Gotham Gazette

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Preliminary Budget Questions Remain


Council Member Helen Rosenthal (William Alitriste)

I have always been fascinated by quantifying public policy and the very practical details of implementation. Diving into the details, one can learn if public dollars are being spent wisely and efficiently or not.

March madness for the Council is the near daily set of hearings with each city agency to review their budgets. These hearings can last hours as council members try to decipher what agencies are spending their money on and whether or not the agency needs more or less funding to provide adequate city services.

I view the City's $73 billion expense budget as a concrete reflection of the City's public policy. The broad brush "progressive" goals are to address income inequality; every tax dollar spent should be geared toward stabilizing the middle class and helping those who depend on government services. Toward this end, lots of questions were raised during the March Preliminary Budget Hearings, and we're still waiting for the answers.

For example: How much is the City investing in Minority & Women-Owned Business Enterprise (M/WBE) training programs? What industries does Economic Development Corporation (EDC) plan to invest in to support middle-wage workers?

I also have serious questions about the contracts issued through the Department of Education (DOE) Central Administration. Are contracts that, in sum, cost over $115 million good investments? For all technology investments, are we paying outside contractors to do day-to-day work, or are they setting up systems then training city workers to implement programs? How can DOE do a better job billing Medicaid for special education services? Right now, 75% of our DOE special education expenditures could be paid for by the state and federal governments, and we lose millions every year by under-billing.

And, why is the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) spending $3,600 per month for each adult couple for a single room and shared bathroom with minimal social services? How can we provide the service without paying the Single Room Occupancy (SRO) landlords so much money? Can the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) find funds to reverse their downsizing policy, which has been moving elderly seniors out of their homes (and traumatizing them in the process)? Why is the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) spending millions of dollars on temporary home-heating boilers that don't work below 40 degrees?

While the City Council develops its response to the mayor's budget, my hope is that each of the agencies will take our questions into consideration as they prepare for the Executive Budget (due in May). As I made clear to the Director for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), I expect the Mayor's May budget to reflect the Administration's public policy to address income inequality.


Council Member Helen Rosenthal represents District 6 (Upper West Side) and is Chair of the Contracts Committee. Rosenthal is a member of the Council's Budget Negotiation Team and was recently elected Vice Chair for Budget in the Progressive Caucus.

The opinions written here are her own and are a reflection of her seven years work experience in the NYC Office of Management and Budget.


What’s Next for East Midtown


Council Member Dan Garodnick (D-Manhattan)

There was a lot of talk last year about the urgent need to rejuvenate East Midtown.

Mayor Bloomberg offered a serious, but incomplete, rezoning proposal. Too many questions remained about the improvements to Grand Central's infrastructure and the pricing of air rights to advance new development. The ball is now in Mayor de Blasio's court, and we hope he will run with it.

The need for action results from antiquated zoning rules which trap buildings in their current condition. Today, someone who tears down their building can only build back to the same size if they retain 25 percent of their structure. The economics of those regulations leaves few developers willing to terminate leases, vacate buildings, demolish, and rebuild. One early concept simply allowed those buildings to rebuild up to their current densities, essentially "grandfathering" them in.

The rezoning proposal that emerged, however, added even more density by allowing developers to purchase air rights at $250/foot, to be used to finance local infrastructure. While it allowed for the purchase of air rights, it unwisely set the price of those air rights the same across an 80 block territory. It committed considerable sums for infrastructure, but without certainty that they would be used for the most needed improvements. At our insistence, a public realm plan was proposed, but it was unclear if many of the recommendations could actually be implemented. In short, the goals were laudable, but for a plan that would take effect over decades, we needed more time to get it right.

Now we can. We have an opportunity to create the right environment to allow East Midtown to keep its competitive edge. As we devise a new plan, we should consider why companies will want to locate in East Midtown over the next 50 years, and how we want this area to function in the context of New York City's other central business districts.

The proposal should be for a vibrant 21st Century business district, and not an isolated set of new skyscrapers, disconnected to the world around them. That means we need to consider the appropriate density and urban design for the entire district, and to provide that future development improve pedestrian and transit circulation, open space, and access to daylight. We also need to be mindful of the historic fabric of midtown and consider which important buildings should be preserved.

We should revisit the mechanism for pricing air rights -- and consider whether there are other models, such as a tax assessment or tax increment finance district to fund infrastructure, or a broader air rights transfer option, which may be a better fit.

As we proceed with this discussion, let's not forget that the challenges with this area's infrastructure need to be addressed with or without any rezoning proposal. The Lexington Avenue subway platforms at Grand Central are so overburdened as to make them dangerous; East Side Access will be open at some point, and will require better access points to the street; and our sidewalks and public spaces should allow for better and safer pedestrian flow. Simply put, we need a vision for our sidewalks, parks, plazas, and elsewhere - to complement any new buildings that are built.

Many of us have been grappling with these questions for the better part of two years. The Mayor has stated that he will submit a new rezoning proposal this year, and I look forward to working with him toward the more complete plan that East Midtown deserves.


Dan Garodnick is a member of the New York City Council representing the fourth district, in Manhattan, which includes East Midtown. Garodnick has served on the Council since 2006.



Expanding de Blasio’s Agenda for Youth Opportunities

 Obama and Duncan at P-Tech HS (Getty)

President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan Visit P-Tech HS (Getty)

The recent Community Service Society announcement of high graduation rates in career and technical education (CTE) high schools provides further evidence that students in vocational tracks can meet high standards and succeed.

For too long occupational training has been undervalued. The experience of funneling disadvantaged students into training that only prepared them for low–paying, dead-end jobs has long past. President Obama signaled this change when he celebrated the success of Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-Tech HS). The president praised the school both in his 2013 State of the Union speech and from its campus in October for its six-year program in which grads earn associate's degrees and shots at jobs with the school's partner company, IBM.

Recently, 60 Minutes featured Jamie Dimon, CEO at JPMorgan Chase, praising Year Up, a nonprofit organization that transitions disadvantaged youth into technical positions at finance-sector firms.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has also boarded the occupational-training bandwagon. As one component of his agenda to enhance the earnings potential of disadvantaged youth, de Blasio has proposed a dramatic expansion of occupational programs at community colleges. Like other policy advocates, Mayor de Blasio understands that the promotion of four-year college degrees for all is a faulty strategy, not only because too many fail to succeed but because the majority of disadvantaged youth desire occupational programs, as do many employers like JPMorgan. Rather than continuing to force students who want occupational training into for-profit colleges like Monroe and Metropolitan, he seeks to offer these programs in the public sector.

While commendable, this strategy will be more successful if there is greater linkage with high schools that prepare students to enter occupational programs in the community college system. CTE programs should allow students to take college-level courses that are part of such community college programs: a College Now for occupational rather than purely academic advancement.

These programs are highly effective in furthering educational attainment. A study conducted by Columbia University's Community College Research Center found that high school students who had enrolled in CTE programs were 4.2 percent more likely to enroll in college, 5.2 percent more likely to be enrolled for at least two years, and had completed 15 more college credits after three years than comparable students who had not enrolled in CTE programs. Based on these results, the New York City Council funded Carpe Diem, a program that linked four NYC Tech occupational programs with Brooklyn CTE students.

