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News Feed http://www.gothamgazette.com/ Tue, 28 Apr 2015 14:39:10 GMT FeedCreator 1.8.0-dev (info@mypapit.net) Fix Water Mains, Improve Transit http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinion/5700-fix-water-mains-improve-transit-de-blasio-mta-service-peyser water subway

Water floods the subway (photo: @NYCityAlerts)

Mayor Bill de Blasio's executive budget is expected soon and one of the issues attracting attention is the size of the city's contribution to the MTA. While the mayor rightly urges Albany to come up with sustainable, long-term capital support for the regional transit network, the city's contribution to the MTA Capital Plan is today less than half of its peak in 1989, during the Koch Administration. Certainly, there should be a way for the mayor to find significantly more city money to support the bus and subway system that is the lifeblood of our city. But there's another way the mayor can support the MTA: increase funding to keep damaging water out of the subway.

Just in the past month, we had an illustration of how one system of crumbling infrastructure can contribute to the problems of another. When a water main broke in the West Village on April 7, water came cascading into the 14th Street Station on the 7th Avenue line, interrupting 1, 2, and 3 train service. The dramatic video of water showering a train in the station attracted a lot of attention on social media and elsewhere. But this incident is just one of several since Mayor de Blasio took office that highlight the importance of the city repairing its ancient water system. Others:

January 15, 2014 – a 137-year-old water main break near Union Square requires the diversion of multiple train lines during the morning rush hour

November 22, 2014 – a water main break in the Bronx floods the E 145th Station and requires suspension of 6 train service

April 1, 2015 – a water main break near Central Park West and 96th Street causes disruption in B and C train service

In each one of these incidents, the MTA mobilized people and equipment to restore service and make repairs as needed to subway equipment and infrastructure. While it may be difficult for the MTA to break down the costs for each incident like this, it's clear that expenditures for labor and materials are not insubstantial. In addition, there are costs to the MTA in lost ridership revenue when these events take place. When you factor in additional economic costs of delaying commutes for thousands of people and lost business income, the total economic costs of this problem mount up.

A review of the mayor's preliminary budget for fiscal year 2016 shows capital expenditures of $325 million over 10 years to replace aging underground water mains. That's just $32.5 million per year. For emergency repairs to broken water mains, there's an additional $116 million over that same period – less than $12 million per year. These numbers are woefully inadequate. According to a March 2014 report by the Center for an Urban Future, the city's water main replacement program has been replacing only about one-third of what's required to approach a state of good repair. The result: more than 400 water main breaks in New York City last year and every year since 1998 but one.

The risk of underinvestment in our water infrastructure is becoming more apparent each time a water main break disrupts our transit network. If the mayor wants to keep the heat on Albany to fund the MTA, so be it. But he can also help support better transit by pumping more resources into repairing the city's aging water infrastructure.

Peter Peyser is a public affairs consultant living in New York. He served in the Koch Administration in the mayor's Washington, DC office.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Peter Peyser) Tue, 28 Apr 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinion/5700-fix-water-mains-improve-transit-de-blasio-mta-service-peyser
City Includes $1 Billion for Overtime in 2016 Budget http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5697-city-includes-1-billion-for-overtime-in-2016-budget-de-blasio-nypd bdb budget 

Mayor de Blasio presenting his preliminary budget (photo: @NYCMayorsOffice)

Some of the most prominent city agencies will again spend considerable portions of their budgets on employee overtime in fiscal year 2016, set to begin July 1, 2015. The allocation of $1 billion toward personnel overtime raises questions around optimal staffing levels and balancing cold fiscal calculation with whether understaffing might impact performance and well-being of employees.

City officials argue that staffing levels are mostly appropriate and the overtime expenditures being made is wiser fiscal policy than additional full-time hiring. There is widespread agreement, though, that employing overtime control mechanisms is in the best interest of the city. 

In his preliminary $77 billion budget for fiscal year 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio has included just over $1 billion for personnel overtime, mostly spread across the city’s vital public safety agencies. Over three-quarters of the sum, about $798 million, is in anticipated overtime work by uniformed employees, such as police and corrections officers, firefighters and sanitation workers.

There are a variety of reasons compelling the city to rely so heavily on overtime, but one in particular stands out: it actually saves the city millions of dollars.

“In many instances overtime is going to be cheaper, up to a certain point, than bringing in new recruits,” said Doug Turetsky, chief of staff and communications director at the Independent Budget Office, a publicly-funded budget watchdog agency.

“Look at the Police Department for example,” Turetsky continued. “Let’s say you hired new officers and you were able to bring some of your overtime cost down, your personnel cost in general may actually be going up because of pensions, health insurance, and other fringe benefits.”

The NYPD remains one of the most overtime-burdened city agencies. For fiscal 2016, the department is allotted more than $423 million in overtime just for its uniformed employees, nearly 16 percent of the agency’s total salary budget, according to the preliminary budget outline. Civilian personnel overtime will cost an additional $248 million, according to a report released by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton during a March budget hearing at the City Council.

Other New York City agencies are also wrestling with staffing levels and heavy overtime expenditures, which the de Blasio administration have been working to address.

According to the mayor’s preliminary budget, released in February, the FDNY has projected overtime expenses of more than $204 million and will allocate 16 percent of its personnel budget for overtime. The budget also estimates the Department of Correction will spend over $84 million in overtime, 8.3 percent of its total personnel expenditures; and the Sanitation Department over $91 million, 8.7 percent of its uniformed personnel services - according to figures that do not include snow removal, which increases overtime costs every year. But, it is seasonal expenses like snow removal that city officials and others say it makes sense to utilize overtime for rather than upping full-time staff.

The remaining $300 million in overtime is allocated to cover the cost of work in other agencies, including $23 million for the Department of Environmental Protection; $35 million for the Department of Transportation; and $17 million for the Administration for Children’s Services.

Both Commissioner Bratton and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito have argued that the NYPD is understaffed, calling for new hiring. For a second straight year, the Council is calling for the hire of 1,000 new officers and new measures to curb NYPD overtime spending.

“In order for NYPD to continue to keep New Yorkers safe while also implementing new reforms and initiatives we need to increase the overall headcount of the department,” Mark-Viverito said in a statement just before the Council released its preliminary budget response.

Mark-Viverito also pointed out that each police precinct in the city lost an average of 60 to 75 officers since its peak headcount in fiscal 2001, and that NYPD has to systematically demand officers work overtime in order to meet the city’s daily enforcement demands, and sometimes has to rely on non-patrol precinct staff to work parades and sporting events.

Bratton appears to have asked the mayor for the green light in hiring 1,000 new cops. But Turetsky, a budget expert who has studied the city’s expenses for years, said he is skeptical the demand will be entirely met, citing the cost of the operation as the main issue.

“Our estimate is that 1,000 [new] cops will eventually cost about $100 million [per year],” Turetsky said, adding that the Council plan appears to include NYPD hiring 500 new officers, half the number requested, in each of the next two years. Turetsky said that the costs will ramp up over multiple years, in part because city pension contributions do not get made immediately.

Between 2009 and 2014, overtime expenditures for the NYPD averaged $484.6 million, according to a report on the fiscal 2015 Executive Budget issued by the City Council.

Amy Spitalnick, a spokesperson for the City’s Office of Management and Budget, said the NYPD has used overtime mostly to fund public safety programs targeting specific times of the year, citing as an example the anti-violence summer initiative the NYPD rolled out in 2014.

“NYPD overtime is not currently being utilized to cover positions that require an officer year-round,” Spitalick said. “In order to address the crime conditions of a short period, overtime was utilized to increase security for that specific time period in specific locations as needed.” This was also true in December, 2014 as protesters took to the streets on several nights in response to the non-indictment in the Eric Garner grand jury case.

Despite a reduction in overtime expenses since de Blasio took office, New York City is behind other major cities around the country in terms of money allocated to police overtime - thus leading to the call by the Council and other budget watchdogs for the City to implement an overtime-cost savings plan.

The Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, allocated only 2 percent of its personnel costs to overtime for its current fiscal year, a significant drop since 2010, when it hit 10 percent, according to data released by the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

It is similar with the Houston Police Department, which maintains its overtime expenditures under 5 percent of the total personnel cost, according to the Mayor’s Office of the City of Houston. 

