the program,” said Matt Sollars, a CFB spokesperson, in an email. “Other incumbents join the Program, but decline public funds. But almost every member of the Council has experience with the program; of the 51 members of the City Council, 50 were first elected as program participants.”

Council Member Corey Johnson is one of the members running for Speaker and he conceded that if he faces a primary opponent, he would be hard pressed to participate in the matching funds program because of his $136,000 in spending, with $78,000 of it in the out-years. He also hasn’t thought of whether he will voluntarily abide by the spending cap. “I don’t know at this point,” he said in a brief phone interview.

Johnson also defended the bills passed by the Council last year that tweaked the campaign finance system, some of which seemed to a number of observers, including good government groups, as potentially self-serving. “I think they were smart bills,” he said, “responding to concerns not only raised by incumbent Council members but also by candidates and elected officials who are no longer in office but participated in the program.”

Among the reforms were new restrictions and monitoring mechanisms for nonprofits affiliated with elected officials; elimination of matching funds for contributions bundled by those who do business with the city; greater disclosure requirements for entities with city business; earlier disbursement of public matching funds; and prohibitions on contributions from non-registered political committees to candidates who don’t join the public funds program.

The City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, which has oversight of the CFB, is set to hear a bill on April 27 that would raise the cap on matching funds from 55 percent of the spending cap to a full match of the cap. The bill is sponsored by the committee’s chair, Council Member Ben Kallos, who is a participant in the public funds program and has spearheaded campaign finance reform in the Council. Kallos had reservations about some of the bills that were expedited through the Council late last year and believes his bill will significantly shift the election landscape.

“I was concerned with recent amendments and their impact on the campaign finance system,” he said, “and as we get closer to the June deadline for opting in or out of the system, we will learn just what impact that legislation had and whether it improves participation in the system or actually discourages it. And whatever the results, I hope to create new incentives for people to participate.” The CFB is reviewing Kallos’ proposal and will testify at the hearing.

Government reform advocate Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, expressed concern about incumbents relying heavily on large private donations, instead of public funds. “The city’s campaign finance program with public funds was put in place not just for challengers but for incumbents so that there was not any kind of advantage given to either,” he said. “The fact that some incumbents are also going to abide by the spending limits is a good thing but the source of money is always a concern. Public money lessens the risk of undue influence and corruption. More private money increases that risk.”

Citizens Union was among those that questioned the rationale behind some of the campaign finance reforms that were pushed through the Council, such as allowing non-public campaign funds to be used for broader purposes supporting an elected official’s public duties, and another that prohibits CFB staff from being present in adjudications of campaign violations. Many of these supposed complaints seemed novel and presented solutions to problems that weren’t entirely apparent, critics said.

“That some of these Council members pushed changes to make the program more candidate friendly and then they did not participate when it was accomplished, makes me wonder why they pushed these changes so aggressively if they weren’t going to participate themselves,” Dadey said.

Council Member Mark Levine, another contender for Council Speaker has spent nearly $100,000, and feels comfortable that he is well below the combined out-year and election year spending limit of $231,000 for participants of the program. His participation in the program, he said, “depends on what kind of race I have. I would not take matching funds if I have something less than a viable opponent so I’m waiting to see how the field shapes up.”

He added, “If someone has only a token opponent and takes taxpayer money, I don’t think that’s appropriate and that’s the standard I’m gonna hold myself to.”

At an unrelated news conference on Wednesday, Gotham Gazette asked Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is a proud participant in the public matching funds system, about Council members choosing not to opt in to the program. “I would discourage it,” he said. “I think it’s a mistake. One of the best campaign finance systems in the country. I’ve said many times that one of the reasons I’m mayor is because of that system. I would never have been able to raise the kind of money my competitors were able to raise. Only because of matching funds am I here. I believe it is a tremendous reform. I believe it’s democratizing and everyone should participate in it.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.]]>
City Council Members Opt Out of Campaign Finance Program Wed, 19 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Federal 'Wait and See' Dominates First City Budget Hearing Ferreras-Copeland City Council budget hearing

Council Finance Chair Ferreras-Copeland (two photos: William Alatriste/City Council)

The City Council held its first hearing on Thursday to examine Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $84.7 billion preliminary budget for fiscal year 2018, starting the next phase in a months-long process to determine the city’s spending priorities amid broad uncertainty about its fiscal future.