Many students in the vocational high schools come from immigrant families where they face substantial pressure from their parents to enter full-time employment after finishing high school. Program administrators were hopeful that given its occupational orientation, Carpe Diem would make it more likely that these students would go on to community college to complete their studies. Unfortunately, because of spending constraints during the recession, its funding was not renewed. Reestablishing Carpe Diem and creating other CTE programs should be part of Mayor de Blasio's strategy.

Additionally, in order to increase access to community colleges, new avenues to high school graduation need encouragement. The Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma has suggested a number of ways to increase the graduation rate while maintaining standards of college and career readiness. The Coalition recommends that the number of exit exams required to graduate be reduced from 5 to 3; allowing students to demonstrate knowledge and skills through State-developed and/or approved performance-based assessments; building more flexibility and support into the current system to make it more accessible, especially to students who are over-age and under-credited; and ensuring transparency in communications and monitoring of the multiple pathways system.

Just as important, the majority of students entering the community college system have deficient academic skills that require remediation. For too many students under the present system of remedial courses, this hurdle is insurmountable, and dropout rates are high. Until recently, students entering community colleges have taken these remedial courses with traditional classroom instruction, taught by academically trained, research-oriented tenure-track faculty.

CUNY has now developed a new approach: CUNY Start. This twelve-week program provides more intensive remediation by trained specialists. As a result (pdf), 57 percent of CUNY Start students passed their remedial courses, versus only 23 percent of comparable students taking the standard remedial courses. The de Blasio administration should find ways to increase the share of students enrolled in CUNY Start even if it means changing admissions policies by making it a requirement for some.

Through launching new initiatives and scaling successful programs already in place, the city can give its currently disconnected youth a fighting chance of gainful, sustained employment.


Robert Cherry and David C. Bloomfield are, respectively, professors of economics and education at The CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College

Contact: David C. Bloomfield, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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Living With HIV: The Housing Assistance Myth

Vocal NY protest 2010

In 2010, the author, James Lister (left), was arrested protesting cuts to the 30% rent cap he discusses below

I am writing to tell you how it really is for one of the 10,000 New Yorker’s living with full-blown AIDS who qualify for rental assistance through the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA).

After surviving the very drawn-out and humiliating disability approval process, imagine my surprise when I was told by HASA that my disability income would be “budgeted” at $330 a month, $10.84 a day. I was told “everyone” has that budget. Still, it did not make the reality of $10.84 taking care of every life expense, except rent, easier.

I decided that by the time my status had progressed to full-blown AIDS and I had lost over 200 friends, acquaintances, and intimates, I would not die before my parents.

Given the parameters of my hard-earned entitlement of $10.84 day, I stopped every aspect of living anticipating these necessities are not up for negotiation: bath soap, shampoo, laundry soap, fabric softener, the cost for washers and dryers, toothpaste, toothbrush, mouth wash, dental floss, dish sponges, dish washing soap, light bulbs, telephone, cable TV, internet, transportation to (the increasing list of) doctor’s appointments, co-pays and deductibles for doctors and tests and for the increasing number of prescription medications.

I was not going to die or become homeless, and this was the way to make my hard-earned entitlement of $10.84/day work to that end. An extravagance I “saved up” for used to be something like a vacation, now it is shoes.

Unfortunately, sacrificing everything in my life, including haircuts and shaving, deodorant, new sheets when they wear through that some think are necessary, did not go far enough and I was forced to collect bottles and cans for cash to survive. I had already started wearing clothes from friends who had died about the time I applied for disability, but I still had to buy shoes.

I have constantly lived in the very unhealthy state of relentless fear I could fall behind in rent due to an emergency expense and lose the apartment that has been home since July 1, 1979.

My medication regime has grown from three medications two and three times a day to 30 medications, one and two times a day, plus a weekly injection. There are two-and-a-half shelves in my kitchen cabinets that are devoted to managing my medications. I could not manage my medications being homeless.

My Mother died on April 4, 2009. I am a native of California. That is where my Mother died. I could not reconcile paying for an airline ticket to bury my Mother because I could not calculate how I would pay for the fare on $10.84 a day. I could have charged the fare to my credit card, but how would I make the payments and not be overtaken by the interest or pay that off and fall behind on my rent?

It was one of the worst days of my life when I was forced to make the decision that I, the oldest child and big brother to three, could not bury my Mother. My Father died on January 30, 2011. Even though the budget has increased to $12.36 a day, I still could not reconcile paying for airfare.

The expectation from what I was told while paying taxes for 35 years, and paying taxes twice as a sole proprietor for 20 of the 35 years, and paid compulsorily, not voluntarily, was there would be a safety net if the unthinkable happened. Well, the unthinkable did happen and that safety net, I am told, cannot support me. 

James Lister is a volunteer for VOCAL-NY.


A Course Outline for the City's New Schools Chancellor

Mark Weprin

Council Member Mark Weprin

Amazingly, Carmen Fariña is the first schools chancellor since Rudy Crew in 1995 who does not require a waiver from the state for lack of educational credentials as a school administrator. Ms. Fariña’s forty years of experience in education fulfill a promise made by Mayor Bill de Blasio to appoint leaders in his administration who will deliver progressive change and re-examine some of the troubling changes implemented by the former administration.

I am confident that Ms. Fariña will lead our city’s 1.1 million children, 1,800 public schools, 75,00 teachers, and 6,100 school administrators to the best of her abilities. As a public school parent of three and an elected representative of the most diverse Council district in New York City, I would like to offer some suggestions for the Chancellor to consider during her tenure.

  • Establishing high standards in New York State with the Common Core Curriculum is a positive step. However, the new state tests crowd out all meaningful instruction when they become tools to evaluate teachers, principals, chancellors, and mayors. Incessant test preparation has deadened instruction and made the standardized test a ceiling rather than a floor in too many classrooms. Parents have serious concerns about how constant test preparation detracts from art, music, and physical education.
  • Let’s put parents back in public education. Unfortunately, the disconnect between the Department of Education (DOE) and the families at local schools has developed into an abyss. Parent involvement and input at all levels of the system should be valued.
  • We must treat teachers as true partners.  Our teachers need to be held to high standards. Teachers should be evaluated with a broad-based accountability system that does not give undue emphasis to students’ test scores. Instead, we need comprehensive tools to assess our schools and the professionals who work in them. Teachers can be evaluated based on classroom observations and schools can be judged on a combination of visits by education experts, surveys from parents and frequent engagement by the superintendent. Educators at each level also need high-caliber professional development so that they can raise student achievement and help every child to thrive.
  • We need to re-empower superintendents and re-establish Community Schools Districts to function as the state legislature intended when it secured their role in statute. The role of the superintendent was created to provide principals with resources, support, and guidance.
  • Cities like Cincinnati have transformed schools into community learning centers that provide not only typical after-school activities like homework help, but also on-site health clinics. Establishing similar centers in troubled schools in New York City would represent a long-needed step away from piecemeal programs and toward serious, comprehensive reform. 
  • Shuttering schools should be the last resort, not the first. Instead, let’s provide extra resources to struggling schools.
  • New York City has 160,000 pupils classified as students with disabilities. Students with disabilities graduate at a rate of 31 percent, less than half the overall 66 percent high school graduation rate in New York City. Special education students must never be allowed to fall through the cracks. The DOE must implement effective special education reform to improve the academic performance and life prospects of students with disabilities.
  • Lastly, our schools must fully integrate 21st-century technology into every classroom. In today’s global economy, failure to do so would constitute educational malpractice. Furthermore, using technology to engage parents will go a long way toward improving schools.  Directing funding to technology for schools is an investment in the strength of our local economy in the years ahead.

