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Opinion

Battles Over the MTA’s Long-Term Planning are About to Really Heat Up


govandrewcuomo canarsie engineer

(photo: governor's office)


For those of us who want the MTA to finish a favorite project before our grandchildren are retired, now is the absolute best time to let Governor Cuomo know how you feel. The MTA is finalizing a document that will shape the New York region’s public transportation system for decades. Construction firms, unions, suppliers, and real estate interests are all lobbying the MTA to protect and further their own interests.

Every five years, the MTA issues a report of its capital needs for the next 20 years. This document identifies projects designed to improve travel for subway, bus, and railroad riders as well as for the drivers who cross the MTA’s seven bridges and two tunnels. The upcoming report will identify the transportation system’s critical needs and more than $100 billion worth of projects that the MTA deems essential. This is an extraordinary amount of money considering that the federal government ’s contribution to the MTA’s capital program has been less than $1.5 billion per year (and its contribution to all 6,800 public transportation systems across the country totals only about $13 billion per year).

The MTA’s 20-year needs assessment will set the stage in the fall for yet another document, a five-year capital program. The proposed program will identify which projects in the 20-year needs assessment should begin between 2020 and 2024. Aside from the state’s budget, the MTA’s five-year capital program is one of the most important and controversial items that the Legislature deals with on a regular basis.

In 1999, the MTA released a 20-year needs document that reflected the priorities of Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The MTA saw the need to relieve crowding on the Lexington Avenue line and provide subway service to the Jacob Javits Convention Center. The MTA subsequently built three new subway stations on Second Avenue and extended the No. 7 train to the far West Side. Some of the initiatives identified in 1999 have not panned out though, such as extending subway service to LaGuardia Airport.

The current five-year capital program, which ends this year, has allocated approximately $33 billion to upgrade the transportation network, including purchasing new rail cars, modernizing signals and stations, and building new maintenance facilities. Nearly one-quarter of the program has been devoted to major expansion projects. These initiatives are the ones that are the most debated and anticipated, and include bringing the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal, preliminary construction for the second phase of the Second Avenue Subway, and engineering for work that will allow Metro-North to access Penn Station and build four new Bronx stations.

The MTA will propose to spend even more over the next 20 years than it has in the previous two decades. New York City’s population and train ridership have grown more than planners expected 20 years ago. Moreover, New Yorkers want the MTA to provide modern and safe services, and the bar that defines such a system is continuously raised. The new subway stations on Second Avenue have become today's minimum standard: spacious and quiet stations with numerous escalators, elevators, and electronic signs, along with platforms that are cooled on hot summer days.

One thing is very different about this year’s preparation for the 20-year needs assessment and capital program. Five years ago, Governor Cuomo paid little attention to the MTA. Now, the governor is intimately involved with the MTA’s planning and operations. The MTA’s 20-years assessment will be, in effect, the governor’s 20-year vision for the future of transportation in New York City, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley.

Undoubtedly, the MTA’s 20-year needs assessment will state that the authority will connect Metro-North to Penn Station and Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal. The second and third phases of the Second Avenue subway are also likely to be considered essential. This would extend the subway north from 96th Street to 125th Street and south from 63rd Street to Houston Street. Future phases of the Second Avenue subway, including extending it to Wall Street, may not be in the 20-year needs assessment, indicating that construction will not begin until after 2040.

The document will probably also indicate that the MTA needs at least $6 billion per year to maintain and upgrade its equipment and facilities. There will be a huge gap between the amount of money available and the MTA’s needs. Hopefully, the state does not burden future generations with excessive debt. In recent years, the MTA has been unable to appreciably improve service because it is spending more than $2.5 billion annually on principal and interest to pay back the money it borrowed to finance its previous capital programs.

The 20-year needs document will reveal the governor’s thinking about how he wants to allocate funds between suburban and city projects, as well between new expansion projects and basic infrastructure projects. When it comes to the most expensive projects, he will have to choose between those that would help spur new growth (like the extension of the 7 train has done in Hudson Yards) or ones that alleviate existing subway congestion (like continuing the Second Avenue Subway). The 20-year assessment and 5-year capital program will also indicate how the governor plans on accommodating the preferences of key players in the funding debate including Mayor de Blasio and the leaders of the State Senate and State Assembly.

One caveat about the assessment report and how it will be indicative of the MTA’s level of transparency and accountability. Officials might not want to release the document for many reasons. For example, despite the passage of a congestion pricing program, it is likely to show the need to raise future taxes, tolls, and fares. Likewise, the report will reveal how the MTA is slipping behind certain goals that it had set to upgrade its sprawling network. Just because the MTA has issued these reports every five years does not mean it will release one this year. That would be a shame because the public and elected officials should be aware of the progress that the MTA has been making, and to better understand its ongoing and enormous needs.

For the rest of the year, elected officials will argue vociferously, in public and behind the scenes, about funding levels and specific projects. Although the media and public opinion will shape the final outcome, savvy interest groups know that the best time to push for their favorite projects is now.

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Philip Plotch is a political science professor at Saint Peter’s University and the author of Politics Across the Hudson: The Tappan Zee Megaproject. His book about the Second Avenue subway (The Last Subway) will be published by Cornell University Press in the first quarter of 2020. On Twitter @profplotch.

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As Early Childhood Educators Consider Strike, New York City Must Achieve Pay Parity


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


We know now, more than ever, just how malleable the mind of a young child is, and we understand that the earlier we begin engaging a child’s mind, the better off that child will be. Early childhood education can positively impact the academic, social, and emotional development of children, while providing much-needed financial relief for our city’s low-income families with children, for whom child care is a major expense.

Our city recognizes the significance early childhood education has, both for children and families. Mayor de Blasio’s commitment to investing in and expanding his Universal Pre-K and 3-K initiatives is proof of that, and we wholeheartedly support these programs because they help level the playing field for some of our city’s most vulnerable families.

Yet it is unconscionable that while the programs continue to grow, City Hall has failed to address a significant inequity that threatens the very success of the initiatives – the fair pay of teachers. Our children deserve the best opportunities we can give them, and in order for that to happen, we need to fairly compensate those who dedicate themselves to caring for our children and providing that critical, quality early education.

Most of the children who are currently enrolled in the Universal Pre-K program attend programs offered by community-based organizations (CBOs), where early childhood educators are rightfully fighting for wage parity that can help level the playing field for them and their families, as well. CBO-based pre-K teachers with bachelor’s degrees earn significantly less than their counterparts with the Department of Education (DOE) -- and often work more hours for a longer school year.

A CBO-based certified teacher with five years of experience makes approximately $42,000, while DOE counterparts with the same credentials earn closer to $60,000. The gap in salary widens over time — nearly doubling at 10 years of experience. A DOE pre-K teacher with a master’s degree and 20 years of experience can earn as much as $91,000 annually, while a CBO-based teacher with identical credentials can max out at approximately $50,000.