Roughly $7 billion in federal funding to the city is threatened by the proposed policies of the Trump administration and the Republican Congress in Washington D.C., and those threats have cast a pall over the city’s budgeting. The de Blasio administration and the City Council find themselves having to decide agency allocations and long-term spending with one hand tied behind their backs, while also facing a local economic slowdown that has diminished tax revenues and slowed job growth.

“It is clear that Republican budget priorities will harm our seniors, our children, our first responders, and those seeking quality public housing, job opportunities and affordable medical care,” said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Democrat, in her opening remarks at Thursday’s hearing. And, as if the federal government were adding salt to the wound, she pointed out that the city is being forced to spend millions in providing security at Trump Tower, with reimbursement uncertain.

Mark-Viverito speculated that the federal budget, in which Trump has promised to prioritize defense spending over discretionary programs, could include cuts to Medicaid, education funding, and to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), among other programs that serve the city’s most vulnerable. Trump’s executive order that calls for cutting federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities could, if enforced, hit New York hard, as could a potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which both Trump and Republicans in Congress have promised.

The de Blasio administration has taken stock of the situation -- coupled with some proposed cuts in state funding outlined by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his own January budget proposal -- and has been “cautious” in its budgeting, said Dean Fuleihan, director of the Office of Management and Budget, in his testimony on Thursday.

Appearing before the Council during his annual budget testimony, Fuleihan sought to assure Council members that the administration is prepared for any blowback from federal cuts and is also actively working to prevent those cuts. “We continue to budget strategically, and we remain focused on critical areas including public safety, education and social services,” he said.

Over the course of three hours, Fuleihan took questions from Council members on the city’s savings, reserves, capital appropriations, and on specific policies and programs. Many inquiries related in some way to the fear of federal policies and what budget cuts might mean for the city. But Fuleihan’s testimony seemed light on details, particularly with regards to the mayor’s homelessness plan announced the day before. He explained to the Council that the administration had few cost estimates for the new approach to homelessness -- which focuses on creating new shelters while shutting down the use of cluster sites and hotels -- because much of the plan is predicated on the “reallocation of existing resources” and will require, as with each budget cycle, adjustments and enhancements.

Dean Fuleihan budget hearing

On numerous occasions, when asked for specifics of city programs, Fuleihan (pictured) gave little clarity but promised to follow up, saying, “I’ll be happy to work with you on that.”

Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, a key figure in budget negotiations as chair of the Council’s finance committee, was disappointed in what she heard. “The uncertainty of Trump and what that’ll mean for New York City is something that I think is very real and very valid,” she told reporters after Fuleihan’s testimony. “So I would’ve expected more commitments and more clarity on certain things, especially on the homeless proposal, but now we will have to wait and continue to push, and I’m going to hold his feet to the fire.”

In her own opening, Ferreras-Copeland pressed the administration to create more savings through agency efficiencies, rather than through spending re-estimates, funding shifts and one-time reductions. She had apprehensions about the administration’s ability to handle the crisis looming on the horizon, particularly after hearing Fuleihan’s testimony. “We get the most details in this process from the commissioners,” she told reporters. “But what we will probably hear from commissioners is, ‘I don’t know. Ask OMB.’ That’s the process that unfortunately we will have to face and push back, and push back hard on.”

Fuleihan didn’t agree with Ferreras-Copeland’s assessment, telling reporters outside the Council chambers that he was “surprised” by the reaction. “In terms of preparing for the future, when the mayor made the presentation in the preliminary budget, he was very clear that this was a cautious budget,” he said. “It is a cautious budget. It was cautious on our revenue forecast and our view of the economy. It was cautious on how we presented and how we looked forward on debt service. It was cautious in maintaining historic levels of reserves that the city has never achieved by any measure.”

