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Citizens Union


As City Eases Burdens, Access to Capital, Rising Rents Remain Issues for Small Businesses

torres-springer sbs

SBS Commissioner Torres-Springer (photo: @NYCBusSolutions)

Small business assistance is a perennial political promise. Few can argue with the goal of stimulating the city's economy and almost everyone has some connection to the issue.

After all, the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) reports that 98 percent of the city's 220,000 businesses are considered small (fewer than 100 employees). The number has increased in recent years due to an entrepreneurial boom in the city. According to the Center for an Urban Future, nearly twice as many businesses were incorporated in the city in 2011 than in 1991. Every day, many New Yorkers go to work or shop at these businesses, often doing both.

Mayor Bill de Blasio sees owners and employees of these businesses as squarely in the crosshairs of his mission to reduce inequality and create opportunity. The needs of individual business owners vary some because the category is so large, but, there are many commonalities among those looking to start, maintain, or grow a small business.

After a first year in which the de Blasio administration drastically reduced fines levied on small business, the City has just launched a new, multifaceted approach to reduce regulatory burdens. While these moves are certainly welcome, many in the small business community say that access to capital and ever-rising rents remain their largest challenges.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's 2014 Small Business Credit Survey, 40 percent of local business owners say they're struggling with common problems of finding customers and managing cash flow. Many businesses also said that securing loans was a major issue.

"Twenty percent [of businesses] cited credit availability as a top concern. Most small firms reported needing micro loans of $100,000 or less," said Claire Kramer Mills, an assistant vice president in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Community Affairs Office.

The survey was conducted over a two-month period during the fall of 2014. More than 2,000 businesses with fewer than 500 employees were surveyed from 10 states. Responses were weighted to reflect the full population of small businesses in each state. Specific New York City figures were then highlighted for Gotham Gazette.

Most businesses need some kind of loan in order to launch or stay alive, especially in New York City. "Very small" businesses with fewer than 20 employees make up the majority of the city's small businesses and are growing at the fastest rate. These are local restaurants, tech start-ups, boutique retail stores, neighborhood coffee shops, and more.

Many of these business owners have little or no additional support outside of family or friends, and navigating the banking system can be difficult. According to the Federal Reserve survey, more than 20 percent of local business owners applied for funding from online lenders last year despite often higher interest rates.

Aissatou Bah, a loan officer at the Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union, cautioned against using online lenders for their expediency, because interest rates can be double or triple the standard.

The Brooklyn Cooperative's mission is to help community businesses, but that doesn't mean it can give money to just anyone. Bah said that a strong business plan and a little patience is essential.

"Every lender wants to lend money, that's what business owners tend to forget sometimes," said Bah.

She said that the average loan decision can take two weeks. In cases where people aren't fully prepared, she'll refer them to SBS or local business development centers for more guidance before giving them financing.

The Brooklyn Small Business Development Center (SBDC) is one of those places where owners can get advice at any stage of a very complicated process. Operated by the State University of New York and funded by federal money, the Brooklyn SBDC helps people with business plans, networking, research, and other services from the start-up phase onward.

"It's a very daunting situation to open a business," said Director Robert Piechota. "You better make sure you know what the heck you're doing."

The Brooklyn SBDC also helps people, particularly those who don't speak English, understand the City's complex bureaucracy, "It's not very easy to open a business or maintain it given the constantly changing landscape of regulations," said Piechota.

The city offers similar services as well. The Department of Consumer Affairs, which investigates many businesses, not only scaled back the fines it levies, but launched expansive new initiatives in order to communicate with businesses in a variety of languages. SBS operates seven "NYC Business Solutions" centers where people can get pro-bono legal services, help reviewing leases, business courses, and access to capital. According to an SBS spokesperson, the department helped connect businesses with approximately $58.5 million in capital last year through various methods.

The City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) also helps small business get lines of credit and loans of up to $250,000 through its Capital Access Loan Guaranty Program. The EDC helps facilitate financing through various lenders and provides up to a 40 percent guarantee for qualified applicants.

Many of these systems were already in place under the Bloomberg administration. As a council member and the public advocate during that time, Mayor de Blasio often talked about the need to reduce the regulatory burden on small businesses. Since taking office he's made efforts to reach that goal.

Last year, he lowered revenue targets for fines given out by the Department of Consumer Affairs and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Keeping with this tack, his administration recently announced its Small Business First program to further improve the climate for small businesses.

Led by SBS, the $27 million initiative seeks to streamline the regulatory process across more than 15 different city agencies over the next four years. Opening any business - particularly one involving food - requires permits and inspections from more agencies than many people may realize. While the initiative won't change that, it includes 30 ways in which the City is making the process easier - including an online portal to find and file forms, translating materials into multiple languages, and more.

Local business groups have reacted positively to the plan, but say that regulations will still pose a challenge for owners.

"Small Business First won't eliminate all of the regulatory barriers small business owners face, but anything the City does to make it easier for small business owners to understand and comply with local regulations is a step in the right direction," said Victor Wong, director of business outreach and GoBizNYC at the Partnership for New York City.

SBS will be creating a Small Business Advisory Board - made up of city personnel, elected officials, and small business owners - to monitor the program's success and offer future recommendations.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer has also announced a "Red Tape Commission," made up of various business and community leaders, that will spend a year producing recommendations for streamlining the regulatory process. How this will differ from Small Business First remains to be seen, but representatives from SBS and the comptroller's office both said they plan to work together on the issue.

"I am confident that the Red Tape Commission's work will provide valuable new insight, reform proposals, and audit topics that will help make city government more responsive to the needs of the small business community," Stringer said in a statement.

City Council members have been getting in on the action as well. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito proposed the idea of a "small business advocate" position in her February State of the City address and other ideas have been floated by various members.

Robert Cornegy, Jr., chair of the Council's Committee on Small Business, said that he supports increasing access to capital and finding ways to reduce regulatory burdens by providing industry-specific advice. Cornegy told Gotham Gazette that one of the most pressing issues is the ability for businesses to afford space.

"So many small businesses have been devastated by enormous and unmanageable rent increases and it's heartbreaking. Too often, businesses that have been part of a neighborhood's renaissance are unable to remain and reap the rewards of the changes they have helped to create," Cornegy said by email.

Cornegy said he often hears stories of commercial tenants being harassed by landlords in his Brooklyn district, but they have less protection than residential tenants.

The council member has introduced a resolution calling on the State to pass legislation that would establish a property tax credit for commercial landlords who limit rent increases to small business owner tenants upon lease renewal. Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, of Queens, has introduced a similar resolution, focusing on small businesses that own property.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal said that she's also seen this happening in her district on the Upper West Side, particularly when landlords get an opportunity to bring in larger corporate tenants for more money. She hopes to change this when designing new construction.

"In new buildings I'd love to have an opportunity to negotiate for physical spaces that would imply a small business," Rosenthal told Gotham Gazette.

Some advocates worry that rent increases will have an irrevocable effect on the small business community. Steven Barrison, executive vice president of the Small Business Congress, estimates that thousands of "mom and pop" businesses are closing shop every year.

"Businesses are in a crisis, they're on life support now," he said.

City and state officials are often wary, of course, of alienating the real estate industry - and there is a limit to what the City can do without receiving more support from Albany for commercial rent regulations.

Good news includes that as the economy continues to grow, small businesses are seeing better success rates. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 80.7 percent of the establishments that opened in New York State during 2013 survived through 2014, and bankruptcies have declined since 2010.

Despite positive trends, entrepreneurs still face tough odds when running one of the city's many thousands of small businesses. Even with the possibility of additional federal and state funding, and the city's efforts to reduce regulatory hurdles, starting a business in New York will always be a risky proposition.

"Just having an idea is not enough in this country to have a sustainable business," said Cornegy. "You can open one, but sustainability is based on a good solid plan."

by Cole Rosengren, Gotham Gazette

Standards and Ethics Committee to Again Examine Conflicts of Interest Board


City Council Chambers (photo: William Alatriste)

"If you have a question about whether your conduct is allowed under the City's ethics law, press two," says one part of the automated response a caller hears after dialing the Conflicts of Interest Board.

