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Eyeing Health Care Obligations, Garodnick Calls for More Responsible Budgeting

garodnick pensions

Council Member Garodnick at Monday's press conference (photo: @DanGarodnick)

New York City Council Member Dan Garodnick is proposing charter reforms of the City's budgeting process to fund health care obligations to retirees.

Accompanied on the steps of City Hall by city council colleagues and representatives from the Citizens Budget Commission and Citizens Union, Garodnick announced legislation that would assign funds from the annual City budget to the Retiree Health Benefits Trust, which was established in 2006 to meet long-term health care needs for City employees.

The Trust holds just $2.4 billion, 2.5 percent of the City's overall health care obligations, which stand at $92.5 billion. "It doesn't come due all at once for sure, but it does come due," said Garodnick of the massive sum.

Under the new proposal, the City would have an annual obligation to deposit 5 percent of the value of the year's estimated costs of health care for retirees. In 2014, the cost of retiree health care benefits was $2.1 billion. If in place, the proposal would therefore have required the City to place at least $105 million into the trust. "$105 million is a spit in the bucket relative to our obligations but it will grow over time and it is an important reminder to budget makers that this fund needs to go in one direction, up," Garodnick said at Monday's press conference. "And of course this is a floor, not a ceiling, we can always put in more."

In 2006 and 2007, a total of $2.5 billion was deposited in the Trust. Since then, funds were intermittently withdrawn to help with budget deficits over the years as the recession set in. Another $864 million was put in the fund last year, according to Garodnick's office. "This trust fund has since its creation been used essentially as a rainy day fund," Garodnick told Gotham Gazette. "You put some money in when you have it, you take it out when you need it. That's how it was used, that's how it was anticipated in past budgets."

That approach, Garodnick and others argue, is leaving the City and its retirees on shaky ground. Putting funds into the Trust each year could prevent tax increases, radical service cuts or layoffs in central services. Mayor Bill de Blasio's recently unveiled preliminary budget plan for fiscal year 2016 (which begins July 1, 2015) does not withdraw from the Trust, but it does not add any funds either.

"The thing with trust funds is, if you don't put in the funds there is no reason for any trust," Garodnick said.

Civic watchdogs approve of the proposal, formal legislation for which is currently being drafted and will eventually be put to a public ballot referendum if it passes through the City Council.

"This proposal allows the fund to grow in a steady, predictable way and limits any unnecessary withdrawals," said Maria Doulis, Director of City Studies at the Citizens Budget Commission. Doulis stressed that New York City's $92.5 billion health care liability is higher than those of all other state and local governments except California's.

Dick Dadey, Executive Director of good government group Citizens Union, said the proposal is an important step in honoring the City's commitment to employees and retirees. "Citizens Union sees this as good planning, responsible budgeting, and good government," he said.

Garodnick co-sponsored the bill that created the Trust in 2006. But the initial legislation did not establish firm rules to safeguard the funds. Now, health care costs have risen nearly 75 percent to $2.3 billion from $1.2 billion when the Trust was first created, according to Garodnick, and it's necessary to "put some guardrails up here to protect this money because our obligations are clearly growing and our liabilities are enormous - and that's why we're making this proposal today to ensure this fund is going in one direction."

The proposal does ensure that in times when City revenues are less robust, deposits to the fund could be reduced or eliminated. Specifically, if tax revenues only increase between zero and two percent, the required contribution to the fund would be halved, while no contribution would be required if revenues decrease.

The final protection the legislation will put in place would limit access to the fund, except in times of financial emergencies, to prevent layoffs and budget cuts, or when health care costs spike unexpectedly. The proposal would be designed to allow for "rigidity, but not complete inflexibility," Garodnick told reporters.

Council Members Rosie Mendez and Ben Kallos were on hand Monday to support Garodnick's proposal. "There's a reason we're out here in the cold today - because we don't want, in the future, New York City retirees to be left out in the cold," said Mendez.

"Fiscal responsibility means setting aside funding for our health benefits when they accrue," Kallos said. "We can't leave a $92 billion health obligation debt to the next generation."

Other Council members have also pledged their support, according to a press release from Garodnick's office. They include Costa Constantinides, Rafael Espinal, Karen Koslowitz, James Vacca, and Mark Weprin. As Garodnick's bill is written in full and introduced to the Council, he will surely be looking to add supporters and sponsors.

On Monday, Garodnick concluded his comments by emphasizing the importance of acting sooner rather than later: "President Roosevelt said, 'Too often in recent history, liberal governments have been wrecked on the rocks of loose fiscal policy.' I am part of this liberal government and while the rocks may be a little way before us, they grow closer and larger every year."

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

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

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, February 23

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

As we look ahead, it appears this week will be dominated by Mayor Bill de Blasio's Wednesday trip to Albany to testify at a Joint Legislative Budget Hearing. Comptroller Scott Stringer and other city officials will be heading to the capital as well. In advance of this testimony, it has become clear that there are several significant policy areas on which the mayor and Governor Andrew Cuomo are at odds. It will be especially interesting to see what tack de Blasio takes in addressing the Legislature and talking with the media this week. On Friday, Cuomo released his 30-day budget amendments and took several bold steps to ensure that his demands around ethics and education reforms are met. While de Blasio is sure not to object to Cuomo's ethics plans, he and Cuomo are definitively opposed on key aspects of education policy.

Meanwhile, in backdrop news, former Assembly Speaker (and current rank-and-file member) Sheldon Silver was indicted on Thursday and will be arraigned on Tuesday. His replacement, Carl Heastie, has given more and more indication of his policy priorities and his leadership style and will be the focus of much attention as budget negotiations heat up. Heastie will be a key ally of de Blasio's, of course - at least to the extent that the mayor is able to ensure the new speaker helps push his agenda when Heastie whips his chamber and negotiates the budget with Cuomo and Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

Other storylines we're watching closely:

  • After a federal judget forced his hand, Gov. Cuomo set a date for the special election in New York's 11th Congressional District (a seat representing Staten Island and part of Brooklyn vacated by disgraced former-Rep. Michael Grimm) - May 5. We know that Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan will be the Republican candidate for the special election, but the Democrat has yet to be chosen by the county party heads (partly because a number of leading candidates took themselves out of consideration). Word is that Brooklyn City Council Member Vincent Gentile is the most likely to get the nod at this point. We should know more early in the week. May 5th will also be the special election to replace former Assembly Member Karim Camara, who stepped down from his Brooklyn seat at the end of last week to take a position in Cuomo's administration. Watch for news on that race too.

And few other interesting highlights before we give you the day-by-day rundown:

  • It's Social Media Week in New York City, "Reimagining Human Connectivity" is the tag line, #SMW15 the hashtag, and organizers want you to know that you can "Hear Over 300 Global Thought Leaders Share Industry Insights."
  • Public Advocate Letitia James is kicking off her five-borough town hall series on mayoral control of schools this week. The first event is on Wednesday evening in Brooklyn. Details below.
  • The state's gaming board siting committee is releasing its final report on the three casinos it already (recently) approved and reopening bidding for a Southern Tier gaming facility. Meeting is Friday.

A lot happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of, see our daily 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:

Monday morning, 10 a.m., Governor Cuomo will discuss his 2015 Opportunity Agenda at the Malcom X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center in Manhattan.

At 11 a.m. at City Hall: Council Member Garodnick, Citizens Union, and Citizens Budget Commission "will announce a charter revision proposal to require that funds be set aside in the budget to pay for our known $90 billion in health care obligations for city workers. The City created the Retiree Health Benefits Trust in 2006 with the purpose of putting aside funds to tackle our long term obligations. Through the budget process, funds have been added and withdrawn sporadically since its creation, and today it has funds for only 2% of New York City's known health care obligations."

Also on Monday, at 12:30 p.m., "New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer will be joined by advocacy organizations and community leaders outside of Kings County Housing Court to discuss inequality issues in housing courts across all five boroughs." [Read our recent report on the push to provide legal representation to tenants facing eviction]

At 3 p.m. on Monday at City Hall, "Mayor de Blasio will host a Minority and Women's Business Enterprise Stakeholder Meeting," which will be closed to the press. "Following the meeting, the Mayor will hold a media availability."

Monday's City Council schedule will include a Committee on Juvenile Justice oversight hearing regarding "examining New York City's alternative to detention services"; and an oversight hearing of the Committee on Higher Education on a resolution to promote the "President's Free Community College Plan" and call "upon the New York State Legislature to pass and the Governor to sign legislation funding the State's obligation under the plan."