The same job responsibilities, the same experience, and the same qualifications for significantly less money. It’s not right, and it isn’t fair.

It’s no surprise that many CBO-based early childhood programs struggle to hold on to quality educators. Wage disparity demoralizes educators at CBOs -- many of whom are women of color -- and puts them in the unfair position of having to choose between the work they have passionately dedicated their lives to and caring for their own families. How can we expect our children to be properly educated and cared for if those tasked with that responsibility aren’t provided with the resources to do the same for their own?

Many of these educators are forced to look elsewhere for employment as a result, and that frequent turnover can have a destabilizing effect on the development of a young child’s mind. The longer we continue to drastically underpay non-DOE early childhood educators, the likelier it becomes that more and more of the early childhood programs that so many of our city’s families rely on will be forced to close their doors.

In the City Council, we pushed for funding for pay parity to be a part of the fiscal year 2019 budget, following a summer hearing on the Early Learn transition to DOE. At the hearing, we made it clear that pay parity needed to be addressed, but the de Blasio administration failed to see the same urgency, instead promising that the issue will be resolved during contract negotiations. That still has not happened and the mayor is out of time.

When the administration released a new round of contracts for early childhood services, it failed to include the increased funding that community providers were looking for, making clear that there is a lack of urgency or interest in addressing this problem. We need real solutions, not gestures.

The City Council just released its response to the mayor’s fiscal year 2020 preliminary budget proposal, and under the leadership of Speaker Corey Johnson, we are specifically calling on the mayor to include an $89 million investment that would close the wage gap. Securing this funding in the budget would create stability for these educators, as well as the program and the community-based organizations that provide many of these services. It's the right thing to do.

Teacher strikes have picked up momentum across the country for better pay and improved classroom conditions; and now, early childhood educators are deciding whether to strike here in New York City. We stand with teachers in calling for wage parity for early childhood educators and know that this decision does not come lightly. It is only after years of underpayment and efforts toward a resolution.

At a time when the mayor and his administration rightfully strive for the need for a school system that provides ‘equity and excellence for all,’ what sort of message are we sending by so drastically underpaying the teachers who primarily care for and educate children from low-income families? We’re not just shortchanging these educators; we’re shortchanging the students they teach, their families, and our city’s communities.

We want a school system that gives every single student in our city the same opportunities to succeed – that simply cannot happen if the system itself is unstable. A teacher’s salary should not depend on the type of contract they have with the city, but too often, it does. It is time that we correct the inequities of our system and support professionals who work hard to ensure that every child is getting the proper head start on development they deserve.

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Mark Treyger is the chair of the City Council’s Committee on Education. Stephen Levin chairs the City Council’s Committee on General Welfare. On Twitter @MarkTreyger718 & @StephenLevin33.

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City Council Fire Department Proposals Don't Match Need for Reform


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Last week the City Council presented its response to Mayor de Blasio’s preliminary budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. It proposes to add $1.5 billion in annual operating expenditures and more than $1 billion in capital spending to the budget proposed by the mayor. Among the proposals are four that would significantly increase spending on the Fire Department and for which there is no clear justification other than political expediency. Two of them would not only be expensive, but would undermine provisions of contracts agreed to through collective bargaining.

First, the Council would add a fifth firefighter to 20 engine companies across the city. Most fire engines are staffed with four firefighters as is the practice in most fire departments across the country.

The 2015 contract with the Uniformed Firefighters Association (UFA) added a firefighter to 20 companies to be phased in over four years, in exchange for agreement that the absentee rate be kept below 7.5 percent. High absenteeism has been a problem at the FDNY, which contributes to high overtime expense.

The trade-off of adding staffing (and hence, new hires) while offsetting some of the cost through reduced absenteeism is exactly the type of mutually-achieved productivity measure that the de Blasio administration proudly touts as part of its approach to labor relations.

Yet last December, when the fifth firefighter was taken off the engines because the absentee rate rose over its agreed cap, the UFA complained vehemently. The mayor reinstated the staffing after there were media reports about the disagreement. Now, the Council proposes adding another 20 firefighters without any linkage to the absentee cap. The location of the engine companies to be increased and/or criteria for making these additions is not specified by the Council.

It is certainly true, as the Council notes, that FDNY call volume has been rising, but the calls are not for fires for which an additional firefighter to stretch out water hoses would be deployed, but for medical emergencies.

Less than 2% of all calls answered by the FDNY city-wide are for fires. The vast majority of calls are for some kind of medical situation. While engine companies answer most of these calls because they can get to them most quickly, they cannot administer most medical services or transport sick people to the hospital, so an ambulance usually must follow the fire engine to these incidents. Therefore, an additional firefighter does nothing to improve or increase response to the vast majority of fire engine runs as the Council implies.

The additional staff would effectively repeal a labor contract provision. Would the Council ever propose to legislatively overrule a contract provision that is regarded by a union as favorable to its interests? Doubtful.

The FDNY most definitely needs to rethink and reallocate staff to adapt to the fact that it has become primarily a medical-emergency, not a fire-fighting, organization. The last thing it needs is more staff who are not trained to administer to medical needs, hired to increase headcount and the number of UFA members. Not only should the mayor reject this proposal, he should direct the Fire Commissioner to re-institute the contractual link between the current five-staff engines and the absentee rate.

Second, the Council wants to add $17 million in capital funding to establish a third EMS station on Staten Island. But EMS runs for life-threatening incidents have grown less on Staten Island than in any other borough over the last year.

Nor is there justification for creating a $32 million firehouse in Hudson Yards. The UFA has been advocating for a station in this new neighborhood since work on the development began. There are EMS ambulances posted in the area and three fire stations nearby. All of the brand new buildings in Hudson Yards have the latest fire safety technology and there is no reason to expect significant increases in fire calls in the area, yet the Council and the UFA want to allocate 45 new permanent firefighter positions, adding more than $4 million to annual FDNY personnel costs.

Finally, there is a call to “re-evaluate public sector wages across the board and plan to correct disparities.” Among the “egregious” disparities noted are those of emergency medical service technicians and paramedics who earn less than firefighters. The Council calls on the FDNY to reset wage rates for its workers.

No cost estimate for this recommendation is included but raising all EMTs and paramedics to the same salaries as firefighters with the same years of service would cost an additional $67.5 million a year, plus an additional $10.5 million in additional costs for increased pension and payroll tax contributions, according to Citizens Budget Commission. This magnitude of expense should not be imposed outside the collective bargaining process, during which other issues like potential productivity offsets can be taken into account.

It is true that the lower salaries and higher workloads of EMTs compared to firefighters are contributing to relatively high overtime and staff turnover. The FDNY needs to be re-engineered to acknowledge and improve its primary function as a medical emergency service; simply paying EMTs and paramedics much more would just be a band-aid on a larger problem, and a very expensive one.