Establishing mayoral control twelve years ago was important for establishing accountability, but its implementation under the former administration too often failed to lift up students and usually just berated teachers.  In addition, parents were cut out of the education system at every turn. Now that we, as a city, are considering the path our school system will take in the years to come, let us make sure our actions match the sage advice we often give to our children: learn from mistakes and make tomorrow better than today. 

Mark S. Weprin is a member of the New York City Council; he serves the 23rd Council District in Queens. He serves as chairman of the Subcommittee on Zoning & Franchise, and is a member of the Education, Technology, Economic Development and Transportation committees.

Mayor Signals New Future with Paid Sick Days Move

 Mayor de Blasio at a paid sick leave rally

In January, Mayor de Blasio and other city officials rallied to announce expanded paid sick leave legislation


Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito have announced an expansion of paid sick leave coverage for hundreds of thousands of additional workers.

Their decision is a concrete move to confront and alleviate inequality, and bodes well for all New Yorkers, especially low-income workers and their families who live paycheck to paycheck.

The new administration’s proposal will guarantee paid sick leave to manufacturing workers and those at businesses of five or more employees, as well as provide for more aggressive enforcement by city agencies. These are critical first steps that recognize the dignity of workers who drive our city’s economy.

Leonardo Fernando is one of those workers. A 47-year-old immigrant who’s lived in Queens for nine years, he works 12-hour shifts at a car wash, in the heat and in the cold, to support his four children. Previously without paid sick days, he’s gone to work with the flu because he couldn’t afford to risk losing his job or missing a day’s pay. He will now be protected.

Of course, there’s still more to do through the legislative process. We would like to see all workers in New York have the right to paid sick time, and for the administration to strengthen enforcement through increased fines and provide workers the right to go to court when their rights are violated. But this is a great start.

In expanding the earned sick days law, which was fought tooth and nail by the Bloomberg administration and its corporate allies, Mayor de Blasio is honoring a campaign promise and governing as a progressive. And Speaker Mark-Viverito has signaled a clear break from her predecessor, who delayed the enactment of this law for years.

The shift in public policy is a direct result of years of work by workers, progressive advocates, community organizers, labor unions, and the faith community, who banded together to identify and elect new leaders in response to a widening income gap and exclusionary policies that didn’t help middle and working class families.

New York City is now a place where no worker will lose a job for taking a sick day.

What’s next?

Imagine a New York that’s more affordable, more inclusive, more fair. Imagine a city where all children have access to pre-school, a city that eliminates discriminatory policing, a city that leverages wealth to fight inequality and keep families in their homes.

The possibilities are endless. It’s a new day in New York.

Amy Carroll is the Deputy Director of The Center for Popular Democracy. Javier Valdés is the Co-Executive Director of Make The Road New York.

Advocates for Homeless New Yorkers Cautiously Optimistic About New Mayor


Call it the Dasani effect.

As if to remind Mayor Bill de Blasio that housing was a top priority in his election campaign, the New York Times devoted a five-part series last month to a homeless child, Dasani Coates, and her family’s travails in a miserable city shelter.

Dasani is one of 22,000 children – the most ever – living in the city’s homeless shelters. She was on the steps of City Hall on Jan. 1, a guest of the newly elected Public Advocate Tish James, as the mayor was sworn in.

The Dasani stories painted a distressing picture that is reality for thousands of children. While some apportioned blame to Dasani’s parents, it was impossible not to see how the city’s homeless prevention policies were failing the girl and her family. Former Mayor Bloomberg’s suggestion that God was to blame for the family’s plight seemed to indicate he had given up on the homeless as he was leaving office.

The stories were just one indicator – plenty of others signal that big changes in the city’s housing policies are likely in the next few months. And advocates are expressing cautious optimism at the prospects of changing policies that some say criminalized homelessness.

“I’m not holding my breath,” said William Burnett, a board member of Picture the Homeless, which has aggressively advocated on behalf of homeless people for years. “We’re hopeful but we’re not going to give de Blasio a pass.”

Housing advocates say they are optimistic that the new mayor will aggressively address the problems they see ravaging communities from Jamaica to Mott Haven, Washington Heights to Brighton Beach, Staten Island to Red Hook, Bedford Stuyvesant to Chelsea. And they are geared up to work with the new administration, they say.

“It’s sort of like there are fires all across the city and you have non-profit groups who, all they do is put out fires,” said Kenny Schaeffer, a housing attorney and member of the Met Council on Housing. “Of course the mayor will work with these organizations.”

Advocacy groups are elated that the city now has a mayor who seems to understand the housing dilemma and how housing policy can promote equity in the city, said Jackie del Valle, Director of Organizing and Advocacy at the Fifth Avenue Committee in the heart of the Brooklyn district de Blasio represented as a City Council member.

“What's exciting,” she said, “is that the new mayor will actually work with advocates, and work with coalitions. He'll listen to advocates and work with us to make changes.”

He was elected by a progressive wing of New York City,” added Harvey Epstein, Project Director of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center. “I think he’ll listen to what we have to say. I’m hopeful.”

Advocates are keen to take advantage of the moment – and not lose leverage as they did in 2001 when a “truce” was adopted with the new Bloomberg administration.

“That was a terrible strategic mistake,” Schaeffer said.

Advocates say they are keen not to repeat that mistake and hope a new era has begun in the fight against homelessness.

"Obviously everyone understands our responsibiity is to provide legal representation to address the problems of homeless New Yorkers," said Steve Banks, chief attorney for the Legal Aid Society, which has sued the city frequently during the past three decades for its treatment of the homeless. "But we're hopeful that the city will have the kinds of policies in place that can avoid the systemic problems of the past."

Burnett echoed that sentiment, adding that de Blasio must do more than talk about the homeless.

“When Obama first got into the White House, homelessness and housing policy was broadly discussed and they solicited input from the public – we participated in that process – in order to develop a plan, it was a thick book, to reduce homelessness,” he said. “We’ve been through this before where politicians ask for our input and then don’t follow through.”

Action is needed, he said. The new mayor’s assertion that the owners of vacant lots in the city should “put up or pay up” is the type of action advocates are looking for.

“I want to be hopeful,” Burnett said. “But I realize if the mayor’s going to be truly progressive on housing, we’re going to have to hold his feet to the fire.”

With homelessness at a record level, a continuing erosion of affordable housing in the city and an unprecedented affordability crisis, the new mayor has lots to do on housing, advocates say. But a few things stand out, they say.