As preliminary budget hearings continue this week at the City Council, the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) will be examined to ensure that it is fulfilling its role in preventing corruption and properly funded to do so. The Council's Standards and Ethics Committee, chaired by Council Member Alan Maisel and with oversight of the COIB and ethical protocols among city officials, is holding its preliminary budget hearing on Thursday.

The hearing comes at a time when corruption and ethics have been all over the news as state-level lawmakers continue to wind up in handcuffs, accused of both legal and illegal wrongdoing, and engage in negotiations over reforms. Officials at the city level have not been without scandal, of course, and there has been increased scrutiny of late on the City's Department of Investigations (DOI).

The Council's Standards and Ethics Committee does not oversee the DOI, but with oversight over the COIB, similar issues come up - namely that of independence.

The Standards and Ethics Committee has punitive powers, but has rarely needed to exercise them in the past few years save for two recent cases, those pertaining to Council Member Ruben Wills, a Democrat, and former Council Member Dan Halloran, a Republican, both of Queens.

Wills was recently arrested for the second time in as many years. He has been indicted this time around for filing false documents with the COIB. Dan Halloran was sentenced last week for corruption and bribery in trying to aid former State Senator Malcolm Smith, a Democrat, in bribing his way onto the 2013 ballot for Mayor as a Republican. Halloran was sentenced to ten years in prison.

Last month, the Standards and Ethics Committee held an oversight hearing to discuss the two cases. Requests for comment made to Maisel's office were referred to the committee's general counsel, who did not respond to calls or messages.

Thursday's budget hearing of the committee will be, for the most part, an opportunity for the COIB to present its annual report. The COIB implements and enforces New York City conflict of interest laws. It also educates city employees on ethical requirements, acts in an advisory capacity to current and former employees, and oversees financial disclosure for elected officials.

A spokesperson for the COIB declined to comment ahead of the hearing.

In recent years, the COIB's workload has increased but staff numbers and budget have barely changed. According to the COIB's annual report, the board conducted 599 training sessions last year, up 11 percent from 506 in 2013. In 2001, only 190 sessions were conducted. COIB received 488 new complaints in 2014, marginally lower than the 506 in 2013, but almost four times the number from 2001 (124 complaints). There were 4,950 total requests for legal advice from current or former city officials, compared to 4,088 the previous year and 2,189 in 2001.

Despite this increased burden, the budget for the COIB has increased from $1.69 million in 2002 to a proposed $2.11 million for this year as outlined in Mayor Bill de Blasio's fiscal year 2016 preliminary budget. (It was $2.03 million in fiscal 2014). The staff strength stands at 22, actually one less than in 2001.

At last year's executive budget hearing, COIB Executive Director Mark Davies said in his testimony that the Board was "just about at where we should be" in terms of manpower and resources. But, he ceded that maintaining the quality of the staff depended on ensuring a steady budget and possible future budget cuts would be draconian and dangerous.

Herein lies the most COIB's most important concern. Although it is a non-mayoral agency in function, it has an almost contradictory structure. The board has five members, approved by the City Council and appointed by the Mayor, who serve staggered six-year terms and can be reappointed for a second term. With the Mayor's involvement and the Council's consent key to these appointments, the contradiction in the board's mandate is apparent. COIB members are not only charged with enforcing rules on the very people, mayoral staff and council members, who make their appointments, but who decide the board's budget. Therefore, each year, the COIB advocates for a charter amendment to provide it with independent budgeting.

"Our mission is to guide honest officials thereby promoting both the reality and the perception of integrity in government by preventing conflicts of interest violations from ever occurring," said Davies in his 2014 testimony. "In other words we are in the prevention business, not in the punishment business, thus perhaps most importantly the board reiterates a concern that it has expressed for many, many years: the lack of an independent budget."

Such a charter amendment would need widespread support since it can only be passed by referendum or through state legislation.

Good government groups are on board with COIB's proposal. "Independent budgeting is an important fail safe for agencies that conduct oversight, like the COIB," said Rachael Fauss, director of public policy for Citizens Union. "Codifying this in law will ensure that it continues to receive sufficient resources, regardless of the administration that is in office."

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said COIB has a strong reputation for objectivity. "Could it be strengthened by being more independent? Possibly," she said. But a significant measure, she said, would be "a full outside evaluation of how things are being handled by the board. From an anecdotal point of view, not from any systematic review, there seems to be a bias towards the executive."

Considering the focus on ethics reforms over the last year, at both city and state levels, and the Council's recent critique of the Department of Investigation's apparent performance decline, the COIB may do well to take this opportunity to ask for a larger budget and push for complete independence. Not only would that help protect against future uncertainty but also ensure it is not beholden to the whims of political forces. As its annual report states, "Ethics lights the way to good government."

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union

Assembly Budget Champions De Blasio Agenda

bdb parade

Mayor de Blasio (photo: @BilldeBlasio)

Mayor Bill de Blasio got a boost from Assembly Democrats on Tuesday in the form of their one-house budget proposal that includes a number of the mayor's major priorities. Facing a state budget negotiation with his agenda at the mercy of his rival-pal Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Senate Republicans who he unsuccessfully tried to unseat last year, de Blasio needed some help.

Bargaining help arrived thanks in part to de Blasio's new Albany ally, recently minted Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx. The most direct symbol of Heastie's and his New York City-dominated chamber's allegiance to de Blasio comes in the form of a budget that renews mayoral control of city schools for 7 years, delivers a major increase in education funding without Cuomo's proposed reforms, increases pre-K monies, and would deliver a $15 minimum wage for the city. It is unlikely any of these proposals make it into the state budget unscathed, but they function as a negotiating post for the Democratically-controlled Assembly.

"I commend the Assembly for its one-house budget proposal, which includes a number of initiatives that will go a long way toward combating inequality and protecting New Yorkers around this city," said de Blasio in a statement. "I am grateful to Speaker Heastie and the Assembly for their leadership."

Cuomo's budget - which de Blasio gave mixed reviews during recent Albany testimony - ties a $1.1 billion increase in education spending to a number of reforms opposed by teachers unions and their allies. The Assembly budget would increase education spending without those proposals, which include increasing the degree to which standardized tests factor into teacher evaluations and raising the charter school cap. Cuomo has insisted that he will only increase education spending by a few million dollars if the Legislature does not agree to his reform package, which is lauded by those in the so-called education reform movement.

De Blasio has been outspoken recently about education funding and even teamed with Cuomo foil Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner to call on the governor and Legislature to increase education funding to what they call necessary levels. Advocates point to the 2003 Campaign For Fiscal Equity Lawsuit where an appellate court judge found the State allows public schools to go "chronically underfunded."

Echoing advocates and unions, de Blasio claimed the State owes New York City schools $2.6 billion, while Miner said the state owes Syracuse schools $87.1 million.

The Assembly also sided with de Blasio on the minimum wage. Cuomo and de Blasio both support a wage increase - and one that would be in some way larger for New York City, where the cost of living is greater, than the rest of the state - but they differ in their plans.

Cuomo's plan would set the state minimum wage to $10.50 per hour, with an $11.50 hourly rate in New York City by the end of this year. De Blasio's calls for the State to allow the City to set its minimum wage based on inflation and a $15 hourly rate by the end of 2019. The Assembly plan essentially mirrors de Blasio's call but also allows New York City suburbs to set their minimum wages to inflation.

"Raising the minimum wage is about the moral obligation we have to help families across the state who are struggling to get by," Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement. "The current wage floor is not enough to allow full-time workers who put in a 40-hour work week to afford life's basic necessities, let alone achieve financial independence."

De Blasio praised the move in his statement: "The Assembly's minimum wage proposal is also a critical step toward providing the fair wages New Yorkers need and deserve as we continue to take on income inequality in New York City and beyond."

De Blasio has shown an increased appetite to publicly challenge Cuomo this year. His Feburary budget testimony, although at times praiseful of Cuomo, also included criticism of the governor's funding plan around programs to help the homeless and the state's commitment to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

The Assembly budget addresses those issues and others by doing away with Cuomo's proposed decrease in funding the city receives for its Emergency Assistance to Families program. De Blasio testified before the Legislature in February that the plan "would effectively mean a $22.5 million cut to our homeless prevention programs. That money would provide shelter for 500 families for a year."

