Authors https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion Sat, 05 Dec 2020 11:48:33 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Ranked-Choice Voting is Coming; NYC Must Immediately Fund a Public Education Campaign https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9958-ranked-choice-voting-coming-nyc-fund-public-education https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9958-ranked-choice-voting-coming-nyc-fund-public-education early voting pres

Voters at work (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


The combination of early voting, vote-by-mail, and the desire to vote out Donald Trump made 2020 a huge year for voting in New York City. Despite long lines, when voters are given the right resources and awareness, we can raise the level of participation.  

As we turn towards 2021, the next chapter for voting in New York City will be the implementation of ranked-choice voting (RCV) for special and party primary elections for city government positions. If properly implemented, it will further improve our electoral process. But it’s an open question whether our government is up to the task of strong implementation, including extensive voter education, and the lack of effort and funding so far does not inspire confidence.

Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank candidates based on their preferences, from choosing one up to five candidates in order. If a single candidate does not reach 50% of first-place votes, the last place candidate is eliminated and their votes are reallocated to the remaining candidates based on those voters’ second choices, with candidate elimination and vote reallocation continuing until a candidate hits 50%. 

When properly implemented, ranked-choice voting is good for our democracy and our city:

It is a more accurate representation of the electorate and a fairer process.

It empowers voters to make more candidate preferences heard.

It forces campaigns to build broad coalitions -- to focus on winning over a majority of voters in their districts.

It decreases negative campaigning.

Ranked-choice voting will be a major change in how city officials are elected, yet most voters are unaware of what’s coming or how RCV will work. City government, having adopted this new system through a charter revision commission and voter referendum, has a responsibility to educate voters or risk disenfranchising large swaths of voters who are confused by the process. With the first ranked-choice election scheduled for a special election that will culminate on February 2 in Queens’ City Council District 24, a seat recently vacated by Rory Lancman, we cannot allow any more delays in launching a major public education campaign to ensure all voters understand ranked-choice voting. 

After that special election, we will quickly have at least three more special City Council elections, followed by the June citywide primaries for Mayor, Comptroller, Public Advocate, Borough Presidents, and the entire City Council. With such a significant change in how voters will elect these officials, there is no time to waste.

Similar to the 2020 Census efforts, it is critical that the city immediately funds a public education campaign on ranked-choice voting. From sending mailings to voters, to partnering with local organizations and influencers to get the word out, to running television ads, to utilizing digital advertising, the city should be meeting voters where they are. Further, this outreach must be conducted in multiple languages so that voters for whom English is a second language are not left out of the civic process, as they too often are. We must be careful to include historically-disenfranchised communities of color in every part of our electoral process as we transition into ranked-choice elections.

Voting is the most sacred right in our country and a cornerstone of our democracy. With Republicans no longer able to block voting reforms in Albany, our laws are finally catching up with more progressive states and making voting easier. But failure to invest in civic education  following such a major change creates an obstacle to reform, unintentionally suppressing votes.  The implementation and funding of a ranked-choice voting education program is New York City’s opportunity to ensure the success of our new voting system, but only if we step up and take action right now.

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Josué Pierre is a candidate for City Council in the 40th District, in Brooklyn. On Twitter @CitizenPierre.

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jpierre@gg.com (Josué Pierre) Opinion Fri, 04 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Rudy Giuliani Was Never Really ‘America’s Mayor’ https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9960-rudy-giuliani-never-really-americas-mayor https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9960-rudy-giuliani-never-really-americas-mayor bloomberg may rad

Rudy Giuliani at City Hall (photo: Kristen Artz/mayor's office)


As Rudy Giuliani melts down – at times literally – in his desperate crusade to steal the election for his soundly defeated First Client, there has been much speculation about how “America’s Mayor” could have deteriorated into this spectacle. 

Whatever may be going on with Rudy Giuliani personally, let’s be clear: while, for one brief moment in his career he served as a cheerleader for a devastated city and a shocked nation, the rest of Rudy Giuliani’s mayoralty was driven by a hostility to free expression, police brutality and violence, and an authoritarian disregard for democracy.

Let’s start with the First Amendment. The New York Civil Liberties Union was involved in 34 First Amendment lawsuits against the Giuliani administration – and prevailed in 26 of them. Those cases successfully challenged the firing of Police Officer Yvette Walton in retaliation for testifying before the City Council about racial profiling; the attempt to censor the Sensations exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum; the ban on press conferences and demonstrations by Giuliani critics on the steps of City Hall; the ban on condom distribution as part of AIDS education in City Parks; police harassment of homeless people sleeping on the steps of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church; and singling out political demonstrators charged with minor offenses so that they could not get appearance tickets to return to court and often had to stay in jail overnight.  

In the seven-and-a-half years before 9/11, let there be no mistake: racial bias, fear-mongering, and police brutality were the hallmarks of Giuliani’s mayoralty. 

As mayor, Giuliani oversaw a policing regime repeatedly engaged in persecution and brutal assaults and killings of Black and Hispanic New Yorkers, using unlawful stop-and-frisk policies to jail Black and Hispanic New Yorkers in service of his ‘broken windows’ policing. Every time the NYPD killed a Black man, Rudy Giuliani was right there not only defending the police, but attacking the victim.