Fuleihan argued that the city has adequate savings and rainy day funds. The city found $1 billion in savings in the November adjustment to the fiscal year 2017 budget, identified about $1.1 billion in the fiscal year 2018 preliminary budget, and the mayor has promised his administration will find another $500 million by the time the executive budget is released early this spring. Another $1.3 billion will come from healthcare savings in fiscal year 2018, the administration has guaranteed.

There is also $5.2 billion in reserve funds, including $1 billion in the general reserve, $250 million annually for each of four years in the Capital Stabilization Reserve, and $4 billion in the Retiree Health Benefits Fund. “Those dont sound like we don’t know the numbers,” Fuleihan said, “they sound very much like we know the numbers.”

After Thursday’s initial hearing on the overall spending plan in front of the Council finance committee and whichever Council members chose to attend, the Council will now hold weeks of hearings one or two committees at a time, calling before it the relevant city agencies -- the Council health committee will hear from the Department of Health, for example. Friday will see the higher education committee’s preliminary budget hearing.

Besides projected expenditure in the next fiscal year, Thursday’s hearing also focused on the city’s $89.6 billion preliminary ten-year capital strategy. This is the city’s plan for infrastructure spending that is separate from its annual operating budget. A new ten-year capital plan is due every other year.

Council Member Ferreras-Copeland expressed concern that capital appropriations made in excess for the current fiscal year diminish the Council’s oversight authority. “Because of the excess appropriations, the administration can add capital projects during the Fiscal Year without Council input or approval,” she said, promising to make this a central issue in budget discussions.

Other Council members touched on a broad range of budget items, specifically issues that related to committees which they chair or are members of.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, chair of the contracts committee, raised concerns that the city must to do more to fund nonprofit human services providers contracted by the city. Fuleihan, in response, pointed to wage raises provided by the city in the past few years, as well as the 6.12 percent salary increase over three years proposed in the new preliminary budget for fiscal year 2018.

Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who chairs the cultural affairs committee, asked if the administration had taken into account the tax revenue impact of the city’s projected decrease in tourism attributed to Trump administration policies. A recent report by the city foresees a drop of 300,000 tourists this year, meaning $600 million in lost business. “We had assumed that there would be some slowing, if not in the actual numbers then in the amount of spending that may be occurring,” Fuleihan said, promising a fuller analysis in coming weeks. “So we will be very cautious in our revenue estimates.”

As chair of the health committee, Council Member Corey Johnson naturally inquired about how the city’s struggling municipal hospital system, New York City Health + Hospitals, could remain fiscally sound without support from the state, particularly with the Affordable Care Act under attack at the national level. “We’re very comfortable that the current fiscal year, Health and Hospitals is within their budget,” Fuleihan said, noting that the system had actually seen revenue improvements. Like the city’s housing authority, NYCHA, the public hospital system has seen an overhaul of its financial planning under de Blasio, but is still in dire straits, and may be in worse shape based on decisions out of Washington, D.C.

Although Fuleihan promised close collaboration with all the Council members on their budget asks, he didn’t provide in-depth responses. Later, after his testimony, he dismissed the idea that he had little to offer to individual Council members. “There are a series of budget hearings with experts, with commissioners who actually know their areas much better than I do,” he said. “I want to be careful...Any of the general budget questions I answered, and I answered very specifically...and I’m fine answering those. But if somebody’s asking me specific details about an individual project, I want to be careful that I’m giving the accurate information. So that’s all that was.”

Fuleihan’s testimony was followed by that of representatives from the Department of Finance, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and the city’s Independent Budget Office, as each gave their analysis of the city’s fiscal situation and next year’s budget needs.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli also released his report on the city’s fiscal health on Thursday, noting the “external threats” that pose a risk to the city’s budget, including potential federal and state funding cuts.