Experts say that Los Angeles and Houston police departments may be aided in keeping down their overtime costs because both metro areas are served by both police departments and other law enforcement agencies like the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the California Highway Patrol in LA and the Harris County Sheriff's Office in Houston.

The NYPD is the only law enforcement agency on regular patrol duty across the five boroughs. This may contribute to the NYPD, the largest police department in the nation with over 49,000 full-time employees (including about 35,000 uniformed officers), struggle to keep overtime under control.

Looking at the budgets of other cities where street patrol is the jurisdiction of the municipal police department alone, the numbers are closer to those in New York City, though they are still fairly far off.

The Philadelphia Police Department, for instance, is spending over $50 million in overtime salaries this year, more that 11 percent of its total personnel expenditures, and the Chicago Police Department, the second largest municipal law enforcement agency in the nation, allocated $71 million in overtime pay, about 6.7 percent. The NYPD is at about 16 percent.

Meanwhile, staffing issues at FDNY have been chronic for several years, beginning during the Bloomberg administration, when the uniformed headcount fell from 11,459 in 2009 to 10,646 in 2011, before reaching a record low of 10,180 in 2013.

FDNY overtime expenses shot up from $152 million in fiscal 2009 to over $292 million in 2014, the fiscal year during which Bill de Blasio took office, and the FDNY spent nearly 29 percent of its salary expenditures in overtime. And these increases in overtime expenditures have not coincided with or been a tool toward a decrease in overall department spending.

Decreased headcount and increased overtime at the Fire Department began with an event that had nothing to do with money-saving strategy. In 2007, the department was sued in a major civil rights lawsuit concerning its hiring process, and since 2009, when Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled FDNY’s admissions test discriminated against African-American and Latino applicants, a court order practically froze new hiring for several years. 

After a settlement in 2014, the Fire Department has moved to hire new - and diverse - personnel as quickly as its resources permit. “The City was unable to hire any new firefighters for a period of over four years,” Spitalnick said. “Firefighter hiring resumed in January 2013.  The City is actively hiring new firefighters up to budgeted headcount.”

At a late March hearing of the City Council Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the agency is in need of 600 additional firefighters to fulfill its duty, and that it takes a period of 18 months to hire and train new cadets, which the city is doing in waves. The FDNY Office of Public Information said in an email that the agency “is not expected to be at full headcount for the next several years.”

Although the Fire Department significantly reduced its use of overtime in the last two years, the projection for fiscal 2016 remains large.

Unforseen Events
Overtime expenditures at FDNY and elsewhere, especially NYPD, are indeed often the result of unforeseen events, rather than being a carefully planned piece of staffing and budgeting calculations.

In the fall of 2011, during Occupy Wall Street protests, the NYPD spent $17 million to keep police officers on the streets overtime, then-Commissioner Ray Kelly said at the time. 

In late 2012, Superstorm Sandy required significant extra work by public safety agencies. In the days of the storm and its aftermath, the city spent over $154 million in overtime from October 29 to December 24, according to a report published by the Independent Budget Office. Of that total, over $70 million was spent in NYPD overtime, nearly $54 million for sanitation overtime, and nearly $9 million went to FDNY overtime.

Events unfolded last winter leading to high overtime bills. The protests over police brutality and the Garner grand jury decision cost the city $22.9 million in NYPD overtime, Commissioner Bratton said during a press conference in December. By early January, the Staten Island Advance reported the OT bill was up to $35 million.

OT Rise
A Gotham Gazette review of the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports for fiscal years 2004 through 2013 published by the Office of the New York City Comptroller shows that overtime expenditures have been stubbornly on the rise since 2004, around the end of Michael Bloomberg’s first term.

In 2004, the Bloomberg administration and City Council adopted a budget with over $507 million in overtime, but ended up spending more than $777 million. In 2006, the adopted budget projected overtime expenses of nearly $620 million. By 2010, expected overtime costs reached $848 million, before hitting an adopted overtime expenditure of $1.05 billion in 2014.

In December 2013 the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan watchdog organization, issued a report totaling the final cost of overtime work during fiscal 2013 at more than $1.4 billion.

“That administration didn’t have a strategy to limit overtime,” Maria Doulis, director of city studies at Citizens Budget Commission, told Gotham Gazette about Bloombeg’s, calling it “an open question” as to why the OT costs were allowed to increase so dramatically during his tenure.

At the time the CBC report came out, the organization encouraged the city to limit overtime through a series of reforms. One was cracking down on endemic absenteeism; another was to find more efficient ways to staff predictable events, such as community festivals and parades, without extending employees’ normal shifts. By adopting such measures, the report outlined, the city would have saved about $125 million.

“There is some logic behind relying on overtime,” Doulis said, mentioning savings in pensions and insurance policies that arise with new hiring, “but there is a point where you could save money if you hired more personnel instead.”

More than $
Beside the financial aspect, there is another side of the overtime coin.

While overtime is a budgetary tool that can help agencies save money in training and benefits, long work shifts also affect not only performance, but the safety of the employees and the public as well. 

This is particularly true in the case of the Department of Correction, an agency that spends heavily on overtime, and where, according to a report compiled by the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, understaffing and psychological stress has played a role in the episodes of violence at Rikers Island jail complex, which have been on the rise. It is something the de Blasio administration has pledged to address with reforms it recently announced.

“The Administration is committed to reducing overtime and shifting the workload from overtime to straight time,” said Spitalnick, the de Blasio spokesperson, said regarding corrections. She added that “given the amount of time it takes to hire and train new Correction Officers, the overtime reduction will take some time to be fully realized.” 

Since he took his post as corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte has looked for ways to fix the city’s correctional system as part of what the administration unveiled as a 14-point anti-violence agenda, a bundle of reforms that would act to calm a climate of violence and abuse at Rikers.

One of the points in the agenda focuses on reducing overtime. “Recruiting, hiring and training more officers are key planks of Commissioner Ponte’s 14-point anti-violence agenda,” said Eve Kessler, a spokesperson for the Department of Correction. Kessler added that the department is also planning an overhaul of recruiting procedures, with the intention of improving the standards used in the hiring of new officers.

The Correction Department estimates that 8.3 percent of its total salary expenditures, over $84 million, will pay for overtime next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Despite being lower than the current year, when it topped $124 million, overtime is still one of the department’s key issues, especially from the point of view of safety for both officers and inmates.

“Overtime is just one of the problems for my members,” said Norman Seabrook, President of New York City Correction Officer's Benevolent Association. “They are forced to work up to 16 hours a day everyday in some facilities. Something has got to change.”

by Marco Poggio, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated with a correction from IBO's Doug Turetsky on IBO's estimates of the costs of 1,000 new officers being added to the NYPD force.

mpoggio@gothamgazette.com (Marco Poggio) Mon, 27 Apr 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5697-city-includes-1-billion-for-overtime-in-2016-budget-de-blasio-nypd
Better Understanding Entry to the City's Specialized High Schools http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinion/5699-better-understanding-entry-to-the-citys-specialized-high-schools-cary bx sci hs

Bronx High School of Science

A recent report by the city's Independent Budget Office claimed that the city's eight test-in specialized high schools – including my alma mater Brooklyn Tech, where I head the alumni foundation – have higher percentages of students from higher-income census tracts than the average in all city high schools. Some politicians, activists and academics who are hostile to the use of a pure merit system for selecting students for these schools have attempted to argue that this report somehow shows that the test-in schools are for the wealthy among us. That is misleading to say the least.

The facts are that the specialized high schools are the most economically diverse of all high-performing public high schools in the city.

The IBO report did not point out that in the academic year ending last June, 52.4 percent of students in the eight specialized high schools (including two-thirds at Brooklyn Tech) qualified for free or reduced-cost lunch, the federally-established measure of poverty used by the school system. By comparison, just 37.6 percent of students at the eight highest-performing selective high schools (based on SAT scores) that use the more subjective multiple criteria wanted by critics of the test qualified for the lunch program.

It should come as no surprise that specialized high schools, which draw students from across the city, would have more students from higher-income brackets than neighborhood-based schools where the student bodies reflect the socioeconomic standing in those communities. The IBO report reflects that higher-income neighborhoods have better performing schools because they are given better resources. But an apples-to-apples comparison shows that the specialized high schools continue to draw far more economically-diverse student bodies than schools using subjective criteria to decide admissions. In other words, use of the test, the SHSAT, prevents parents of less academically-prepared children from wealthy families from using non-pedagogical influence to gain admittance.