I will never forget his tirade against Patrick Dorismond, a 26-year-old Black security guard and father of two, after undercover police officers killed Dorismond after initiating a scuffle while on the job in Manhattan. Giuliani attacked Dorismond’s character and publicly revealed his legally-sealed juvenile record. It was Giuliani‘s notorious street crimes unit that killed Amadou Diallo in the lobby of his apartment building. 

And in his second of three runs for mayor, his virulent support for the police union in its opposition to an independent Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) that would hold officers accountable for abuse, culminated in a speech at the union’s off-duty rally steps from City Hall that ended in what can only be described as an rampage by our “men – yes men—in blue” so egregious that it pushed the City Council to establish the city’s independent CCRB.

Perhaps one of Giuliani’s most telling pre-Trumpian moments was his campaign to put cops in charge of discipline in New York City public schools. While violence in schools was actually declining in 1998, Giuliani withheld crime data from the Board of Education and convinced its members to replace the Board school safety unit with the NYPD’s school safety division. This eventually mushroomed into its own police force of over 5,000 officers who arrested and beat kids up for offenses like being in the school hallway without a pass or refusing to close a book in class.

Giuliani brought broken windows policing from the streets of Black and Hispanic communities into the public schools attended by Black and Hispanic children, launching the policies and practices that came to be known as the school-to-prison pipeline. 

As the remnants of the World Trade Center smoldered, Giuliani, who was ineligible to run for another term, had been basking in the glow of public appreciation for his leadership. In that moment, in a troubling precursor to Trump’s threats to remain in office, he reportedly proposed that New York postpone the 2001 mayoral election and leave him in office, rather than allow New Yorkers to vote in the scheduled election and transition to a new mayor. Despite the fear and uncertainty that followed the horrific 9/11 attacks, New Yorkers weren’t fooled.  

To be fair, there were two areas where Giuliani, as mayor, brought New York closer to our democratic values: immigrant rights and access to abortion care. But the defender of Trump’s Muslim ban and other xenophobic and discriminatory policies seems now to limit his love for the American melting pot to only those who look like him. And while he once supported abortion rights that too seems to have dissolved as he sinks deeper into the right-wing fever swamp.

We are not witnessing the deterioration of “America’s Mayor.” Today’s Giuliani is simply an extension of the authoritarian leader that New Yorkers have known all along.

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Donna Lieberman is the Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties, the state affiliate of the ACLU. On Twitter @JustAskDonna of @NYCLU.

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dlieberman@gg.com (Donna Lieberman) Opinion Fri, 04 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
COVID-19 Sheds New Light on Innovations Long Championed by People with Disabilities https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9934-covid-19-innovations-people-with-disabilities-remote-work-telehealth https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9934-covid-19-innovations-people-with-disabilities-remote-work-telehealth confer people remarks

A pre-pandemic conference (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography)


One of the great ironies of the new remote-working economy is that it is built on employment innovations that people with disabilities have long advocated. A second great irony is the speed with which those innovations – opposed by businesses for years – were adopted. These developments underscore, as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this year, the importance of addressing the needs of people with disabilities and the potential for the broader public to benefit as a result.

COVID-19 taught the U.S. business community that it has a far greater ability to adapt to new ways of working than it realized. Within weeks of the pandemic’s arrival, the business community adjusted to numerous employment practices that were previously discouraged. With schools and offices closed, and parents working from home while trying to teach their children, companies faced a choice between adjusting or going out of business. Those that could adjust did. 

Suddenly Zoom meetings became standard. Having children interrupt them was no problem. Flexible work hours were to be expected. Shifting meetings to meet family needs was fine, too.

Necessity may be the mother of invention. But what should not be missed is that such accommodations were long championed by people with disabilities, only to have been met with resistance. COVID-19 proved that not only were these changes manageable, but they were also improvements with widespread benefits.

People with disabilities led the way because they understood the challenge of work-life balance. A parent with Multiple Sclerosis knows the time-crunch of getting children ready for school, while needing extra time herself to get dressed and out the door. A person who uses a scooter knows the ordeal of getting from work to a doctor’s appointment and back again at mid-day. They understand that life cannot always fit the traditional nine-to-five business schedule.

Now that the entire workforce is benefiting, it is hard to believe we will ever return completely to the old ways, even when COVID-19 is behind us. Employers now know that parents can work from home effectively. They now know that a Zoom call can be just as valuable as an in-person meeting. 

Telemedicine may be the best example of all. It had been available for years, yet government had constrained its growth by, among other things, not compensating health-care providers properly for its use. Now we are seeing telemedicine not only facilitate essential care effectively but bring that care to people who previously could not easily receive it.

Imagine the increased convenience, if you use a wheelchair, of having a medical check-up at home without going through the time, effort, and expense of getting to and from a doctor’s office, which may not even be wheelchair-accessible. The telemedicine check-up could save hours in connection with a 15-minute appointment. Now imagine having that same convenience if you live in a remote community – hours from the nearest medical facility.

It is vital to understand in this regard that “disability” is a social construct. A staircase makes someone in a wheelchair “disabled;” a ramp makes that person “abled.” 

We need to move beyond the idea that people with disabilities are lacking something and recognize that they are adding something. We need to appreciate that the knowledge, experience, and perspective of people with disabilities offer benefits for everyone.

A key recognition is that flexibility in the workplace is an asset and should be embraced. With flexible tools such as videoconferencing now commonplace, the access that they provide should be exploited, too. For example, remote vocational training for people with disabilities – as for all people – makes it theoretically possible to expand educational opportunities to broader geographies. Yet compensation for training – typically provided through states – is often limited geographically, with contracts specifying service to New York City, for instance, as distinct from other parts of New York. 

