Last year, one million New Yorkers - one out of every eight people in the city - visited a soup kitchen or food pantry because they were hungry. So it seemed like a reasonable question to ask why Mayor Michael Bloomberg cut $2 million in funding for these programs in a year when the city government has a $3 billion surplus.
The response from the Bloomberg administration to this question asked by City Councilmember Bill DeBlasio at one of the budget hearings completed last week, however, wasn't so straightforward.
Human Resources Administration Commissioner Verna Eggleston argued that it wasn't really a "cut." If the City Council wanted to allocate additional money like it did the year before, she said, it was welcome to.
Then, Eggleston said others - the state and federal governments and private charities - could pitch in money to feed hungry New Yorkers.
Finally, she argued that providing meals is just a small part of a larger fight. "I have found no scientific correlation between feeding someone and reducing poverty," she said.
DeBlasio never did get his answer, and the real issue was never addressed.
The number of people seeking food from soup kitchens and food pantries is up 40 percent from five years ago. But funding for these programs has remained the same. In the city's $52 billion budget, less than .01 percent ($12 million) is allocated to fund emergency food programs.
In the last few weeks, New Yorkers have heard and read much about new initiatives in the city budget:
â€˘ The mayor plans to hire 800 more police officers
â€˘ The State Legislature wants to authorize $11 billion for the city to build new schools
â€˘ And the city is hiring more caseworkers in the hope of preventing the death of another child like Nixzmary Brown, the 7-year-old who was killed by her stepfather.
How do the budget priorities match up to the concerns of everyday New Yorkers?
In early January, the local news was dominated by the story of a seven-year-old girl named Nixzmary Brown, who was allegedly beaten, tortured and killed in her home by her stepfather.
In his preliminary budget presented in January, Mayor Bloomberg responded to criticism of the Administration for Children's Services by boosting funding for the agency's efforts to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect.
The mayor committed increase spending by 20 percent - hiring 250 new case workers and creating a new system of tracking cases of abuse and neglect.
But even the mayor admitted that the changes and the additional funding may not be enough to prevent future incidents.
"What really happened with Nixzmary Brown is, her parents killed her," he said. "We as a society didn't recognize the danger the child was in and respond fast enough, obviously."
While child advocates have generally praised the decision to increase funding for this and other programs, like new foster care initiatives, they are concerned about cuts to other areas that they say will hurt children.
Overall, the budget cuts a total of $100 million for children's services including a decrease of $75 million in funding for day care - equal to about 9,000 slots - due to expectations of less state and federal aid, according to an analysis by the Citizens Committee for Children.
For years Brooklyn's Midwood High School has had the dubious distinction of being one of the city's most crowded schools. About 4,000 kids jam into a building intended for 2,300. To accommodate the hordes, the school employs a complicated schedule with some kids arriving as early as 7 a.m. while other don't start school until late morning. For years, the city has promised "relief" in the form of an annex with science labs, libraries and other facilities that would free up space for classrooms in the main building. But relief has never arrived.
This year the city once again declared its intention to build the annex - part of its five-year capital plan for schools. But the approximately $30 million project became enmeshed in the battle between the city and the state over how much money Albany should give the city to build, maintain and operate schools.
Since the Giuliani administration, the battleground for the education budget has shifted. In the 1990s, many education advocates saw City Hall as the villain. But even in tight times, the Bloomberg administration has cut deeper into the budgets of other agencies in order to spare schools. And this year the administration proposed a small increase. City Council members and education advocates would still like the city schools to have more money for smaller class size, universal pre-K and improved school facilities.
Most lawmakers and education advocates expect the majority of the money to come from Albany, not from City Hall.
Despite the problems in the schools - high dropout rates, low achievement in middle schools and thousands of elementary school students who struggle with the most basic reading and arithmetic - this year's proposed operating budget for the city's more than 1,100 public schools offers no major new programs, cuts - or major controversies.
The mayor's preliminary budget for the 2007 fiscal year includes a $14.9 billion operating budget for the nation's largest public school system, about $148 million more than the current budget. Much of it will go to benefits for teachers union. Other increases go to:
â€˘ school safety as the department hopes to hire an additional 286 school safety agents
â€˘ special education, where more early diagnoses of children with autism is contributing to a rise in costs
â€˘ and planning for more new small schools.
"Overall," Chancellor Joel Klein said at recent hearing on the education budget, "we expect schools to receive about the same level of funding as last year, unless they experienced changes to their registers, average teacher salaries, or special education enrollment."