New York's test-in high schools like Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant and Bronx Science provide an incredibly challenging college-level curriculum to the children of New York City's working class, immigrant and poor families. For 90 years their students have received an unmatched public school education enabling them to go to the nation's best colleges and have a real opportunity to escape the poverty they were born into.

In many instances these graduates have gone on to do great things benefiting our society. Diseases have been cured, wars won, and marvelous inventions have been created which improved the lives of millions. Fourteen graduates have received the Nobel Prize, more than most nations can claim.

The State Senate Education Committee will vote Tuesday on a bill to end the reliance on the Specialized High School Admissions Test without having heard five minutes of testimony from either side of the issue. Senators could have listened to representatives from the NYU Research Alliance for New York City Schools, which recently released a report showing many of the proposed changes – such as using state assessment test scores, grades and attendance – either would result in little change in specialized school admission rates for underrepresented minorities or could actually result in fewer black and more white students being offered admission.

There are over 1,900 African-American and Latino students currently attending the specialized high schools. There should be more. What is missing from the bill and from the IBO report is a true understanding of what must be done to improve the racial and ethnic diversity of students attending these schools.

Instead of eliminating the test-in system which guarantees all applicants a fair and objective standard for admission, the city should work far harder to give students from underrepresented communities the same educational opportunities in elementary and middle school grades currently being afforded students in higher-income neighborhoods. It is discouraging to see recent reports that the city is not offering Gifted and Talented Programs in so many communities that are later underrepresented in the specialized high schools.

Similarly, too few students from underrepresented communities sign up to take the SHSAT, perpetuating a cycle of disenfranchisement that requires a commitment and investment of resources to change. The school system should identify high-performing students, nurture them through enhanced academic programming and test preparation to ready them for the rigors of the exam and the schools' curriculum.

It can be done. The Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, working with the school and a grant from National Grid (which is led by a Tech graduate), just saw the fruits of a pilot "pipeline" program it established to focus on students from underrepresented middle schools across Brooklyn. Of 30 students who went through the program – which included tutoring, enhanced academics and test preparation – 26 received an offer of admission to either Brooklyn Tech or Stuyvesant. Half of the students offered admission to Tech were African-American or Latino. More importantly, because of an even broader effort by the school to reach out to underrepresented middle schools, over 300 African-American and Latino students were offered admission this year to Brooklyn Tech, reversing a downward trend of many years.

I am a labor lawyer and have spent my entire 30-year career fighting for the rights of poor and working people. I believe in diversity, fairness, merit and providing excellent educational opportunities for the children of working families. If we are to reduce the huge income inequality in our city we must reduce the huge educational inequality of our elementary and middle schools. And, we must preserve the specialized high schools which truly have been – and remain – the engines of social advancement for the children of New York's poor, immigrant and working class families.

Larry Cary is the President of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Larry Cary) Mon, 27 Apr 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinion/5699-better-understanding-entry-to-the-citys-specialized-high-schools-cary
The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 27 http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5698-the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-april-27 New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

  • Movement toward Mayor de Blasio's Executive Budget, due out May 7, according to the mayor
    • the mayor has promised additional detail on a number of fronts, and the city's updated 10-year capital plan is due along with the updated FY16 budget
    • what will happen regarding NYPD staffing - will there be money for the 1,000 new officers the Council has asked for? a compromise at 500, perhaps?
    • other key issues on the table include funding for libraries, seniors, farmland, and more
  • Tuesday marks one week until the special elections in New York's 11th Congressional District and 43rd Assembly District
    • does Democrat Vinnie Gentile have a chance to defeat Republican Dan Donovan to rep Staten Island and a small chunk of Brooklyn in Congress?
    • could we have the first Working Families Party-only candidate elected to the state Assembly?

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of, see below for our day-by-day rundown.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

The run of the week in detail:

After another trip out of town - this time he was in Wisconsin talking about the inequality crisis and bashing WI Republican Governor and presidential candidate Scott Walker - Mayor Bill de Blasio starts the new week with a limited public schedule, he "will travel to Connecticut and return to New York City in the afternoon. Later, the Mayor will swear in 28 judges to Family Court, Criminal Court, and Civil Court."

Governor Cuomo starts his Monday in New York City with a 9:30 a.m. appearance at the "Daily News Citizenship NOW! Phonebank Event" at Stella and Charles Guttman Community College. The governor will then travel to Albany later in the day.

On Monday morning at 10 a.m., City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will appear on "HuffPost Live"; then at 11:15 she will attend CUNY Citizenship Now Call-In; and at 4 p.m. she will speak at Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adam's Community Affairs Recognition Ceremonial at Brooklyn Borough Hall.

On Monday at 11 a.m., it is reported that Vice President Joe Biden will swear in Loretta E. Lynch as the 83rd Attorney General of the United States.

At 11:30 Monday morning, the State Senate Democrats will renew their push to close the infamous LLC loophole, preceeding a vote in senate committee. The push is being led by Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and bill sponsor Daniel Squadron. They will be joined at the press conference by other legislators from both houses and advocates. [Read about the pending Monday vote on the LLC loophole and the larger campaign finance reform push in our recent article on the subject]

On Monday morning, WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show will welcome City Council Member Brad Lander, who will discuss, among other city news, "the "Stop Credit Discrimination in Employment Act" he sponsored that was approved by the City Council. It would prohibit credit checks for hiring for many jobs."

On Monday morning, ahead of the City Council's hearing on a resolution declaring the city a "TPP-free zone" there will be a 9:30 a.m. press conference at City Hall: "Leaders from New York City's labor, environmental, social justice and faith communities will rally and testify in support of City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal's resolution urging Congress to reject "Fast Track" legislation for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and declaring the city a "TPP-free zone." The rally will include "City Council members, Communications Workers of America, Working Families Party, Sierra Club NYC Group, New York City Central Labor Council, New York State AFL-CIO, Food & Water Watch, MoveOn.org, Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY), United Steel Workers, Alliance for Retired Americans and WE ACT for Environmental Justice." Speakers will include Zephyr Teachout and Josh Fox, director of Gasland.

Just after that rally, also outside City Hall, Council Members Margaret Chin and Paul Vallone will hold a "press conference calling on Mayor de Blasio to add new funding for vital senior services in his forthcoming Fiscal Year 2016 executive budget."

Human Services Council will lead a "COLA Rally" at City Hall at noon on Monday: "Join HSC, social service providers, and friends of the sector in urging the City to increase [cost of living adjustments in city contracts] for the social service sector."

Monday’s City Council schedule includes a meeting of the Committee on Women’s Issues to consider a resolution regarding “Prohibition of differential pay based on gender”;  a meeting of the Committee on State and Federal Legislation to consider a resolution declaring the City of New York a ‘TPP-Free Zone’; a meeting of the Committee on Land Use; a meeting of the Committee on Health to consider a resolution “recognizing this and every April as Organ Donation Awareness Month in the City of NY” and to discuss a new bill which would “require the department of health and mental hygiene to issue an annual report regarding hepatitis B and hepatitis C”; and a meeting of the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations to discuss a “comprehensive cultural plan.”

At 1:30 p.m. on Monday in Albany, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie will hold a "news conference regarding equal pay. He will be joined by Labor Chair Michele Titus, members of the Assembly Majority and advocates."

Monday afternoon: City College of New York competition expo and Standard Chartered Women Entrepreneurs Prize awards.

At 5:30 p.m Monday, the Contracts Committee of the Panel for Educational Policy will hold a public meeting at Tweed Courthouse.

On Monday evening, City Council Member Helen Rosenthal will hold a town hall with representatives of several city agencies there to answer constituent questions and at which she'll announce the winners of her district's participatory budgeting process.

Also Monday evening, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and special guests Lin-Manuel Miranda and Arturo O’Farril will host An Evening of Arts and Culture at Pregones Theater, in the Bronx.

Comptroller Scott Stringer starts his week with one public event: at 6:30 p.m., Financial Women's Association will host him for an open conversation at TIAA-CREF in Manhattan.