Stringer reiterated what he said two weeks ago when he first presented his analysis of de Blasio’s preliminary budget, calling on the mayor to add another $1.7 billion to reserves to increase the city’s budget cushion from the current 10 percent to the optimal range between 12 and 18 percent. De Blasio has repeatedly said he is very comfortable with the city’s savings and does plan to keep adding, but he has dismissed Stringer’s calls for a fluffier budget cushion several years running.

The IBO had a somewhat different view of the economy, at least relative to city projections, predicting $262 million more in tax revenues than the administration’s forecast but also projecting $308 million in additional expenditure needs for homeless services and education. The IBO’s report, released Thursday morning, also stated that budget reserves may not be sufficient for long. “Although these reserve funds would enable the city to weather a small budgetary storm they would not buttress against a much longer budgetary event,” it reads. “Nor could the existing reserve funds replace the loss of all current federal funding.”

The next city fiscal year starts July 1.

[Read: Several Specific Funding Debates as City Budget Season Begins]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Federal 'Wait and See' Dominates First City Budget Hearing Thu, 02 Mar 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Several Points of Funding Contention for City Budget Negotiation de Blasio

Mayor de Blasio presents his budget (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The city’s annual budget season kicked off on January 25 with the release of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $84.7 billion preliminary budget for fiscal year 2018, which begins July 1. Starting Thursday, the City Council will hold weeks of hearings to examine the financial plan, listening to testimony from city officials and gauging the needs and allocations of city agencies. As usual, stakeholders across the board -- City Council members, other city elected officials, nonprofit organizations -- are making their budget priorities known, pushing for funding for the next fiscal year. Negotiation will continue until a new budget deal is reached between de Blasio and the Council sometime in June.

As the major areas of contention become clear, some remain from recent years, while others are new, and questions loom over the city budget cycle due to uncertainty in Washington, D.C., state funding shifts being proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and a slowing city economy. Along with a debate over how much the city should be putting aside in savings, additional funding is being sought for initiatives like free universal school lunch, reduced-price MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, the Parks Department workforce, and more.

After it holds a round of hearings, the City Council will release an official response to the mayor’s preliminary spending plan. Then, the mayor will release his executive budget, kicking off another round of Council hearings before the two sides move to closed-door negotiations and come to a final agreement. All the while, elected officials, advocates, service providers, and others will be lobbying, holding press conferences and rallies, writing op-eds, and seeking to influence the budget process to their desired outcomes.

As with last year’s budget cycle, de Blasio has tried to ensure that city agencies are creating larger savings and reserve funds are being set aside for rainy day spending. The city has strong reserves that have been accrued even as the city budget has expanded rapidly under de Blasio and this City Council, thanks in large part to a booming city economy and strong tax revenues. Still, City Council members, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and fiscal watchdog groups have all called on the mayor to do more, particularly since the city is beginning to feel the effects of a widely predicted economic slowdown and also faces the threat of potential funding cuts from the federal government.

“While the Mayor’s Preliminary Budget increases real programmatic savings, there is room to find additional, lasting savings across all agencies,” said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, chair of the finance committee, in a joint statement after the mayor released his preliminary budget. Mark-Viverito and Ferreras-Copeland will head the Council’s budget negotiations with the administration.

Stringer, the city’s chief fiscal officer, echoed the call for increased savings. “City agencies must do more to scrub their budgets and operations to identify more savings and efficiencies to help address our risks,” he said when presenting his analysis of the preliminary budget on Feb. 15. He pointed out that agencies have contributed an average of 1 percent to the city’s savings under Mayor de Blasio, as opposed to 2.7 percent before 2014. He also pushed for increasing the city’s budget cushion from the current 10 percent ($8.5 billion) for fiscal year 2018 to anywhere between 12 percent and 18 percent.

The Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit fiscal watchdog, has similarly stated that agencies should “identify agency improvements” to find an additional $500 million in savings which the mayor promised would be included in his executive budget. “Reducing unnecessary spending allows the City to direct resources effectively and build larger reserves as New York City’s economy shows signs of slowing and uncertainty remains around the future of federal funding,” wrote Riley Edwards, CBC research associate, in a blog post.

While the city relies on about $7-8 billion in federal funding annually, it is unclear how President Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress will approach upcoming budget negotiations and funding for New York City. Trump has threatened to pursue funding cuts for so-called sanctuary cities, which are those like New York that welcome and protect undocumented immigrants.

The proposed preliminary budget contains $1 billion in new spending, but elected officials and nonprofit groups have identified a number of priorities they would like to see funded in the next fiscal year. Certain budget requests have even persisted from last year, for instance nonprofit human services organizations that contract with the city are calling for increased funding yet again, and Council members are pushing for full funding for the Summer Youth Employment program. A closer look at those and several other points of significant funding debate:

Human Services Nonprofit Funding: City-contracted nonprofits provide a range of human services such as homelessness prevention, mental health care, after-school programming, to mention a few. These organizations and their employees have been facing economic challenges due to funding levels. In the preliminary budget, de Blasio proposed 2 percent annual wage raises for the next three years for 90,000 nonprofit employees. However, these nonprofits have been underfunded for years under prior administrations and are calling on the de Blasio administration to increase their contracts by 12 percent across the board, for a $500 million price tag, to fully cover programmatic and overhead costs.

Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP): Last year, at the urging of Council members, the city baselined $39 million in funding for 60,000 slots for SYEP, which provides six weeks of paid work to people 14- to 24-years-old. This year, the preliminary budget includes another $9.3 million to baseline another 5,000 slots. But Council members are disappointed with that number, particularly since a task force created last year to study the program has not issued its recommendations yet. The members want those findings to have bearing on the final funding in the executive budget, with the ultimate goal of reaching 100,000 slots in the program.

“Fair Fares” Funding: Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, transit advocates, and nonprofit groups are calling on the mayor to fund the “Fair Fares” proposal, which would provide half-price MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers. The proposal would cost about $200 million and affect around 800,000 commuters. The mayor has called it “a good meaningful proposal” but insists that the city cannot afford it and funding must come from Albany since the MTA is a state-run agency.

Universal Free School Lunch: Advocates and elected officials have been pushing Mayor de Blasio to follow through on a 2013 campaign promise and provide universal free lunch for all of the city’s 1.1 million public school children. According to the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), about 47,000 more children would get free lunches if the program became universal, and 92 percent of the cost would be covered by the state and federal governments. Proponents of universal free lunch argue that it would remove the stigma associated with the current program, which gives free lunches to low-income and homeless children.

“I am also deeply disappointed that once again, the Mayor has failed to fulfill his campaign promise to provide universal free lunch,” said Public Advocate Letitia James, in her response to the mayor’s preliminary budget. “No matter how much we do for our schools, if our students aren’t well-fed, they won’t be able to learn. To truly give our children endless opportunities, we must give them the best tools to succeed.”

Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates, and leader of the Lunch 4 Learning campaign, said in a press release, “Hungry children face great disadvantages academically. By breaking his word and excluding Universal Free School Lunch from the preliminary budget again this year, the Mayor has made it clear that educational equity and economic inequality are not priorities, after all.”

Public Housing Investment: Mayor de Blasio allocated $1 billion in capital funds in his revised capital spending plan towards roof repairs at 729 NYCHA buildings, putting a dent in the $17 billion in capital needs at the public housing authority. However, Council Member Ritchie Torres, who chairs the Council’s public housing committee, and others believe the city should be investing more. “A 10-year $1 billion commitment to public housing might sound substantial but it represents crumbs,” Torres told the The Daily News. “The city should be stepping up. If the city can invest $2 billion in an elaborate street car, surely it can invest more in public housing,” Torres said, referring to the mayor’s BQX streetcar plan.