There will be a "Public Hearing on Queens Budget Priorities" on Monday morning at Queens Borough Hall: "Borough President Melinda Katz will chair an upcoming Borough Board public hearing on the Mayor's Fiscal Year 2016 Preliminary Expense and Capital Budgets...The purpose of the hearing will be to obtain the views and recommendations of the Community Boards, community stakeholders and the residents of Queens on the proposals contained in the Mayor's FY 2016 Preliminary Budget. This input will be used to develop the Queens Borough Board's budget priorities for FY 2016."

A new Safe Horizon Child Advocacy Center opens in the Bronx Monday: "Child Advocacy Centers respond to the most severe cases, striving to help children reclaim the hope and confidence taken from them."

"Lawmakers and advocates will observe court proceedings at the Varick Street Immigration Court, where immigrants who couldn't have afforded legal counsel will be provided attorneys through NYIFUP (New York Immigrant Family Unity Project)." Event will include Assembly Member Francisco Moya, advocates, and others.

TEDxBroadway 2015: Data analyst and civic technologist Ben Wellington, among other distinguished guests, will appear. "TEDxBroadway was founded on one central question: "What's the best Broadway can be?" Now in its fourth year, TEDxBroadway brings together some of the most interesting people in academics, entertainment, marketing, science and beyond to create, share and stimulate dialogue about the current and future state of the Broadway community."

Monday evening, Queens BP Melinda Katz is hosting a 2015 Black History Month Celebration: "you are cordially invited to celebrate Black History Month with Borough President Melinda Katz this Monday, where we will honor several distinguished New Yorkers and present the winners of this year's African American Heritage Scholarship Awards."

At 6 p.m., "former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly speaks at the Citizens Committee 40th Anniversary gala, Gotham Hall", Manhattan - according to City & State NY.

Also Monday evening Comptroller Stringer will appear on PBS Nightly Business Report at 6:30 p.m.

At 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Comptroller Stringer will give his analysis of Mayor de Blasio's preliminary FY2016 budget.

Also on Tuesday morning at Greater Allen AME Church of New York in Jamaica, "NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton will be the keynote speaker on police relations with the African-American community at the Press of Southeast Queens and Metroplus Health Plan Black History Awards Breakfast. New York State's first African-American Governor, David Paterson, will be among those receiving an award and delivering remarks. Congressman Gregory Meeks will also be among the speakers."

Tuesday's City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises to review and consider land use applications; a meeting of the the Subcommittee on Libraries jointly with the Committee on Finance and the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations, for an oversight hearing on "supporting Public Libraries in the City's Ten-Year Capital Plan"; a meeting of the Committee on Consumer Affairs regarding a bill relating to "Signs, posters or placards that advertise gas prices"; a meeting of the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses to consider proposed land use applications; a meeting of the Committee on Contracts with the Committee on Housing and Buildings for a joint oversight hearing regarding "The Mayor's Housing Plan: Contractor Employment Practices and Accountability"; a meeting of the Committee on Aging for an oversight hearing regarding "Strengthening NORCs and Exploring New Models for NORCs in New York City."

Tuesday morning, "Join Senator José M. Serrano and Congressman José E. Serrano for their Annual Black History Month Celebration!" 10 a.m., The Bronx Museum of the Arts.

"Beyond the Rage - Strengthening Police-Community Relations" will be Tuesday afternoon at The New School. "Angry protests of the grand jury "no bill" in a police chokehold death on Staten Island; officers turning their backs in protest against Mayor de Blasio at the funerals of two officers gunned down in Brooklyn; the mayor's first year in office ended with emotions high and good will in short supply in the vital area of public safety and police-community relations. Now can the mayor and the police department find the reset button? Can stronger police-community relations be achieved as part of keeping the city safe? Join a thoughtful panel discussion that seeks to chart a path forward." Panelists: First Deputy Commissioner Ben Tucker, NYPD; Bob Gangi, director and founder of the Police Reform Organizing Project; Peter Moskos, associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Chris Watler, project director, Harlem Community Justice Center; A Representative from the Civilian Complaint Review Board; moderated by: Jeff Smith, assistant professor of politics and advocacy, Miano School for International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy.

Tuesday night will be a Lunar New Year Celebration with the City Comptroller, Scott M. Stringer - 6 p.m., Surrogate's Courthouse.

Tuesday evening, Brooklyn Council Member Laurie Cumbo and State Sen. Jesse Hamilton host "Know Your Rights Housing Forum" - "The Housing Forum is an opportunity for tenants to learn more about rent stabilization rules, HPD building code enforcement, housing court, rent protections for seniors, new rental lotteries, Section 8, tenants' rights and much more."

Council Member Andy King and The Safety Net Project will host their fourth in a series of "Know Your Rights" trainings on Tuesday evening in the Bronx. "Legal staff will be on hand to answer questions regarding NYCHA tenant rights, accessing SNAP (food stamp) benefits and public assistance."

Tuesday evening will also see "A Caregiver's Forum" with Council Member Deutsch and Council Speaker Viverito.

Also on Tuesday evening, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will attend the Urban Assembly Annual Benefit Dinner at the New York Public Library Celeste Bartos Forum.

As we mentioned, Mayor Bill de Blasio and other city representatives will be in Albany on Wednesday to testify at joint legislative budget hearing: Joint Legislative Public Hearing on 2015-2016 Executive Budget Proposal: Local Government.

Senate Session on Wednesday, 11 a.m.; and committees: a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs at 11:30 a.m. will consider a variety of bills; a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Judiciary also at 11:30 a.m. on several bills; a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Insurance at 12:30 p.m. on a variety of bills; a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Children and Families at 1:00 p.m. on a variety of social services laws; a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions 1:30 p.m.

Wednesday's City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Contracts jointly with the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services, the Committee on Public Safety, the Committee on Oversight and Investigations and the Committee on Technology for oversight: "Examining the New York City Department of Investigation Report on the City's Program to Overhaul the 911 System"; a meeting of the Committee on Health to consider a new bill relating to animal shelters and to evaluate "Animal Care and Control: Recent Progress and Opportunities for Improvement in the NYC Animal Shelter System"; a meeting of the Committee on Transportation for an oversight hearing "examining the State of the Port Authority's New York City Bus Stations, Progress of Renovations, and Impacts on Surrounding Communities"; a meeting of the Committee on Education for oversight on "ensuring English Language Learners Receive Appropriate Educational Services" and to consider a "Resolution in support of the New York State Education Department's Elementary and Secondary Education Act Waiver Renewal request that newly arrived English Language Learners be exempted from participating in the English language arts assessments for two years"; and a meeting of the Committee on Veterans jointly with the Committee on Courts and Legal Services and the Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse and Disability Services for an oversight hearing "evaluating the City's Veterans Treatment Courts" [Read our report on the fact that veterans treatment courts only exist in three boroughs].

"Adam Clayton Powell IV will kick off his congressional campaign with a fund-raiser on Feb. 25, at the Poet's Den Theater and Gallery, at 108th Street in Manhattan, he said in an email to supporters," via Capital New York.

Part of Social Media Week: Rev. Jesse Jackson: Why Diversity in Tech Matters, Wednesday morning: "Civic rights leader, Reverend Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, is tackling diversity at notoriously homogenous tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and eBay to publish reports detailing their employee demographics, encouraging them to be transparent about their workforce diversity and most importantly, fix it by find new ways to create inclusion...Interviewing Reverend Jackson will be Anil Dash, who is cofounder and CEO of ThinkUp, a new app that offers deeper insights into our social networks.

Wednesday evening: "Please join the New York League of Conservation Voters for its Annual PAC Fundraiser in Albany" with Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle.

Wednesday evening will see an MTA Second Avenue Subway Public Workshop: "The MTA is hosting a workshop regarding the construction of the Second Avenue Subway. The goal of this workshop is to maintain an open dialogue between the MTA and the community at large. Attendees will have the opportunity to engage project representatives about current construction activity and the initiatives implemented by the MTA as a direct response to community input from previous public workshops." [Read our new report on the effects of 2nd Avenue Subway construction]

Public Advocate Letitia James will host the first in a series of Mayoral Control Forums: "Our Schools, Our Voices - Town Hall on Education, Mayoral Control and Parent/Community Engagement" on Wednesday evening in Brooklyn. "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."