The council seemed to accept this business as usual budget. At the hearings, no council member voiced strong objections, with most using the forum to express support for their favorite causes: Lewis Fidler calling for more gifted and talented programs, for example, and Simcha Felder asking the chancellor to consider selling off what the council member considers excess school buildings.
Although it seems unlikely, things could change before the adoption of the final budget on June 30. An analysis (in pdf format) of the Department of Education budget by the Independent Budget Office notes that the department has instituted a number of policy changes that could boost costs. These include the extension of the school day, generally for students needing additional help, as well as the opening of 36 new small junior and senior high schools and the expansion of translation services for parents who do not speak English.
The state legislature's proposed budget averted a possible showdown on the capital budget by setting up a plan to borrow $11.2 billion in funding for school construction and improvements over the next five years. The funding - if it materializes -- should allow the city to proceed with its five-year $13 billion plan (in pdf format) to build new schools and improve existing ones.
The crime rate in New York City is at an all time low. The number of crimes has fallen nearly 25 percent since 2001; the number of murders, subway crime, and robberies are all down.
Keeping crime down is a priority for Mayor Bloomberg - and he is demonstrating that this year in his budget.
The mayor announced that New York City will add 800 police officers and 400 civilians to the police department, which currently has 36,450 officers. It is the largest expansion of the force since 1993.
Bloomberg said the new officers are needed because the city is growing: 125,000 new residents have moved in since 2001 and an additional 200,000 new residents are expected over the next five years.
The addition of 1,200 employees will cost the city $33.8 million in the next fiscal year, doubling by the next fiscal year, and nearly tripling by 2010. The mayor also argues that hiring new police officers will help reduce overtime costs, which now total about $250 million a year.
But some question if hiring the new officers will affect the crime rate - more cops do not necessarily translate into less crime. New York City already has almost twice as many cops per resident as Los Angeles and almost six times the officers per square mile. And Washington DC has far more cops per resident than New York, but one of the highest crime rates of any large city. (For more, read Gotham Gazette's crime topic page)
And adding more police officers is not even guaranteed to reduce the cost of overtime. At City Council hearings, Commissioner Ray Kelly testified that hiring new officers does not mean that overtime costs will go down.
The mayor's critics say that the police department will have trouble attracting new recruits when the starting salary is only $25,100 a year. The number of applicants who signed up to take the February 2006 test dropped by 31 percent over last year.
And hiring more police won't change how many New Yorkers feel about the cops who patrol their neighborhood.
This year, the mayor wants to cut the budget of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency that investigates police misconduct. The agency would lose 24 of its 184 investigators under the mayor's proposed budget.
This marks the third straight year that the Bloomberg administration has proposed such a cut in investigator staffing, but the City Council has stepped in and funded the 24 positions each year.
The numbers of complaints about police misconduct in the first few months of this year are up 14 percent. At the same time, it is taking longer to investigate claims of misconduct. In 2005, it took an average of 293 days to investigate a claim, up from 243 days in 2003. Police officers cannot be disciplined if more than 18 months have elapsed from the date a substantiated incident occurred.
In his budget two years ago, Mayor Bloomberg significantly increased the funding that the city dedicates to its 11 public hospitals. As part of that plan, there is $150 million in additional aid in this year's budget.
Still, the Health and Hospitals Corporation, which manages the public hospitals, ran a deficit of $573 million this year. It is expected to grow to $889 million by 2010.
Many hospitals in New York are struggling, and there are differing opinions about how to solve this problem. The public hospitals say the problem is the 435,000 uninsured patients they serve each year, knowing that if these patients do not pay, the hospitals themselves must absorb the cost of the care they provide them.
Within the hospital system and across the state, aggressive efforts to enroll people without health insurance have been successful. Still, the Health and Hospitals Corporation is hoping for a lot of help from elsewhere - it estimates that it will need $382 million in combined state and federal aid.
If the hospitals do not get the aid they are counting on, they will soon be unable to cover their expenses. This would mean the city might have to bail them out - or patients would have to deal with service cuts.
Also in the proposed health budget is the mayor's major new initiative to treat diabetes. He has allocated $1.2 million each year for the next five years to better track people with the disease and get them the help they need.
But critics say the mayor may be undermining his efforts in other areas of the budget.