“First, making sure the mayor follows through on pushing for home rule on the rent laws – that’s the biggest thing,” said Jaron Benjamin, executive director of the Met Council on Housing. ”And second, what he does with NYCHA (the New York City Housing Authority) and Bloomberg’s plan to build luxury towers on NYCHA properties.”

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Home Rule

Once upon a time, the city wrote its own housing laws, but in 1971 the state stripped the city of its power to do that. Landlords subsequently gained much greater influence over the city’s housing laws – because upstate legislators, the theory goes, don’t know or care about housing issues in the city – and landlords influence them by financing their campaigns.

If de Blasio leads the charge for home rule – and wins it – the idea that a new progressive era has begun in the city and the state for that matter would be more than rhetoric.

But one source I spoke to in Albany who was not authorized to talk for attribution said the idea was a non-starter – Republicans would never go for it, she said, and Democrats do not have anything to offer in return to obtain the repeal.

The use of NYCHA property for new developments

NYCHA manages 334 housing complexes, home to nearly a half-million New Yorkers. Real estate developers would very much like to build on that land and Mayor Bloomberg supported their vision, justifying it as a way to help the perpetually cash-strapped agency. NYCHA could use the money it got from leasing or selling property to fix up apartments, proponents of the idea said.

But advocates staunchly oppose the idea, as do many NYCHA residents.

“I think it's a horrible idea,” said Benjamin. “Nobody from NYCHA could afford to move in to those developments.”

Already, the departure of John Rhea, the chairman of the NYCHA board, is a good sign, advocates said. Recent articles questioning payments by NYCHA to the New York Police Department and Department of Sanitation – which advocates say set NYCHA up for financial distress – also suggest NYCHA is set up for significant change.

“NYCHA will be an easier issue to deal with, too, because he’s not going up against the landlord or real estate lobbies,” del Valle pointed out.

Keeping track of vacant buildings and lots

There are more than 3,500 vacant buildings and almost 2,500 vacant lots across the city, according to a 2011 study by Picture the Homeless. Properly developed, the buildings could house about 70,000 people – the approximate number of homeless in the city. But more needs to be known about these buildings and lots – such as who owns them and why are they vacant?

In 2010, Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito, now the Council Speaker, introduced a law – Intro 48 – to have the city collect such information. The public advocate at the time, Bill de Blasio, supported the proposal, as does the new public advocate, Tish James. If Intro 48 cannot become a law now – with all three having ascended to the positions to make it happen – it will send a rather clear message to advocates.

“Bill de Blasio was very supportive as public advocate, especially on the count (of homeless people),” Burnett said. “But it’s easy to be supportive when there are no political consequences. I’m wondering what’s going to happen now he’s mayor, when there are consequences.”

Guaranteed inclusionary zoning

The lack of affordable housing in the city remains a problem. Inclusionary zoning offers a bonus to developers who set aside a percentage of the units they build for lower- or middle-income people. But developers can decline the offer. As a candidate, de Blasio said he supports making inclusionary zoning mandatory.

That would be a sea change for opportunities to create substantial amounts of affordable housing in the city,” Epstein said.


During the mayoral campaign, Housing First!, a broad coalition of community, business, labor and religious organizations, published recommendations for the next mayor. One suggestion: the creation of a deputy mayor position to handle housing in order to improve transparency and accountability.

Whether de Blasio creates the post or not, his appointments on housing will be critical to the pursuit of progressive housing policies: the commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, for example, could pursue code enforcement more aggressively.

“He’s hiring people,” Epstein said. “We’re wondering who he appoints as his housing commissioner – and then we’ll be able to talk about this.”

Similarly, the mayor’s appointments to the Rent Guidelines Board will send a strong signal on what will happen when it starts deliberating on rents in the coming months. And his appointment to be chair of the NYCHA board will have a similar symbolic impact at first – and practical impact as the person implements her or his vision.

As for Dasani, soon after her appearance at the mayor’s inauguration, Publisher’s Weekly reported that her story would become a book. It was unclear, however, whether she would benefit from any advance paid for the book. Furthermore, the Legal Aid Society has set up a trust fund for Dasani and other children in the “Invisible Child” series in the Times.

Dasani and her family are no longer living at the homeless shelter described in the Times story, said Banks of the Legal Aid Society. They have moved into "a more appropriate facility," he said.

"The family would benefit from a reversal of the misguided policies of the Bloomberg administration," Banks said. "The way the Bloomberg administration treated Dasani's family highlights the urgent need to restore housing priorities for the homeless."

Letter to The Mayor: Recommendations From Students Of De Blasio's Alma Mater

BdB Columbia (Newsday)

Mayor Bill de Blasio at his alma mater, Columbia (Newsday)

Dear Mayor de Blasio:

We are writing to you as graduate students at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, to put forth a series of policy recommendations. The priorities in this letter are based on the results of a survey of SIPA’s student body. As SIPA is your alma mater, you know that we represent a diverse community with a strong commitment to public service. After reviewing the survey results, we offer the following strategies to help you and your administration address New York City’s most pressing problems.


Affordable housing in New York is at risk due to a highly speculative market, scarce housing supply, and an imperfect set of code enforcement mechanisms. To mitigate these problems we recommend:  

Creation of a landlord rating system and increased sanctions against failing landlords. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development currently tracks building violations, ownership, purchase price, property debt, and outstanding taxes and liens. While a landlord may face fines or liens for transgressions there is currently no mechanism to control for overleveraging of affordable rental units, and many fines and liens are never collected because the cost to collect exceeds the amount of the penalty. Using the available information, HPD should create an index that holistically assesses the quality of New York City landlords, resulting in publicly available grading system. Landlords with poor grades should receive heavy financial penalties, and/or be barred from purchasing additional property in the City. Landlord ratings are likely to be well received by New Yorkers, who have become accustomed to grading criteria in other areas such as restaurants and food trucks.

Create a survey of vacant properties, and use these lots to support the New York City Community Land Initiative. NYCCLI represents a coalition of community groups seeking to reduce market speculation through the implementation of Land Trusts, a non-profit vehicle that preserves affordable housing in perpetuity through land use restrictions and the development of housing units. Successful models exist in San Francisco, Burlington, and Berkeley. By conducting the survey and unlocking vacant lots, the City can minimize the impact of market forces on affordable housing in vulnerable neighborhoods.

Use mayoral discretionary power to dedicate an additional 1 percent of the Department of Homeless Services Budget for programs that serve long-term housing needs for the homeless. In particular, these additional funds should be used to purchase land for the New York City Community Land Initiative and to develop low-income affordable cooperatives in NYC, both mechanisms for building asset wealth in traditionally marginalized communities.


New York City Transit is underperforming and cannot efficiently move its current ridership. Congestion is a daily challenge and accessibility continues to marginalize outer-borough communities. Priorities for this administration should be:

Establish “congestion” or “fair” pricing to alleviate gridlock. Former transportation commissioner Sam Schwartz and MoveNY have outlined a “fair” pricing plan that shares the tolling burden among residents of all the boroughs. This plan institutes moderate tolls on the East River bridges, while decreasing the tolls on the Verrazano-Narrows, Whitestone, RFK, and Throgs Neck. This toll system should be implemented and the funds must be directed to strengthen public transportation infrastructure against the effects of climate change and to expand outer borough select bus service routes.