At 8 p.m. on Monday, New York City "First Lady Chirlane McCray will introduce author Toni Morrison at a reading and discussion of Morrison's new book, God Help the Child, at the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center."

And, there is another scheduled debate in the NY-11 congressional race scheduled for Monday evening. Republican Dan Donovan has skipped several opportunities to appear alongside Democrat Vinnie Gentile and Green James Lane and it was reported that he will not be debating again, though it is unclear if he will attend Monday evening's event at 7 p.m. at the College of Staten Island.

Tuesday is one week until the special elections in New York’s 11th Congressional District (Staten Island, Brooklyn) and 43rd Assembly District (Brooklyn).

Tuesday morning in Albany, the New York League of Conservation Voters will host a Capital Region Eco-Breakfast at Fort Orange Club: “Every year, our Capital Region Eco-Breakfast brings together environmental leaders from across the state. We are excited to welcome all three Environmental Conservation Committee chairs in the State Legislature as our featured guest speakers. We will also honor The Nature Conservancy for their tireless work on the Community Risk and Climate Resiliency Act, which was signed into law last year. State Senator Diane Savino will join us to give remarks on this achievement and to present them with their award.”

Tuesday afternoon in Albany, Empire State Pride Agenda will host New York LGBT Equality & Justice Day 2015, "the largest statewide annual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocacy day."

At 1 p.m. on Tuesday outside City Hall, "Advocates and elected officials will call on Mayor Bill de Blasio to allocate more NYCHA public housing units to help reduce record high level of homelessness in the city. Although the Mayor restored federal housing assistance to homeless families, he is only allocating 750 NYCHA public housing apartments each year to homeless families, far less than what's needed" - via Progressive Cities.

Tuesday’s City Council schedule includes a meeting of the Committee on Finance to consider the following resolutions including one “Establishing a property tax credit for commercial landlords who voluntarily limit the amount of rent increases to small business owner tenants upon lease renewal”; and one “Establishing a real property tax credit for small business owners who own their properties and for commercial landlords who retain tenants”; another meeting of the Committee on State and Federal Legislation on the resolution “Declaring the City of New York a “TPP-Free Zone”; and a full-body Stated meeting of the City Council starting at 1:30 p.m., with the usual pre-stated press conference at 12:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Tuesday evening, the New York City Bar Association will host The Evolving City Council: “The Committee on New York City Affairs is presenting a panel discussion addressing the governance of the City Council. What impact do the recent amendments to the Council's Rules have upon the Speaker's powers, independence of Council Members and Committee Chairs, and the effectiveness of the Council in performing its obligations under the Charter? Is a strong Speaker necessary for the Council to act as a check and balance to the Mayor? What further amendments to the Rules are necessary, or should any of the recent amendments be reconsidered? What additional powers, if any, does the Council need to perform its duties effectively and to act as a check and balance to the Mayor?” Participants will include Public Advocate Letitia James Advocate, several current and former City Council members, Manhattan BP Gale Brewer and Queens BP Melinda Katz, Common Cause New York's Susan Lerner, and several law experts.

Also Tuesday evening, the African Leadership Project will hold a panel discussion on access to quality education titled: "Our Children Matter: Is Access to Quality Education a Civil Rights Issue?" at the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building on West 125th Street.

On Tuesday evening in Albany, "City & State convenes leaders in government, business, advocacy and the media to discuss some of the biggest issues and opportunities in New York. The first discussion will focus on affordable housing, highlighting the economic development and jobs aspect of the housing crisis. The second discussion will touch on the need for a better understanding of the unique New York and Canada bi-lateral relationship covering everything from energy to transportation and more! The final panel will look to pull elements from the first two discussions and assess the current state of New York's Infrastructure."

Tuesday, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will hold three fundraisers in New York City, followed by a Wednesday morning speech at former Mayor David Dinkins' annual forum at Columbia University.

Wednesday morning, Hillary Clinton will give the keynote address at the 18th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University.

Wednesday is Denim Day NYC, and there will be a rally at City Hall led by City Council Women's Issues Committee Chair Laurie Cumbo and others to raise awareness about domestic violence and continue the push against it: "Sexual Violence must end. Join the #DENIMDAYNYC rally on Wed. April 29, 11AM, City Hall."

All day Wednesday, Capgemini and Thomson Reuters hosts its Chief Digital Officer Summit New York City. Amen Mashariki, Chief Analytics Officer at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, will attend and speak at one of the panels.

Wednesday’s City Council schedule includes a joint meeting of the Committees on Consumer Affairs and Housing and Buildings on new bills regarding “Licensing tenant relocation specialists”; “Required notifications by persons negotiating tenant buyout offers”; and “Amending the definition of harassment to include repeated buyout offers”; a meeting of the Committee on Sanitation Solid Waste Management for an oversight hearing regarding “Sustainability in the Commercial Waste Industry”; a meeting of the Committee on Technology, jointly with the Committee on Higher Education for an oversight hearing regarding “Diversity at CUNY TV”; a meeting of the Committee on Environmental Protection on “limiting nighttime illumination for certain buildings”; and a meeting of the Committee on Veterans for an oversight hearing on “Veterans Liaisons at City Agencies.”

Wednesday afternoon, the Rockefeller Institute of Government will host a forum on state government immigrant policy with New York Secretary of State Cesar Perales: “This forum engages key policymakers from both the executive and legislative branches to discuss achievements and new initiatives to help new immigrants and refugees, as well as assist permanent residents become U.S. citizens. As comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level has stalled, the states are increasingly passing legislation and implementing initiatives to further immigrant integration. New York is among the handful of states with an Office for New Americans. Working together with a taskforce in the legislature, the Office for New Americans has developed innovative programs that are increasingly referenced across the country, most recently in the “Federal Strategic Action Plan on Immigrant and Refugee Integration” issued on April 14th by the White House Task Force on New Americans.” Assembly Member Marcos Crespo, chair of the Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force and chair of the Task Force on New Americans will attend.

Wednesday at 6 p.m., there will be a Panel for Educational Policy meeting at M.S. 131, 100 Hester Street, Manhattan.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, The Center for New York City Affairs at The New School will host Affordable Housing: Rent and Reality. “Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious affordable housing agenda is at the heart of his administration’s pledge to start a new chapter in “a tale of two cities.” In 2015, Albany serves as the rent-regulation battleground but the true impact of this fight will be felt in the five boroughs where more than 2.3 million people live in rent-regulated housing. While proposals to construct new affordable housing continue to garner the most media attention, the mayor’s State of the City address revealed just how dependent his strategy is on preserving the affordability of existing units. What does the battle over rent regulation in the state capital portend for turning de Blasio’s vision into reality? Join a forum with leading officials, experts, and practitioners who will shed light on this question and more.”

On Thursday, Public Advocate Letitia James will hold a "Forum on Housing Crisis and Rent Reform" at 10 a.m. at the 1199 SEIU Auditorium: "a forum to discuss New York City's housing crisis, landlord abuses of tenants, and the need to strengthen the rent laws that protect the affordable housing of over 2 million New Yorkers. The forum will consist of two panels followed by an intimate roundtable between the Public Advocate and four tenants. The forum is being hosted by the Real Rent Reform Coalition, The Alliance for Tenant Power, and 1199 SEIU." [Read our recent profile of Public Advocate James]

Thursday at 11:30 a.m. at Human Resources Administration's Waverly Job Center on 14th Street, The Safety Net Project will launch "Your Guide to Welfare in NYC," its latest collaboration with the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP). "There will be a short press briefing and remarks from NYC Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steve Banks; Denise Miranda, Managing Director of the Safety Net Project and CUP."

Thursday’s City Council schedule includes a meeting of the Committee on Recovery and Resiliency, jointly with the Committee on Public Housing for an oversight hearing regarding “Monitoring FEMA’s $3 Billion Dollar Grant to NYCHA for Sandy-Damaged Developments”; a meeting of the Committee on Governmental Operations to discuss new bills relating to “Establishing term limits for community board members”; and “Making urban planning professionals available to community boards.” [Read our recent report on the bill to establish terms limits for community board members and read our recent report on the bill to require a city planner for community boards]

On Thursday evening, City & State NY hosts its "inaugural 'On Queens' cocktail reception featuring Queens Borough President Melinda Katz...City & State's first-ever Queens Special Issue, which will be officially released at the event, will focus on the landscape of Queens' politics, feature spotlights specific to the borough, and have perspectives from Queens leaders." 6:30 p.m. in Long Island City.