The U.S. workforce benefits when people with disabilities are included. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 2.5 times higher than the general population before COVID-19, and 70% were not in the workforce. It is time to make more adjustments to bring all people into the economic mainstream. It is time to recognize the contributions of people with disabilities to the newly adapted economic and cultural landscape and build on them to benefit everyone.

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Susan Scheer is Chief Executive Officer of ICD - Institute for Career Development. On Twitter @sscheer5 and @ICD_NYC.

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sscheer@gg.com (Susan Scheer) Opinion Thu, 03 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Mass New York Voter Enfranchisement Awaits a Stroke of the Governor’s Pen https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9957-new-york-automatic-voter-registration-bill-governor-cuomo-sign https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9957-new-york-automatic-voter-registration-bill-governor-cuomo-sign stu voter reg

Voters would have less hassle registering under AVR (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Following the widespread problems in the execution of this year’s elections, it’s clear we need to transform New York’s voting systems from top to bottom. From restoring confidence in the Board of Elections to reducing long lines and wait times counting ballots, lawmakers must take action now to prevent another disaster the next time New Yorkers vote. Thankfully, there is one important fix that can be done immediately: enacting the Automatic Voter Registration legislation that passed the Legislature and is currently awaiting Governor Cuomo’s signature.

There’s no question that 2020 has been an extraordinary year for democracy – and the COVID-19 pandemic presented serious challenges for election administration across the country and here in New York. And while there were record shattering levels of enthusiasm among voters this year, our state continues to fall short. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, New York ranks 45th in the nation for registered voters as a percentage of the population. Indeed, there are up to 1 million New Yorkers who are eligible to vote, but remain unregistered.

The best way to ensure that we never have to let the burdens of the registration process lead to low turnout and other complications at the polls is to enact Automatic Voter Registration.

Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) is a simple, secure, and straightforward tool that will immediately increase New York’s abysmal registration rates. Through AVR, eligible voters become automatically registered when they engage with government agencies like the Department of Labor, Department of Motor Vehicles, or a Medicaid enrollment office, provided they do not opt out. The AVR system would then securely transmit the voter’s registration information from those agencies to the State Board of Elections. Had this policy been in effect in 2020, eligible unenrolled New Yorkers filing for jobless claims with the Department of Labor could have been added to the voter rolls automatically. 

New York’s democracy problems pre-date the coronavirus. In 2018, New York ranked 42nd in the nation in voter turnout, and experts believe that this one simple reform is a key to reversing our shockingly low level of electoral engagement. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have passed AVR, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Vermont just across our borders. Many of these states tore down obstacles to voter participation with bipartisan legislative majorities or through ballot measures that decisively won with broad support from the public.

The lessons from Oregon are particularly instructive. Since it became the first state in the country to implement Automatic Voter Registration, Oregon’s voter registration rates quadrupled at DMV locations across the state. Indeed, over 90% of eligible voters are now registered. Not only are these newly-registered individuals on the voter rolls, they are actually voting as well. A report found that 44% of these previously unregistered individuals voted in the elections following AVR implementation. And in 2018, Oregon far exceeded the national turnout average with one of the highest rates in the country. 

Unquestionably, last year was a banner year for voting reforms in New York State. With full Democratic control of the Legislature in Albany, it was the first time in memory that laws were passed to make voting more accessible to New Yorkers. The bottlenecked backlog of reforms that included early voting, pre-registration of 16 and 17-year-olds, consolidation of primary dates, and flexibility to change party affiliation helped transform New York away from its status as a state with some of the most arcane and restrictive voting policies.

However, despite this progress, there is still unfinished business as the election made abundantly clear. And AVR is at the top of that list.

We have an opportunity to modernize our state’s broken election system with one of the most popular and common-sense reforms available, one that will enhance registration in particular for underrepresented populations that are too often missed. We simply can’t afford to wait any longer, it’s time for Governor Cuomo to sign Automatic Voter Registration into law now.

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State Senator Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) and Assemblymember Latrice Walker (D-Brooklyn) are the lead sponsors of the Automatic Voter Registration bill. On Twitter @SenGianaris and @TheRealLatriceW.

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mauthors@gothamgazette.com (Mike Gianaris & Latrice Walker) Opinion Thu, 03 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
MTA’s ‘Worst Case’ is Really a Massive $23 Billion Deficit Through 2024 https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9959-mta-worst-case-23-billion-deficit-through-2024 https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9959-mta-worst-case-23-billion-deficit-through-2024 govcoumo sub ob

Governor Cuomo at an MTA train depot (photo: governor's office)


New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is facing the largest fiscal crisis in its history due to COVID-19. With more federal aid not forthcoming, the MTA has been buying time – quite literally, by borrowing up to $2.9 billion from the Federal Reserve – before the axe will need to fall on service and its workforce. The MTA’s Chief Financial Officer, Bob Foran, said that layoffs would need to start in May of 2021, and fare and toll increase hearings start this month. The MTA Board could vote on fare and toll increases as soon as February 2021.

Unfortunately, the public and many of New York’s elected leaders still have not fully grasped the magnitude of the MTA’s potential “worst case scenario” losses: $23 billion from 2020 to 2024 according to the latest budget numbers. This is partly because the MTA’s November Financial Plan does not clearly show the worst-case possibilities to the public and MTA Board, but rather emphasizes this period’s mid-point $16 billion deficit – still a debilitating sum. 