Institute a commuter tax. Suburban residents who work in the five boroughs utilize city services, though the cost of paying for these services falls on city residents. A modest commuter tax of 0.005 percent of income—costing $250 per year for a commuter with an annual salary of $50,000—could generate millions in annual revenue for the city. The funds from a commuter tax should help improve NYCT and finance its capital projects.


Workers employed in science, technology, engineering, or math fields earn 12-60 percent more than similar workers in other fields, with the greatest advantage going to those with a high-school degree or less. Despite the projected creation of 29,000 tech-sector jobs by 2020, graduates of local colleges and universities are twice as likely to major in humanities than STEM fields.  In addition to expanding universal Pre-K and reaching a contract with the city’s teachers, the mayor must capitalize on the growth of math-dependent sectors by taking the following steps:

Promote education in STEM subjects, particularly among girls, minorities, and other traditionally underrepresented groups. The city should expand the number of teachers receiving training in these subjects, provide dedicated time for professional development to encourage student achievement, and produce an annual analysis of the progress that individual schools make in increasing student participation in advanced math and science courses.

Prepare students for immediate post-graduate employment by providing hands-on experiential learning and alternative pathways to certification, additional degrees, or advanced standing, as has been done at P-Tech in Brooklyn. This mayoral administration should make the successful components of P-Tech a standard for future high-school redesign activities, and pilot transferrable course modules in other city schools in the next academic year.

Provide additional in-service learning opportunities — like app development for community use — and exposure to potential employers through out-of-school-time programs like Girls Who Code.


The number of people living in New York City is expected to reach 9 million by 2030. To ensure that all residents have access to the economic opportunities, clean atmosphere, and safe and secure living conditions that they deserve, we recommend that the following action be taken to facilitate robust yet sustainable economic growth:

Lobby the City Council to pass a 10 cent tax on paper and plastic bags. Cities and states across the country are adopting a bag tax to reduce waste and generate revenue. Implemented at the point of sale, 5 cents would go to each the retailer and the City. This tax would promote behavioral change for consumers and generate revenue that can be used for sustainability efforts elsewhere. From the estimated 5.2 billion bags used by New Yorkers each year, the tax could generate $520 million.

Incorporate vocational training into the services offered by the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Nearly half of the labor force in New York City is comprised of recent immigrants. Recognize the vital contributions of these communities to the city’s economy and improve access and availability to programs dedicated to workforce development. Although the Immigrant Entrepreneur Initiatives and Immigrant Bridge programs furthered the employment gains of immigrants with high levels of education and experience, capacity must be expanded to include low-skilled individuals in order to ensure mutually beneficial participation in the modern economy.

Expand the existing NYC Business Link program, which provides wage subsidies to employers who hire public assistance recipients, to include low- and middle-income applicants who do not receive assistance.

Implement pilot microgrid programs to serve Coney Island Hospital and NYCHA facilities in the Rockaways. Sandy recovery is estimated at $19 billion, and as a region, New York lost $50-60 billion in economic activity. These numbers are expected to increase by 2050. Microgrids decentralize the electrical grid and contain the impact of damage and power loss. They incorporate multiple types of electrical generation, from gas to solar, and allow communities to sell excess generation back into the grid. $294 million of the federal recovery funds from Sandy are earmarked for resiliency programs and could be used for this initiative. Implementing microgrids in these locations would both protect these at-risk populations, many of whom were evacuated during the storm and went weeks without electricity, and inspire other communities to adopt them for themselves.

As your administration tackles these challenges, it will be important to adopt a comprehensive strategy and to include a diverse set of partners: political insiders and newcomers; wealthy, middle class, and poor residents; academics and practitioners; and seasoned public servants, as well as the next generation of policy advisers. In reconciling New York's "two cities," we urge you not to neglect one in favor of the other, but to foster interdependence and shared interests between the two.

This is a special time for New York City. At SIPA we are here to help and to serve, and hope that we can contribute to your administration as it addresses the issues outlined above.

We wish you the best of luck.


Lauren Andersen, Winston Berkman, Brendan Coticchia, Madeleine Gray, and Elyssa White
Master of Public Administration Candidates, Class of 2015

The Longest, Darkest Night of the Year


On December 21st, the longest night of the year, communities across America observe Homeless Memorial Day. Last year, 175 communities held an event. But most people have never heard of Homeless Memorial Day, and that's unfortunate.

Though it's been held for 25 years, it's usually not covered by the media. If ever it deserves coverage and thought, though, it's this year in New York City.

A month ago, the Department of Housing and Urban Development published its "Point-in-Time" homelessness count. They reported a 4 percent decline in homelessness across America in 2013 including significant decreases in urban areas. But in New York City, HUD's count, supervised by the city itself, documented a dramatic jump in homelessness.

Homeless advocates have been lamenting the record number of 57,000 people experiencing homelessness in the city. But the HUD count for one night in January 2013, estimated the city's homeless population at 64,060. That's a new record — in a bad way. It's enough people to fill Yankee stadium and jam Times Square, too.

Highlighting further the plight of children like Dasani — whose life was so powerfully described in last week’s bombshell New York Times series — HUD reported a 13 percent New York City increase including 39,601 people in homeless families. Tragically, their report for the city's homeless population, number of homeless families and homeless children may be the highest ever reported.

That makes Homeless Memorial Day 2013 especially poignant.

Homeless Memorial Day remembers those who died in our community this year without a home. Many of them might have no memorial remembrance at all if not for Homeless Memorial Day.

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One person I'll be remembering is Jose Perez. He died without a home on September 12, 2013, in Elmhurst Hospital. I never actually met him, but I'll be thinking of him.

Mr. Perez was brutally beaten in Sabba Park, Sunnyside, Queens, on September 7th not far from where I live. He was assaulted simply because he was homeless and vulnerable. It certainly wasn't a robbery - homeless people are easy targets but not very promising victims for theft.

He died at the age of 42. That's way too young — but not all that young for a chronically homeless person.

Homeless Memorial Day reminds us how dramatically the trauma, stress and exposure of homelessness rob chronically homeless people of years of life.

A child born in New York City today has a life expectancy of over 80 years.  Studies document chronically homeless peoples' life expectancy is in their 40s or 50s. That's three or four decades lost, needlessly, to homelessness.

Senseless attacks on homeless people are increasing according to an annual Coalition for the Homeless study reporting over 1,000 documented attacks in the last decade. That's based on very incomplete reporting because most attacks on homeless people aren't reported. Sometimes even if they are reported by the victim they go unrecorded in official statistics. That's why a quarter of the attacks reported are fatal — not because 25 percent of the beatings end in death but because most nonfatal attacks aren't recorded.

Most victims are men in their 40s — just like Mr. Perez.   Most perpetrators are male, too, but about half are 20 years old or younger. The youngest documented "hate crime" attack against a homeless person was by a 9 year old. A study at California State University in San Bernardino found homeless people had a greater victimization rate — 66 percent annually — "than any other group in the western industrialized world."