The Assembly would also give de Blasio an extended break from having to petition Albany to extend mayoral control of schools. Cuomo has proposed a three-year extension while the Assembly prefers seven. De Blasio called for permanent mayoral control last month.

"We feel like Mayor de Blasio shouldn't be treated any differently than Mayor Bloomberg," Heastie told reporters after unveiling the Assembly budget proposal. "Mayor Bloomberg was given more than three years, so to provide the kind of stability the mayor wants to turn around particularly failing schools we feel that more than three years is appropriate."

Liberal advocacy groups like The Working Families Party and Citizen Action also applauded the Assembly budget. "Millions of New York's lowest paid working families can finally imagine a life above the poverty line," said WFP chair Bill Lipton in a statement. "We commend Speaker Carl Heastie, Labor Chair Titus and the Assembly majority for calling for a $15 minimum wage. New York should be a leader in the fight against inequality and for an economy that works for all of us." Lipton also praised the Assembly's education funding proposal.

"We applaud Speaker Heastie and the State Assembly for taking bold action to reverse the state's devastating underfunding of public schools and to ensure working families can earn enough to meet basic needs," said Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York.

The Senate's one-house budget is expected to exclude a number of priorities de Blasio has advocated, including The Dream Act and a minimum wage hike. Senators say their proposal will increase education aid by $1.9 billion.

The Assembly budget ignores a slate of ethics reforms in the governor's budget (which de Blasio has not weighed in on). Cuomo has insisted the reforms are non-negotiable and he is willing to have a late budget to get them. Heastie said that those reforms are still being discussed. "We made reference to the issues on disclosure, we have campaign finance reform and many of the discussions that we've been having with the governor have been going well," Heastie told reporters."I think by the time we get to voting on the budget, we'll have a very detailed and satisfactory ethics reform."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Bushwick Students Give City's Street Cleanliness Scorecards An Incomplete

trash Bushwick

Bushwick photos by local students

Walk down a typical street in Greenwich Village or SoHo. It's likely to be clean of debris and garbage — in fact, there's a 93 percent chance the sidewalk is "acceptably clean," according to city records.

Now walk down a typical street in Bushwick. According to the City, it's not all that different — there's an 89 percent chance that the sidewalk is clean.

To some young Bushwick residents, that's a finding that doesn't match reality.

Fed up with having to walk around discarded soda bottles, plastic bags, and dog droppings on their way to and from school, a class of seniors at Bushwick's Academy of Urban Planning, a high school, decided to get to the bottom of how the City assesses street cleanliness. They found what they say is outdated policy that masks a 'Tale of Two Cities'-esque reality.

And they are pushing city officials to take notice.

It's called the scorecard system. Each month, employees from the Mayor's Office of Operations observe a sample of streets in every city neighborhood and rate them on cleanliness, assigning scores to both the sidewalk and the street surface. A 1.0 means perfectly clean, and a 3.0 means a lot of litter. "Acceptably clean" is anything below a 1.5. Percentages of acceptably clean streets are released by community board district and can help the Sanitation Department decide its street-cleaning policies.

The rubric for making the determination of clean or unclean, based on example photos, hasn't changed since the scorecard program began in 1974, a city spokesperson confirmed to Gotham Gazette. What was acceptably clean in the New York of the 70s, of graffitied subway cars and financial crisis, might not be all that acceptable in today's Big Apple. City officials argue, though, that the consistent standards means ratings reflect cleaner streets.

These days, a vast majority of city streets and sidewalks are rated acceptably clean, which critics say prevents sanitation department crews from prioritizing neighborhoods that actually have a lot of litter.

In November 2014, the most recent month available, 93.1 percent of city streets and 94.7 percent of city sidewalks were rated acceptably clean. 56 of the city's 59 community board districts had 85 percent or higher ratings of acceptably clean sidewalks, and 52 out of 59 had 85 percent or higher ratings of acceptably clean streets.

November 2014 scorecard ratings, by community board district

source: Mayor's Office of Operations data

In Brooklyn Community Board 4, which covers Bushwick, 88.5 percent of sidewalks and 89.5 percent of streets were scored acceptably clean in November.

"We live here, and we saw that it's not true," said Jorge Santamaria, an Academy of Urban Planning student. "There's a lot of garbage on the street."

Santamaria and his classmates in Jose Ortiz's third-period "Participation in Democracy" class decided to do something about it. Tasked with solving a problem in their neighborhood, students researched how the scorecard system worked.

They requested the specific scores for their district through a Freedom of Information Law Request and took photos of litter-covered streets that the city claimed were clean.

In one report, "Manhattan was scored with a 2, us with a 1.5," Santamaria said of ratings suggesting Bushwick had cleaner streets. "Whenever I go to Manhattan, it's not dirty at all. We think we should get more resources."

"Of course, people there want their community to be clean, but I think our community should be as clean as Manhattan," added student Maritza Zeron.

NYU junior Ryan Castellano, a "democracy coach" who helped students with their activism as part of the Generation Citizen program, which brings together college students and high school classes to identify and solve community problems, said the divide in street cleanliness was obvious.

"I live in Greenwich Village. If you walk around there, and go to Bushwick and walk around, you can see an enormous difference," Castellano said. "Those [scorecard] numbers don't match up at all."

Over the years, New York "definitely has gotten cleaner, and our class' position is not that the city as a whole isn't better," Castellano said. "But there still is a diversity in how dirty neighborhoods are...there are still some that are much worse than others, and it's being misrepresented."

City officials say the program provides valuable data on street and sidewalk cleanliness. The fact that the rubric hasn't changed shows how dramatically average cleanliness has improved, they say, from roughly 70 percent acceptably clean in the 1970s to over 90 percent clean now.

"With a program's history as long as ours, we understand the importance of providing our City stakeholders and the public with useful information that impacts the cleanliness of our neighborhoods," said Mindy Tarlow, the director of the Mayor's Office of Operations, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

But the students are hoping to see action on the part of the City to raise standards of what is considered acceptably clean. That might mean a City Council hearing or a change in policy at the Office of Operations.

City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the council's Sanitation Committee and represents part of Bushwick, met with Castellano earlier this month to discuss the students' research.

"[Council Member] Reynoso is concerned and looking into it," Reynoso spokesperson Lacey Tauber said in an email.

In addition to advocating for change at the city government level, the Academy of Urban Planning students are hoping to help fight litter themselves, through social media and by giving out t-shirts or stickers urging people not to litter.

"In order to make our community cleaner, we need our whole community involved, not just our class," said student Kimberly Goris. "Our community is our home, it represents us — it's our identity."

by Casey Tolan for Gotham Gazette

Fight for MMA Legalization Sees New Life After Silver KO

ufc ring

A UFC event (photo: @UltimateFighter)

The path to the legalization of mixed martial arts, or MMA, in New York got a major boost earlier this year in the form of the arrest of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver was seen as the lone impediment to the state removing its ban on the sport and allowing the (notoriously underfunded) New York State Athletic Commission to issue regulations so that New Yorkers can reap the financial benefits of the large events that are now sanctioned in every other state in the nation. The State Senate has passed the bill five times; Silver blocked the bill from ever coming to the Assembly floor.

Silver's replacement, Assembly Member Carl Heastie, of the Bronx, has been a sponsor of the bill and he and the Bronx Democratic Committee he oversees have received donations from MMA interests. While Heastie took his name off the bill when he became speaker, many in the conference expect that with Heastie in charge of the chamber the bill will come to a vote and pass. Heastie has said any bill that comes through his chamber will do so on its merits, not because of his influence.

Assembly Members say that Joseph Morelle, now the bill's lead sponsor, got the OK from Heastie to add more sponsors to the bill. Some insiders say that Silver demanded that no more sponsors be added to the bill last year.