Friday and the weekend
Friday morning, NYU Steinhardt hosts another in its Education Policy Breakfast Series. The topic will be affordability and sustainability in early childhood education: “As New York prepares to expand pre-K, what can we learn from other cities and countries that have undergone similar efforts?  In particular, what are the different models for funding early childhood education?  How have countries with less wealth succeeded in implementing pre-K?  Our guest speakers will include an economist who focuses on early childhood development and poverty alleviation issues internationally, and a former appointee in the Obama Administration who oversaw pre-K programs in Washington, DC.”

Also Friday morning, the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School will celebrate its 20-year anniversary with a breakfast event featuring NYC Law Department Corporation Counsels past and present, including current corp counsel Zachary Carter, and formers Michael Cardozo and Paul Crotty.

At 10 a.m. Friday, the City Council Committees on Health and Consumer Affairs will meet jointly for a hearing on a variety of business and regulatory policies and practices. Also at 10 a.m., the City Council Committee on Immigration will meet for an oversight hearing on “Implementation of IDNYC - New York City’s Municipal Identification Program.” 

On Saturday, the FDNY celebrates its 150th anniversary with open houses at fire houses and EMS stations all over the city.

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Rati Mukhuradze, Marco Poggio, and Ben Max

webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Rati Mukhuradze, Marco Poggio, and Ben Max) Sun, 26 Apr 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5698-the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-april-27
With Another LLC Loophole Vote Coming, Dwindling Optimism About Any Campaign Finance Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5696-with-another-llc-loophole-vote-coming-dwindling-optimism-about-any-campaign-finance-reform Skelos Silver Cuomo

Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)

The State Senate Elections Committee is expected to vote Monday whether to advance a bill that would close a controversial loophole in state election law that allows wealthy donors to pour unlimited cash into campaign coffers through the use of multiple limited liability corporations, or LLCs.

Sen. Daniel Squadron, a New York City Democrat and the bill's sponsor, has maneuvered the bill to a committee vote despite major opposition from the Republican majority conference. Monday's vote will come after reform groups and some legislators failed in an attempt to get the State Board of Elections to reverse its 1996 interpretation of state law that created the loophole. Senate Republicans have bristled at using the term "loophole" to describe the BOE interpretation.

"As the focus continues on this critical ethics reform, it will be disappointing if Monday's Elections Committee vote breaks down along the same partisan lines that the recent budget and Board of Elections votes did," said Squadron. "In light of the BOE's professed arguments, I'm hopeful that the Elections Committee will take a serious look at this issue to prevent unlimited sums of anonymous dollars from perverting our state government and the entire political process."

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, also a New York City Democrat, sponsors the same bill in the Assembly. Kavanagh told Gotham Gazette he believes his conference is also ready to move on the bill and that he thinks Senate Republicans should be too. "The Republican BOE chair said that he thought the Legislature was the appropriate place to address this. And I know he isn't the only one who believes that."

The LLC loophole has become a major flashpoint in the battle for campaign finance reform because other efforts at reform failed in this year's budget negotiations and a pilot public financing program for last year's comptroller race never got off the ground.

Advocates acknowledge that while having a committee vote on the issue is a victory in itself it isn't exactly likely that the bill passes the Senate given that Republicans currently enjoy a narrow majority that could fall apart at any time due to indictment, illness, or retirement. Their candidates are often bolstered by large donations from single individuals or industries that use the LLC loophole to their advantage.

Advocates admit that the vote may be the last gasp for campaign finance efforts this year. "I think the real chance for reform this year is on the LLC loophole because there is more clear agreement on that," said Rachael Fauss of good government group Citizens Union. "I think we will have to wait for another major push until the budget next year."

Kavanagh said he expects the LLC loophole to remain a major focus for the rest of the year with perhaps some room between the Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats to negotiate further contribution disclosure rules, including, perhaps, requiring donors to list their employers. Conversation and movement during this year's budget negotiations mostly revolved around legislators' outside income.

The last two years have been a roller coaster ride for campaign finance reform advocates. Last March advocates were in a place they had never been before: Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget proposal included a system for publicly funded campaigns and the Moreland Commission on Public Integrity was digging deep into just how weak and ineffective the state's Board of Electionss is at enforcing New York's already lax campaign finance rules. "It felt like we had so much momentum," said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters, who also served as an advisor to the Moreland Commission.

Over a year later things have changed drastically: Cuomo abruptly killed Moreland in exchange for some limited campaign finance reforms, and despite massive scandals the Legislature has remained obstinant, refusing to make major reforms. If last March was the high of highs, this April has been the low of lows as campaign finance reform appears all but dead for the foreseeable future.

Reformers' best chance at change - having the BOE reinterpret its opinion regarding LLCs - failed and Senate Republicans stand even more steadfast against reform. It isn't surprising that the Legislature has failed to act on campaign finance reform despite the indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the investigation into Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos because, as Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters told Gotham Gazette, nothing in Albany is surprising anymore.

"Scandal does not seem to deter the Legislature in its appetite to avoid dealing with the issue," said Bartoletti. In fact, Bartoletti said that scandal appears to have increased the Senate Republicans' affection for the current system. "The Senate Republicans hold such a tenuous grasp on the majority that they are loathe to change the system that gets them elected," said Bartoletti.

Republican Senators do tend to benefit more from the largesse of the real estate industry and corporations that use the LLC loophole to subvert the state's donation limits. Republicans counter that Democrats benefit from massive union donations.

"As soon as the so-called good government groups have anything to say about the unlimited money that unions pump into the coffers of Democrats or the dollars that Mayor de Blasio funnels to Upstate County Democrat Party Committees, we may start taking them seriously," Scott Reif, spokesman for Senate Republicans, said in a statement. "Until then, they should get a life."

Advocates don't put responsibility entirely on Senate Republicans. They look at the governor, saying Cuomo has failed to capitalize on major public outcry over scandal and not used his bully pulpit to push reform. They point to budget negotiations last year when most thought Cuomo was in a position thanks to Moreland and continuing pressure from the US Attorney to truly campaign for public financing of elections.

Instead Cuomo abruptly shuttered Moreland for what advocates call "meager" ethics tweaks and minimal campaign finance measures. The two measures - a pilot program for public financing exclusively in the 2014 comptroller's race and a new enforcement office in the BOE - have not delivered.

Incumbent Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, an advocate of public financing of campaigns, declined to participate in the system because it was so hastily arranged and his Republican opponent failed to raise enough money to participate. The program, meant to perhaps initiate a much larger system, is now defunct.

Meanwhile, little has been heard from the BOE's enforcement unit headed by Cuomo appointee Risa Sugarman.

Moreland dedicated an entire hearing to attacking the BOE's paltry enforcement mechanisms. As part of the deal to kill the commission Cuomo and the Legislature installed Sugarman as the head of an office charged with finding violations of campaign finance law and bringing cases against violators.

Good government groups and election board members alike say that so far Sugarman's appointment has only caused a regression in the board's enforcement actions.

"The independent enforcement counsell is taking a very different approach to enforcement and has given much less focus to the routine enforcement work that was done before the independent office was created," Democratic Board Chair Douglas Kellner told Gotham Gazette.

Kellerman says that Sugarman has failed to collect fines from those who were found delinquent before she took office in 2014 and has not issued notices to campaign committees that had not filed since the July filing deadline last year. As of January Sugarman had also not begun assembling a report on the biggest violators of campaign contribution limits the board has traditionally issued.

Sugarman did not respond to a request for an interview but she confirmed publically in board meetings with Kellerman that she had not sent the notices.

At a board meeting in January Sugarman argued she had found a number of bad addresses for previous filings. She also said she was waiting for hearing officers to be hired. Hearing officers were the Legislature's contribution to the enforcement unit and are seen by good government groups as an uncesscary hoop to jump through because cases against violators must also be presented in State Supreme Court. Other commissioners pushed Sugarman to act because such a large backlog had been created.

"I guess my overall concern is that there were certainly lots of problems with the old enforcement unit," Kellner said to Sugarman at the January meeting, "but there were lots of things that were getting done with the old enforcement unit that I'm concerned have now gone by the wayside with the transition and I hate to see us have a step backwards as opposed to forward on this. The over-contribution report was one of those things."