New Yorkers respect and appreciate the valiant service of our firefighters and our emergency medical service personnel. It is possible that some or all of the additional costs of the Council’s proposals could be offset by reducing unneeded, expensive fire stations, and bills introduced by Council Member Joseph Borelli to require ongoing evaluation of the impact of new development on EMS service would provide real data upon which to base future resource allocation decisions. But the Council’s reaction to changed conditions in its budget response is solely to spend more on everything.

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Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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New York City Should Have a Comprehensive Plan


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(Photo: Spencer T Tucker/Mayor's office)


The 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission is deliberating whether to propose to voters in November that a requirement for a comprehensive city plan be added to the charter.

Should New York City have a comprehensive, well-considered plan?
Yes.

A comprehensive, well considered, plan should be good for everyone. It would involve all of us in the creation and maintenance of a shared vision for our city and its neighborhoods. It would provide predictability for communities, property owners, developers, elected officials, and municipal and state agencies.  

It would provide an agreed plan on which to base the expeditious adoption of regulations such as zoning. It would make it easier to base actions on the intention, and not just the words, of a regulation, such as zoning.

It would promote coordination among agencies at neighborhood, community, borough, city, and regional levels. It would allow for more rapid approval of projects and proposals consistent with the plan.

Is the Zoning Resolution New York City’s comprehensive, well-considered plan?
Yes and No.  

New York State law requires New York City to base its land use regulations on a comprehensive plan. However, the law allows two versions of a comprehensive plan: statutory and common law.  (See Zoning and the Comprehensive Plan for a discussion of the distinction between the two approaches.)

The statutory approach calls for the adoption of a defined comprehensive plan on which zoning is based; the common law approach accepts the existing regulations and their history as the comprehensive plan. The latter approach allows the City to treat the zoning resolution as its comprehensive plan.

Using the Zoning Resolution as a comprehensive plan is, therefore, legally permissible but fundamentally wrong. Why?

First, zoning is but one tool in a regulatory regime intended to implement a common vision for our urban environment. Other tools include the City Map, the building code, the State Multiple Dwelling Law, street design standards, park design standards, landmark designations, development incentives such as J51 and 421a, inclusionary housing programs, industrial retention programs, measures to deal with residential displacement, the capital budget, and more.

Second, the Zoning Resolution addresses only a portion of our urban environment and is therefore not comprehensive. It deals only with land use and building density and form. It does not address matters outside of zoning, such as providing schools or parks or subways. A comprehensive plan would address much more than the Zoning Resolution does.  

What might a comprehensive plan for New York City look like?
In 1969, during the Lindsay administration, New York City’s Department of City Planning published Plan for New York City.

The plan was in six volumes: the first volume addressed the general vision for the city and the following five volumes spoke to what was happening in each of the five boroughs. The borough volumes had a chapter for each community district and additional chapters for special planning and urban design projects. The document was part vision and part inventory. (See CityLand for a discussion of the creation of the plan with former CPC chair Don Elliott.)

More recently the Bloomberg administration published PlaNYC and the de Blasio administration publishes OneNYC. Both offer a counterpart to the vision volume of the 1969 document without offering counterparts for the community chapters.

A comprehensive plan for New York City should include both a city-wide vision and community-centric plans. The city-wide vision rightly comes from the administration after consultation with all. The community-centric plans are provided for by section 197a of the City Charter, which encourages local groups, including community boards and borough presidents, to offer plans.

A comprehensive plan needs to comprise at least three dimensions:

One, it needs to address the full range of issues that concern a location.

Two, it needs to address the issues at the appropriate geographical levels – community, county, city, region.

And three, it needs to address the issues as they evolve over time.

(See Planning One Great City for All.)

For example?
Supertall residential towers, using gerrymandered zoning lots, mechanical voids, and stilts to increase their heights (see San Gimignano), have raised questions about the intention of our zoning regulations.

Currently one looks to the Zoning Resolution and reads that mechanical space does not count as zoning floor area. This suggests that a mechanical space in a building, no matter the height of the space, does not count as zoning floor area; which allows even tower-on-a-base buildings to loft the expensive apartments to extraordinary heights. However, if one reads the City Planning Commission reports on tower-on-a-base development or the Special Lincoln Square District one sees that the buildings were intended to be no more than approximately 33 floors and approximately 330 feet tall.

If one were to treat these City Planning Commission reports, rather than the text of the Zoning Resolution, as the comprehensive plan there would be a basis to disapprove a building under tower-on-a-base or Special Lincoln Square District rules taller than approximately 330 feet.

Therefore, a well-considered comprehensive plan would be a better basis than the text of an actual regulation to understand what the regulation was intended to accomplish.

Is a comprehensive plan too difficult for New York City?
Maybe.  

The 1969 Plan for New York City was not submitted to the Board of Estimate or City Council for approval and neither PlaNYC nor OneNYC were submitted to the City Council for approval, as required by the statutory approach to establishing a comprehensive plan.

One anticipates that preparing and adopting such a plan would be contentious and procedurally difficult. However, one hopes that the process would be constructive for all involved, fostering democratic deliberation and giving citizens, municipal employees, and elected officials experience with better governance. One also hopes that achieving a shared vision for the future of our city would facilitate the implementation of the plan and expedite the review of projects consistent with it.

Should New York City’s Charter be amended to require a real comprehensive plan?
Yes.  

The 2019 Charter Revision Commission should recommend to voters this November that the City Charter be amended to create and maintain a living comprehensive plan. This should include provisions that:

The city-wide parts of the plan be prepared by the mayoral administration in consultation with all interested parties and that the community-centric parts of the plan be prepared jointly by the applicable community board, borough president, and the city administration.

The plan should be revised frequently to keep it current with evolving conditions and goals.

Zoning and other regulations be amended to be consistent with the plan.

Agency actions be consistent with the plan.

Actions that are consistent with the plan qualify for expedited approval including abbreviated land use review (ULURP) and community/environmental impact (CEQR).

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John P. West III has 49 years of professional experience in urban design, city planning, and real estate development, mostly in New York City, and is head of the City Club's Urban Design Committee, a consultant to BFJ Planning, and a member of the MAS Planning Committee and the AIANY Urban Design and Planning Committee, among other roles. In the past, he was on the Zoning Committee of REBNY, chair of the Development Committee of the Long Island City Development Corporation, now the LIC Partnership, and a member of Manhattan Community Board Six for 40 years, among other roles.