A cumulative deficit of $23 billion is a massive amount: the equivalent of 15 months of pre-pandemic operating costs for the MTA. For comparison, the New York City Department of Education has a budget of $34 billion for the 2020-2021 school year to educate more than 1 million students.

When factoring in a worst-case scenario “adjustment,” the MTA’s deficit through 2024 balloons to nearly $23 billion, up from $16 billion, as shown in the chart below, an increase of $7 billion and 44% worse.

Chart

The MTA’s worst-case scenario “adjustment” assumes more depressed ridership than anticipated, and a significant “second wave” of COVID-19 accompanied by more lockdowns this winter, according to an updated analysis from McKinsey. In the worst case, McKinsey assumes an average “ridership recovery” of 27% for 2021, 54% for 2022, 71% for 2023, and 79% for 2024.

ChartThis means that the worst case would be only 27% of ridership coming back in 2021 compared to what the MTA had projected pre-pandemic. It is worth noting that these recovery rates are not pegged to 2019 ridership rates, which saw steady ridership gains that were expected to continue through 2024. The MTA/McKinsey assumption shows relatively larger revenue deficits than if 2019 were held as a “base” year for ridership, and therefore for fare revenue, based on expected growth. However, steadily increasing MTA ridership is certainly a positive goal for the agency and the New York City region as a whole, albeit one that may be harder to attain post-covid.

Overall, McKinsey predicts a reduction in ridership due to the following factors: remote work (-4% to -12%); reduced non-work trips like shopping or for tourism (-2% to -5%); mode shifts such as walking, bicycling, driving, etc. (-2% to -3%); and decreased employment (-.2%).

MTA’s November Doomsday Plan Doesn’t Close Either a $16B or $23B Deficit
The MTA’s August Doomsday plan showed a number of options to close the gaps, as seen in our prior analysis, which also showed a $1 billion gap even with brutal cuts. The MTA’s November plan repeats many of these bad options to close the gaps in the absence of federal aid and greater support from New York State. Together, these gap-closers make up $14 billion of the MTA’s $16-$23 billion deficit, and include borrowing that will need to be paid back.

This means that at least $2 billion more in cuts will be needed, and as much as $9 billion in a worst-case scenario. Our summary of the MTA’s latest budget gap-closing options is below. It includes the MTA using its Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) trust, which was intended to help pay future MTA retirement benefits, and borrowing $2.9 billion from the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF) program, which will require the MTA to start paying interest in 2023.

Chart

Fare Hikes
In August, the MTA hinted at possible fare hikes beyond the regular increases planned every other year, for an additional 1% above the planned 4% increase. While the MTA’s November Financial Plan shows only 4% increases as originally planned pre-covid (as included in the chart above), some MTA Board members loyal to the governor have indicated that there should be no increases, or new discounts to lure riders back. No one will dispute that fare policies should consider the impact on ridership, as who wants to pay more for much, much less? Higher fares could deter riders from coming back, and 2019’s ridership gains already seem a distant memory.

The problem here is that the only solutions being proposed by Governor Cuomo and his MTA are cuts, borrowing, discounts on fares, or holding the fare steady. At best, discounts and holding the fare at current levels will have a neutral impact on the MTA’s bottom line, if not further increasing the deficit. The proposed fare hikes were expected to net $148 million more in revenue for 2021, and $267 million more in 2022.

MTA is Planning on the State Raiding Its Dedicated Funds
Even worse, the governor is actively withholding from the MTA its dedicated funds as part of the state’s budget adjustment process, with 20% across-the-board cuts being inflicted on everything from the MTA to nonprofit service-providers, CUNY, and other vital institutions. Funds have been withheld for months now, and are becoming de facto cuts in the absence of formal cuts. The withheld funds have allowed the state to accumulate a cash hoard of $23.8 billion – 62% more than this time last year, according to the latest cash reports from the State Comptroller. This is nearly the same amount as the MTA’s worst-case deficit through 2024: $22.9 billion.

The MTA has acknowledged that $600 million in state subsidies are at risk if the federal government doesn’t provide emergency aid to New York State, even factoring this loss into its $12 billion ask for federal aid. Translated from Albany budget lingo into real-world terms, the state plans to raid $600 million in MTA dedicated taxes to prop up its own finances.  

Congress and Governor Cuomo Both Have a Role to Play
So where are the solutions? Everyone agrees that the federal government is the MTA’s best option. Congress provided the MTA with nearly $4 billion in CARES Act funds earlier this year, which was fully spent down this summer. And the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity program is going to give the MTA $2.9 billion more in liquidity to help it make up some of these gaps. But any borrowing needs to be paid back, and the MTA will start paying $143 million a year in interest on this loan, according to its November Financial Plan.

The MTA’s “worst case” $22.9 billion deficit also happens to be nearly the same size as the ‘deficit’ New York has with the federal government. The MTA is essential to boosting the region’s economy, and State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s recent report shows that New York’s economic successes allowed it to send $23.7 billion more to Washington D.C. than it got back in federal aid in 2019. New York State ranked second worst only to New Jersey for what it got in return for its tax contributions. Forty-four other states got more back than they sent to the federal government; New Mexico, for example, got back nearly $12 billion more than it paid in taxes.