Wednesday evening in Albany: a "Why She Ran" event: "Women make up half the population -- but only 24% of our state legislature. In fact, women are underrepresented as elected officials at all levels of government. Join a panel of women in office for a discussion about the challenges we face in politics and the importance of tackling those challenges head on. And don't be surprised when we suggest that you run too!" Event is sponsored by the Working Families Party and co-sponsored by WFP affiliates Capital District Citizen Action and 1199SEIU.

Digital.NYC Five-Borough Tour continues in the Bronx: "Panelists will discuss their experiences, highlighting the challenges and triumphs of startup business in the City." Panelists include: Majora Carter: Co-founder, Startup Box; Pedro Torres Picón: Founder, Quotidian Ventures; Kathryn Finney: Founder & Managing Director, DigitalUndivided; Keith Klain: CEO, Doran Jones; Issie Lapowsky: Staff Writer, Wired."

Part of Social Media Week, at Civic Hall on Wednesday evening: "Political Connection: Does the Internet Really Change Power Politics?" - "At the end of the day, no discussion about the power of connection is complete with how it alters the interaction between the upwardly mobile, their governments and their leaders. In the United States in particular, there is a sense of an increasing gulf between elected representatives – responsive to money and special interests – and an increasingly connected, vocal, but marginalized citizenry. Political Connection takes a deep dive into the roots of American voter apathy, our byzantine political culture and the levers of power in the U.S. David Moore and Benjamin Yee will lead a group discussion, using attendees' experiences with, and perceptions of American politics to illuminate both the problems facing our democracy and the practical underpinnings for collective action in the 21st century."

Citizen Schools' education event Wednesday evening, a Google Tech Talk: "Join us to hear how the New York City public school system works and the important issues that affect our schools, students, and families. Through a moderated conversation and Q&A format, Ben Shuldiner, Distinguished Lecturer of Education Leadership at Hunter College, will share straightforward explanations of topics such as the landscape of public school options in New York City, the middle school and high school choice processes, and an overview of the students and communities served by the Department of Education."

On Wednesday evening, Manhattan BP Brewer will attend and make remarks at the Northside Center for Child Development annual Harlem Jazz Nite celebration.

Wednesday evening will see the city Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) vote on Mayor de Blasio's lifting of the student cell phone ban.

Thursday's City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Finance to consider a new bill in relation to "Establishment of the South Shore BID, Staten Island" and the second City Council Stated Meeting of the month, beginning at 1:30 p.m.

According to Assembly Speaker Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Skelos, Thursday is the deadline for the Senate and Assembly Economic / Revenue Reports to be released and will be the Joint Revenue Forecasting Conference.

There will be a Joint Legislative Public Hearing on 2015-2016 Executive Budget Proposal: Topic "Public Protection."

State Senate Session is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Thursday. Thursday's State Senate hearings will include a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation will consider a variety of legislation, including "An act to dedicate and designate Jerome Park as parkland of the city of New York, and to establish a working group for such park to enhance use thereof." There will be a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Local Government to consider a variety of legislation.

A meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Education is scheduled for Thursday: "Acting Commissioner Beth Berlin of the State Education Department and Senior Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner of the State Education Department will be appearing at the Education Committee Meeting to speak and answer questions."

Also: A meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Investigations and Government Operations to consider a variety of legislation including "An act to amend the legislative law, in relation to requiring that committee and floor votes be made available online and that session and committee meetings be live webcast and archived." A meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Transportation to consider a variety of legislation. A meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Health to consider a variety of legislation including "An act to amend the public health law, in relation to a physical fitness and activity education campaign" and "An act to amend the public health law, in relation to the safe disposal of unused controlled substances."

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams are each hosting a Black History Month celebration Thursday evening. Brewer is hosting "a networking reception honoring six African American leaders in Manhattan's technology community"; and Adams is hosting an event to honor Brooklyn business owners.

Thursday evening in Harlem, "Newark, New Jersey Mayor Ras Baraka is the keynote speaker at the "We're Not Going Back" Black History Month Celebration...he will discuss his administration's struggle to tackle problems plaguing many cities, including the need for a living wage, community-centered policing, restoring local control over public schools, immigration reform and more. The theme of the upcoming Black History Month event, which is sponsored by a coalition of New York's elected officials, labor and community leaders, is: "Support City Officials who fight for Equality, a Living Wage and Against Racism." The host committee includes Gale Brewer, Kirsten Foy, Richard Gottfried, Bill Perkins, Ydanis Rodriguez, Keith Wright, and many others.

There will be a "public discussion of the labor movement's role in racial justice and policing reform issues in New York City" on Thursday evening, presented by The Left Labor Project (LLP).

Thursday evening, City Council Member Chaim Deutsch will host the first part of his Community Symposium on "Counter-Terrorism and Safety Awareness," at Madison High School in Brooklyn (In collaboration with the NYPD Intelligence Bureau; NYPD Counter-Terrorism Unit and the Fire Department of New York City).

On Thursday, Assembly Member Latoya Joyner and Council Member Vanessa Gibson will host an African American History Month Celebration event at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

Thursday, 6:30 p.m. in Queens will be an information session on the City's new municipal identification card program for the Korean-American community, given in Korean.

Citizens Union is hosting its annual Founders Day Reception on Thursday evening, an event held to Honor Citizens Union's 118 Years. Gerald Benjamin will be the keynote speaker.

Thursday evening will also see The Municipal Arts Society of New York's annual members meeting: "Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen will join Justin Davidson of New York Magazine and Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson on our roster of speakers. Deputy Mayor Glen will speak with MAS President Vin Cipolla about the de Blasio administration's economic development and housing priorities."

Friday and the weekend
Friday in Albany there will be a Joint Legislative Public Hearing on the 2015-2016 Executive Budget Proposal: Topic "Mental Hygiene" and a Joint Legislative Public Hearing on the 2015-2016 Executive Budget Proposal: Topic "Workforce Development/Labor."

Friday's City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Economic Development jointly with the Committee on Waterfronts for an oversight hearing "examining the use of mitigation banking for waterfront restoration"; the Committee on Environmental Protection will hold an off-site hearing at CUNY Advanced Science Research Center regarding "Site-Sourced and Stored Renewable Energy Conference"; a meeting of the Committee on Governmental Operations jointly with the Committee on Civil Service and Labor for the second in turn oversight hearing regarding "Examining the Civil Service System"; a meeting of the Committee on Immigration for an oversight hearing on "Labor Trafficking in the Domestic Worker Industry- Resources for Victims in New York City"; a meeting of the Committee on General Welfare for an oversight hearing in relation to "Interagency Coordination Between DHS and ACS to Protect Homeless Children"; and a meeting of the Committee on Parks and Recreation on a new bill relating to "Annual report on compliance with the Americans with disabilities act by the department of parks and recreation."

Friday, mid-day, will be a Lunar New Year Celebration hosted by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito.

The State Gaming Facility Location Board will meet to release its final report on its three casino picks and to reopen bidding on a casino in the Southern Tier.

Saturday: Latino Leadership Institute presents "Women in Politics: The Importance of Voting and Electing Women to Public Office" - "featuring a panel of female activists and community leaders who will be speaking on the topic of Women in Politics: The Importance of Voting and Electing Women to Public Office."

On Sunday, March 1, Council Member Laurie Cumbo will give her first State of the District Address: "You are cordially invited to attend my First Annual State of the District Address. It will be held on Sunday, March 1, 2015 from 3PM – 5PM at the Brooklyn Museum...During my address, I will highlight our many accomplishments throughout 2014 and my vision moving forward to support the upward momentum of the 35th Council District. As a key stakeholder and community partner, your participation would be greatly appreciated."

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 and Ben Max

As De Blasio Heads to Albany, Policy Rifts with Cuomo are Clear

BdB Cuomo Getty

Mayor and Governor (photo: Bryan Thomas/Getty)

During his 2016 preliminary budget presentation, Mayor Bill de Blasio moved from his usual stance of appeasement when it comes to his up-and-down relationship with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and called out the State on funding the MTA and education, though he did not mention the governor by name.

The two like to say they are close, longtime friends; though if you watch carefully you might ask if a friendship means one party consistently insists on bullying, one-upping, and overruling the other. Despite being publically tormented by Cuomo, de Blasio has remained calm and subordinate when talking about the City's relationship with the State - an approach that appears to be mostly working to the benefit of de Blasio's agenda and is about all the mayor can do given that he is largely at the mercy of the more powerful governor.