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Take Down Cuomo’s Creeping Cameras


gov andrewcuomo int

(Photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


For nearly a year, activists have raised alarm-bells about how New York is creating the digital equivalent of widespread “stop & frisk” -- expansive new surveillance systems. One of the latest missteps comes from Governor Andrew Cuomo, who last July launched an MTA facial recognition program to scan drivers as they cross bridges and tunnels. For months, simply commuting to work may have involved a criminal background check for countless New Yorkers.

New reports show that the program might not just have been invasive, but also ineffective. So far, the pricey pilot project hasn’t matched a single driver’s face, according to the Wall Street Journal. But that may actually be good news. When the program launched, the governor was quick to tout its benefits, but reluctant to share some of the most basic information – where are the photos stored, who has access, how do we prevent abuse? Even without a response, we have a pretty good guess at the answer; the truth is that we’ve been down this road before.

For years, the NYPD has maintained automated license plate readers across New York City’s bridges and tunnels -- hi-tech cameras that capture dozens of plates every minute. The photos are run through optical character recognition software like what is found on many home and office scanners, creating a digital database entry for each car. There is nothing inherently wrong with license-plate readers, but the question is the same as for Cuomo’s cameras: who has the data?

In 2015, we found out the answer for license plate readers, and it came as a shock. Under a contract with Vigilant Solutions, a shadowy private corporation, police departments all across the country would have access to the information from New York’s readers. A lot of security hawks said it was no big deal at the time; that it was even a good thing to share New Yorkers’ private data more widely. But in January of last year came the wake-up call: ICE (federal immigration and customs enforcement) signed a contract with Vigilant Solutions and would get the license plate data too.

That’s right, for more than a year, NYPD data has potentially been used for immigration enforcement under the Trump regime, making a lie of the promise of a “sanctuary city.” What was the political response: nothing. Now, the situation could easily get worse.

License plate readers track just one thing: the car. But Cuomo’s cameras have the potential to track everyone in the vehicle, even children. This combination can multiply the risks to immigrant New Yorkers. Under this policy, simply sitting in the passenger seat may be enough to reveal someone’s location to ICE. And that’s just the danger when these expensive boondoggles work as designed. All too often, they get it completely wrong.

Reading license plates is child’s play compared to facial recognition. A license plate is designed to be read from far away; a short string of letters and numbers in high-contrast paint. You couldn’t have an easier target, and yet the software still makes mistakes. We’ve seen it with our home and office scanners, like the “1” that becomes an “L” or spaces that disappear.

When scanner errors happen at home or the office, it’s frustrating. When it happens with license plate readers, it means being stopped by the police, or worse. People have had guns pointed at them, had their door broken-down, and more, just because of faulty license plate readers.

If these systems have problems recognizing plates, how are they going to recognize faces? A license plate never cuts its hair or grows a beard. It never puts on makeup or a disguise. Given all the ways that appearances change, Cuomo’s cameras will inevitably get it wrong, and it will have tragic consequences for some. Sadly, for immigrant families, some will also face tragic consequences when the cameras get it right.

Until Governor Cuomo implements the privacy safeguards needed to keep New Yorkers safe, facial recognition surveillance has no place in our state.

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Albert Fox Cahn is the executive director of The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a New York–based civil rights and police accountability organization. On Twitter @cahnlawny.

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The Devilish Details of Albany’s MTA Budget Package


govcuomo photos

(photo: governor's office)


My organization, Reinvent Albany, applauds Governor Cuomo and the legislature for passing congestion pricing in the state budget. Yet we are concerned about it being undermined by boundless exemptions for politically powerful interest groups, and a proliferation of other new structures and requirements for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) that passed along with the tolling program.

Paradoxically, the MTA legislative “reform” package also included a deal for the Legislature to approve new CEO/Chair Pat Foye without the extensive confirmation hearings and scrutiny expected for the head of the MTA—a behemoth that is the biggest unit of state government, with a $17 billion operating budget and 75,000 staff.

We believe the net effect of the changes made to the MTA further confuse decision-making and aggravate the lack of public accountability.

We will be living with the details of the “MTA Reform and Traffic Mobility Act” for years, so it is worth taking a detailed look. Below is a summary of the various provisions and our brief analysis. (Those interested in reading the 30+ pages of law that makes up the package can read Part ZZZ -- yes, ZZZ -- of the state budget's Revenue Bill).

1. Congestion Pricing
Congestion pricing is officially known in law as the “Central Business District Tolling Program.” The program will be designed and implemented by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (known as MTA Bridges and Tunnels or informally as B&T), with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) laying out the details of how B&T will coordinate with the New York City Department of Transportation to get the program up and running. The law also gives B&T enforcement officers the power to issue notices of violations for transit infractions around B&T facilities, including the new tolling infrastructure.

The Central Business District is defined as 60th Street and south in Manhattan, but for FDR Drive, the West Side Highway, and the underpass to the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel (formerly the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel).

Tolls will be charged to vehicles entering the Central Business District by the B&T, with the amount of the tolls to be determined and approved by a majority of the MTA Board, as well as any exemptions. This will be informed by a new Traffic Mobility Review Board (TMRB). The CEO/Chair gets an additional vote if there is a tie.

The TMRB is to be appointed by the MTA Board. The TMRB’s plans must ensure that the recommendation would at a minimum raise $15 billion for the 2020-2024 capital plan, including costs of operating the program. The TMRB also is given the authority to “review” MTA capital plans, though what this will entail is unclear. It will have six members total, including a chair, with one member recommended by the Mayor of New York City, one member residing in the Metro North Railroad (MNR) region, and one residing in the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) region.

Some exemptions to the toll are listed in the law, such as for emergency vehicles and  “qualifying vehicles transporting a person with disabilities.” The TMRB will make additional recommendations for credits, discounts, or exemptions. This will include consideration of credits or discounts for the current fee imposed on for-hire vehicles that was passed as part of last year’s state budget. A separate tax credit was created for residents in the congestion pricing zone earning less than $60,000 annually, provided they aren’t using their vehicle for business purposes.

Revenue from the tolls will go into a “central business district tolling capital lockbox.” Funds are to only be used for the costs of implementing the program and for the MTA’s 2020-2024 capital plan. Funds will be split 80-10-10: 80% of funds are to be for capital costs for New York City Transit (NYCT), with priority to the subways, accessibility, buses, and expanding transit in outer boroughs; and 10% of funds for both LIRR and MNR, with priority given to parking, rolling stock, capacity enhancement, accessibility and expanding transit in areas with limited transit.

Annual reports are due from B&T to state and city government officials as well as the public on receipts and expenditures, to be posted on the MTA website. Another report is due from B&T due on success of program in terms of traffic congestion, air quality, transit ridership, and bus speeds after one year, and then every two years. NYC DOT is to conduct a separate study on parking around the central business district 18 months after congestion tolls go into effect.