Expanding Citi Bike: Council members and transit advocates rallied outside City Hall in January calling on the mayor to provide public funds for a citywide expansion of the Citi Bike program. “Though the bike sharing program has been a runaway success in some parts of the city, it has also left the outer boroughs and many low-income neighborhoods significantly underrepresented,” said Council Member Mark Levine, in a press release.

The program, which is currently completely privately funded, is expected to expand to 12,000 bikes by the end of the year, but would need between 70,000 to 80,000 bikes to cover the entire city, according to estimates from the Department of Transportation. Installing 2,000 new bikes costs about $12 million, AM New York reported.

Council Member Rodriguez, chair of the Council’s transportation committee, has called for public investment in Citi Bike, but the mayor has said he has no plans to do so at this time. At a press conference alongside Rodriguez, the mayor did say that budget negotiations are just beginning, though. “It’s a discussion we’re always willing to have with the folks who run Citi Bike,” de Blasio told Gotham Gazette at a recent news conference, “about how we can work with them in terms of their future and allowing it to be strong and hopefully continue to expand, but we have never committed public funds, and we do not have plans to.”

Rodriguez, who was also at the news conference, then said, “I hope that the conversation will continue. I believe that we can look at possibilities at some point to bring the public dollars though. So this is something that the private sector, they had to do more in order to bring Citi bike through the whole five boroughs.”

Expanding Homebuyer Loan Program: Council Member Rafael Espinal has called on the mayor to increase city help for those looking to make a home purchase. Espinal wants the city to double New York City Housing Preservation and Development’s HomeFirst Down Payment Assistance Loan Program and to raise the cap of the loan from $15,000 to $30,000 at minimum. “As property values continue to spike, this program must reflect those increases to actually enable homeownership,” Espinal said in a statement.

Homecare Services Funding: AARP New York and LiveOn NY, two of New York’s largest senior advocacy organizations, were disappointed with the mayor’s preliminary budget for its “status quo” funding of $4.3 million for senior homecare services. These services have been underfunded for years, they say, noting that the waitlists for senior home care increased by 15 percent in the two months after last year’s budget was adopted.

“Homecare services are a win-win for all; they help New Yorkers age with dignity in their own homes - where most want to stay - while helping avoid even more expensive, taxpayer-funded institutional care settings,” said Beth Finkel, state director of AARP New York, in a statement. The two organizations say the $4.3 million should be baselined, and further funding allocated, to ensure adequate services for a senior population that is expected to increase by 40 percent between 2010 and 2040.

Parks Department Funding: Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the Council’s parks committee, criticized the mayor’s preliminary budget for yet again excluding funding for 150 parks workers, pointing out that the Council had to fund these positions in each of the last two years. “A thriving park system isn’t just a luxury in a dense city of 8.5 million people. It’s essential to livability,” Levine said in a statement, noting that these workers are critical for the city’s Park Equity Agenda that aims to improve long-neglected parks in low-to-moderate-income neighborhoods.

Lynn Kelly, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, said in a statement that the mayor should baseline the funding. “Parks are critical pieces of infrastructure, as essential to the health of our city as quality roads, schools and sewers,” Kelly said. “Infrastructure isn’t just bricks and mortar; it’s also the dedicated maintenance staff who keep it up and running.”

Funding Curbside Pickup Program: Last year, the city funded a pilot program in Staten Island, proposed by Council Member Steven Matteo, allowing residents to request curbside pickups of electronic waste for recycling. Matteo pledged on Twitter last month that he would make it a priority this budget season to push for permanent funding for the program.

Veterans Department Funding: The Department of Veterans Services, which was fully established as a standalone agency last year, saw a planned $318,000 reduction in the preliminary budget from $3.95 million to $3.63 million. The reduction came from one-time costs incurred in setting up the department, but veterans advocates and elected officials were nonetheless dissatisfied and called for not only restoring the funding but expanding it further.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Several Points of Funding Contention for City Budget Negotiation Mon, 27 Feb 2017 05:00:00 +0000