In the parks budget, for example, the mayor wants to charge fees at six public recreation centers. However, a recent study by the Independent Budget Office found that the fees discouraged New Yorkers from using the recreation centers. At 20 centers where the city instituted fees in 2002, membership fell by 13 percent in the first year after fees were imposed. The drop was steepest at the centers with pools, which now charge $75 a year; membership there fell by 22 percent.
The six centers where the new fees would be imposed are all in neighborhoods with high rates of obesity and diabetes, prompting some to question the mayor's priorities.
"We're all very interested in people's health, well-being and quality of life," Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum told the New York Times. "The city may see the fees as a way of increasing the revenue, but I don't think it's worth the price you pay to people's health."
A recent survey found that there are 62,773 millionaires in Manhattan, which sounds like a lot until it is compared to another statistic: the average price of an apartment in Manhattan is nearly $1 million.
So where do the 8.03 million other New Yorkers live?
The cost of housing is one of the primary concerns for city residents. Half of New York City renters pay more than 30 percent of their incomes for housing, and nearly a quarter pay more than half of their incomes for housing.
The city's housing crunch is particularly difficult for low-income New Yorkers who are finding that they have fewer options. As of April 2005, more than 128,000 were on a waiting list for federal Section 8 housing vouchers, the federal housing subsidy that helps thousands of low-income New Yorkers pay their monthly rent, and nearly 150,000 were on the waiting list for public housing.
Since he took office in 2002, Mayor Bloomberg has committed to building and preserving 165,000 new affordable homes and apartments by the year 2013 - what he bills as "the largest municipal affordable housing plan in the nation's history." The mayor has also made efforts to address homelessness and has created a rent subsidy program called Housing Stability Plus. In the last few years, Bloomberg has also offered homeowners a $400 rebate.
But critics say the mayor is ignoring other critical housing issues.
For every new affordable apartment built, the city loses others as rent-stabilized apartments drop out of the state-controlled system.
Bloomberg has not fought in Albany for the repeal of the Urstadt Law, which gives the state power over rent regulations, arguing that the city can not afford to administer the system.
"Bloomberg seems perfectly content to preside over the demise of the rent regulation system," Michael McKee of Tenants and Neighbors, a statewide tenants' coalition told Gotham Gazette. "I don't think he has any inkling of how important it is to the future of the city. And his failure to fight to reverse the phase-out of rent regulation is going to prove deadly to the city."
Few New Yorkers think about garbage in the city except when their street or sidewalk is littered with it, or they get a ticket for not separating out their recycling.
But each year the cost of dealing with the 50,000 tons of trash the city produces each day increases - and it adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars that could be spent on things like education, health care, housing - or even returned to residents in tax cuts.
This year the mayor and the City Council are supposed to agree on a new plan for disposing of the city's garbage. So far the debate has focused on how to get it out of the city (barge vs. truck), which neighborhoods should handle the trash (ie, South Bronx vs. Upper East Side), but it looks like dealing with the garbage will only get more expensive.
In 2007, the city has budgeted $294 million for waste export, $16 million more than last year.
Twenty percent of all city residents - 1.8 million people - live below the poverty level. And there are signs that poverty is growing worse every year.
There are dozens of government programs - job programs, food stamps, homeless shelters, and public health insurance - that all meant to address this issue. But overall funding for services for the poor is not increasing.
When city government officials talk about poverty, they often focus on one statistic - how many people are on the welfare rolls. By that measure alone, things are getting better in the city. The number of people receiving public assistance in New York continues to drop. Currently, about 405,000 people receive benefits, down from 462,000 in 2002.
However, this doesn't mean more people are getting jobs or making enough to live day to day.
New federal welfare to work requirements could present additional problems for New York City this year.
The Department of Human Resources Administration estimates that the state could be fined up to $237 million for failure to meet welfare-to-work requirements; New York City would have to pay up to two-thirds of this amount.
Another challenge is getting people to use the food stamp benefits they are entitled to. Currently, 1.1 million New Yorkers are on food stamps, up 37 percent since 2002. However, the United States Department of Agriculture estimates that another 300,000 people are eligible.
"These numbers do not mean that New York has widespread starvation as now exists in places like Ethiopia or North Korea," said John Charles Dwyer of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. "But it does mean that 1.2 million New Yorkers are skipping meals, reducing portion sizes, choosing between food, rent, utilities, and health care."
The Mayor's Underwhelming Budget For 2007 by Glenn Pasanen Â