Now is the time for New York’s Congressional delegation to hold firm and ensure that the MTA is a necessary part of any emergency aid package. The latest aid proposal being discussed is yet again an anemic package that fails to fully support the MTA, which carries 40% of transit riders nationwide. The nation depends on New York to bolster federal tax revenue, and if the federal government lets the MTA fail, it only hurts itself.

At the same time, Governor Cuomo must once and for all pledge to stop raiding the MTA’s dedicated taxes to prop up the state’s budget shortfalls. The governor controls the MTA, and his own Board members have a fiduciary duty to the agency (including his Budget Director Rob Mujica), yet that is far from evident given that the State Division of the Budget is withholding millions from the MTA. It’s time they respect MTA dedicated funds – which were created by the Legislature to provide the MTA stable revenue in good times and bad – by giving them to the MTA at its time of greatest need.

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Rachael Fauss is Senior Policy Analyst at Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @RachaelFauss & @ReinventAlbany.

 

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rfauss@gothamgazette.com (Rachael Fauss) Opinion Thu, 03 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
‘Hanging On’ is Not a Management Strategy https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9953-hanging-on-not-a-management-strategy-nyc-budget-de-blasio https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9953-hanging-on-not-a-management-strategy-nyc-budget-de-blasio fy202 eb

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography)


As required by the state Financial Control Act, last Monday Mayor de Blasio presented a modification of New York City’s current fiscal year budget and four-year financial plan. This “first quarter mod” is usually a no-drama, technical adjustment that makes few substantive changes to the budget adopted at the start of the fiscal year in July. It incorporates changes in revenue projections based on receipts actually received through September and any unanticipated adjustments in expenses (usually increases). But this has been anything but a usual year, and a more urgent tone and more aggressive budget changes were called for and not delivered. 

Budget watchers hoped that the new budget documents would present a more realistic picture of the serious fiscal situation the city faces and the concrete steps the de Blasio administration will take to address it. Covid continues to wreak havoc on the city’s residents and its economy. Despite the expected arrival of a vaccine in the next few months, it is far from certain that things will bounce back and tax revenue will quickly return to pre-covid levels. Even during prior (”normal”) recessions, it has taken three years for the city’s economy to recover, and this recession is not normal.

Tourism, commercial real estate transactions, entertainment, and other activities may well take years to rebound and/or may undergo permanent changes and retrenchment. How will the city adjust its revenue and spending over the next four years to respond to these changes over an extended period of time? This budget modification doesn’t tell us.

We know that in addition to further income, business, and real estate tax revenue losses, the city could also face severe cuts in state aid because the state is in even worse financial shape, but that is not  reflected in the budget either. One billion dollars in state school aid to the city has already been removed from the state’s baseline budget for fiscal year 2022. In addition there is potentially $8 billion in unspecified statewide local aid cuts that could mean a loss of $2-3 billion to New York City. Instead, the city’s new budget mod relies on debt service savings (which are routine, not the result of new, affirmative steps by the city government), minimal efficiencies, and largely symbolic, non-recurring measures like short furloughs of management employees and postponements of payments to public employees (laughably characterized as “savings”) to balance this year’s budget and reduce the 2022 budget deficit by $400 million to $3.8 billion. 

According to Mayor de Blasio, the strategy is to ‘hang on’ because sometime soon, there will be an infusion of federal stimulus funds which will close both the city and state gaps: 

“….first of all, we need relief immediately to be able to continue to provide city services and to be able to keep people employed…We do not want to reduce services exactly when we're trying to come back and when people are in such dire need. So, this was a way of getting us to next year. But we've said all along, the only way we can actually make all of this come together is with the stimulus…And the federal government was supposed to protect us. Obviously, that didn't happen…So, for us to just keep hanging on is the right approach to get to the day where there's actually the federal support we deserve and which I absolutely believe is within reach.”

But federal aid to states and localities is far from certain. Hopes for imminent help were first focused on the post-election Congressional session, which will likely end by mid-December. There is discussion of a last-minute stimulus deal before Congress recesses in the next few weeks but Republican Senate recalcitrance makes adequate help for state and local governments unlikely, even though a number of ‘red’ states are in financial trouble as well as 'blue' ones.

The mayor’s preliminary budget for next fiscal year must be submitted to the City Council in January. Will President-Elect Biden be able to deliver any more state and local aid than is possible in the current Congress? Not necessarily. And if making that determination takes until February, or even later, is Mayor de Blasio going to ‘hang on’ even longer without taking any steps to solve our fiscal problems? Delaying the start of gap-closing measures will only make the problem and the necessary solutions more painful.

Federal funding to assist the city and other jurisdictions that faced economic shutdowns because of the pandemic is unquestionably necessary and appropriate, but whatever amount is authorized — if any — will unlikely be sufficient to cover the full New York City deficit and will not last for more than one or two years. As Citizens Budget Commission President Andrew Rein has said, federal stimulus will only be a bridge to a more sustainable future; the City and State will face continuing budget gaps if the economy doesn’t fully recover by 2023. So, what’s the plan? 

The MTA and Port Authority, also struggling with dramatically-reduced revenue, have presented budget plans showing how they will survive without federal aid. The prospects of reduced transportation service are daunting indeed, but the public needs to understand them and be prepared if these difficult scenarios come to pass. Governor Cuomo has temporarily withheld substantial state aid payments to localities and cut back agency spending, warning that these cuts and more could become permanent. Mayor de Blasio prefers to avoid proactively making tough decisions that will make New Yorkers unhappy, but the uncertainty is already causing distress and there will be anger if New Yorkers feel they were misled to believe that federal aid would make everything better and they are confronted with service cuts, layoffs, tax increases, or a combination of all of these at the very last minute.