But attacks and traumas are hardly the major health hazard of chronic homelessness recognized on Homeless Memorial Day. Epidemiological studies have found homelessness itself is a cause of morbidity and premature death. Those who practice street medicine and provide health care to homeless people have long known that homelessness is a public health crisis, an aggravating condition for disease and an interference with effective treatment.

It was eye-opening research from the city's Departments of Health and Homeless Services that found age-adjusted death rate for single adults in city shelters to be twice that of the city's general population. They reported homeless adults represented well under 1 percent of the population but over 1.6 percent of the hospitalizations, with their hospital admissions lasting more than 12 percent longer than average.  They found some diseases rare in the general population rampant in shelters.

For instance, their report put TB rates in city shelters at 11 times that of the city overall. The HIV diagnosis rate was an incredible 16 times that of the city. Even with heroic efforts to get homeless people off the streets in bitter cold weather, there are dozens of exposure deaths in New York City annually. Mental illness and emotional distress is epidemic among people experiencing homelessness.

Homeless Persons' Memorial Day recognizes the threat to health and life that living without a home carries. Homeless advocate Bobby Watts coined the phrase "death by park bench" in painting the picture of the homelessness health hazard.

If you want to hear more about the scourge of homelessness, its health consequences, how homelessness can be overcome and to memorialize those who passed in New York City this year without a home, there are several events being held in Gotham.

Two outstanding observances are the Picture the Homeless Memorial Service at Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South at 6 p.m. on Friday evening, Dec. 20; and 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 21, at the Care for the Homeless client leaders' event at New Song Church, 2230 Frederick Douglass Blvd. between 120th and 121st streets in Harlem.

Homeless Memorial Day also recognizes these deaths are avoidable. Better policies could end modern day homelessness as we know it and end the health hazard and premature death sentences it carries with it.

Jeff Foreman is policy director at Care for the Homeless. Follow him on twitter @JeffForeman2

One Of The City's 22,000 Homeless Children Is No Longer Invisible. Now What?


This week The New York Times is featuring amazing coverage of homelessness in our city, in the form of a captivating series of articles about a 13-year-old girl named Dasani — after the water of the same name. The coverage is nothing short of extraordinary.

First, the sheer depth of it is remarkable. It began on Monday with an article and picture filling almost the entire Times front page above the fold, with four full pages of photos and coverage inside. That's an amazing amount of space for any story.

On Tuesday it was the front page again, and three full inside pages. The series continues.

New York is a city where homeless advocates often criticize the lack of in-depth coverage of homelessness and poverty. We can be a city where people walk by homeless people in the street daily but never acknowledge them and rarely see them at all. We're a city long suffering homeless "fatigue."

The Times coverage might do something about that.

The articles put a face on homelessness. It's an engaging, captivating child's face. Precisely for that reason it's difficult to read; but it makes homelessness personal to anyone who does.

Dasani is an amazingly resilient and optimistic child living through a nightmare. She is described as 4-foot-8-inches, has incredible responsibilities for siblings at her tender age and lives in a city shelter for homeless families.

This isn't just any shelter. It's Auburn Place, a city-run facility Dasani refers to as "the jail." It's a Dickensian horror show of a place where Times reporter Andrea Elliot finds Dasani, who sleeps near a mop bucket that serves as her family's toilet, amid mice and rotting walls, to life.

The Times articles aren't the first media tour of the substandard Auburn shelter. A year ago, when Mayor Bloomberg opined that the increased average length of stay for city shelter residents — it's well over a year now on average — was because the shelters had become "so pleasurable" residents didn't want to leave, the NY Daily News reviewed Auburn. They described it as a place housing homeless families with "rats coming through the walls, worms in the bathroom and living conditions so squalid that one man compared them with his stint in prison."

{pullquote}The plan to end homelessness in New York City would include reinstating the priority for using some portion of the city's federal resources to house homeless families.{/pullquote}

The Times articles paint vividly, too. They tell the story of homeless children suffering "staggering societal costs" at the expensive of their opportunity for a decent education, a real chance to develop earning power or flee poverty,  often leading to psychological trauma, disease, addictions and prison.

The Times also laments results for 22,000 homeless children a night in New York City shelters, which they say is the highest number since the Great Depression. But it might be worse than that.

Each year, HUD conducts a national "Point-In-Time" count of people experiencing homelessness in America. Their 2013 PIT count of one night in January reported progress. They found homelessness down 4 percent across America.

Sadly, New York City bucked that trend. HUD estimated on that night there were 64,060 homeless people in New York City. That may be an all-time record high. Worse, it included 39,601 people in homeless families.

The Times series also visits the policy choices "intended to push the homeless to become more self-reliant" and meant to reduce the number of homeless. First there was the elimination of the historic targeting of some of the city's public housing and Section 8 housing vouchers specifically to aid homeless families.  But the homeless population wasn't reduced — it increased.

Then there was the elimination of a city subsidy to move homeless families from shelter to housing. Again, policymakers felt the meager subsidy was just drawing people into shelters. After its elimination, the number of homeless people, especially families with children, increased. It's more accurate to say it exploded.

Advocates argue the situation is all the more tragic because it doesn't have to be this way. There are real, evidence-based plans that have worked to prevent homelessness and reduce the number of homeless people. If policy choices helped get us into this mess, they say, better policies could get us out.

The plan to end homelessness in New York City would include reinstating the priority for using some portion of the city's federal resources to house homeless families. It would include more affordable housing targeted to very-low income people and supportive housing for those who need it. It would include a housing voucher program to move homeless people to permanent housing and a strategy of better coordinating government efforts of major "feeders" of homelessness such as aging out of foster care without a home, getting time-limited out of domestic violence shelters or leaving prison without housing.

Advocates say these proposals won't cost more than we spend now on programs that haven't worked. In most cases they save money, because subsidies, supportive housing and the like are far less expensive than shelters.

But what has enthralled us this week is not policy choices but the hard to fathom story of an 11-year-old honor student making her way through seemingly impossible obstacles, and the chance — just the chance —that she might succeed.

We're charmed by her optimism against all odds. She tells the Times reporter she won't fall into the pitfalls all around.  She believes that Auburn will be just a "pit stop" for her. She says she has "a lot of possibilities."

We are horrified by her challenges, and saddened when she calls herself "ghetto."

The Times called the series "Invisible Child." But of course the articles have made her saga all so visible to us. That's a fantastic accomplishment.

It's also a responsibility. If we now know there are children forced to live like this in our city — 280 of them at Auburn, and at least 22,000 more — we should do something about it. And we could. Which leaves only one question: What will we do?

Jeff Foreman is Policy Director for Care for the Homeless in New York City. Follow him on twitter at @JeffForeman2.

Analysis: The Bloomberg Fiscal Legacy


After 12 years in office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg will have left an indelible fiscal stamp on New York City that will present his successor — and any progressive agenda — with formidable challenges.