But, de Blasio could, of course, take a more combative stance and his style may be changing at least ever-so slightly. With a trip to Albany for a public budget hearing upcoming on Wednesday, Feb. 25, we'll soon see what tack the mayor takes in his second run through the Albany gauntlet.

Competition and bad feelings between New York's governor and New York City's mayor have been the rule for much of modern history, but the relationship between Cuomo and de Blasio has brought an entirely new dynamic of rivalry as the two concoct and perform an often mysterious blend of closeness and distance.

In the second year of this new phase of their relationship that began with de Blasio's election as mayor, the pair are set to do battle on a number of policy issues, including education, the minimum wage, and affordable housing.

At de Blasio's upcoming testimony at a state Legislature joint budget hearing, some observers say they expect the mayor to firmly outline his differences with the governor - much more decisively and publicly than he has before. Last year, de Blasio went to Albany and almost exclusively talked up the city's need for pre-kindergarten funding. This year, the discussion is likely to be much wider ranging. Already, the cracks between the pair's policy agendas have started to show.

Confidants to each man insist they have been close friends dating back to when de Blasio worked under Cuomo at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the 1990s, and later on Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign. And yet, last year when Democrats were celebrating de Blasio's win and hoping the pair would work together on progressive issues, Cuomo's staffers were downplaying de Blasio's election and insisting the Mayor of New York City has traditionally had an "outsize" role in policy discussion.

Then came actual policy clashes: Cuomo big-brothered de Blasio on charter schools, forcing the city to provide charter schools with rent-free school space; the governor tried to coopt de Blasio's universal pre-kindergarten plan, denying the tax increase de Blasio pushed for and instead funding pre-K around the state; when de Blasio urged calm during the Ebola scare, Cuomo went the opposite direction, partnering with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to announce a mandatory quarantine for travelers arriving from Africa who may have had contact with Ebola-infected patients.

Most recently, Cuomo went over de Blasio's head during the late-January blizzard that mostly missed the city by shutting down subway and bus service. The Cuomo administration reportedly only gave de Blasio 15 to 30 minutes warning.

De Blasio has typically remained full of praise for Cuomo, avoiding admitting publicly to any real disagreements. The mayor kept his poise after Cuomo's last two State of the State addresses, downplaying to the press the fact that some of Cuomo's positions seemed directly at odds with what de Blasio wanted for the city. Cuomo has not done the same for de Blasio. This year Cuomo's office quickly issued releases attacking the mayor's plans on the minimum wage and affordable housing as outlined in de Blasio's State of the City. In his speech, de Blasio did call for a more progressive increase to the wage than Cuomo's newly minted plan had included, attempting to pass the governor on the left as he himself was accelerating.

The minimum wage - proper rates and control over New York City's - is a key point of policy disagreement among several that are likely to take center stage in the pair's 2015 struggle for power. We look at the top five heading into the intense months of budget negotiations ahead:

Minimum Wage
Last spring, in a deal for its endorsement, Cuomo promised the Working Families Party that he would support raising the state's minimum wage to $10.10 in 2015 and allow the city to raise its minimum wage up to 30 percent higher. The Governor appeared to break that promise in January.

In the lead up to his State of the State, the governor instead proposed raising the state's minimum wage to $10.50 and the city's to $11.50 at the end of 2016.

De Blasio countered in his State of the City by proposing a $13 minimum wage for the city with indexing for inflation that would increase the wage to $15 by 2019. "The current minimum wage proposal simply doesn't do enough to help New York City," de Blasio said without naming the governor. "That's why we will fight to raise New York City's minimum wage to more than $13 per hour next year."

Cuomo's office issued a statement calling the proposal a "non-starter" with the Legislature, implying that while he may be in favor of bigger numbers, the Republican-controlled State Senate would never go for it.

In her State of the City, given on Feb. 11, New York City Council Speaker (and close ally of de Blasio) Melissa Mark-Viverito promised to go to Albany to fight for home rule on the minimum wage.

Affordable Housing
De Blasio focused almost exclusively on the creation of more affordable housing in his second State of the City, given on Feb. 3. One key to the plan is the redevelopment of Sunnyside Yards, in Queens, where he wants to build over 11,000 units of affordable housing.

Cuomo's office quickly tried to put the kibosh on that idea, saying in a statement: "The M.T.A. uses Sunnyside Yards as an important facility for our transportation system, and it is not available for any other use in the near term. The State and the M.T.A. are studying several potential future uses of the site from a long term planning perspective."

De Blasio has remained steadfast on the idea. He told WNYC's Brian Lehrer that he felt a deal with the state is possible.

"If they have other things they think are a priority on that site, there's plenty of room on that site," de Blasio said the day after his speech. "Two hundred acres is an extraordinary amount of room."

Cuomo told NY1 that the state needs the land for a train yard and that developing over it would be a "very expensive form of construction."

Charter Schools
Cuomo announced in his wide-ranging education reform plan that he wants to increase the state's charter school cap. "The current charter cap is 460. There are 159 slots left. Only 24 available are left for charter schools in New York City," said Cuomo. "We want to add another 100 to the cap and allow the cap to be statewide and to eliminate any artificial limits on where charter schools can open."

De Blasio declined to detail most of his disagreements with Cuomo after the governor's speech, which he attended, but he acknowledged to reporters that the charter cap proposal was a disappointment. "I think the cap we have now is sufficient," he said about an hour after Cuomo spoke. "I want to certainly work with charter schools in New York City, but as I've said many times, the key to improving education in New York City and throughout the state is to do a much better job at traditional public school education. That's where my focus is first and foremost and that's where I think we need to keep our focus as a state if we're really going to turn the corner on education. So I think the cap we have now is sufficient."

De Blasio is likely to quietly aid teachers unions in their fight against Cuomo's plans to change the cap and to tie a new teacher evaluation system and other reforms to increased education funding. De Blasio and the unions will lean heavily on new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in these negotiations and those on other topics on which the governor and many New York City Democrats disagree.

MTA Funding
De Blasio was less shy in his evaluation of the State's funding for the MTA. While releasing his budget plan on Feb. 9, de Blasio faulted the State for not addressing the MTA's $15.2 capital shortfall. "The State has not put forward a plan to address that yet, nor has the State met its obligation in terms of some of the other infrastructure – roads and bridges – that are obviously aging," he said.

Cuomo has downplayed the deficit, and insisted that the $15.2 billion figure is just part and parcel of the MTA overstating its need to bring in more state funding.

Advocates insist both the City and State need to increase funding of the agency. Cuomo has a history of proposing budgets that take cash out of MTA's transit funding to pay off MTA bonds. Those bonds were originally taken out by the state with the promise that they would be paid for with state funds.

This year, Cuomo's budget would take $12.5 million from the MTA transit allotment and put it toward it's capital budget.

Advocates note that the city's contributions to the MTA capital budget have steeply declined over the last 25 years.

Education Funding
In another sign that the mayor is perhaps becoming a bit braver in his relationship with Cuomo, he questioned the State's commitment to education funding and brought up the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that has been a rallying cry for Cuomo's opponents in public education.

"But even more distinct is the issue of the education funding, which under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity agreement, several years ago – there was a clear agreement that the State was going to fund New York City schools in an equitable manner, given our percentage of the state's school population, and the needs of this city," said de Blasio. "Other major cities in the state were going to benefit too. So, let's look at what happened in Fiscal '08 – this obligation was met. So there was an agreement struck, Governor Spitzer and the Legislature met the agreement, and then, as the economy worsened, there was a trend away from fulfilling the obligation under CFE."

De Blasio went on to say that the State has recovered from the recession and can afford to meet the obligations of the CFE lawsuit. "It's time to have a serious discussion, again, about the state's ongoing obligation to this city, and other cities around the state, in terms of the CFE agreement," he said.

Cuomo basically mocked the CFE in his budget presentation and insisted that the state's education system is hampered by failing teachers and greedy school boards. "The education industry's cry that more money will solve the problem is false. Money without reform only grows the bureaucracy," said Cuomo. "It does not improve performance. The state average per student is $8,000. The state average in a high-needs district is $12,000. A failing district like Buffalo, which has been a failing district for many, many years, the state spends $16,000 per student. So don't tell me that if we only had more money, it would change. We have been putting more money into this system every year for a decade and it hasn't changed."