If the administration will not present a specific plan for multi-year gap closing then the Financial Control Board (FCB) should require that it do so. It is the FCB that requires the city to maintain a balanced budget, prepare a four-year financial plan, keep it updated, and demonstrate the fiscal discipline to maintain long-term fiscal stability. At the FCB meeting in August the Executive Director suggested that because of the unique circumstances wrought by covid it would be appropriate to hold another session in November to review the budget modification. But it is December and it doesn’t appear that such a meeting has yet been scheduled and the Executive Director of the FCB retired in mid-October; no replacement has been announced. It is critical that the FCB adopt a more assertive strategy to assure there is clarity about how state aid cuts will impact the city and hold the mayor accountable for a real fiscal management plan.

Moreover, if the mayor is going to ‘hang on,’ he will be leaving his successor to confront revenue shortfalls along with the larger issues of how to get the economy back on track. When he took office the mayor complained that his predecessor left him with a raft of unresolved labor contracts. What he seems to be ready to leave his successor is much worse. The media and voters should start asking mayoral candidates what their plans are for closing our budget gaps if federal funds do not make our fiscal challenges go away. The sooner we hear from them about this crucial issue, the better.

***
Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018. Norman Steisel was a First Deputy Mayor of New York City, Sanitation Commissioner, and First Deputy Budget Director, all between 1974 and 1994.

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mauthors@gothamgazette.com (Carol Kellermann & Norman Steisel) Opinion Wed, 02 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
New York City is Ready for Biden-Harris Diplomacy at Home and Abroad https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9949-new-york-city-ready-biden-harris-diplomacy-home-abroad https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9949-new-york-city-ready-biden-harris-diplomacy-home-abroad gov dept dop

Then-Vice President Joe Biden (photo: governor's office)


Over the last four years, our city and nation have watched as the Trump administration targeted immigrant communities with punitive policies and lashed out at local leadership who disagreed with his politics. With unprecedented climate events and a pandemic that has upended our lives, cities like ours have been left to fend for themselves. Indeed, this abdication of responsibility on the national and global stage has been a recurring theme.

That is about to change. 

The incoming Biden-Harris administration has already given us reason to be hopeful. In the days following the historic election, they have let us know how they will help address the challenges that cities have been managing alone for far too long.  

Let’s start with our communities: President-Elect Joe Biden named a 16-member COVID-19 task force committed to following the science and promoting policies that New York City knows works. This is in sharp contrast to the sitting president, who downplayed the severity of the pandemic from day one and continues to promote conspiracy theories and politicize common sense measures like wearing a mask as our nation surges past the grim milestone of a quarter million deaths.

For a majority of New Yorkers, it is a relief to see that the Biden-Harris administration has already pledged to undo the travel bans against some Muslim-majority countries, take action to protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and advocate for a $15 minimum wage. Our administration, which just announced even more ambitious Green New Deal goals, is relieved to see climate action among the president-elect’s top priorities. The United States on January 20 will move quickly to recommit to the Paris Climate Agreement that seeks to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Climate action may be one of the few existential issues that is truly bipartisan. While New York City was one of the first U.S. cities to commit directly to the Paris Agreement after Trump pulled out, there are over 250 cities around the country, from San Francisco, CA to Kansas City, MO to Little Rock, AK that have said “we’re in.” New York City has been a leader these last four years because our memories are fresh. It’s hard to forget the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, which hit on Oct. 29, 2012, killed 44 of our fellow New Yorkers, displaced thousands, and left $19 billion worth of damages in its wake.

New York City is host to the largest diplomatic corps in the world. We have used this incredible platform and access to global leaders to reaffirm that U.S. local governments are showing the American leadership missing from Washington D.C. on issues like climate, migration, and now, Covid-19.

It has been critical to do this with our communities throughout the five boroughs, especially with our youth. Launched in 2015 to bring the United Nations and the Global Goals to young New Yorkers, our NYC Junior Ambassadors program now has thousands of alumni who are taking action in their communities on issues our national government has ignored. For example, after studying Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Under Water, one of our cohorts organized a cleanup of the Bronx River.

New York City also worked to create a seat at the table for cities and local governments at the United Nations. Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration has disengaged at the multilateral level on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are a roadmap to address poverty and climate change by 2030.  New York City leveraged our influence at the United Nations to create the NYC Declaration on the Voluntary Local Review, an opportunity for cities and local governments to directly bring their leadership on the SDGs to the global community. We now have more than 210 cities and states worldwide that have committed to sharing ideas and using the SDGs to accelerate change in their communities.

The hard work cities here in the U.S. and around the world are doing is what will greet the incoming Biden-Harris administration, especially the work we have done on the frontlines of combatting COVID-19. It has been local leadership that has saved lives. We followed the science and data and continue to do so, but the coming year will bring many challenges including equitable distribution of vaccines. 

The president-elect’s intentions around COVID-19 management, climate, immigration, minimum wage, and more, are all steps in the right direction that will create a better world for millions.

After four long years, cities are finally gaining an ally in Washington, D.C. and the promise of building back better seems to be within our collective grasp.