On Friday, Heastie spoke about the legislation during a radio interview on WNBF, of Binghamton, and said the bill would be dealt with in the spring. "After we pass the budget and come back from Easter recess, we'll probably conference MMA and if there's enough support from the conference, we'll bring it to the floor for a vote," he said, according to Politics on the Hudson.

A number of politicos insist that the real barrier to the legalization of MMA in New York still remains - and that it is the behavior of Zuffa, LLC, the parent company of the world's largest MMA promotion, the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC).

Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, owners of Zuffa, LLC and Station Casinos have earned a reputation as union busters and their strong-arm tactics with the Las Vegas Culinary Union is reportedly what has bolstered Silver and other politicians' opposition to the New York bill. The Culinary Union had connections to The Hotel Trades Union that had been actively opposing MMA legislation until recently. But many legislators still carry their talking points against legalization.

Zuffa has spent over $1 million on lobbying efforts and donated over $500,000 to state politicians through its various subsidiaries since 2007 according to records with the New York State Board Of Elections. The major beneficiaries of Zuffa's largesse include Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has taken in $180,000 from the company - more than 30 percent of Zuffa's total donations in New York. The Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee brought in $110,000 despite Silver's resistance; Senate Republicans $95,000; and the Senate Democrats around $40,000.

UFC officials and convinced proponents of bringing MMA to New York say that the sport would bring $135 million annually to the state.

Some things have changed since 2007, when Zuffa began lobbying in New York. The UFC bought, absorbed, and shuttered some competitors, signed a 7-year broadcast deal with Fox, significantly increased the number of cards they put on around the world, and garnered increased attention from national sports media.

Despite its growth 2014 was likely the worst year for Zuffa since they acquired the UFC in 2001. The company's bond rating was downgraded due to significantly lower pay-per-view sales. That was attributed to an injury bug that hit many of the promotion's champions. But perhaps more significantly for the sport itself, 2014 was a year plagued by fighters involved in incidents of domestic violence, failed drug tests, reports about the long-term brain damage incurred by combatants, and backlash from jilted fighters in the form of a class action lawsuit claiming that UFC is a monopoly.

Lorenzo Fertitta, CEO of Zuffa, was in Albany last week talking up the benefits of legalization.

"When you talk about doing an event up in Buffalo or Syracuse where the border of Canada is right there, we'll be able to attract the significant fan base that we have in Canada, importing Canadian tourists," Lorenzo Fertitta told Auburn Citizen last week. "When we do an event in New York — it's such a worldwide, global city — we're going to have people from all over the world attending that event there. There's a huge appetite for the sport and there's really no reason that it shouldn't be allowed in this state."

When Zuffa first began dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into campaign accounts nine years ago the pitch on legalization was that MMA represented a growing fight sport that was safer and less corrupt than boxing, and that would attract tourism dollars to New York. And, that regulation would ensure the safety of both amateur and professional fighters who now regularly take part in underground fights across the state despite the ban.

Fighters who are banned by athletic commissions in other states for any number of reasons from drug use to blood borne diseases can legally compete in amateur bouts in New York. No one in New York tests them or keeps track of their bouts. Amateur fights take place only a few blocks from the capitol in The Washington Avenue Armory and even in Madison Square Garden. Professional fights in New York, where health and safety regulations would be in place, are illegal.

"When we come in to an area that has been unregulated the first thing you see is the implementation of the correct safety measures," said Lawrence Epstein, Chief Operating Office of UFC. Epstein said regulation also means that amateur promoters actually pay fighters for their bouts. "We see fighter pay increase," said Epstein.

"It is really an odd situation in New York. These amateur bouts aren't underground they are totally out in the open. Meanwhile professional bouts are illegal," Epstein added.

Jordan Breen, executive editor of Sherdog.com, a site that has covered MMA since its infancy and has at times bumped heads with Zuffa because of its deep coverage of the company, said that the UFC has intentionally blurred the line between UFC the company and MMA the sport. "Thats the problem," said Breen. "The UFC has marketed itself as the sport and it is not a good approach when it comes to regulation. The two should be separate issues."

Breen said that given New York's reputation at the most union-friendly state it is "understandable how Zuffa's union-busting ways have come to haunt them" here.

UFC fighters are not covered by the federal Muhammad Ali Act that was passed in 1999 to protect the rights and welfare of fighters. While some fighters can make into the millions of dollars for one fight, most on the UFC roster earn a few thousand dollars per bout and can be released by the UFC on a moment's notice.

Their job as professional athletes requires daily training sessions and camps that can be costly. Once they get in the cage to fight they punch, kick, and wrestle to win three- and five-round affairs. Judges decide winners by a points system if one of the fighters is not knocked out, submitted, or saved from more damage by a referee stoppage.

The UFC used to award large bonuses, sometimes to the tune of $50,000, for knockout of the night, submission of the night and fight of the night. And UFC president Dana White's favorite phrase is "Don't leave it in the hands of the judges." In other words, 'Hurt your opponent enough so that there is no question about who won.'

The UFC recently changed the names of the awards to "performance of the night," apparently in an attempt to do away with the notion that they are advocating increased violence.

State Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan is the sponsor of a bill that would create a two-year moratorium on MMA and have the Department of Health study the impacts of the sport.

"I call the fighters 'future brain damage victims,'" said Krueger. She says New York should take the moral high ground and uphold its MMA ban because of the negative health effects and because she says it promotes violence against women. She doesn't buy the economic pitch either. "Let's be adults. This isn't the golden ticket for the Western New York economy - just like casinos aren't either."

Krueger may be right about the brain damage. According to researchers at University of Toronto, a third of MMA fights end in knockout or technical knockout and result in more brain trauma than boxing. The UFC, for its part, began working with the Cleveland Clinic on another study that has enrolled 400 former and current fighters. Initial data indicate that UFC is safer than boxing and football.

Zuffa began providing healthcare for all of its fighters in 2011 - not an inexpensive undertaking given that they pay both men and women to do each other bodily harm.

Breen acknowledged that fighter safety is a major concern, but said that regulation was the only way to ensure better outcomes. "By not providing regulation you are enacting as an enabler, you are tacitly complicit in these underground shows where these guys beat the heck out of each other like Mad Max in the Thunderdome."

State Senator Brad Hoylman of Manhattan is also concerned about the health impact of MMA, but he has offered a bill that would allow the sanctioning of the sport but also create a tax that would go toward a fund for fighters who suffer brain injuries.

In Rochester on Wednesday, Governor Cuomo told reporters that any positive economic impact MMA could have for the state outweighs concerns about violence.

"This is a big sport and it's growing, and if it can create jobs and economic growth in the State of New York, then I'm interested in it," Cuomo said; later adding: "I understand the point [about violence]. I focus on that less. Football is a violent sport, rugby is a violent sport, some people say politics is a violent sport. So I get that point, but to me it's more about the economics and whether or not we create jobs."

Cuomo has publicly stated the he has watched UFC fights, joking that he watches fights after he has "a particularly frustrating session with the press." Epstein called the admission "bold" and said his company has had conversations with Cuomo about legalization.

Last year as the NFL dealt with the Ray Rice scandal, UFC president White claimed the UFC had a much more thorough approach to domestic violence incidents. On Feb. 7, 2014 UFC fighter Thiago Silva was arrested for menacing his wife and her friend at a gym with a gun. He faced charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, aggravated assault with a firearm, and resisting arrest. In September the DA's office decided to drop the case because Silva's wife had apparently moved out of the country. The UFC quickly reinstated Silva. Then Silva's wife posted videos of him acting erratically and apparently sniffing cocaine. Two weeks after reinstating Silva the UFC terminated his contract.

Women's groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) have campaigned against the sport saying it incites violence against women. Epstein said that the accusations are "meritless rhetoric," and "outright lies." He pointed to Ronda Rousey, UFC's bantamweight champion and Olympic medalist in Judo, who has headlined numerous events and has been hailed as an inspirational female athlete.

Perhaps the biggest blow to the UFC's mainstream reputation came this January. Coming off a horrible 2014 the company booked the biggest fights it possibly could. One of those cards featured Endicott, New York native Jon Jones, the company's light heavyweight champion, fighting his rival Daniel Cormier, an Olympic medalist in wrestling. Jones won the contest handily, and the event was hailed as a major success.