The TMRB will make its recommendation to the MTA Board on exemptions no earlier than November 15, 2020, or no later than 30 days before a tolling program is initiated. The program will be in operation no earlier than Dec 31, 2020. There will be a 30-day testing period where no tolls are collected, and then another 60 days where only tolls are collected, but not other charges and fines.

2. MTA Reorganization
The budget requires the MTA to develop a reorganization plan by June 30, 2019. This will be informed by a separate “independent forensic audit.” The plan will require approval of the MTA Board by majority vote; Chair gets 2 votes in event of tie. The reorganization cannot result in dissolution or merger of the authority and its subsidiaries. The legislation also allows the MTA and its subsidiaries and affiliates to share employees within and between entities, provided the employee will be doing a similar function. The law states that employee sharing will not impede or infringe upon collective bargaining agreements currently in place.

3. Design-Build
The budget adds to the mission and purpose of the MTA, stating that design-build is to be used in all projects over $25 million; however, it allows for a waiver from this streamlined bidding-design-construction requirement to be issued by the Director of the New York State Division of the Budget (currently Robert Mujica), who is appointed by the Governor.

4. MTA Board Appointments
The budget makes the terms of appointees to the MTA Board coterminous with their appointers. It also limits the amount of time that MTA Board members can serve in “holdover” status to 60 days (several MTA Board members were ousted as a result of this change, with new nominations made by the Governor during the budget weekend). The law also puts in place a process for an acting CEO/Chair to be in place not more than six months unless the Senate has not acted on a nomination from the Governor to fill the position. Any candidate filling the vacancy requires advice and consent of the Senate, as for regular appointments.

5. Independent Forensic Audit and “Reviews” of Waste, Fraud and Abuse
A provision retained from the Senate’s one-house bill requires the MTA to hire a certified public accounting firm to conduct an “independent forensic audit” that will review the MTA capital program, among other items. The firm cannot have done business with MTA in the last five years, or employ a former MTA employee who moved over in the past three years. The forensic audit is to be completed by January 1, 2020, and will be posted on the MTA website 30 days after submission to the MTA Board.

It also requires the MTA to hire a financial advisory firm with a national practice to review waste, fraud, abuse, and conflicts of interest; duplication of functions; cost efficiencies; the 2015-2019 capital plan; the MTA’s performance metrics; and cash flow and accounting of expenditures. The firm will submit its “reviews” by July 31, 2019 to the MTA Board, which will be posted on the MTA’s website.

6. Major Construction Review Unit
The MTA is now required to create a Construction Review Unit within the authority, which will consist of a panel of “internal and external experts” appointed by the MTA Board. It will review all “large scale projects” (this is not defined). It is given specific authority to review plans involving signal upgrades, including Communications Based Train Control (CBTC), the current industry standard, and ultra-wideband technology before they are implemented. Ultra-wideband is one component of CBTC, the radio technology for potential use as the “communications” part of CBTC. Its review of any project must be completed within 30 days of submission by MTA staff.

7. Capital Program Review Board
Members of the Capital Program Review Board, which is made up of four voting members, one each from the Governor, Senate and Assembly majorities, and New York City Mayor, are now required to provide a written explanation if a member rejects the MTA’s capital plan or any amendments the Board is considering. The written explanation must include specific areas of concerns and steps to address these concerns. The MTA may provide a response to the rejection, and after 10 days the disapproving member can withdraw the disapproval.

8. Debarment of Contractors
The budget authorizes the MTA to develop a debarment process for contractors to prevent bidding on future contracts for a five-year period. Any regulations developed must ensure notice and an opportunity to be heard. Debarment is to only be provided for situations involving: failure to substantially complete work within time frame of contract, or in a subsequent change order by more than 10% of the contract term; or where disputed work exceeds 10% of the contract cost and claimed costs are deemed invalid.

9. Fare Evasion Plan
The MTA is required to establish a plan to combat fare evasion, in consultation with the Governor, Mayor, and District Attorneys within New York City by June 30, 2019. The details of this consultation are not defined, and presumably will be dependent on the interest of the official identified as being participants.

10. East Side Access
The budget requires that the “L Train independent review team” (the Deans of Columbia and Cornell University who provided an alternate plan for the L Train shutdown), will evaluate the East Side Access project, and make recommendations to accelerate its completion. The project is currently at $11.3 billion in total costs, up from a projected $4.3 billion in 2006, where it was projected to be finished in 2009. It now expected that service will start running in December 2022.

11. Capital Plan Legislative Funds
The budget gives the Legislature a pot of funding that is set aside from the 2020-2024 capital plan for transportation improvements for the subways, buses and commuter railroads, subject to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). These types of agreements have been used in the past for other pots of funds, and are not required to be made public. They have not been voted on publicly by the members of the Legislature, so the public in the past has not known which members are requesting individual projects.

This MOU is to be entered into by the Senate Finance Committee Chair (currently Senator Liz Krueger), Assembly Ways and Means Chair (currently Helene Weinstein) and Director of the Budget (the Director of the Division of the Budget - currently Robert Mujica). The MOU is to be approved not more than 90 days after approval of the capital plan by the Capital Plan Review Board.  It should be noted that last year’s budget created a separate $50 million outerborough transit fund, to be used annually by the Legislature for individual projects.

12. Procurement
The budget legislation made a number of changes to procurement at the MTA, relating to both how it selects contractors and who reviews any contracts before they are executed. It extends until 2023 requirements regarding the selection of lowest possible bidder, where possible. It also raises the threshold for requiring use of lowest possible bidder to contracts of $1 million or more from $100,000, and raises the threshold for MTA Board approval of contracts not awarded to the lowest possible bidder or conducted under formal competitive process to $1 million or more.

Where the State Comptroller has existing pre-audit authority for NYCT and MTA contracts (the ability to review noncompetitive contracts over $1 million or those involving state funds, and not making them enforceable until approved), the Comptroller must provide a determination within 30 days receiving the contract from the MTA.

13. Performance Metrics
Another component remaining from the Senate’s one-house bill is a requirement for the MTA to use specific performance metrics, largely borrowed from Transport for London, which are defined in law, including:

-Additional platform time
-Additional train time
-Customer journey time and excess journey time
-Elevator and escalator availability
-Major incidents metrics
-Staff hours lost to accidents
-Terminal on time-performance

On-time performance is defined as arriving within two minutes of scheduled time. Note that two minutes for the subway is very different than for Metro North and Long Island Rail Road, which are required to use the same standard though the frequency and length in terms of mileage of service are very different.

The new law also requires the MTA to publish weekly performance reports for NYCT, LIRR, and MNR, as well as release of an annual report with international benchmarking on costs per mile for operating and maintenance, as well as staff and contractor hours for passenger journeys, and staff hours lost to accidents. Lastly, the law requires release of an annual implementation report for the Legislature and Governor by December 31 every year, which will be posted on the MTA website.