***
Penny Abeywardena is Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs. On Twitter @PAbeywardena.

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pabeywardena@gg.com (Penny Abeywardena) Opinion Wed, 02 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Digesting a New Path Forward for Residential Composting in New York City https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9946-digesting-new-path-forward-residential-composting-new-york-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9946-digesting-new-path-forward-residential-composting-new-york-city recy org mater

Compost collection (photo: New York City Department of Sanitation)


As we come out of the Thanksgiving holiday and head further into the season of holiday meals, it is useful to take a moment to think about where all of those leftover food scraps end up. The ability to divert this organic waste from landfills is a lot more limited this year due to substantial budget cuts to New York City’s voluntary composting program. Utilizing recently-developed, small-scale organic waste digesters in residential buildings offers a new, economically-viable path forward.

In recent years, efforts to sustain New York City’s composting program have focused on mandating organics recycling through legislation. This strategy is modeled after the city’s existing approach to non-organics recycling, in which paper, plastic, and metal are processed through centralized infrastructure. However, handling organic waste actually lends itself to a localized setup if the right technology is available.      

Under the now largely defunded city composting pilot program, the city Department of Sanitation (DSNY) coordinated residential curbside pickup for organic waste in small dwellings (nine units or fewer), much like they do for recyclables. The collected material was then transferred to centralized sites for conversion to compost.  

A core challenge that plagued the voluntary program was a low average participation rate, resulting in DSNY trucks collecting at about a tenth of their capacity. From an economic standpoint, this translates to organic diversion costing as much as six times more than conventional landfill disposal per ton.

Regardless of whether organic diversion rates improve in small residences, there is no setup in place to process organic waste in medium- and large-scale residential buildings, i.e., those over nine units. Some key challenges are limited storage space for the separated material prior to disposal and the accompanying odor that can trigger rodent and insect infestations if not properly managed. The amount of organic waste produced and energy usage of these larger residential buildings put them on the right economy of scale to take up new, onsite organic waste digestion technology.

Advances in aerobic waste digester technology allow for small-scale machines that effectively break down organic waste using a proprietary blend of enzymes. Unlike composting, where material decays slowly under natural conditions, digestion occurs at a relatively rapid pace (24-48 hours) and low temperature (~95 ⁰F). The process is also versatile – allowing the complete breakdown of all forms of commonly-discarded household organics, such as produce, meat, bones, fat, pet waste, yard waste, and compostable packaging/bags.

Typical small-scale aerobic digesters (SADs) cost approximately $150,000 per unit. They produce a nutrient-dense, soil-like material that is completely non-toxic – meaning that it is not subject to any regulatory controls. This output product can be used as an additive in building landscaping or as fertilizer for community gardens. Since the processed material is odorless and dehydrated, it can also be stored onsite until it can be picked up by DSNY or a private hauler to be added as a valuable ingredient to existing commercial composting or energy digester conversion programs.  

With additional equipment (approximately $150,000), the high-energy content material output can be used onsite to power a building’s boiler. This can displace other building energy purchases such as fuel oil, natural gas, or electricity from the grid, while saving money in the process.  

SADs offer a number of other advantages. The units can run continuously with minimal oversight and are easy to operate (adding the enzymes is similar to loading laundry detergent).  Much like a building’s compactor, operating and maintenance costs for SADs are low and any necessary repairs are generally covered by a warranty. The relatively fast transfer of organic waste to digesters within a building also reduces pest management costs and any unpleasant odor. On the city-wide level, this also provides health-related benefits by decreasing rodent- and insect-based diseases, as well as exposure to any chemicals used by exterminators.  

Policy changes could provide new financial incentives to encourage the use of aerobic digesters in residential buildings. Some examples include tax credits for each ton of landfill waste avoided (including tipping fees, transport costs, truck wear and tear, etc.) and offsets related to avoided greenhouse gas emissions. Funding for installation of SADs could be considered under the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) energy upgrade programs and the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing program established under Local Law 96. 

Perhaps the most important shift in localized organics processing is the transition from an incentive-based “carrot-style” philosophy over the mandatory “stick-style” approach. Providing incentives to buildings will likely encourage management to play a larger role in getting their residents to separate organic waste. In tandem, this would relieve the city of some costs associated with educational organics recycling programming and public service announcements. The added convenience of dropping off these materials in one’s own residential building should also increase the rate of organic waste diversion.

We suggest that the city help expedite the potential implementation of aerobic waste digestion in residential buildings by developing pilot programs that generate a clearer picture of the full cost savings. While budgetary pressures are high at the moment, the gains seem well worth the costs of subsidizing a handful of digesters in buildings willing to participate. Another option is for New York City to consider legislation that requires new buildings to leave space in their designs to install this equipment, if not also require its use.    

The solution to shortcomings with the New York City zero-waste initiative may very well be the opposite of what we thought – not to centralize our organic waste recycling efforts, but rather localize them at the residential level. Technology now presents us with an option for an innovative and cost-effective path forward. Let’s choose this local detour, as it might just make all the difference.

***
Nancy Holt, PhD is the Co-founder of Science for New York (Sci4NY) which aims to have local scientists support decision makers through project-based interaction. On Twitter @Sci4NY.

Brandon M. McMurtry is a PhD candidate in Chemistry at Columbia University in New York and a member of Sci4NY.

Calder Orr, MPA Environmental Science and Policy from Columbia University, is a Research Scientist with the City of New York.