However, Cuomo dangled a $1.1 billion boost in education spending if legislators agree to his education reform plan that includes revamping teacher tenure and evaluations, and raising the charter cap. We'll soon know how de Blasio and his closest allies are responding to the governor's offer.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Throughout 2nd Avenue Subway Build, Local Businesses See Fewer Customers, No Aid

2nd Ave Alatriste

The new 2nd Ave subway tunnel in early February, 2015 (photo: William Alatriste)

With the first phase of the 2nd Avenue subway line set to be completed by December 2016, construction-weary business owners and residents are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, even through the drilling smoke and fences that have become ubiquitous on the Upper East Side. Even so, the damage of a process that is approaching its eighth anniversary has left the surrounding area worse for wear, with businesses leaving in droves and residents finding the essence of their neighborhood completely disrupted.

And it's just the first section, from 63rd Street to 96th Street, of the new line aimed at increasing transportation options and reducing overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue lines.

The process has left local businesses suffering the adverse effects. Almost half of the businesses between 68th Street and 95th Street that saw the beginning of the 2nd Avenue construction have moved or closed within the last 5 years due to declining revenues, according to the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce (MCC). Of the 441 storefronts that are currently situated on the Upper East Side stretch, 242 have been operating there since 2009, MCC says.

The Chamber has kept a steady record of declining foot traffic on 2nd Avenue since the commencement of the subway project, in April of 2007. MCC President Nancy Ploeger said the biggest disappointment to come from the past eight years has been the lack of tax credit for business owners.

"We would have hoped there would be more support for these businesses during a ten-year project," Ploeger said. "It wasn't an eight-month project, it was ten years."

The general consensus among businesses owners on 2nd Avenue that spoke with Gotham Gazette is that the current construction obstructs everything in the area. Most businesses have taken a hit from the lack of walk-in customers, people simply no longer walk down 2nd Avenue unless it's absolutely necessary. "In the time since the construction, our delivery business has continued to improve, while our dine-in business has stayed flat or fallen," said Danny Marquez, the ten-year manager of Nick's Restaurant and Pizzeria on 94th Street. "We may have experienced improvement in both areas were it not for the construction."

Chris Tripoulas, four-year manager of Dorrian's Red Hand on 84th Street, said that business has dramatically decreased, estimating about a 50% loss overall, possibly even more in daytime business during construction hours. "They haven't done anything to help us out," Tripoulas said of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's involvement with businesses on 2nd Avenue. Tripoulas, like Ploeger, expressed disappointment over the lack of tax credit for businesses in the construction zone. "A lot of the time people don't even think we're open, because [the construction] is covering us up," he said.


While business representatives are frustrated about the lack of communication and financial support coming from state officials, Ploeger did commend the MTA and the City's efforts to minimize disruption to the community. She said that those efforts have included inspecting buildings to prevent risks to above-ground structures, changing demolition times to accommodate business hours and residential noise complaints, offering tours of the underground progress to community members, attempting to construct safe walkways and sidewalks, and keeping the community updated through information centers and task force meetings.

On Wednesday, Feb. 25, the MTA will hold a public workshop where members of the community can hear updates and share concerns about the construction with project representatives.

The 2nd Avenue subway line has been a particularly problematic project for decades. It was discussed since the early 1920s, and construction even attempted in 1942 and 1954, but thwarted by City Planner Robert Moses, who used the project funds on bridges instead. Though the City had the money to commence construction in the '80s and '90s, the MTA was more focused on repairs to existing lines. Now, an idea that was on the backburner for nearly 90 years is set to show real progress by the end of next year.

When completed, the project will provide much-needed connectivity to a part of Manhattan underserved by public transit. As of now, East Siders must take buses or walk to the Lexington Avenue 4, 5, and 6 lines, which are not only a distance for many, but also already overcrowded. Council Member Ben Kallos, whose East Side district has been significantly affected by the subway construction, feels businesses need more than just easy access. "While the Second Avenue Subway will be beneficial to our residents, construction has been disruptive in our community, affecting small businesses and residents alike," he said. "Many small businesses have closed, and those that have stayed open have seen up to a 30 percent decline in revenues." Kallos proposed an idea for providing financial relief to these businesses through city grants, but his proposal has not seen movement.

The good news is that construction activities have reduced as underground sections have been completed. But more full remedies can only come with the end of the first phase, says State Senator Liz Krueger, who represents the East Side. "We have two more years of disruption to our community, to people in the area, and businesses, which is disturbing, but this isn't new," she said. "The answer is to get [the MTA] to get done as soon as possible."

The problems may simply be moving uptown, though. The second phase of the project will extend from 96th Street, connecting with the 4, 5, and 6 trains and Metro North at 125th Street. The MTA included $1.5 billion for the project in its tentative 2015-2019 capital plan, but this phase still holds many questions as the MTA deals with a massive funding gap and that amount is nowhere near what's needed to complete phase two. There is also no indication that the MTA plans to do anything differently when it comes to supporting businesses in the construction zone.


The $4.451 billion first phase is on time and on budget according to MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz. This, he says, is despite early issues in building a new subway line in what is essentially one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the country. "We're over 70% done in terms of the project, and we've turned a corner," said Ortiz. "Right now residents are really looking forward to being able to utilize a brand new subway line that will go a long way toward alleviating the crowding that we see on the Lexington line, and that's going to be a boon to businesses moving forward."

MCC's Ploeger is among those looking forward. "We're on the upside of this," she said, "and we're very excited about everything that's going to happen on 2nd Avenue."

by Shannon Ho, Gotham Gazette

Two photos within article also by Shannon Ho.

The Bronx is Breathing


A waste transfer station in Hunts Point, the Bronx (all photos: Sarah Crean)

As the de Blasio administration strives to make greater social and economic equality its legacy, the neighborhoods that handle some of the city's most toxic materials are demanding a different sort of equity.

On February 13th, scores of South Bronx and North Brooklyn residents assembled at City Hall to hear discussion of a bill aimed at addressing the relentless movement of the city's waste through their neighborhoods.

"We've had to live with this for decades; we're going to be living with this for decades more. Our children have had to grow up like this," observed Kellie Terry, Executive Director of The Point Community Development Corporation, based in the South Bronx.

The bill, which would cap the proportion of the city's waste processed in any one neighborhood, is the "first tangible, real attempt to address...the clustering and the overconcentration [of waste infrastructure] in a handful of environmentally overburdened communities of color," said Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.

Eighty percent of the city's waste handling capacity, the Council reports, is located in just three neighborhoods—the South Bronx, North Brooklyn and Southeast Queens. The proposed legislation would also cut the amount of waste processed by transfer stations in those three areas by almost 20 percent.

The severity of the overconcentration of trash processing in low income communities and communities of color is "not just," said Terry in an interview outside a waste facility in the South Bronx. Trucks rumbled by continuously as we spoke. "It flies in the face of all of our principles as a society, and especially of this current administration."

Almost one-third of New York City's trash is handled at waste transfer stations in the South Bronx, and then trucked or sent by rail to landfills across the region.

The relentless truck traffic, along with the presence of the waste transfer facilities themselves, has exacted a steep price from South Bronx residents.

A 2014 study by the state Comptroller found that the Bronx has the highest age-adjusted asthma death rate "by far" among all counties in New York State: 43.5 deaths per million residents in the Bronx, as opposed to the state average of 13.1 deaths per million.

Exposure to exhaust fumes is a known risk factor for asthma, the study notes.

The de Blasio administration does not support the proposed legislation, Intro 495. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents sections of the South Bronx including Mott Haven, has not taken a position. The Speaker's colleague in the South Bronx, Maria Del Carmen Arroyo, is a sponsor of the bill.

Establishing a Limit on Waste
Every day, an average 21,000 tons of residential and commercial trash must pass through –and out of- New York City. Seventy percent of that daily trash volume is typically processed for long-distance shipment in just three neighborhoods: the South Bronx, North Brooklyn and Southeast Queens.

The Council hearing was led by Brooklyn Member and Sanitation Committee Chair Antonio Reynoso, who told the crowd that he had been born and raised on the south side of Williamsburg. The question of waste equity, he said, is the issue that is "most near and dear to my community."

Reynoso referred to "a tale of two cities," the phrase invoked by the Mayor to describe the inequities of life in contemporary New York City. "There's no better place to look at that than North Brooklyn, the South Bronx, and Southeast Queens when it comes to how we handle trash," Reynoso said.