BOE staffers and chairs have expressed frustration that Sugarman doesn't update them on her activities. She has stressed her independence and ability to work on investigations with complete secrecy but some BOE members think the office is directionless and is looking to land big cases at the cost of basic enforcement.

Advocates share a lot of those concerns. "It seems they are missing basic procedure, missing basic compliance that the board used to do such as filing reports and audits," said Fauss of Citizens Union. "It is unfortunate that the board is not in a better position. It is a shame that we don't even see enforcement of basic compliance."

Assembly Member Kavanagh said that he believes Sugarman's office has already accomplished a great deal: "We never had someone looking at filings beyond whether they were on time or not. Without that it is hard to see how real enforcement happens. Now we actually have someone scrutinizing them and I think that will have a great impact."

Bartoletti said she hopes to see increased action from the enforcement unit over the next few months, but is concerned that precious time has already been lost. "We will be watching closely for the rest of the calendar year. We may will be looking carefully at who they hire and how independent they are. I would hope they will be a fully-staffed, functioning enforcement unit by 2016 because without enforcement nobody cares what the laws are," Bartoletti told Gotham Gazette.

Dani Lever, a spokesperson for Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette: "The administration included additional funds in the budget last year to create and support the BOE enforcement unit. The unit is fully staffed and effectively operating at capacity."

Asked whether Cuomo plans to continue to push for campaign finance reform during the rest of session Lever said: "Yes, the Governor has been and remains committed to campaign finance reform."

Right now Bartoletti said she only has faith in one man to do campaign finance enforcement and it isn't technically his job. "The only one doing campaign finance enforcement at the moment is Preet Bharara," she said.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

dking@gothamgazette.com (David Howard King) Fri, 24 Apr 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5696-with-another-llc-loophole-vote-coming-dwindling-optimism-about-any-campaign-finance-reform
For 'A Better New York,' Activists Lobby Albany for Election Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5695-for-a-better-new-york-activists-lobby-albany-for-election-reform nyc votes Albany

Activists in Albany (photo: @NYCVotes)

On a crisp Wednesday morning, two buses pulled up outside the New York State Capitol in Albany. Their cargo: a delegation of about 100 students, volunteers, and good government activists who travelled from New York City to advocate for voting reform.

It was the second annual "Vote Better NY" Advocacy Day for Election Reform organized by NYC Votes, a non-partisan voter engagement initiative run by the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB) and its Voter Assistance Advisory Committee.

The delegation left the city at 6 a.m. with the carefully defined objective of pushing state Senators and Assembly members on three voting issues: online voter registration, better ballot design, and early voting.

Splitting into groups of five or six, activists worked the halls of the Capitol and the legislative office building, participating in back-to-back pre-arranged meetings with legislative staff or legislators themselves.

Preparing for its first meeting, one group circled around their leader Onida Coward Mayers, the director of voter assistance at the CFB. "We're not lobbyists," Mayers said in her short pep talk. "You are an individual, a member of the public, and we all want the same thing. We're thanking [our representatives] for their work, but they need to do more. We're holding their feet to the fire."

NYC Votes' advocacy day comes at a time when the Legislature is just getting back to work, filling the vacuum after the budget session. "Everything is budget here till April 1. The budget kinda sucked the oxygen out of the air," said Bryan Clenahan, counsel to Senator Diane Savino, as he addressed the Mayer-led group of activists, which included members of Dominicanos USA, the League of Women Voters, and the NAACP.

The Legislature is in session through mid-June, with lawmakers in Albany a few days most weeks until then. There are many issues on the table that were left out of the budget, including minimum wage, criminal justice reform, and mayoral control of schools, but advocates wanted to make sure that election reform is also part of the discussion.

Advocacy day was an opportunity for many of the advocates to meet their representatives and express their priorities directly. Rob Reynolds, 28, works in tax preparation in Brooklyn. He was one of many independent members of the public, not affiliated with any organization, who joined NYC Votes for Wednesday's trip. "The day was very productive," he said. "We met with a lot of legislators. We shared with them our thoughts and ideas for improving the electoral process in New York. A lot of them seemed very receptive and seemed supportive of our ideas."

Reynolds believes wholeheartedly that New York needs to improve its voter turnout, especially by taking lessons from other states that have a better record. For him, the day was an exciting opportunity to be heard. But it was not without its disappointments, particularly an Assembly member who Reynolds did not want to name publicly, but said was more interested in his own election efforts than expanding the democratic process. "There is an inherent problem when the people who we elect get to choose who elects them and it's not right," said Reynolds. "It's not morally fair - in a democracy that's not how it should work."

The numbers in yesterday's delegation are an indicator of an increasing consciousness among New Yorkers that reforming the voting process is necessary, particularly considering that New York hit the historically low point of 28.8 percent voter turnout in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

"Last year we brought 50 people, everyday average New Yorkers to talk about [voting reform]," said Matt Sollars, press secretary at CFB. "This year we brought 100 people and next year we'll bring 200 people, and we're gonna keep bringing more people up here to talk about this until we see real change and we see real modern elections in New York state."

The groups navigated the cavernous halls of the Capitol, even attending meetings with representatives of legislative leaders Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Independent Democratic Conference Leader Senator Jeff Klein.

Through the day, the activists tried to get legislators on board with specific bills. One bill provides for online voter registration through the Board of Elections. Currently, New Yorkers can only register online through the Department of Motor Vehicles. The advocates also asked legislators to support the Voter Friendly Ballot Act, sponsored by Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, which improves ballot design.

Although there was no specific bill on the agenda for early voting, some of the activists were surprised to learn in a meeting with Senator Tony Avella that he had introduced a proposal for weekend voting.

"There was almost unanimous agreement among all the legislators that we met that voting was a top priority and that they were in favor of greater transparency and access to the voting process in principle, but they wanted to read the bills that were at issue," said Bridgette Ahn, president-elect of the Korean American Lawyers Association. "I think an important component of this is establishing a relationship, raising awareness, bringing the information to key decision-makers, following up with them, and continuing on the advocacy front."

At the end of the day, NYC Votes had made its mark. The delegation was recognized both in the Assembly and Senate sessions for its work in promoting voting reform. "We do know the politics still plays after we leave their four walls," Onida Coward Mayers said with cautious optimism. "I'm very proud of the message that we sent that we will be heard," she said. "There needs to be election reform, citizens matter and citizens want change. [New Yorkers] want an easier, friendly, 21st century democracy." 

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

samarkhurshid@nyu.edu (Samar Khurshid) Fri, 24 Apr 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5695-for-a-better-new-york-activists-lobby-albany-for-election-reform
Keeping the Water On: New York Must Address Infrastructure, Costs http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinion/5693-keeping-the-water-on-new-york-must-address-infrastructure-costs-de-blasio-forman roadwork 
A water main break (photo: Ben Max)

In the coming weeks, the New York City Water board will consider a 3.2 percent increase in the city's water rates. Understandably, many New Yorkers are opposed. Water bills rose by a whopping 166 percent during the Bloomberg administration; an increase that was painfully felt by so many low- and middle-income families. Yet Mayor de Blasio deserves credit for addressing affordability concerns while still ensuring a steady revenue source for the city's aging water infrastructure.

Water bills finance the city's most fundamental services: the delivery of clean water and the safe disposal of sewage and rainwater. Managing and maintaining this infrastructure is not cheap. Recent work on the Croton Filtration Plant, Catskill Disinfection Plant, and the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant Upgrade cost nearly $10 billion. As a result, the city's water and sewage debt rose from $11 billion in 2002 to $29 billion in 2013.

With the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) devoting billions of dollars to filtering the city's water and cleaning its harbor, insufficient funding was left for maintaining and modernizing the city's water and sewage pipes. From 2001 to 2007, nearly 300 miles of sewers were constructed or reconstructed. From 2008 to 2014, a paltry 118 miles saw work. In his 2007 PlaNYC report, Mayor Bloomberg pledged to build or replace 80 miles of water mains annually. Since then, the DEP has installed only 28 miles per year.