There is, foremost, a four-year financial plan that looks sound in the short run, but masks future labor cost problems for the new mayor; a more centralized, less transparent budget process that has reduced public participation in making fiscal policy; and a weakened set of City Charter-mandated performance indicators that now obscures actual policy outcomes.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Bloomberg leaves a legacy of a trickle-down theory of philanthropy and privatization that sees fiscal and policy reform as best spun from private, not public sources.

Immediate Budget Prospects

In the immediate case, the mayor leaves a $72.7 billion one-year city budget which, according to a modification released last week, will actually end this fiscal year (in June 2014) with a $1.6 billion surplus. The new modification has even better news. The fiscal year 2015 budget — which in June’s financial plan was projected to have a $2 billion deficit — is, four months later, now balanced. The presumption is that the mayor-elect will inherit 18 months of a balanced budget.

"We’re proud of all we’ve achieved — and now we want the next Administration to do even better," Bloomberg said in his weekly radio address broadcast on WINS-AM on Sunday. "The balanced budget we’re handing off to them now — more than seven months before the next fiscal year begins — will help them get off to the best possible start."

But that June financial plan for fiscal years 2014 to 2017, as well as the new November modification, are disingenuous. Recent reports from all four fiscal monitors — city and state comptrollers, the state Financial Control Board, and the Independent Budget Office – all point to retroactive and future labor costs that could add billions of dollars to the plan. The IBO, for one, has laid out a scenario that could cost the city nearly $12 billion more over the next four years.

Management, Accountability, and Privatization

In terms of managing city finances, Bloomberg has expanded mayoral fiscal power, weakening the fiscal clout of the City Council and frustrating planning in city agencies and nonprofit agencies. At the same time, mandated accountability mechanisms, such as the mayor’s management report, provide little information about the impact of the outgoing mayor’s major priorities, such as education reform, expanded privatization, and reductions in human and social services.

The mayor’s focus on privatization has changed the funding and governance structures of reform in New York City. New charter schools are almost exclusively privately run. Many charter schools have attracted significant private funding, from foundations and wealthy individuals.

{pullquote}Bloomberg leaves a legacy of a trickle-down theory of philanthropy and privatization that sees fiscal and policy reform as best spun from private, not public sources.{/pullquote}

The mayor’s own foundation has contributed millions of dollars to city organizations that also receive public funds. Similarly, several small anti-poverty reform programs — introduced late in the Bloomberg tenure — are largely funded by private money and managed in large part by non-city agencies.

The ultimate impact of private funding of charter schools, cultural, social, and anti-poverty programs won’t be known for some time, but the private, philanthropic origins of this — unfolding as the Occupy Wall Street movement dramatized increasing inequality in New York City – have only expanded the financial and governance power of private wealth over public policy in the City. This development promises to be a stout barrier to any public, progressive reform agenda.  

The Budget Legacy: Two Crises, Two Different Solutions

The mayor’s budget legacy is the product of 12 years of balanced budgets, crafted, often brilliantly, in the face of two major economic, social, and political challenges — the shocks of September 11, 2001, and then the financial crash and subsequent recession of the late 2000s.  Those two crisis periods were, however, resolved in quite different ways, and illustrate the range of choices a new mayor and new City Council will consider.

The post-9/11 financial crisis — which slashed city tax revenues and soon threatened the city with a more than $6 billion deficit — presented an enormous challenge to the new mayor. Bloomberg responded effectively and equitably, in November 2002, with a controversial package of service cuts and new taxes, roughly $3 billion of cuts and $3 billion in new revenues.

The $3 billion in property, personal income, and sales tax increases were unpopular, especially the 18.5 percent increase in the average property tax rate (cut back by the City Council from his proposed 25 percent increase), the first rate increase in ten years.

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But the tax package was reasonably progressive, with higher income taxpayers paying higher rates for three years. (The sales tax, the city’s most regressive tax, was increased by only 0.125 percent and only for two years). Along with additional help from state and federal governments, the budget crisis was rather quickly brought under control. The plan, with its focus on shared sacrifice, in retrospect if not at the time, was a triumph for the new mayor.

The second crisis, the financial collapse of 2008 and subsequent budget crisis, was resolved in a quite different way: the regressive city sales tax was increased from 4.0 percent to 4.5 percent — and made permanent; the other major taxes were not tapped; and there followed a nearly-exclusive focus on reductions in city spending. In what has continued as a five year, nearly year-round series of budget modifications, mostly cuts in city spending, the city “saved” a lot of money.

Today the current budget is over $6 billion less than it would otherwise have been, absent the modifications. The cumulative effect on services, while only marginally documented in mayoral performance documents, has had clearly negative impacts, especially in public education.

The progressive income tax rates in place from 2003 through 2005 (and in place through most of the 1990s) would have been a reasonable alternative to the relentless succession of budget cuts. The mayor, however, has simply argued that wealthy New Yorkers already pay the bulk of city personal income taxes (true) and might well move out of the city (unlikely).

The $12 Billion Gamble

By far the biggest fiscal problem for the new mayor will be the nearly $12 billion “gamble,” as the IBO has put it, that the last Bloomberg financial plan includes. All city labor unions have been without a contract for the last three years, the city’s teachers and school administrators for the last five years.

{pullquote}The post-9/11 financial crisis presented an enormous challenge to the new mayor. Bloomberg responded effectively and equitably.{/pullquote}

The IBO’s March 2013 analysis of the mayor’s then-preliminary budget for fiscal year 2014 notes Bloomberg’s “assumptions that the municipal labor unions will accept settlements with no wage increases for contracts that expired after 2010 and that the unions for the teachers and principals will forgo the two years of 4.0 percent raises other unions received [in 2008-2010 negotiations]. With virtually no money set aside to pay for wage increases prior to 2013, the financial plan gambles that the unions and the next mayor will agree to no retroactive raises.”

The IBO estimates that paying the teachers and administrators the 4.0 percent increase for the 2008-2010 period that other unions received, and assuming all union members receive a retroactive annual increase of 2.0 percent for two years after 2010, the cost would be $4.5 billion through last year’s (fiscal 2013) budget, and $1.8 billion annually thereafter through fiscal year 2017. Total potential cost over four years: $11.7 billion ($4.5 billion, plus 4 x $1.8 billion).

More Fiscal Problems for the New Mayor

The just-released November modification shows that there will be a surplus of $1.6 billion at the end of this fiscal year in June, which is used to pre-pay expenses in the next year’s budget. This is much less than surpluses in recent years — and, again, assumes no costs in new labor negotiations. Another fiscal problem is that the mayor has used up the one big reserve fund, his own Retiree Health Benefit Fund (more on this below), which, although it was designed to pay for costs way down the road, he has used as a convenient budget-balancing tool.

As the state comptroller comments in his July 2013 report: “The city has come to rely on the annual surplus and reserves built up during the last economic expansion to balance its budget, and now the city has exhausted most of these reserves.”
Created in 2007 by the mayor and Council to build a long-term reserve fund to pay for the rising future health of city retirees (the city’s liability is now at $88 billion), the fund reached a peak of $3.1 billion. But little more than $100 million is left, according to the state Financial Control Board’s July 2013 report.