Intro 495, which is sponsored by Council Member Reynoso and his colleague Steve Levin, also from North Brooklyn, seeks to do two things: first to cap, and then eventually reduce by 18 percent, the amount of waste that can be processed in the city's three most over-burdened neighborhoods.

The legislation will also limit the amount of waste that can be handled in any of New York's 51 community districts to five percent of the city's total permitted capacity.

The legislation is "about bare bones principles of equity, bare bones principle of fair share," said Kellie Terry. "This [the waste industry] will still be here [in the South Bronx], but it will be just a little less," she added. 


Concerns About Emergency Capacity
The legislation proposed by Council Members Reynoso and Levin does not have the support of the de Blasio administration.

Kathryn Garcia, Commissioner of the city's Department of Sanitation, told the City Council in testimony at last Friday's hearing that the neighborhood waste processing limits mandated by Council Member Reynoso's legislation could create dangerous logistical challenges for the City, especially during extreme weather and other emergency situations.

But, Commissioner Garcia said, the administration was prepared to immediately start negotiations with the city's 39 privately-run waste transfer stations regarding "voluntary reductions."

To read the rest of this article, visit New York Environment Report

by Sarah Crean, New York Environment Report



Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that the proposed legislation would cut the amount of waste processed by transfer stations in the three focused on areas by almost 20 percent; not cut capacity as was previously stated.

Bronx Program Serves as Inspiration for Mark-Viverito's City-Wide Bail Fund Proposal

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Speaker Mark-Viverito gives her SOTC speech (photo: William Alatriste)

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito used her first State of the City address to advocate major reforms to the city's criminal justice system designed to keep low-level offenders out of jail. Along with a call to issue more tickets rather than arrest people for misdemeanors, in her speech earlier this month the speaker proposed a city-wide bail fund to pay for the release of eligible misdemeanor offenders who cannot otherwise afford it.

Some have wondered exactly how such a program would work: Who would qualify to have their bail paid? Would they actually go to court? Would such a fund be sustainable? Where does the money come from?

It appears that The Bronx Freedom Fund, which just recently celebrated its first year of operation, has answers. Part of the Fund's ability to function comes from a 2012 state law that sets ground rules for charitable bail organizations and licenses them. The City is taking both the Freedom Fund's successes and the State's guidelines into account as it begins modeling its own program.

A recent study released by the Freedom Fund shows that of the 140 cases it took on in its first year, 98 percent of the clients made all of their required court appearances; 56 percent of cases ended with all charges dropped; 23 percent resulted in non-criminal disposition; and 9 percent plead guilty to misdemeanors.

It is an outcome that overjoys Bronx Sen. Gustavo Rivera. "That is 140 individuals that did not have their lives thrown into chaos thanks to their interaction with the criminal justice system," said Rivera.

"[I]f you can't afford bail you will spend on average 15 days in jail," said Mark-Viverito in her speech, given Feb. 11 from a public housing facility in East Harlem. "The results are predictable: people lose their jobs, or their housing, and cannot take care of their children while they are in custody. These are people who are accused of minor offenses and are still considered innocent in the eyes of the law. This is not justice."

According to a 2011 report from the Independent Budget Office almost 40 percent of the city's 12,000-member jail population is made up by pretrial detainees who couldn't afford bail. The IBO estimated the cost of holding those offenders at $125 million.

Criminal justice experts agree that low-level offenders who make bail are far more likely to continue with successful lives and to actually be exonerated. "People seem to be coming to the realization that even a short term jail stay can be incredibly harmful to people's lives," Alyssa Work, who heads the Freedom Fund, told Gotham Gazette.

Work says she has been in contact with Mark-Viverito's office about the details of how a city-wide bail fund could work - the speaker's office declined to comment for this article, but did confirm that Mark-Viverito was referring to the Freedom Fund in her speech and that it has been an inspiration for her call.

Work came on board as director of the Fund through a fellowship from Yale Law School and she has overseen 140 Bronx residents receiving bail grants who would not otherwise have been able to afford their release. The Fund got started in 2007 when an anonymous donor gave the Bronx Defenders $100,000 to be used to pay bail. (Bronx Defenders is having its own issues around recent controversy that could affect its future funding)

The Freedom Fund is constantly replenished when cases are concluded without incident and the program has benefited from donations and grants. Work says the fund still hovers at about $100,000. Ensuring sustained funding is always a challenge for a small non-profit, of course, and even Mark-Viverito's plan will need careful planning to create solid fiscal footing.

Generally, the Freedom Fund's clients have already been arraigned and their families contacted to see if they can provide bail when Work gets a call from a defense attorney. From there the clients fill out a form and Work checks to see if they have community or family ties or steady employment, and what kind of criminal record they have. The Fund only pays bail under $2,000.

If approved, the Fund pays the bail "right there so they don't spend the night at Rikers or the boat in the Bronx," said Work.

In a sense, the Bronx Freedom Fund is Rivera's baby just as the city-wide program would be Mark-Viverito's. Rivera was approached by the Bronx Defenders (a nonprofit legal defense group) in 2010 shortly after he defeated disgraced then-Sen. Pedro Espada for his seat.

The problem, the group told him, was that they were operating in a legal grey area. A judge ordered the defenders to stop handing out bail in 2009. Rivera successfully advocated a bill that lays down guidelines for charitable bail groups based on rules that govern such groups in other states. It also provides a licensing system. When the bill passed in 2012, the Freedom Fund became the state's first licensed charitable bail fund.

Work said that the impact the program has had can be seen in the case of Fund client Billy, who was charged with a misdemeanor DUI and was unable to afford bail. Work has overseen Billy's case for more than a year. "His case just closed, and he came to court over a year and a half 11 times and never missed a date," she said. "He works with senior citizens, he's going to pharmacy school, and he's always shown up to those court dates with a smile on his face."

"If the Bronx Freedom Fund had not stepped in to help, I would have had to stay in jail until my trial was completed and I would have lost my job as a senior care aide," Billy said in a statement. "Thanks to them, I was not only able to return home immediately, but I was also able to fight my case and resolve it by attending an alcohol treatment program."

Mark-Viverito's pitch for a city-based jail fund also takes into account the fact that keeping people like Billy in jail costs the city money. She estimated in her speech that a city-wide fund could save the city millions a year. "Whether it's the $100,000 a year it costs to house someone on Rikers – or the public assistance programs many must access upon leaving – New Yorkers are paying this bill," Mark-Viverito said in her speech. "And let's not forget, the U.S. Attorney's Office issued a scathing report, finding excessive force and violence at Rikers Island," she added. "We cannot continue to lock up those accused of low level, non-violent offenses without recognizing the dire, long-term consequences to them and to our city."

Mark-Viverito's plan appears to be in its infancy, but legislation could be introduced any time, especially as budget season has begun and money for even a city pilot program may be included in the Council's budget.

Even with a successful city-based venture, Rivera said, "I don't imagine the Freedom Fund is going away." He said he is excited to see the city plan come together: "Imagine how many thousands of lives can be positively impacted if we put the same work in with the correct people."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

New City Council Bill Drafting Unit Up and Running

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CM Lander and colleagues at a rally (photo: @NYCProgressives)

The City Council's independent bill drafting unit, created in the rules reform package that passed unanimously in May of 2014, is up and running and has in some cases sped up the legislative process, say Council members. Good government advocates, though, are skeptical about how significantly the process has changed, noting that the purpose of the unit is to help take the politics out of the legislative process.

"It's off to a great start," said Council Member Brad Lander, chair of the Council's Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections, about the new unit. Lander was a primary sponsor on the rules reform package, which first went through his committee.

The independent bill drafting unit is led by former Fordham Law professor Annie Decker, who was hired by the Council's central staff under Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Along with Fordham, Decker has taught at Cardozo Law School and Santa Clara University Law School. She has also served at the Santa Clara County Counsel's Office in San Jose, California.

Decker leads a team of four specifically dedicated to drafting legislation and since the unit's inception, they have been busy, often fielding requests on legislation that does not easily fit into the purview of one council committee or another. "There have been several thousands of drafting requests and this Council has been very active," said Lander. The actual number of drafting requests, however, is hard to obtain since the process is confidential under attorney-client privilege, according to Lander.

Lander said the unit has also been helpful in providing professional development for newly hired legislative directors of Council members.