The consequences of this neglect are troubling. In 2014, there were 513 water main breaks across the five boroughs, a 39 percent increase from 2012. The city has suffered at least 400 water main breaks in all but one year since 1998. As a result of these breaks and leaks, a staggering 21 percent of water that enters distribution mains never reaches customers in the city, double the 10-to-15 percent industry standard. To manage these leaks and breaks, repair the city's aging infrastructure and finance its ballooning debt, the DEP must increase its revenue. Mayor de Blasio's 3.2% water rate increase—which is far lower than the 8 percent average increase during the Bloomberg years—is a necessary, if perhaps insufficient, part of that equation.

While increased water rates are certainly a burden—particularly for low- and middle-income New Yorkers—these charges are still below the national average and only half that of residents in Seattle or Atlanta. The water bill for a typical single-family homeowner in New York comes to $88/month, a considerable amount but significantly less than most New Yorkers pay each month for their smart phones.

Fortunately, increased water rates are not the only method for financing and restoring the DEP's essential infrastructure. In 1985, the NYC Water Authority and Water Board were created so that utility payments would go directly and exclusively to the water and sewer system. As part of this agreement, the city charged the Water Board a "rental payment" to cover pre-1985 debt associated with the system. In 2005, as this old debt began to expire, the arrangement was altered. For the first time, the city charged rental payments that exceeded debt service. As a result, Water Board payments have climbed—from $117 million to $204 million over the last decade.

Though the administration insists that these payments are critical to funding the city's operating budget, this misses the point. Dedicated revenue should remain dedicated; not diverted to other programs.

Finally, in addition to a rate increase and the phasing out of rental payments, DEP must get more creative. While past commissioners have grumbled about the heavy burden of federal and state mandates, these are rarely as rigid as portrayed. In 2012, the city amended an agreement with New York State, allowing the DEP to reduce the city's 27 billion gallons of rain and sewage overflow with "green" infrastructure (such as green roofs and porous pavements) rather than exclusively with gray infrastructure (such as retention tanks and upgraded waste water treatment plants). Philadelphia avoided a similar Clean Water Act mandate by introducing a stormwater management fee in lieu of expanded treatment capacity. What would have been a multi-billion dollar expense was converted into a new revenue source.

New York City should follow Philadelphia, and 500 other cities, by replacing its sewer charges, currently assessed at 159 percent of the water rate, with a more nuanced stormwater management fee. Property owners would be charged according to the percentage of rainwater captured on their lot (before it enters the city's overburdened sewer system). This would incentivize increased water retention on private property, with customers paying a lower fee as they introduce new green elements —trees, swales, porous pavement, and green roofs. This could be coupled with a credit program, repaid via the utility or property bill, to help customers finance the installation of green elements.

Repairing the city's water infrastructure and improving its stormwater management is critical to New York's economic competitiveness and environmental resiliency. Mayor de Blasio should hold firm on increasing water rates this year, eliminate rental payments, and introduce a stormwater management fee. 

Adam Forman is research and communications associate at the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City based think tank. He is the author of "Caution Ahead," a report published by the Center documenting New York's infrastructure vulnerabilities.

Do you have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Send it to Executive Editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Adam Forman) Wed, 22 Apr 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinion/5693-keeping-the-water-on-new-york-must-address-infrastructure-costs-de-blasio-forman
Council Members Ask De Blasio to Invest in Farmland http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5688-council-members-ask-de-blasio-to-invest-in-farmland farm

(photo: Steve Poses)

A group of New York City Council members sent an open letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday, asking him to invest funds to conserve regional agricultural land in the Hudson Valley and around the city.

The letter, signed by 14 council members in an effort led by Dan Garodnick, requests the mayor dedicate at least $5 million each year for the next ten years to protect farmland from real estate interests, and cites an annual $1 billion unmet city demand for fresh, local food. "We need to make sure that New York has a sustainable regional food system," Garodnick told Gotham Gazette. "Too much of the Hudson Valley farmland is at risk."

Council Member Garodnick, speaking for the coalition, hopes the funds will be included in this year's executive budget, due out early next month. "We're interested in seeing a commitment to long-term sustainability," he said.

The letter, a copy of which was read by Gotham Gazette, urges de Blasio to implement the recommendations of a Foodshed Conservation Plan created by non-profit conservation group Scenic Hudson. The plan lays out a strategy for protecting farmland through public-private partnerships to provide local farmers with incentives and investment to increase productivity.

Non-profit groups in New York have worked to conserve farmland through the purchase of development rights or conservation easements that permanently restrict land to agricultural use. These allow farmers to sell equity in their farms and use the money to invest in equipment and infrastructure. They also reduce the price of the land for future generations of farmers. In its report, Scenic Hudson says it has delivered more than $30 million to local farmers. The plan proposed in the council members' letter calls for realigning resources toward a broad coordinated strategy of conservation rather than focusing on individual farms.

"The plan is really a first-of-its-kind in the country and it offers the mayor and City Council the opportunity to be progressive food policy and resiliency leaders," Steve Rosenberg, senior vice president at Scenic Hudson, told Gotham Gazette.

"One cannot take for granted that farms in the nearby region will continue to be there," Rosenberg said, stressing the importance of locally sourced food for New York City's restaurant economy and public health.

The letter to de Blasio is signed by Council Members Garodnick, Donovan Richards, Fernando Cabrera, Rafael Espinal, Corey Johnson, Ben Kallos, Andy King, Stephen Levin, Mark Levine, Carlos Menchaca, Rosie Mendez, I. Daneek Miller, Antonio Reynoso, and James Vacca. It states, in part, "Creating a sustainable regional food system that meets [the $1 billion] demand and offers equal access to nutritious food will improve public health, bolster the city's "good food" economy, build resilience in the wake of extreme weather events and reduce the city's "foodprint" as a way to mitigate the impacts of climate change."

The Scenic Hudson plan favored by the council members draws a parallel with the City's investment in the land around upstate reservoirs for clean drinking water supply, argung that federal officials, state agencies, counties, philanthropic private organizations, and the city administration must collaborate to implement a similar plan for securing the regional agricultural economy and land base. "No one of them alone can do it," Rosenberg said.

The city investing in the conservation of farmland relates to concerns around resiliency and diversification, said Rosenberg, citing shortages in the immediate aftermath of Sandy. It is also important in the context of investment in the city's regional food distribution infrastructure and procurement policies that favor securing local food. "If the city's going to invest millions on procurement, this is a modestly-priced insurance policy to ensure that the supply continues," he said.

City laws 50 and 52 encourage local procurement of fresh food grown in New York State and this initiative would support that, Garodnick said.

The Foodshed Conservation Plan estimates that through a collaborative investment of $240 million, one-third of the highest priority farms could be conserved. That would mean less than $25 million annually over the next decade, with $5 million from the City, which is "arguably the single largest stakeholder," Rosenberg said.

Collaboration is key to this funding, Garodnick said. He added, "The city's investment here sends a strong message about our commitment and where we're headed, and it could leverage other sources."

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

samarkhurshid@nyu.edu (Samar Khurshid) Tue, 21 Apr 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5688-council-members-ask-de-blasio-to-invest-in-farmland
Criminal Justice Reformers Look to Impact Albany as Legislators Return to Session http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5694-criminal-justice-reformers-look-to-impact-albany-as-legislators-return-to-session Justice League NYC

Justice League NYC marchers in Washington DC (photo: @NYjusticeleague)

A 250-mile march started in Staten Island over a week ago culminates today in Washington, DC with a rally to protest police killings of unarmed civilians and push for criminal justice reform. The march, sponsored by Justice League NYC, has garnered national attention as participants have walked across major highways, through rural towns where porches are adorned with confederate flags, and in cities like Baltimore where tensions between police and citizens are high due to the death of Freddie Gray, whose spinal cord was nearly severed while in police custody, as well as other recent losses of life.

Activists and legislators say the momentum from the march will carry over to the legislative session in Albany, where a number of criminal justice reforms await action. Legislators return to Albany today after over two weeks away from the capital; the session is due to run for about two months until mid-June.

"We had to show we aren't a group that will take anything lying down," Linda Sarsour of Justice League told Gotham Gazette as she and her companions marched toward Washington. "We are five miles outside of Washington right now," she said by phone Monday afternoon. "We had to show people we weren't to be taken lightly. We had to show people we are New Yorkers who can do these big things. And now we are going to bring that message to Albany."