14. Twenty-Year Capital Needs Assessment
The last component remaining from the Senate’s one-house bill requires for the next capital plan (2025-2029) that the MTA submit to the Legislature a 20-year capital needs assessment before October 1, 2023, and every five years after for future plans. Its last 20-year capital needs assessment was released in 2013 prior to the finalization of the current 2015-2019 capital plan.

The 20-year needs assessment will include broad long-term capital investments to be made, and establish a non-binding basis for planning of strategic investments involving capital elements of five-year capital plans. The assessment does not require the MTA Board or CPRB approval, and is for information purposes only, though it is required to be certified by the MTA CEO/Chair and entered into the formal records of the minutes of the CPRB.

***
Rachael Fauss is Senior Policy Analyst at Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @RachaelFauss & @ReinventAlbany.

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Federal Tax Reform is Shaking Up New York’s Finances But Flow of Bank Settlement Money is Bailing Out the State Budget


cuomo salt weather

(photo: governor's office)


The federal tax law overhaul enacted at the end of 2017 capped state and local income and property tax deductions on federal income tax returns at $10,000, damaging millions of New Yorkers’(and tens of millions of other Americans’) ability to itemize deductions on their federal tax returns. The change also resulted in sudden shifts in New Yorkers’ behavior toward their own New York tax payments. Over the past two budget cycles the changes have destabilized New York State’s tax revenue collection patterns and caused considerable uncertainty in the state’s budget and funding for the services New Yorkers rely upon.

A recent report by Moody’s Investors Service indicates the fears of Governor Cuomo and other New York leaders that the federal tax deductions cap will cause New Yorkers to flee the State may be exaggerated. But that report only reviewed New York outmigration patterns through 2017 -- this analysis focuses on immediate changes in New Yorkers’ behavior as New York taxpayers and how those changes have affected the past two budgets and the one just adopted. How many New Yorkers will leave the state remains unknown.

In December 2017, following Congress and Trump’s tax reform, the state government experienced a sudden spike in tax payments as New Yorkers chose to make tax payments in 2017 rather than 2018 so they could still deduct in excess of $10,000 in New York taxes from their federal returns, and avoid, at least briefly, the coming limits on deductions to the extent that they could.

According to a 2018 State Comptroller report, the State Division of the Budget estimated that $1.9 billion came into the New York treasury that represented an acceleration of 2018 tax payments into 2017 to take final advantage of full state and local tax (SALT) deductibility. As a result, New York’s tax revenue rose more than 6% in 2017-18 over 2016-17. But, of course, it was anticipated that these 2017 payments would affect 2018 payments and that tax collections would correspondingly fall in 2018. At the time of budget adoption in 2018, the state predicted tax revenue would fall 2% in 2018.

In December 2018 and January 2019, however, tax collections fell precipitously, resulting in a $3 billion drop below estimates made at the time of the April 2018 budget enactment, for a total drop of $ 4.4 billion, or 6.4% below the 2017-2018 budget, not 2%.

Many wealthier taxpayers, with large incomes from capital gains, pay significant portions of their New York State taxes in quarterly estimated payments, including a regular January quarterly payment, rather than in withholding taxes, which are usually related to wages and salaries. Before the federal tax overhaul, New York taxpayers had an incentive to make their January estimated payment in December to assure they could take their tax deductions for that year on their next federal return. But with itemization nearly wiped out, the incentive to make the estimated tax quarterly payment early disappeared. The loss of this incentive is believed to be the main factor in the dramatic revenue declines this past December and January.

The State Division of the Budget believes that some of the money might be recouped in estimated payments in the first quarter of this year following January, but since the state adopted its budget for the April 1 start of the fiscal year, there was no way to know yet how much of the money might be recouped. So the governor and the Legislature chose caution and limited spending increases this year.

New York is not going broke, and the economy and tax revenue are still anticipated to grow, but the shock from the billions in lower revenue informed a cautious approach. The 2018 stock market decline also affected New York’s tax revenue from capital gains. For the first time in many years the governor and the Legislature added to the rainy-day reserve funds rather than add a lot of new spending.

Shoring up the state’s financial situation has been an extraordinarily fortunate additional development over the past few years. Litigation against the financial industry for wrongdoing that occurred during the Great Recession has resulted in many banks and financial companies agreeing to settle lawsuits for fraud and other problems with New York State for almost $12 billion(!) since 2015. New York spent much of the first of these settlement dollars on economic development to help the stagnant economy in Upstate New York , but in 2017 and 2018 $2 billion more has come in from new financial settlements, and the state has simply used the money to bail out the state budget and fund the MTA.

In the 2018 fiscal year the state put $461 million from over $800 million in new settlement funds that year into the state budget, and set aside $155 million to cover future labor contract increases. In the adopted fiscal year 2019 budget (for the fiscal year beginning April 1, 2018), the state put another $383 million from financial settlement into the budget, and took $194 million of additional settlement funds to help pay for the one-time 2018 cost of the MTA Subway Action Plan (2019 and beyond was covered from a tax).

But as 2018 progressed, an extra $1.2 billion more in financial settlement funds came into the state treasury that had not been booked by the state in the April budget adoption! In the budget just adopted a week ago, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature took $336 million of the new money to cover the early 2019 winter shortfalls related to apparent taxpayer behavior changes, and have set aside more than $600 million from the financial settlement funds in reserves to reduce future risks in the case of economic downturn, federal cutbacks, or other problems.

The combination of rainy-day funds and financial settlement reserves now totals $5 billion for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, which began April 1 and has a total state budget of $175.5 billion.

In an important revenue action, the state again renewed the higher rate for taxpayers with incomes over $2.2 million at 8.82%, yielding $770 million this year and an extra $4 billion next year, for five full years.

School aid was increased 3.7% (New York City got 3.4% more). The Legislature restored $550 million for the Medicaid program that the governor tried to cut after the shortfalls appeared.

The minimum wage increase that took place on December 31 to $15 per hour for New York City necessitated $700 million in additional Medicaid spending to cover the cost of raising the pay of workers in hospitals, nursing homes, and home care agencies who made less than $15 an hour in the city, as well as somewhat lower raises outside the city.

The state anticipates tax revenue will recover from the decline this past December and January, although overall it will be lower than had been hoped last year.

The challenges to fund the MTA will continue, since the tax and fee increases to assure $25 billion for its 2020-24 Capital Plan don’t approach the $40 billion estimated to be needed for that plan or the $7 billion for the current 2-15-2019 plan that remains unfunded. But don’t expect more tax increases for the MTA in an election year in 2020.

***
Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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How to Make New York’s New Criminal Justice Reforms Really Work


flchirlanemccray island

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Change swept through Albany as lawmakers passed a suite of reforms aimed at reducing the harms inflicted by the criminal justice system. These changes, which include significant limitations on the use of bail and incarceration, will go a long way towards making our justice system less biased and more responsive to the needs of low-income New Yorkers and, in particular, people of color.