But the creation of the drafting unit has not ushered in an overhaul of the legislative process. For the most part, drafting is still handled by the counsels representing different committees, which Lander said is sensible considering they have developed expertise in those specific areas over time. The new unit is crucial, however, for bills that aren't easily categorized. For instance, bills regulating unmanned aerial drones recently introduced by Council Members Dan Garodnick and Paul Vallone.

The independent unit is, in part, a political reform as well as procedural, included in the rules reforms aimed at democratizing the Council. According to Lander, in the former Council "a lot of drafting requests were backlogged. There was a perception in the prior council that it was sometimes political."

But it serves both purposes. "Having this unit has both improved and sped up the process of getting bills drafted. This was about enabling members to get their work done regardless of politics and ideology," said Lander.

Along with the unit, another reform related to the legislative process was an intra-council tracking system to provide more transparency and clarity to members. Council members now receive monthly update reports from an internal database on the progress of their drafting requests.

Good government advocates aren't entirely convinced yet by the unit, but are encouraged by the tracking system. "We definitely support the idea of members having a more independent say in how bills are drafted and introduced," said Lauren George, Associate Director, Common Cause New York. But a more important change, George said, would be ensuring bills are allowed to be introduced to the council floor. The fact that the central staff still handles how drafting requests are directed means "there could still be a significant delay based on political will," she said.

George conceded, though, that a system of monthly updates is much better for the members. "Council members used to really have to hound after the leadership to get their bills introduced."

Calling the unit a "building block" in improving the legislative process, George insisted that further improvements are necessary and that all legislation should be handled by the unit. "It shouldn't be hand picked. It would be better if it was across the board," she said.

Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at NYPIRG, agrees. "The tracking sounds like they're not treating council members like complete simpletons," he said while stressing that change would still be incremental. "There's a lot of good stuff in there. This sounds like it's improving upon the old process."

Russianoff cites the New York State Legislature as an example of how the City could reorganize legislative drafting. At the state level, a nonpartisan Legislative Bill Drafting Commission is charged with the entire drafting process.

"In Albany, you submit an idea and they write it up. Push comes to shove, they draft up the legislation. In the city, if a council member has an idea - good, bad or indifferent - he or she should be able to get it drafted," Russianoff said, although admitting that the Council's limited resources could not compare with those of the state Legislature. "I'd prefer that all bills be drafted by [the independent bill drafting unit] as a matter of course."

Citizens Union Director of Public Policy Rachael Fauss also believes the Council is on the right track. "The new transparency around bill drafting is an important fulfillment of the commitment made to members last year as new rules were adopted, and the new Legislative Bill Drafting Unit has the potential to be a body that can provide independent services to council members, similar to what is provided at the state level for legislators," she said. "We hope that it continues to move in this direction as it gets fully operational."

The consensus seems to be that, even in its infancy, the unit has been beneficial overall.

Council Member Ben Kallos has long been advocating for more efficient government, especially now as chair of the Committee on Governmental Operations. In the last few months, he said, the legislative process has sped up. "I think that we have a lot more legislation being introduced and a lot of legislation that's passing, and having the support of a drafting unit is really helping the Council adjust to a new pace of things where legislation and the legislative process and our city is really moving quickly so that it can be more progressive as soon as possible."

Kallos is on the same page as NYPIRG's Russianoff and Citizens Union's Fauss. "What's interesting is with everyone criticizing Albany, one of the things it does do right is it has a legislative bill drafting commission," Kallos said.

It is a City Council in transition, moving toward more transparent and efficient procedures. Kallos said he will continue to advocate for increased funding for the independent bill drafting unit until all bills can be drafted there. Till then, the existing committee counsels will continue to play a major role in the drafting process.

As Russianoff put it, though, "We've been trying to reform the rules for a quarter of a century, but Rome wasn't built in a day."

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

Update: this article has been corrected to more accurately reflect Annie Decker's teaching experience.

In State of the Borough, Diaz Jr. Further Burnishes Bronx Brand


BX BP Diaz Jr. gives his 2015 SOTB (photo: @SarahHughesNY)

THE BRONX - In the top-floor pavilion of the sprawling Mall at Bay Plaza, an audience sat semicircled under floating lit globes and towering pillars as a jazz quartet performed. Far from a concert, it was Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.'s sixth annual State of the Borough address, given Thursday in front of several hundred people.

As the largest indoor shopping center in the city, the mall was not just a venue, but a pertinent example of Diaz Jr.'s thrust for his speech: job creation and economic development.

Citing the mall, Diaz Jr. said it had created 2,000 new jobs and contributed toward keeping revenue in the borough by giving Bronxites a local venue to spend their money. "And we know that consumer spending equals job growth," he said. Since he became borough president, more than 15,000 jobs have been added to the local economy, he touted. The latest jobs program, NY Works, has found jobs for more than 4,000 Bronx residents since it was launched in August by the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation in partnership with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Department of Labor.

Recalling his achievements, not only of the last year but of his cumulative tenure, Diaz Jr. spoke of falling unemployment, down nearly five percent since 2009. The borough saw more than $1 billion of investment in just the last year, he said, adding that the Bronx has seen "unprecedented, transformative growth," since he took office.

Much needed growth, of course, as the Bronx has consistently been home to the highest unemployment and largest swaths of poverty in the city.

The borough president reiterated a number of development projects, already underway, that would contribute to a robust Bronx economy while highlighting the importance of "impact investing" in ventures directed at measurable economic, social, and environmental benefits. These projects, he said, would rely on a revolving fund with private sector investments. "We are looking not only to do well," he said, "but to do good."

Other specific projects he mentioned included the Kingsbridge National Ice Center, the redevelopment of the former Bronx General Post Office, the building of the state's largest television and film studio in Soundview, and breaking ground on a new FreshDirect facility in Port Morris. "The time to build is now. We are moving forward," he said.

Diaz Jr. also said he was continuing his commitment to modernizing housing and touted a recently announced, first-ever development solely for LGBT Seniors that he is contributing funds toward. Last year, he allotted nearly $3 million in capital funding toward building 600 affordable units, adding to the total of more than 16,000 units since 2009, he said.

Under Diaz Jr., the Bronx is stronger and safer than its has been in decades. Tourism is up 14 percent and homicides below 100 for two years in a row for the first time since the 1960s. But the borough is not healthier, ranking last out of New York's 62 counties on health indices. In response, the Borough President announced a social media campaign to promote healthy living through the hashtag #NOT62.

Education was also an important cornerstone of the speech. Citing dismal admissions figures of Hispanic and black students in Stuyvesant High School's freshman class, Diaz Jr. said he would work with City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña to improve the situation. He echoed his 2012 report on equal access to test preparation for public school students, and a need to institute new specialized high schools. He said he will continue to fund "worthy projects," which included $26 million for new computers, smart classrooms, and science labs in 180 different schools.

Besides economic development and education, Diaz Jr. underscored his legislative agenda for the next year. He is pushing for a letter-grading system for cosmetology businesses, similar to city-issued restaurant grades, to tackle potential health threats. He also said he would work with state and city officials to advocate for a public felony gun offender registry.

He also mentioned the upcoming first comprehensive "Bronx Visitors Guide," aimed at further boosting tourism.

Finally, Diaz Jr. paid tribute to his predecessor Herman Badillo and to former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who both passed away recently. "We move forward," Diaz Jr. said, "understanding that we can design and enact a transformative agenda for our future while also respecting the hardships and the glories of the past."

[This article is part of our ongoing 'State Of's series in which we're reporting on early 2015 assessments and initiatives by a variety of elected officials, from the President to the Governor, Mayor, Council Speaker and Borough Presidents]

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

With 'Raise the Age,' Cuomo Continues Push to Reform Juvenile Justice

cuomo opp agenda feb

Governor Cuomo (photo: @NYGovCuomo)

A classic battle between law-and-order Republicans and progressive Democrats is brewing in the state Legislature as Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushes adoption of the recommendations of his Commission on Youth Public Safety and Justice - recommendations that include raising the age at which teens can be tried as adults.

Despite being thought of as one of the most progressive states in the nation, New York is one of just two in the country that try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. (The other is North Carolina.)

"You put a 16- and 17-year-old into a state prison, there is no way they're not going to come out worse than they went in," Cuomo said over the phone to those gathered for a Martin Luther King Day event hosted by Al Sharpton.

Many of the state's most prominent law enforcement officials and criminal justice experts have advocated raising the age of adult criminality for some time. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has promoted the move for four years and served on Cuomo's commission. "New York really does lag behind the nation on this," Vance told Gotham Gazette last week. "The message we are sending is that by raising the age at which teens are tried as adults, public safety really will be enhanced."