Justice League has led protests and actions across the city in the wake of the July death of Staten Island man Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD. A grand jury failed to seek charges against the policer officer, Daniel Pantaleo, who put Garner in a chokehold, setting off even greater protests. Garner was black; Pantaleo is white.

Legislators will return to Albany with national headlines focusing on the killings of Walter Scott in South Carolina, Eric Harris in Oklahoma, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and a case even closer to home. Protesters recently took to Albany streets to protest the death of Donald "Dontay" Ivy. A mentally ill man, Ivy died after being tasered by Albany police. Albany District Attorney David Soares is currently investigating the incident.

"The videos we've seen tell you these are not isolated incidents, this is a systemic problem. Many of us are not going to be quiet about this and we have the momentum," said state Senator Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat of the Bronx, who is the current Senate sponsor of a bill that would give the New York Attorney General jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute police misconduct.

Supporters of the bill say it will help prevent district attorneys from basing their decisions on whether to charge officers involved in shootings on their relationships with the local police force and how their actions will be perceived by unions and voters. A number of district attorneys oppose the measure because they say it undermines them and disregards their understanding of the impacted community.

In mid-March, Rivera officially requested the Republican-controlled Investigations and Governmental Operations Committee consider the legislation in a move to bring the bill to the Senate floor.

Rivera's bill isn't a new one. In fact it was carried for years in the Senate by the current Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman. Keith Wright, a Manhattan Democrat, has carried the Assembly version of the bill since 1999. The bill was given a print number on March 27 of this year and could come to a vote shortly.

Both Wright and Rivera support Schneiderman's call for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to issue an executive order giving the attorney general oversight over cases where unarmed civilians are killed by police. "The employ of an unbiased arbiter is desperately needed in this instance. I urge Governor Cuomo to use his executive authority to bring a sense of hope to communities of color in New York State," Wright said in a statement supporting Schneiderman's request.

However, Cuomo and Schneiderman are known to be bitter rivals and it is unlikely Cuomo will grant such a request. Supporters of the bill also acknowledge it is unlikely it will make it through the Legislature without changes.

"The public's confidence in the justice system is lost," said Rivera. Having the AG come in to safeguard the public's confidence is something I believe is necessary, but we may not all agree on the exact parameters."

Democrats are also pushing legislation proposed by Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins that would create an "Office of Special Investigation" inside the AG's office to look into police killings of unarmed civilians. Stewart-Cousins asked the Finance Committee to consider the bill on March 10.

"Local district attorneys work with local law enforcement and I think it makes sense, in most cases and certainly these types of cases, that there is concern that there can be a conflict and even a perception of a conflict of interest," said Stewart-Cousins in December of last year while unveiling the bill in Albany.

Cuomo has also proposed a bill that would create a monitor who could recommend the appointment of someone like a retired judge as a special prosecutor in cases where a grand jury isn't called or it fails to convict.

"We want special prosecutor, point blank," said Sarsour, who also heads the Arab American Association of New York and leads the Muslim Democratic Club of New York City. Sarsour said that Justice League has yet to take a position on the special prosecutor bills. She said that Cuomo's proposal includes too many caveats before a special prosecutor can be appointed and that she has concerns that the attorney general is also a "political position."

"We aren't really about any of these special prosecutor bills right now," said Sarsour. She said her group's initial focus will be on "Raise the Age," an initiative that would stop New York from prosecuting 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. New York and North Carolina are currently the only states that do so. Cuomo made Raise the Age a major part of his budget but the policy was tossed out of budget negotiations, though some funding to implement it remained. Even some Democrats objected to the way Cuomo's plan would be implemented - they feared it would actually increase the jail sentences for some teens.

"It always seems that the bills that impact the black and Latino communities are the first to get thrown out," said Sarsour. "We are going to change that."

The special prosecutor bills are far from the only proposed criminal justice reforms. Cuomo has proposed legislation would make the grand jury process in cases involving police killings of unarmed civilians more transparent, create a commission on police-community relations, recruit more people of color into the police force, and allow him to appoint a special prosecutor in the killings of unarmed civilians by police.

While Cuomo has come under fire for not achieving many of his proposed criminal justice reforms in his budget he does appear to have added a sweetener to the budget to entice legislative action. The budget includes a $60 million appropriation for bulletproof vests and glass but it can only be accessed if the Legislature subsequently passes a number of reforms Cuomo has advocated, including his special prosecutor bill.

Cuomo spokseperson Dani Lever told Gotham Gazette, "The governor proposed a balanced reform package to increase transparency, accountability and ensure justice in perception and in reality."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

dking@gothamgazette.com (David Howard King) Tue, 21 Apr 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5694-criminal-justice-reformers-look-to-impact-albany-as-legislators-return-to-session
Access to Condoms: Partial Win in 2015 Budget http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinion/5692-access-to-condoms-partial-win-in-2015-budget-cuomo-saini-garcia condoms

A rally to promote access to condoms

At the conclusion of a highly-contested budget season few advocates are claiming victories. Fair wage activists, ethics watchdogs and DREAMers, among others, are gearing up for a fight to have their issues addressed during the post-budget legislative session. But, on at least one issue, there is reason for progressives to be hopeful: expanding access to condoms.

As part of this year's budget deal, Albany lawmakers and Governor Cuomo passed a limited ban on the use of condoms as evidence. This is important because all too often when transgender New Yorkers, sex workers, trafficking victims, and others are profiled by police, officers use the fact that some have condoms in their possession as evidence of crimes. This undermines our state's commitment to providing access to contraception and preventing the spread of sexually-transmitted infections.

The limited ban on condoms as evidence originally proposed in the governor's budget and eventually adopted in the final budget deal is important recognition from policy-makers of what many of us have known for years: we need comprehensive legislation to ensure that condoms are not criminalized for sex workers, trafficking victims, youth in the sex trade, and anyone profiled as such by law enforcement.

While there is seldom disagreement on the importance of condom access, many are simply unaware of the current practice where law enforcement confiscates condoms as evidence of prostitution-related offenses. A recent PROS Network report found nearly 50% of respondents involved in the sex trade were victims of police confiscating, damaging, or destroying their condoms, and nearly 46% did not carry condoms at some point out of fear of the police.Condoms are taken out of the hands of those for whom they serve as a vital personal and public health tool and left to rot in evidence lockers, since they are rarely actually introduced at trial.

Still, the evidence ban is limited, and there remains much work to be done to ensure access to condoms for all.

With Governor Cuomo's monumental commitment to end AIDS in New York State by 2020, we expected decisive action to address HIV prevalence in communities impacted by the epidemic. What we saw instead was rhetoric without substance. The provision put forth by the governor is a partial ban that covers only two of almost twenty prostitution- and trafficking-related offenses. There is thus only a slim chance that this will have a significant impact on how the practice is executed on the ground. Law enforcement will continue to confiscate condoms, claiming them as evidence of one or more of the many offenses that are left out of the ban. Fear and confusion about whether and how condoms can be used against those carrying them will continue.

Possibly the most concerning aspect of this limited ban is that victims of sex trafficking remain excluded.

The exclusion of trafficking-related offenses creates a perverse incentive for traffickers to withhold condoms from the people they exploit to avoid prosecution, compromising the safety and dignity of the people they victimize. As recently stated by Florrie Burke, recipient of the inaugural Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Sex Trafficking in Persons, "Policymakers shouldn't leave trafficking victims out of the solution. Their lives depend on it."

The good news is that there is widespread support for prioritizing the crisis of sex trafficking and the end of AIDS in New York State, both across party lines and at all levels of governance. Momentum is on our side and the solution is clear: the governor and the Legislature should get back to work on this issue and pass a bill (A.4463A/S.1018) to end the criminalization of condoms in New York State. The lives of some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers depend on it.

by Anna Saini and Bianey Garcia

Saini is the Statewide Community Organizer with Voices of Community Activists and Leaders – New York (VOCAL-NY).

García is an LGBTQ Justice Project Organizer at Make the Road New York. Both are members of the Access to Condoms Coalition, which is composed of over 100 organizations, including organizations that together serve the majority of New York's trafficking victims.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Anna Saini and Bianey Garcia) Mon, 20 Apr 2015 05:00:00 GMT http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/opinion/5692-access-to-condoms-partial-win-in-2015-budget-cuomo-saini-garcia