On Jan. 7 of this year it was revealed that Jones had tested positive for cocaine during a random drug test administered by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, the commission that sets the standards for regulation of the sport. Jones faced a meager fine, went to rehab, and left a day later. The UFC praised him for dealing with his illness. The athletic commission could not take action against Jones because their rules state that they can't discipline a fighter for street drugs found through out-of-competition testing. Jones is actually pondering legal action because he believes the results of the test should not have been released.

Only a month later two of the company's biggest stars, Anderson Silva and Nick Diaz, headlined a card in Las Vegas. Diaz tested positive for elevated levels of marijuana metabolites, as he had done numerous other times; and Silva, who is regarded in many circles as the sport's Babe Ruth, failed multiple drug tests, including a pre-fight test for steroids. Critics have wondered why the commission did not report the test before the fight to prevent the bout. Some have posited that the commission has no real interest in reporting the tests before an event because it would be required to cancel something that functions as a boon for the Las Vegas economy.

Epstein says that these positive tests prove that regulation and the UFC's safety protocols are working - major stars are getting caught because the UFC is testing them. The UFC also announced that it would fund random out-of-competition drug testing for its roster of over 600 fighters.

Former UFC champion George St. Pierre, perhaps the promotion's biggest star, retired from MMA and has refused offers to lure him back, insisting that he won't fight until performance enhancing drugs are less of a norm in the sport.

Zuffa also faces multi-million dollar class action lawsuits from former fighters who say the company prevented them from earning what they were worth by monopolizing the sport. The suit accuses the UFC of "illegally maintaining monopoly and monopsony power by systematically eliminating competition from rival promoters, artificially suppressing fighters' earnings from bouts and merchandising and marketing activities through restrictive contracting and other exclusionary practices." The lawsuit is backed by major law firms.

Breen said he believes legalization and regulation in New York could be much needed wins for the UFC and the upstate economy, "There is no denying there is a certain prestige to Madison Square Garden for the UFC. But with Broadway and New York's sports teams the UFC would just be a drop in a bucket. I imagine it would do extremely well in Buffalo where the Sabres play. It would draw a massive number of Canadian fans."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, March 9

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This week will be another dominated by budget negotiations and hearings, both in New York City and Albany. In the city, the City Council began its preliminary budget hearings last week and continues them this week and throughout March, evaluating Mayor Bill de Blasio's spending plans agency by agency. In Albany, discussions swirl around how the Legislature might attempt to move Governor Andrew Cuomo on some of the hard stances he's taking with respect to education and ethics policies and the ways in which he is budgeting them. Both the State Senate and the State Assembly are expected to introduce and vote on their respective one-house budgets this week, which will further intensify negotiations with the governor. Of course, there are key aspects of what de Blasio and other city officials want from the State that are at stake in Albany negotiations. An Albany budget is due by April 1; a New York City budget by July 1.

Mayor de Blasio and Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner are reportedly set to push the governor and the State Legislature for increased education funding on Monday  - apart from Cuomo's education reform plan, which he has tied to funding increases in order to force the Legislature's hand.

Other highlights to watch this week include the race in New York's 11th Congressional District heating up as there is limited time before the May 5 special election between Dan Donovan and Vincent Gentile to replace former Congressman Michael Grimm; Public Advocate Letitia James continues her "mayoral control forums;" and various celebrations of Women's History Month.

As always, there are many events to be aware of this week. See our day-by-day rundown below.

***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:

Mayor de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray start the week hosting "the Beijing +20 Reception at Gracie Mansion" Monday evening.

On Monday morning, Rep. Joe Crowley and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul will hold a press conference to celebrate Women’s History Month in the Bronx, according to City & State NY.

At 10 a.m., on steps of City Hall, there will be a news conference condemning Fast Track legislation for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the so-called "free" trade deal that has been described as "NAFTA on steroids." Attendees will  include Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (8th District, Brooklyn and Queens), Rep. Grace Meng (6th District, Queens), Mario Cilento, President of NYS AFL-CIO, Vincent Alvarez, President of NYC Central Labor Council, James Conigliaro, Business Representative of Machinists Union District 15, George Miranda, President of Teamsters Joint Council 16, Carmen Charles, President of AFSCME Local 420m, Eric Weltman, Senior Organizer at Food and Water Watch, and Thelma Fellows, Executive Committee at Sierra Club NYC.

Also 10 a.m. Monday, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and Industry City CEO Andrew Kimball will present a $1 billion plan to redevelop property in the Sunset Park area, according to City & State NY.

Monday at 11:30 a.m., on the steps of City Hall, “Council Member Mark S. Weprin, along with his colleagues in the City Council, announces the introduction of a bill to allow and regulate youth hostels in New York City.”

Monday, at 11:30 a.m., schools Chancellor Carmen Farina will be a guest on WNYC’s the Brian Lehrer show discussing why 7th grade is such a pivotal year in a child’s life.

Also Monday morning, "three of the largest New York City faith-based institutions on Monday March 9th to unveil a historic study about poverty reduction in New York City. The three faith-based organizations releasing the study are: The Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA), Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, and UJA-Federation of New York. Together they will release the results of a major new research study that demonstrates the effects anti-poverty policy combinations can have on reducing poverty in New York.

Monday at noon, at Governor Cuomo’s Office in New York City, faith and labor leaders, voters, and community members will take part in a rally organized by Common Cause “to demand morality, fairness and honesty from our elected officials.”

At 1 p.m. Monday, members of Gov. Cuomo’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety & Justice will hold a panel discussion on raising the age of criminal prosecution at The New York Bar Association in Albany, according to City & State NY.

"Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman will announce a groundbreaking settlement with the nation's three leading national credit reporting agencies to implement critical reforms to protect consumers" on Monday at 1:30, joined by Julie Menin, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs and Susan Shin, senior staff attorney at the New Economy Project.

Monday’s City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises to review land use in the Soho Cast-Iron Historic District in Manhattan; a meeting of the Committee on Higher Education to consider resolution “calling upon Congress to pass and the President to sign legislation to implement President Barack Obama’s ‘America’s College Promise’ plan to make two years of community college free to anyone who maintains a 2.5 GPA and calling upon the New York State Legislature to pass and the Governor to sign legislation funding the State’s obligation under the plan”; a meeting of the Committee on Parks and Recreation for preliminary budget oversight; and a meeting of the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions to review submitted Land Use Applications.

Monday’s State Senate Committee Hearings will include a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Labor to discuss a variety of acts to amend the labor law; a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions to discuss a variety of legislation, including an act to amend the New York State Urban Development Corporation Act in relation to creating the New York State innovative energy and environmental technology program; and several in relation to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Monday at 5:30 p.m., the Queens Borough Board, as led by Queens BP Melinda Katz, will meet and vote on FY2016 Budget Priorities

On Monday evening, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will make a “special presentation at Women’s History Month reception, Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

And on Monday evening, schools Chancellor Farina will deliver remarks at the Shubert Foundation High School Theatre Festival at the Imperial Theatre in Manhattan.

Tuesday is the funeral for Cardinal Edward Egan, which will be attended by many, including Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio and other elected officials.

That will be part of a busy Tuesday for de Blasio, who before the funeral will visit a classroom at the Boys and Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant and then host a press conference to make an education announcement. Then, after the funeral, the mayor will deliver remarks at a Mayor's Fund reception and then deliver remarks at the Beijing+20 Opening Reception.

Tuesday’s State Senate Committee Hearing schedule will include a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Education to consider a variety of legislation, including to amend chapter 91 of the laws of 2002, amending the education law and other laws relating to the reorganization of the New York city school construction authority, board of education, and community boards, in relation to the effectiveness thereof; and to repeal section 4 of chapter 91 of the laws of 2002, amending the education law and other laws relating to the reorganization of the New York city school construction authority, board of education, and community boards; a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Transportation to consider a variety of legislation; a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Codes to consider a variety of legislation, including in relation to providing that an elementary or secondary school student shall be incapable of consenting to sexual conduct with a school employee; an act to amend the penal law, in relation to forged instruments and the sale thereof; an act to amend the penal law, in relation to the theft of controlled substances.