Advocates say that housing teens in adult prisons endangers their safety, increases their odds of suicide, drastically increases the chance that they recidivate, unfairly leaves them saddled with a criminal record that can cripple their abilities to land jobs or attend college, and denies them the chance for more therapeutic treatment.

"We're going to keep 16- and 17-year-olds out of prison. We're going to create juvenile facilities and get them the training in a safe environment so we can actually help them turn around their lives," Cuomo said of his plan in January. Just two days after Martin Luther King Day, the governor gave his budget presentation, in which Raise the Age legislation based on the commission's 38-recommendation report is included.

The governor formed the youth safety and justice commission following a major push by advocates to bring New York up to date with juvenile justice standards. Stephanie Gendell of the Citizens' Committee for Children said her group spoke to Cuomo's office about such a commission and insisted that the commission "have a time limit" and be about "how to raise the age, not if."

The governor's office said in a statement that teens under 18 in state prisons are significantly more likely than adult inmates to be raped or commit suicide. Officials point out that 82 percent of youth under 18 sentenced to adult prisons in New York are black or Latino. There were 800 inmates in local jails and state prisons under the age of 18 as of January.

A number of Senate Republicans including Martin Golden of Brooklyn say the system is working and have no interest in being more lenient on criminals. "Some of the most heinous crimes are committed by kids who are 16 and 17," Golden, a former police officer, told The New York Daily News earlier this month.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle expressed concerns over the legislation during a joint legislative budget hearing earlier this month. Roberto Valez, acting commissioner for the Office of Children and Family Services, was unable to answer a slew of questions from legislators including Republican Sen. John DeFrancisco and Democratic Assembly Member Jeffrey Aubry. Some of the questions regarded how many of the currently charged 16- and 17-year-olds would wind up in jail. Another question had to do with how accused rapists would be tried. Valez asked for a chance to get back to legislators with answers. When legislators expressed doubts about the bill in general, the Cuomo administration sent two officials with more direct knowledge of the proposal.

The incident has sparked some fear among advocates who are concerned whether the administration's support for the measure will hold if Republicans mount opposition to the plan in their home districts. Last year the administration abandoned a plan to provide some inmates with a college education after Republicans balked and negative local media coverage followed.

"Am I surprised? No," said Vance when asked about opposition to the plan. "When the state's crime rate is so drastically reduced as we have seen, people are going to ask: 'What is it that is broken that you are trying to fix?' I plan to push forward and advocate for this as I have and help educate people on why this matters."

Vance also notes that the change is no simple flick of the switch. The plan would move all 16- and 17-year-olds tried as adults into juvenile facilities immediately. Meanwhile, 16-year-olds would stop being tried as adults in 2016 and 17-year-olds would follow the next year. The only exception would be teens involved in the most violent crimes.

Accused teens aged 16 and 17 would be granted protections that younger suspects in the state currently see, including parental notification and videotaping of interrogations on felony offenses. Judges would be required in most misdemeanor cases to provide diversion from the justice system, more cases would be moved to family court, and more effort would be put into helping younger offenders reintegrate into society after prison.

The Osborne Association, which has provided behavioral therapy to every 16- and 17-year-old on Rikers Island, issued a statement praising the commission's recommendations. It reads, in part: "This new approach incorporates what science tells us about cognitive development and offers therapeutic alternatives to a traditionally punitive and costly response. When implemented, these proposals will change the odds for many young people."

Gendell said that the commission's plan might not be feasible if it wasn't for reforms to the justice system orchestrated by Cuomo that have seen major reductions in prison beds and individuals incarcerated. "Juvenile justice has been an important part of the governor's legacy," said Gendell. "Early in his first term he went to an empty facility and said kids are not going to be locked up as an economic generator. It has really been a big part of what he has done, through closing facilities and enacting Close to Home."

The Close to Home initiative saw the State hand over control of city residents housed in state juvenile detention facilities to New York City. Those juveniles were then mostly sent to alternative treatment facilities.

Gendell notes that Close to Home, which was enacted in 2012, lowered the population in state facilities and ensures there will be enough room to move 16- and 17-year-old inmates serving in adult prisons into juvenile facilities.

"I think having the governor's support is important so that he can guide the proposal through the budget negotiations," said Gendell. Her meetings with legislators on Raise the Age have "been positive; not so positive that it's a done deal, but the people we've met with understand that this would create better outcomes and increase public safety," she said.

Vance said he plans to educate law enforcement officials and legislators on why the plan will benefit them as well as offenders. He said he will be in Albany to help push the measure - which could give lawmakers, especially Senate Republicans, the assurance they may need. "When people ask about what this does, I can say honestly that it is a major step forward."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated.

Carl Heastie's Campaign Account Expenditures: The Full Picture

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Assembly Speaker Heastie (photo: AP/Mike Groll)

Carl Heastie's campaign committee has drawn some attention to its expenditures, especially now that he is the newly minted Assembly Speaker. Below is an analysis of his campaign spending based on the Board of Elections expenditure "Purpose" codes that the campaign itself elects to use. Purpose codes are selected from a list by filers to describe their own activity, and are accompanied by "explanations" where applicable. From 2011 through 2014, "Friends of Carl E. Heastie," as the campaign committee is known, reported spending $429,526.95. Remarkably, the largest subsection of expenditure is "Other," at $164,275.59; followed by "Political Contributions" at $114,113.00; and "Reimbursements" at $87,538.01.


When combining the codes for Campaign Mailings, Consultants, Fundraising, Office Expenses, Petition Expenses, Postage, Print Ads, and Professional Services, a tally for expenses that are explicitly coded as campaign expenses is reached. That is, the money is clearly, unambiguously spent on campaign activity. Perhaps generously, it also makes some sense to include Office expenses in this area. Expenses not explicitly coded as direct campaign expenditures include Political Contributions (made out to other campaign committees), Constituent Services, Other, Reimbursements. Below is the breakdown of Heastie's spending to clearly show how much is explicitly coded as direct campaign expenditure versus not. Again, the total is $429,526.95 for 2011-2014. Here we see that about $49,000 is coded explicitly as campaign expenses, which is about 11 percent. The other 89 percent is not explicitly coded as campaign expense - though a sizeable sum within this amount appears to have been charged to the campaign credit card for a variety of expenditures, which we detail below.


Heastie's campaign is known to be particularly lavish with an American Express credit card. Below is an analysis of Friends of Carl E. Heastie's credit card activity.

When reporting credit card expenditures, campaigns are advised by the Board of Elections to note the expenditure in full to the creditor (e.g. AMEX), and where applicable to itemize purchases with a sum of $0.00 but then to describe the merchant and cost as a memo in the Explanation line. In this respect, first, a look at the transactions paid to American Express. Then details of what Friends of Carl E. Heastie says it bought on the card.

From January, 2011 through December, 2014:

  • $295,560.44 paid to American Express. (Heastie's treasurer describes payments of his American Express bill 7 different ways)
  • $532.15 is specifically described as interest paid to American Express.
  • $15,418.73 of his American Express payments are described as "Unitemized."

The monthly payments:

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Assessing all of the itemized transactions (with their distinctive amount of $0.00) we extract the itemized dollar cost from the memo line. This includes wading through verbiage like "$78.38 FRUIT BASKET PURCHASE" and "MEMO: $53.30 DINNER FOR VOLUNTEERS" to extract figures like $78.38 and $53.30 so as to sort out large purchases from small.

Standouts 2011-2014:

  • $5,839.82 to INTERCONTINENTAL HOTEL in 3 transactions on on 11/12/2013 related to the SOMOS conference.
  • $3,533.54 at the Apple Store.
  • $1,914.19 spent at PRIME PLAZA on 03/18/2014 is described in the Memo as a "Fundraising expense," which shows how paying for so much of a campaign on a credit card creates conflicts in how best to file expenditures - this could easily be clear as a campaign expense, but by charging it and including it with reimbursements, it becomes less clear. Fundraising expenditures of similar size at other venues are similarly buried in Friends of Carl E. Heastie's credit card register.

Top Ten Purchases by Size:

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The following transactions are not adequately described in the Explanation memo so as to directly ascertain their cost:

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by Jon Reznick for Gotham Gazette
Data analysis performed using FTMSQL2 by Competitive Advantage Research, LLC

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