The next challenge that confronts us is how to move beyond simply avoiding harms and toward the creation of a positive vision of what justice should look like. If confinement can have lasting traumatic effects, and criminal records can create lifelong direct and collateral consequences, how should our law enforcement and justice system respond when people break the law? When someone commits a crime, what is the fair result? What makes a just outcome?

The answer to these questions depends upon the crime, of course. But we know that the standard response doesn’t work for victims, communities, or, most certainly, defendants. That’s why it is important to build new responses to the full range of offenses, from minor misbehavior to serious wrongdoing. And that’s exactly what New York City is doing. Three examples:

With the lowest-level crimes, we should try to divert as many people as possible out of the criminal justice system, minimizing the damage that a criminal record or jail can wreak on individuals, their families, and entire communities. But divert them to what?

Prosecutors in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, and the NYPD have an answer with Project Reset. People charged with low-level misdemeanors, such as shoplifting, can participate in a restorative justice group, arts-based workshop, or counseling session. If the participant completes the obligation -- and 98% do -- the district attorney declines to prosecute the case, the case is sealed, and the person never even has to show up to court.

Participants, who overwhelmingly describe the outcomes as fair, are less likely to reoffend when compared with a control group. The net effect is to create a proportionate, meaningful response to minor offending. By increasing the use of tickets instead of holding people in custody after arrest, the new state law opens the door even wider to Project Reset’s measured response to minor offending.

Supervised release -- an alternative to cash bail -- is another way that the justice system has calibrated its response to offending while minimizing negative effects. People held on bail make up a large portion of the Rikers Island population. They also are more likely to accept a conviction as part of a guilty plea than someone released to the public. Supervised release has enabled judges to safely release thousands of defendants to supervision monitored by non-profits, instead of holding them on bail.

Again, the system is finding a way to address a criminal event constructively, without defaulting to confinement, and in the process reducing the likelihood of a criminal record and the lifelong stigma that can follow. Now that New York’s new criminal justice laws will reduce reliance on money bail, supervised release may become an even more important bridge for closing the gap between release and detention when it comes to higher-risk individuals.

Finally, 18- to 24-year-olds make up roughly 25% of the criminal justice population. As we now know from brain science, the prefrontal cortex -- the part of the brain that governs executive function and impulse control -- may not be fully formed until a person’s mid-twenties, meaning that some adolescents and young adults are physiologically more likely to commit crime. While many of these individuals will literally age out of offending as their brains mature, if the system responds with confinement and conviction, their youthful crimes may make it harder for them to complete education, find jobs, and secure housing. So, how should the system respond?

The Brooklyn DA’s office has worked with the court system and defense advocates to provide 18- to 24-year-olds with community-based social services like mental health counseling and job training, instead of traditional punitive responses. Brooklyn’s young adult court, one of the city’s busiest courtrooms, has significantly reduced jail sentences and criminal convictions. And surveyed participants have overwhelmingly described the results as fair. Again, the system is responding with meaningful and constructive outcomes.

Project Reset, supervised release, and Brooklyn’s young adult court are just three of many new efforts to reduce the justice system’s dependence on confinement and redress historic inequities based on race and socioeconomic status, while ensuring public safety. In essence, New York City has begun to eliminate the unacceptable and, at the same time, lay the foundation for a justice system that responds to criminal behavior proportionately, meaningfully, and appropriately, with just outcomes. Albany’s new legislative reforms should enable the city to build on its current progress and further advance a new vision of criminal justice for New York. 

***
Adam Mansky is Director, Criminal Justice, at the Center for Court Innovation. On Twitter @urbansdad & @courtinnovation.

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Industry City and the Police Power of Zoning


city council cmcarlos

Council Member Menchaca and constituents (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


In the past week, the New York Post and New York Daily News published editorials criticizing New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca’s March 6 request to delay the certification of a consortium of major real estate investors and developers’ application for a special permit to build two hotels and rezone Industry City for retail, office, and academic uses. The accusatory language in both newspaper editorials exhibits a deep contempt for the necessary public review of private development proposals.

This massive rezoning would greatly increase the density of commercial uses and allow three new buildings with 1.27 million square feet of market-rate, destination retail, hotel, and academic office space, and more importantly, will fundamentally and irrevocably alter the industrial working waterfront.

Menchaca and Community Board 7 requested more time for community review because “ULURP has historically failed to address the most urgent concerns voiced by the Sunset Park community.” A spokesperson was quoted in the RealDeal that Industry City “intend(s) to make our case” through the ULURP process but ultimately agreed to a postponement after Congressional Representatives Nydia Velázquez and Jerry Nadler, and State Senator Zellnor Myrie intervened with a letter to City Planning Director and Chair Marisa Lago.

The Post described Menchaca’s request as “holding Industry City hostage” in order to “blackmail” the developers for a “payoff to the activists.” The Daily News demanded that City Council members cease their “corrupting power on land-use matters” by pointing to Amazon’s February announcement of the withdrawal of a plan to build a massive campus in Queens. In concert with the Post, the Daily News similarly admonished Menchaca’s “meddling” and “extortion,” and demanded that he “must relent” and “the Council must end this craziness.”

I teach an introductory urban planning class and we spend weeks on the complicated topic of zoning. One of the first things we learn is that the legitimacy of zoning is based on the legal concept of municipal police power which refers to the right of the community to regulate the activities of private parties to protect the interests of the public. Menchaca requested a postponement in the certification of Industry City’s rezoning application in order to provide more time for a full vetting of public interests and concerns. This is not an unreasonable request especially as Menchaca’s letter notes displacement and gentrification concerns, and specifically requests Industry City to explain “how its rezoning proposal will mitigate displacement, gentrification, rising rents, congestion, and the effects of climate change.”

Despite indisputable evidence of Sunset Park gentrification including a NYU Furman Center study, the Post editorial repeated Industry City’s delusional claim that since its rezoning does not involve residential development, “it’s irrelevant to gentrification.” Industry City CEO Andrew Kimball’s letter stated that in order to have “modern manufacturing and making at Industry City,” the Special Sunset Park Innovation District rezoning must include “a mixture of uses that allow for a higher return.” And as page 6 of the Draft Scope of Work makes clear, Industry City needs the rezoning for “upscale” hotels, expanded destination retail, and new academic uses because without these city actions, it will not be able to raise $638 million in capital investment. Although Kimball argues that Industry City provides an antidote to gentrification through job creation, he has yet to specify the numbers, types, and wages of “high-quality” innovation district jobs that would be available to Sunset Park’s working age adults (of whom nearly one in two lack a high school diploma).