Tuesday morning, YWCA will present: “Women’s History Month Breakfast Panel Series: Leadership and Generosity: A Call to Action” featuring local leaders Sheelah A. Feinberg, Jennifer Jones Austin, Cecilia Clarke, Maya Wiley, Akiba Solomon and Anne Williams-Isom.

Tuesday’s City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Housing and Buildings to consider the extension of rent stabilization laws, a resolution calling upon the New York State Legislature to pass, and the Governor to approve, A.1865, in relation to repealing vacancy decontrol, a resolution determining that a public emergency requiring rent control in the City of New York continues to exist and will continue to exist on and after April 1, 2015; a resolution calling upon the New York State Legislature to pass and the Governor to sign legislation that would end deregulation of rent regulated apartments and several others; a meeting of the Committee on Education to discuss introduction of a new bill relating to: “Requiring the Department of Education to report information regarding students receiving special education services” ; a meeting of the Committee on Consumer Affairs to discuss making of a new bill regarding: “Dept of consumer affairs to provide young adults with outreach and education regarding consumer protection issues”;

And preliminary budget hearings in response to Mayor de Blasio’s initial fiscal year 2016 budget outline: the Committee on Land Use; the Committee on Technology jointly with the Committee on Land Use; and the Committee on Housing and Buildings.

Tuesday, at 12 p.m., the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research will present “The Truth About Campus Sexual Assault: Is there really an epidemic of campus rape? If so, is government leading a constructive path forward?”

Tuesday evening, Public Advocate Letitia James will host one in her series of Mayoral Control Forums at P.S. 69, in Queens: “New Yorkers are encourage to come and share their thoughts about mayoral control and how modifications to the law can help to improve our education system. This is an opportunity to discuss what real community and parent engagement should look like moving forward.”

Also Tuesday evening, at 6 p.m., Wix Lounge will host NYC Lean In: Women’s History Month Event.

Tuesday at 6 p.m., Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer will host an Immigrant Small Business Town Hall: “My office’s African Immigrant Task Force is sponsoring a Town Hall jointly with the Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs, Dept. of Small Business Services, and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Please join us for a presentation on how to obtain city resources to help manage your small business better, moderated by Lloyd Williams of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce. Panelists include myself; Julie Menin, Commissioner, Dept. of Consumer Affairs; Alejandro Alvarez, Director of Community Affairs, Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs; Maria Torres-Springer, Commissioner, Dept. of Small Business Services.”

Also Tuesday at 6 p.m., Council Member Annabel Palma will host a Scam Prevention Forum at New York Public Library’s Parkchester Branch.

Tuesday, at 6:30 p.m., the NYC Charter School Center and the NYC Special Education Collaborative will host the 5th annual NYC Charter School Career Fair at Harlem Children's Zone Gymnasium and Cafeteria: “Last year’s fair hosted over 1,000 teachers, counselors, related service providers, and administrators with over 85% of NYC charter schools participating. This year, we’re looking forward to an even larger turnout.”

Wednesday morning in Albany the Assembly Standing Committee on Codes, will hold a joint meeting with the Assembly Standing Committee on Judiciary to “examine the need for reforms to the criminal justice system to ensure fairness, improve community/police relations, and protect the safety of law enforcement officers.”

Also Wednesday morning, the Senate Standing Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Correction, will hold a joint meeting with the Senate Standing Committee on Civil Service and Pensions, and Senate Standing Committee on Investigations and Government Operations, for an oversight hearing “Examining police safety and public protection throughout New York State.”

Wednesday’s State Senate Committee Hearing schedule will include a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities to consider a variety of bills; a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Higher Education to consider a variety of legislation, including an act to amend the education law, in relation to changing the eligibility dates for a military service recognition scholarship to include the conflicts that occurred after June 1, 1982; and an act to amend the education law, in relation to providing scholarships for surviving dependent family members of New York state military personnel who have died while performing official military duties.

Also Wednesday, Alliance for Quality Education and Citizen Action of New York will hold "Parade for Public Education and Lobby: Rally to Save Public Education in New York: We will meet with parents, students, teachers, and community leaders from across the state at the Armory and then we will parade down to the Capitol to demand $2.2 billion in new school aid, $150 billion in pre-K outside of NYC, and that we maintain current cap on charter schools to stop school privatization, as well as a resolution to the 20-year Campaign for Fiscal Equity.”

Wednesday morning, at 10 a.m., there will be a rally for preserving housing and for permanent affordable housing in East New York.

Wednesday’s City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Finance to review submitted land use applications and to go over: “Meatpacking Area business improvement district, Manhattan” and a Stated meeting of City Council at 1:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Wednesday evening, Public Advocate Letitia James will host the Manhattan episode of her Mayoral Control Forum series, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice - co-hosted by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. According to Brewer: “I am co-sponsoring with Public Advocate Tish James a Manhattan Forum on Mayoral Control of schools, one in a series of forums taking place in all five boroughs. The forum will focus on one aspect of mayoral control -- community and parent engagement -- and provide a platform for educators, parents, guardians, and elected officials to discuss what real community and parent engagement should look like under mayoral control, which is set to expire this June.”

Comptroller Scott Stringer is hosting a Women’s History Month celebration Wednesday evening in Manhattan.

Also Wednesday evening, at 6:30 p.m., City Council Member Corey Johnson will host "Let’s Talk!: Reforming the Rent Guidelines Board" at P.S. 3, in Manhattan: “Join Council Member Corey Johnson, housing policy experts and tenant organizers for a discussion about reforming the Rent Guideline Board and confronting New York City’s affordability crisis.”

Wednesday evening, at 6:30 p.m., Manhattan Neighborhood Network will host The State of Women in New York City, a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Christina Greer, and including Ashley Emerole, Alexis Grenell, Erica Ford, and Karina Aybar-Jacob.

Wednesday evening, there will be a fundraiser for Vincent Gentile’s congressional campaign, on Staten Island.

At 8:30 Thursday morning, Manhattan Institute will host a breakfast forum discussion titled “Are NYC Charter Schools Doing All They Can to Serve the Neediest Students?” Panelists will include Seth Andrew, Founder and Democracy Prep Public Schools and Democracy Builders; James Merriman, President of New York City Charter School Center; Ian Rowe, Chief Executive Officer of Public Prep; and Marcus Winters, Senior Fellow at Manhattan Institute: “At this breakfast forum, Winters will unveil the findings from his latest study on low-performers. Then, a panel will discuss the broader issue of whether New York City charters are doing all they can to serve the neediest students.”

Also Thursday, Association for a Better New York “cordially invites you to be our guest at a lunch meeting featuring Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Secretary Foxx will discuss his priorities for the federal Department of Transportation.”

Thursday will be the next public meeting of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, at 10:00 a.m.

"Brooklyn Parents, Students, and Teachers will take to the streets in Carroll Gardens to protest Governor Cuomo's proposed education policies on Thursday, March 12, 2015 at 3:15 p.m. The march is led by the Community Alliance for Student Education (CASE), a group formed to support public school students, teachers, and the community. CASE and the parents and students of PS 58 will join parents, students, and teachers from PS 261 in a march to voice their opposition to Gov. Cuomo's plans, which include placing more of an emphasis on the testing of young children, budgeting that reflects less than HALF the increase recommended for public school success, and putting teacher's ratings in the hands of outside "professional" consultants hired by Albany."

The Joint Legislative Budget schedule is to include "Senate and Assembly budget actions," and "joint Senate and Assembly budget conference committees commence."

Thursday’s City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Public Safety and a meeting of the Committee on Standards and Ethics for preliminary budget oversight hearings.

Thursday at 6:30 p.m., PROP Public Forum: "The Whole System Is Guilty: the panel will feature speakers presenting critiques on the key agencies of our so-called system of justice that, in effect, join forces everyday to inflict harm and hardship on low-income New Yorkers of color: the NYPD, prosecutors, judges, the defense bar, jails and prisons, and the New York City Council.”