As an example of Bloomberg’s fiscal style, the state comptroller points out that the current fiscal 2014 budget “is balanced with $4.5 billion in nonrecurring [i.e., one-time] resources, including $2.7 billion surplus resources and $1 billion in reserves from the last economic expansion.” In other words, the new mayor will have little fiscal cushion should the collective bargaining results (or any surprise events) add major new costs to the financial plan.

The new mayor’s first chance to formally affect the city budget will be in February, when he will release a preliminary budget for fiscal year 2015 (beginning July 1, 2014) and a modified four-year financial plan.

The Question of Mayoral Fiscal Power

While questions about the fiscal health of the city in the short and long run will be paramount in the early months of 2014, there are questions about budget process and management mechanisms that deserve similar attention. For instance, the success of the Bloomberg administration’s 2008-2013 budget-balancing stemmed largely from its ability to change the budget clock and control fiscal information.

In its rush to accumulate an ultimate $6 billion in savings, the mayor telescoped the traditional budget process by overriding the usual February-June budget process set out in the City Charter and made it effectively a year-round process. No sooner were budgets adopted in June than they were effectively modified almost immediately: with public warnings to city agencies to cut back spending in the summer and major modifications announced as early as September.

The February-June schedule lays out formal, well-publicized mayoral presentations — a preliminary budget in February, an executive budget in May — which build in time for City Council hearings, opportunities for public access to the process, and council/mayoral negotiations. Big changes made in the fall don’t permit this full democratic exchange.

{pullquote}A more subtle way in which the mayor has controlled the budget process has been through his budget office’s control of information — much of which is not shared with the public.{/pullquote}

The City Council, for instance, could argue that the sudden increase in the budget surplus, announced last week, could have been used to increase city services this year. Autumn modifications don’t get thorough reviews, and the Council is generally ill-equipped to challenge the changes. The early modifications in a budget year also disrupt planning and management in city agencies and the large number of nonprofit agencies that contract with the city to provide public services.

A more subtle way in which the mayor has controlled the budget process has been through his budget office’s control of information — much of which is not shared with the public. There are any number of ways in which the city’s budget office can manage and then explain (or not) its budget planning to the public. The Bloomberg staff has probably not invented any new techniques, but in the scale and sophistication of its close-to-the-vest work, it may be unmatched.

The Budget Dance

There are several ways, for instance, for a mayor to tamp down expectations and maximize mayoral discretion. Revenue projections may be a bit under-estimated; projected expenditures may be a bit over-estimated. Projects can be delayed. Economic projections may be on the lower range of conventional projections. Money put aside to pay for certain anticipated expenses may not be needed. One-time revenues — like selling city land or taxi medallions — can be moved from one year to another.

These techniques are perfectly illustrated in the new November modification. That surprise $1.6 billion surprise stems from several sources. Tax revenues were (four months ago) underestimated by $1.1 billion for the current year. A reserve fund of $450 million was tapped for $300 million, only four months into the fiscal year; and re-financing of city debt — not anticipated four months ago? — will save $535 million over four years.  

One of the most effective of tamp-down strategies is the so-called “budget dance” through which the mayor each year cuts a few hundred million dollars from programs favored by the City Council. The mayor and Council fight over those cuts during the spring negotiations and the mayor eventually restores most of the cuts (generally for only one year, to keep the game going).

By thus focusing on less than 0.5 percent of the City’s $70 billion budget, the mayor diverts attention from the remaining 99.5 percent of his proposed budget. Big ideas — like re-introducing progressive tax rates or reviewing a system of housing and economic tax exemptions that cost the city billions of dollars — don’t get a hearing. Instead, the mayor and Council fight over pennies.

Typical result? This past June the mayor proposed a $1.00 increase in the public school lunch fee (to $2.50). The Council negotiated the proposed increase down to 25 cents — although the City Comptroller noted in his July report that the remaining 75 cent increase remains in next year’s budget.

One of the biggest areas of budget savings in recent years has been the low interest rates for a city that borrows billions of dollars each year for capital improvements. The budget office has repeatedly overestimated the cost of borrowing — as they in effect acknowledged last week — which then makes it easier for the mayor to claim there’s no money for new proposals.  

According to the state comptroller’s July 2013 report, for instance, the city has refinanced $18 billion of debt (one-quarter of the city’s debt) for cumulative savings of $1.5 billion through fiscal year 2014.

What these budget maneuvers suggest is a consistent political strategy that anticipates and discourages any pressures from the City Council or others to fund new programs or resist proposed cuts. The use of reserve funds, one-time revenues, and the depletion of the health-benefit fund, in particular, have meant that the Bloomberg budgets for the past five years have reflected short-term, opaque planning and an unwillingness to consider alternative strategies.   

Budget Accountability: What Else We Don’t Know

Then there is the question of accountability, the flip side of budgeting. What are the effects of 12 years of spending plans? The official answer is ostensibly in the City Charter-mandated Mayor’s Management Report, issued twice a year, in which a mayor is asked, first, to lay out his fiscal and program goals, and, second, to provide indicators that measure the success of those goals.

The Bloomberg administration, however, has stripped the MMR not only of data, but also of language. There is little or no data provided, for instance, on many of the mayor’s biggest policies and programs: education reform, economic development, contracting, and homelessness services. There is no overall analysis of data; there are occasional paragraphs, but mostly a litany of one-line, bulleted comments.

Nobody reads the MMR anymore. An IBO blog, “How the MMR Went MIA,” noted three years ago that there was an almost complete absence of major press notice of that year’s MMR (only 145 words in the Daily News), and concluded that “the report’s stature has clearly declined.” The New York Times, however, did devote 443 words to the last Bloomberg MMR, released in September.

{pullquote}The Bloomberg administration, however, has stripped the MMR not only of data, but also of language.{/pullquote}

But the Times found little of substance. More than a fifth of the Times’ report was devoted to the MMR’s summary of 12 years of work with the “perennial challenge” of graffiti. It turns out that getting rid of graffiti was transferred from the Department of Sanitation to the Economic Development Corporation (the mayor’s economic office) in 2011.  Who knew? In any case, in fiscal year 2013, the EDC “scrubbed off more than four million square feet of the city’s landscape … the equivalent of 93 acres.”

It wasn’t always so. In 1991, The New York Times reported that then-mayor David Dinkins’ first MMR “painted a dark picture of New York City’s growing social problems and service burdens.” When Harvey Robins, Dinkins’ director of operations   whose office produces the MMR   was asked by reporters about the tendency of such summaries to ‘cook’ the hundreds of pages of statistical indicators in the most favorable way, he said, ‘Not only didn’t we cook them. This year, we didn’t even put them on the stove.’”

Eight years later, the Times’ Michael Powell said of the Dinkins’ tenure that “through the years of recession, as the city lost hundreds of jobs, [Dinkins] spoke of his successes and failures, often with brutal candor. His successors [Rudy Giuliani and Bloomberg] have pruned the statistical reports of some negative indicators and tend to place a relentless emphasis on the positive.”

Read more: Analysis: The Bloomberg Fiscal Legacy

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