Industry City’s rezoning is essential to “generating the economic returns necessary to finance additional capital investment in the portfolio” in order to enhance and maximize property value and rent revenues (i.e., high-rent tenants).

As currently proposed, this rezoning will diminish one of New York City’s last remaining industrial waterfront neighborhoods, and as UPROSE Executive Director Elizabeth Yeampierre notes, it also represents a lost opportunity for a frontline community to advance innovation, inclusion, and resilience in the face of climate change. For these reasons and the right of Sunset Park’s Latinx-Asian working class to remain in the neighborhood, we must end the craziness of zoning in the service of the private market and enrichment of real estate developers rather than its intended purpose to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

***
Tarry Hum is a professor at The City University of New York (CUNY) and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood. On Twitter @TarryHum.

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The Power to Prevent New Infections is In Our Hands


eric adams credit

Brooklyn BP Eric Adams, the author (photo: Erica Sherman/Brooklyn BP's Office)


The world of medicine has advanced significantly in the battle against many chronic diseases, including the discovery of the polio vaccine and reversing the effects of diabetes and heart disease. However, one battle continues to be fought in research labs and on the ground in communities across America and around the world — the fight to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

While New York State has been a fearless leader on a national level in the effort to end this disease, Brooklyn remains the epicenter of a persistent health crisis. To tackle this head-on, the State set an ambitious goal of ending the epidemic by 2020. Thanks to the diligent work of advocates, community-based organizations, and health care providers, the target is within reach.

Yet statistics reveal a disturbing trend that must be addressed to complete the mission. Data from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) reveals that 2017 HIV diagnoses were down to a record low of 2,157 citywide. Though this progress is encouraging, the rate of reduction is slowing, from an 8.6% decline in new diagnoses in 2016 to 5.4% in 2017. Brooklyn bears a disproportionate burden of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with more than 30,000 of our neighbors living with HIV.

In 2017, our borough experienced 640 new HIV diagnoses, representing a 10.15% increase in new diagnoses from the previous year — making Brooklyn the only borough with an increase. Most alarmingly, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights are the hardest-hit neighborhoods citywide, accounting for a quarter of new diagnoses in our borough.

Today -- Wednesday, April 10 -- we recognize National Youth HIV and AIDS Awareness Day. I continue to be concerned that each year since 2013 Brooklyn has more HIV diagnoses among youth aged 13-29 than any other borough. We owe it to our community’s young people to allow them to live in a world without AIDS.  

We cannot let the promise of an end to HIV miss the mark by neglecting our most susceptible communities that have already been neglected through generational poverty, institutional racism, and unequal access to quality health care. We have tools at our disposal to end this epidemic, particularly by expanding Medicaid Special Needs Health Plans (SNPs), which are designed to address the needs of individuals living with or at higher risk for HIV. These specialized health plans help members access treatment so that the virus becomes suppressed or “undetectable,” meaning they are unable to transmit HIV to others.

The more people we help achieve undetectable status, the closer we are to a society without HIV and AIDS. SNPs also have the expertise to connect HIV-negative individuals with effective prevention methods such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) so they can remain negative, saving $1 billion in state Medicaid costs for every 2,000 new infections.

The sectors of the population most at risk for contracting the virus are certainly those who will benefit most from an expansion of this crucial program. The State’s “Blueprint to End the HIV/AIDS Epidemic by 2020” lists include men who have sex with men (MSM), people of transgender experience, women of color, HIV-negative partners in couples in which one person is HIV negative and the other is HIV positive, and people who are intravenous drug users as populations at higher risk for HIV.

To reduce the rate of HIV in Brooklyn and reach the 2020 eradication target, we must reach these vulnerable populations and ensure they receive the culturally competent services needed to remain HIV negative. At present, of the populations identified by the State as being at higher risk, only HIV-negative transgender individuals are currently eligible to enroll in SNPs. To reach the end of this epidemic, this must change. 

Consider the clear scientific evidence that PrEP is more than 90 percent effective in preventing HIV transmission, yet the largest portion of New York State Medicaid recipients taking PrEP – 37% – are white gay and bisexual men despite black and Latino gay and bisexual men being hardest hit by the epidemic. We need to expand SNP eligibility and outreach to communities of color in the hardest-hit parts of our city to connect them to the services they need to get tested, treated, and enrolled.

We have the tools at our disposal to revolutionize the way we combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The power to prevent new infections is in our hands.

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Eric L. Adams is the Brooklyn borough president. On Twitter @BPEricAdams.

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Students for School Safety: Solutions Not Suspensions, Counselors Not Cops


mayordeblasio pay equity

(photo: Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)


Recently, many news outlets have sensationalized the declining use of suspensions in New York City, framing young people negatively and attempting to discredit the progress that has been made. These stories discount the needs of students most impacted by punitive discipline, who have been very clear about the urgency around redefining what school safety really means.

And while suspensions are down across the city, too many schools still use ineffective tactics, choosing to exclude students rather than seeking to better understand them. Relying on tactics like suspensions, or even metal detectors, handcuffs, surveillance cameras, installing gates on windows, and hiring more school safety and police officers only fosters feelings of turmoil.

As two students currently enrolled in Brooklyn high schools, we understand the circumstances and we understand the impact of suspensions and policing on young people. We must end the school to prison pipeline for the sake of ensuring a better future for the next generation of children.

On March 20, we testified before the New York City Council to draw attention to both the financial and social cost of criminalizing young people in school. Last year the city adopted a budget that was going to spend $373 million on the School Safety Division of the NYPD. The mayor’s new preliminary budget shows a $30 million increase in that funding, now expected to reach $403 million. This would be the most that the city has ever spent on school policing. This isn’t a step in the right direction. This is a crisis.

The city needs to redirect funds toward positive and healing alternatives that work, such as more guidance counselors, clinical social workers, school psychologists, and access to restorative justice that all can boost the morale of students across campuses and increase the academic engagement of students to help them graduate.

The Department of Education recently released its 2019 data report on the number of guidance counselors and social workers in all New York City schools. According to that report, across 913 school sites covering grades 6 through 12, there are 449 schools listed that do not have a single social worker, and 40 school sites that do not have a single guidance counselor. Schools are too ready to push towards more desperate, punishing measures when it would be more positive and transformative in the long run to invest in what helps students feel whole.

Funneling public money towards ensuring students are policed in schools is not safety. Ensuring a future where people respond to problems with criminalization is not the answer.

We’ve both been to Albany to advocate for the Safe and Supportive Schools Bill that would encourage schools across all of New York State to shift away from punitive practices. We are both committed to helping build the schools people need to thrive. Supportive, respectful schools where students are treated with dignity is what will bring us safety.

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Gary Edwards is a high school senior and Khushayah Morris is a high school sophomore. Both students are education justice advocates with the Children’s Defense Fund - New York, and members of the Dignity in Schools Campaign of New York.

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