Also Thursday, at 7 p.m., "How Would the TPP Affect Our Community?: Join us for a community meeting to learn about the threats posed by the Trans-Pacific Partnership and how efforts to fast track this dangerous trade agreement can be stopped. We'll highlight how the TPP risks our jobs, health, communities, and environment. Fortunately, Congressman Charles Rangel can play a key role in stopping the fast tracking of the TPP! Sponsors include Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, Food & Water Watch, Communications Workers of America, Working Families Party, Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Three Parks Independent Democrats, Sierra Club New York City Group, Broadway Democrats, MoveOn NYC Councils, 350NYC, Franciscan Earth Corps, United for Action, Health GAP, ALIGN-NY, Global Justice for Animals and the Environment, Show Up! America, Environmental Action,, NY4Whales, Polo Democratico NY, Terraza 7, New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, OWS Special Projects Affinity Group, OWS Outreach Working Group, TradeJustice New York Metro, Global Justice for Animals and the Environment, Sane Energy Project.”

Thursday evening, City Council Member Andy King will host the State of the 12th District: “The address will highlight the district’s finances, accomplishments over the past year, challenges facing the district, and future planning. All community members are invited to attend the State of the District Address, as well as stay for a birthday celebration for Council Member King.”

Friday morning, the State Senate Standing Committee on Social Services will meet to discuss “Policies to Assist Working Families in New York.”

On Friday, Public Advocate James' mayoral control forum series sees its big finale with an event featuring Diane Ravitch, Assemby Member Cathy Nolan, and others.

Also Friday morning, the Murphy Institute at CUNY, in collaboration with 1199SEIU and Cornell University’s Worker Institute, will present Identity Politics: A Foundation for Coalition Building: “Barbara Smith argues that “identity politics” rather than presenting an obstacle to forming coalitions for social and economic justice – offer an essential foundation for such coalitions. Drawing on forty years of work with civil rights, feminist, LGBTQ and other movements, Smith’s new book, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, edited by Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks, poses an urgent set of related questions that she and forum panelists will consider.”

Friday at 11 a.m., the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs’ Office of Financial Empowerment, the DESIS Lab (Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability) at Parsons The New School for Design, the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity, and Citi Community Development will host Designing for Financial Empowerment: Improving Tax-Time Services for New Yorkers: “There are about 950,000 New York City families who are eligible to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which averages approximately $2,500, and, combined with other credits, can translate to a refund of as much as $10,000. But one in every five eligible households do not claim this vital tax credit; and of those who do, too many pay an average of $250 to file their taxes instead of using the free tax preparation services available at the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites around the city. How can we enable more of our fellow New Yorkers who have low incomes to file for free, claim their money and get access to other financial empowerment services? To answer that challenge, we are re-imagining how free tax preparation is provided in New York City and want your input.” Attendees will include Commissioner of DCA Julie Menin and Darren Bloch, Executive Director at The Mayor’s Fund to Advance NYC.

Friday’s City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse and Disability Services and a meeting of the Committee on Environmental Protection for preliminary budget oversight hearings.

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

Note: this article has been updated.

Outside Experts, Inside Employees Agree: Cuomo's Email Purge Misguided


Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)

Governor Andrew Cuomo's new 90-day email deletion policy for all state agencies is being met with widespread disapproval. Experts say it is terrible for transparency; the people who have to abide by the mandate say they don't feel qualified to implement it and that it isn't good for their productivity.

According to a number of state workers who spoke to Gotham Gazette on the condition of anonymity, regular work habits have been disrupted by the policy that sees emails purged after three months. They say that the policy costs them time because to abide by it they are forced to weigh the State's monumentally large email retention policy against the purge policy, and then ferret out and save important emails.

There is also concern that losing emails will disrupt workflow because employees won't be able to refer back to previous conversations by searching their inboxes, as people often do.

The State began the program after consolidating a myriad of email systems into Microsoft Office 365. Capital New York reported the start of the program last week. The program actually gives the administrator the ability to purge employee emails after one day. A coalition of technology- and transparency-minded groups including Reinvent Albany and the NYCLU wrote the governor last month to oppose implementation of the program, arguing that it would cripple Freedom of Information Act laws (FOIL).

"This policy was adopted without public notice or comment," reads the letter. "Furthermore, we are extremely concerned that the inevitable destruction of email records under your 90-day automatic deletion policy directly undermines other public accountability laws like the False Claims Act."

Cuomo's IT chief Maggie Miller was grilled about the policy during a budget hearing last week. She defended the policy, saying in part, "It's also a matter of, actually, encouraging good behavior, prudent and responsible use of state resources." In terms of concern over space issues and expense, Microsoft Office 365 offers decades worth of email retention.

The Cuomo administration has billed the deletion program as a way to improve efficiency, but workers say it's a hinderance and that they don't feel qualified to decide which emails should be saved in case of lawsuits or FOIL requests. "This just isn't my job," said one employee.

State rules pertaining to what emails should be saved are extensive - they take up 118 pages and 215 separate categories.

State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, told Gotham Gazette that she learned of the policy during that budget hearing and was "horrified."

"How many state employees understand the language in the policy about what should be preserved?" Kruger asked. "I asked three FOIL lawyers how complicated it is and whether a layman could interpret the rules and they laughed."

Krueger has a bill in the works that would overturn the 90-day policy and establish retention timelines for different areas of government. The bill would add electronic communication to the state's archive laws. She says her legislation will be complicated because it covers so many areas, but takes some inspiration from the Federal Capstone Email Management Policy. It would also make all branches of government, including the Legislature, subject to FOIL. Krueger said she expects bill drafting to be complete in about a week.

There is concern among some legislators and advocates who want to stop Cuomo's policy that Krueger's bill is too far-reaching to actually pass. One legislator told Gotham Gazette with condition of anonymity that they felt making the Legislature subject to FOIL is actually a "poison pill," and virtually guarantees it will not pass.

Krueger said that her bill is not designed as an attack on Cuomo. "I hope this is a situation where the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Maybe the governor made a mistake. This isn't a spat. I'm not here to go 'Ha, ha! I caught you screwing up!' I am here to repair [the situation] because I care about the democratic process."

Although the uproar over the policy has been sudden and sharp it isn't exactly surprising that the Cuomo administration implemented it. The administration is known for being extremely secretive, and has been working on the implementation of the program for years.

Zephyr Teachout, Cuomo's primary opponent from last year and author of a book on political corruption, has slammed the policy and pointed out that Cuomo is under federal investigation for tampering with The Moreland Commission on Public Corruption.

"Everyone knows that Albany - all of it, executive and legislative - has a corruption problem. Some of it's legal, some of it's illegal," Teachout told Gotham Gazette. " At this particular moment, with such low trust in Albany, there's no excuse for an email deletion policy. He should be opening the books, not burning them after three months. Transparency isn't the full answer. X-rays don't cure patients. But you need them to figure out what's going on."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Mail Your Vote, Then Track It?

kallos vision zero

CM Kallos at a recent press conference on traffic safety (photo: @BenKallos)

NEW YORK - There is a voter turnout crisis in this country, this state, and this city. Causes abound, including mistrust of politicians and barriers to easy voting. As elected officials, advocates, and experts look for solutions, some argue an inefficient system handling absentee ballots has caused thousands of New Yorkers to miss the opportunity to cast their votes.

"We received numerous calls from frustrated voters who had not received their absentee ballot and had no way of finding out where in the process their application was," said Lauren George, associate director of Common Cause New York, an advocacy organization that promotes civic engagement.

Voter participation has been steadily declining for decades, and continues to find shocking new lows. Last November, New York was the fifth worse state in the country for voter participation, with a staggering 29.5 percent turnout. In New York City, the turnout was just above 21 percent.

"In this age of devastatingly low voter confidence in our elections," said George, "making voting easy and convenient for citizens is of critical importance."

Now, two bills introduced by members of the New York City Council aim to do just that.

Tuesday morning, the Committee on Governmental Operations, chaired by Council Member Ben Kallos, a Democrat from Manhattan, discussed two new pieces of legislation that could help re-engage thousands of voters in the election process.

"We want every eligible voter to register and cast a ballot," Kallos told Gotham Gazette. "Absentee ballots are essential to maximizing turnout."

Currently, a voter who wishes to cast an absentee ballot has to follow a three-step process: register to vote; request an absentee ballot; vote.

Right now, it's impossible for voters to complete the first two steps at the same time.

One of the Council's proposed bills, however, would allow New York City residents to register to vote and apply for an absentee ballot together, eliminating the usual time that slows the voting process.

The second bill, meanwhile, would require the Board of Elections to provide a website through which voters can track their absentee ballots in every step of the process.

By accessing the website, voters would know whether their application for an absentee ballot has been received, and whether it has been approved. Then, it would be possible to check if an absentee ballot has been mailed and delivered. After completing an absentee vote, New Yorkers would be able to check if their completed ballot has made it back to the Board of Election and, finally, if it has been counted.

Amy Loprest, executive director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, said in her testimony that technology already exists allowing the U.S. Postal Service to track the absentee ballots of members of the military and citizens living overseas.

A handful of states including Florida, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Virginia already have set up a similar technology to track the absentee ballots of domestic voters as well.

"We can all track our packages online, and we should be able to track our votes in the same way," said Loprest, who spoke emphatically in favor of the bill.

"This legislation provides an opportunity for New York City to be a local leader in the use of technology to boost confidence in our elections," she added.

It is still not clear how much the City will have to spend to implement the tracking system.

Seth Flaxman, the founder and executive director of Democracy Works, a nonprofit organization that could be contracted to get the new Board of Election website up and running, said a ballot tracking feature would be easy and quite inexpensive to put in place.

"We wanted to ensure that good election technology would always be affordable for the government," said Flaxman. "It will cost what will be affordable to New York City."

Beside the costs involved in improving the absentee voting system, voters' participation seems to be a concern that goes deeper than partisan distinction.

"The idea that we have a voter turnout crisis transcends parties," said Paul Westrick, legislative aide to Kallos. "This is something that helps people across the city, across the party lines."

The bills may be tweaked and then, possibly, voted on at a governmental operations committee meeting in the near future. Each has just a few sponsors, but that does not necessarily fully measure support. If passed by the committee, they would head to the full Council.

by Marco Poggio, Gotham Gazette

At Initial Hearing, Council Members Question Budget Transparency


CM Ferreras questions administration officials (photo: @JulissaFerreras)

NEW YORK—Mayor Bill de Blasio calls his budget fiscally responsible, progressive, and honest. But is it transparent? According to members of the City Council, it needs some improvement in that regard.

On Wednesday, the Council held its first in a series of hearings on the mayor's fiscal year 2016 preliminary budget. Gone were the muffins and soft lines of questioning from the initial council budget hearing last year, the first budget cycle for the new mayor and largely revamped council. Instead, Council Member Julissa Ferreras, chair of the Finance Committee, and her colleagues came armed with pointed questions, particularly related to transparency.

Ferreras cited the continued use of broad units of appropriations, lack of detail about key proposals, such as the City's housing plan, the council receiving delayed access to information, such as the Education Five Year Capital Plan, and the lack of clarity around how the administration will find savings without the use of mandated cuts across agencies.

"The lack of transparency in the budget and the administration's failure to timely provide budgetary information to the Council impedes the Council's ability to make informed decisions about the City's current fiscal condition, properly assess past and current proposals, and adequately make long-term planning decisions," Ferreras said at the budget hearing on Wednesday.

In its budget response last April, the Council demanded large units of appropriation, particularly around education funding, be broken up into specifics to better track spending and progress on initiatives.

"We are greatly concerned with the lack of transparency in units of appropriation in the Executive Budget," the April 2014 response reads. "Dividing funding for Universal Pre-Kindergarten, Elementary and Middle Schools and High Schools into smaller units of appropriation would increase accountability and transparency in a massive budget, making it easier to track categories of spending and ensure that all school funding is scheduled in the appropriate budget code."

Council members were hoping to curb the transparency issues that had plagued the Bloomberg administration, where including overly broad units of appropriation was common place. The Council asked the de Blasio administration to expand units of appropriations (U of A) in six areas. As of the preliminary budget, the de Blasio administration has complied with three of the six: renaming the U of A in the Miscellaneous Budget to "Reserve for Collective Bargaining," moving networks and clusters from the Schools to Regional Administration, and moving charter support costs to the Charter U of A.

The request to clean up U of As for Disease Control and Epidemiology is expected by the executive budget, but a new U of A for Early Intervention and a new U of A for Universal Pre-Kindergarten has not been complete.

Ferreras asked de Blasio's Budget Director, Dean Fuleihan, what is causing the delay, to which he responded that the City is committed to releasing the fourth detailed U of A by the executive budget, due in April.

"That's still not six. And that is still in fiscal year 16, as opposed to fiscal year 15 as we had discussed," Ferreras fired back, exemplary of a somewhat surprisingly tense session, even as the Council is largely supportive of the mayor's policy and budget plans.

Ferreras added the expanded U of A for universal pre-K, a $340 million state-funded program, was very important to the Council.

"We made a commitment and we will make sure that we keep that," Fuleihan said.

Ferreras noted that the Council is expected to make more requests related to U of A, and Fuleihan said that his team would work to make it happen.

When de Blasio released his first budget in early 2014, he did away with Programs to Eliminate the Gap (PEG), which had become infamous during the Bloomberg years, when the mayor required agencies to identify ways to cut spending. The Council would expend enormous energy to restore proposed PEG cuts to things like firehouses and libraries, cuts which rarely made it into the executive budget.

Instead of PEG programs, de Blasio decided to use agency efficiency programs, asking each agency to take a look at their departments and propose cuts. But that process has not been made public and the agency efficiency proposals for FY16 are not in the preliminary budget.

"We want to make sure when we are here in FY17, we can follow whether the efficiency failed or not," Ferreras said.

Fuleihan noted the administration will be presenting that information soon and is open to discussing the format in which the Council would like to receive it. When presenting his preliminary budget, de Blasio told reporters that the cost savings identified by agency commissioners would be made clear in the April executive budget.

Capital Plans
The City Charter requires the administration to release a 10-year capital plan every two years. The plan allows the administration to showcase its vision for building things like schools and parks. This document is typically filled with dense narratives, charts, and graphs.

But this year, the first in which a 10-year capital plan is due for the de Blasio administration, the plan was not as detailed as it has been in the past, at least according to Ferreras, whose opinion was challenged by Fuleihan. He argued the administration included major agency zeroes and significant reductions in the Department of Education for the second five-year period, something not done in the prior administration.

"I would argue what we presented you was much more detailed," Fuleihan said. "We are happy to work with you and discuss the merit, but we believe this was a more realistic plan than the last 10-year capital plan that was presented."

Fuleihan noted it was a preliminary plan and several items would be affecting it that had not come down the pike yet, including the new PLaNYC, which is due in April, as well as state education funding, also due in April, and federal funding for the Highway Trust Fund, which is set to expire in May.

"They would like more transparency," Fuleihan said following the hearing. "We agreed to additional provisions last year in the adopted budget and we will continue to work with them. There is no reason not to work with them."

by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette

Akai Gurley's Neighborhood, Three Months Later

interview 1

Mitchel Aimss of Brooklyn (video screenshot)

EAST NEW YORK  - Tensions between the NYPD and the city's communities of color remain high, even as Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, and other leaders work to ease them.

Bratton has recently addressed the issues of racial bias and police brutality in more direct terms, while calling for calm and understanding as the city continues to heal in the wake of the tragic deaths of Akai Gurley and Eric Garner, unarmed black men killed by police, and Police Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, shot by an assailant targeting cops.

Three months after the shooting death of Akai Gurley, killed in the stairwell of a Brooklyn public housing complex by NYPD Officer Peter Liang, Gotham Gazette visited Gurley's neighborhood to speak with residents. With Liang indicted and preparing for trial, and proposed police reform efforts still being debated at the city and state levels, many New Yorkers remain skeptical about police-community relations and unsure about how to fix the problem going forward. 

Akai Gurley: Three Months Later

by Chauncey Alcorn for Gotham Gazette

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