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mauthors@gothamgazette.com (Nancy Holt, Brandon McMurtry & Calder Orr) Opinion Tue, 01 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
New York Must Protect Our Immigrant-Owned Small Businesses https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9939-new-york-protect-immigrant-owned-small-businesses https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9939-new-york-protect-immigrant-owned-small-businesses sm bus visits

Small businesses are the lifeblood for so many (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


As cases of COVID-19 rise once again, New York is faced with a second wave that could force “nonessential” businesses to shutter their doors, and for many this may be permanent. This would hinder profitable operations and wipe out families’ income without proper support. In the Bronx and across New York City, we are powered by immigrant-owned small businesses that are essential to our communities and to our economy’s success. Yet, they have faced immense and disproportionate hardships due to the pandemic.

Diminishing, almost non-existent, access to federal assistance programs has left many business owners with nowhere to turn. Without additional access to loans and grants to help pay for salaries, rent, and bills, we can expect a drastic decrease in small businesses, including many that have been staples of our communities for decades. It has already happened in far too many cases as the coronavirus has devastated New York and the federal government has not come through.

This is something that we all can see and feel as residents of the Bronx, which from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic has been one of the hardest-hit boroughs. However, we are a community of diversity and resilience.

Even as financial hardship has hurt them, some Bronx restaurants are making sure their community members have access to food since other industries have faced even more dire restrictions. La Morada turned its operation into a soup kitchen, making about 650 meals each day to help unemployed New Yorkers and disabled adults without the ability to cook on their own.  

While some places are able to provide hope, many businesses are starting to run out. Over the next few months a third to almost one-half of all New York City restaurants and bars could permanently close up shop due to increasing uncertainty and the ever-changing business environment brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. As the restaurant industry cripples under financial pressure, so does the hard-working immigrant community, which makes up over 60 percent of the workforce in the industry. Both of which are essential to New York’s vibrant culture and prosperity. 

Today, almost half of all small businesses are immigrant-owned. And, as coronavirus sparked uncertainty for everyone across the board, undocumented workers continue to face disproportionable hardships. From being left out of federal relief in the CARES Act earlier this year to new reports that undocumented immigrants across all of New York City will be left out of city aid, there is a continued financial strain and little help in sight for one of the hardest-hit communities. 

Fortunately, there are policies we can enact that will help New York’s immigrant communities. As a new member of the State Legislature, I am committed to passing meaningful legislation such as the Empire State Licensing Act, a common-sense solution that would expand access to the appropriate professional licenses — regardless of immigration status — needed to enter the workforce. Additionally, I will be focused on the Excluded Worker Fund would provide assistance to those traditionally left out of wage protection and unemployment benefits, such as undocumented immigrants, and the Lift the Caps legislation, which increases street vendor permits and licenses, many of whom are immigrants. 

As a newly-elected Assembly member, I will work to end the nonsense that is bickering and excuses within government that is supposed to be helping people. I will fight consistently and effectively alongside staff and other elected officials in the Assembly and the Senate to pass legislation that will promote small businesses that represent staples of our community yet are left without financial relief. The state needs to make significant investments in the immigrant communities and immigrant small businesses that breathe life into our economy and help our communities thrive. This means that we need a budget that reflects our morals and community needs, and one that invests in our people, not threatens economic hardship through austerity.

I promise my district that we will fight and champion legislation that builds not just equality but also the equity looted from our communities for far too long. 

Only with a response that is geared toward helping the most vulnerable communities overcome financial hardships, keep their businesses open, and get back to work can we rebuild towards far greater equality and success. We can’t let up and will not stop until our community members, and all small businesses in the Bronx and beyond, are made a priority.

***
Kenny Burgos is the Assemblymember for the 85th District, in the Bronx. On Twitter @KennyBurgosNY.

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kburgos@gg.com (Kenny Burgos) Opinion Mon, 30 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
The Tragedy of Wealth Inequality in the City’s Asian-American Community, and What To Do About It https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9945-wealth-inequality-nyc-asian-american-community-what-to-do https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9945-wealth-inequality-nyc-asian-american-community-what-to-do Flushing celebration mayor's office

A celebration in Flushing, Queens (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


When I first entered office in 2013, I joined other elected officials in the time-honored tradition of attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Most of the time, these were for hotels, fancy restaurants, and even luxury condos.

Hard-hat and shovel in hand, I said the usual things about economic growth and prosperity that these projects would hopefully bring to Flushing, and we were all rewarded for this “insight” by the media.

This was the status quo—enabling private industries to launder their reputations through our offices while our constituents received corporate giveaways, free dinners, and other privately-subsidized handouts. Win-win, right?

But over time, it became impossible to ignore that the fulfillment of these promises of economic growth and prosperity was plunging large swaths of people into poverty. As more and more luxury condos began construction, we saw more and more homelessness in the streets. As more and more mega-malls neared completion, more and more elderly were digging for scraps in the trash.

Flushing is truly a tale of two cities: limitless opulence and wealth just blocks away from make-shift homes for the homeless.

The Pew Research Center recently reported that Asian-Americans lead all racial groups in wealth inequality. Those at the top earn nearly ten times more than those at the bottom – the highest among all ethnicities. This is why I am now calling on all Asian-American elected officials and candidates to join me in addressing wealth inequality.

Since my first election, there have been at least three life-altering experiences for me on this topic. These cases compelled me to focus entirely on the economic trauma now affecting the most marginalized people, many of Asian immigrant descent, in my district.

The first incident was in 2014. An older gentleman, early seventies with no family, entered my office using a walker. He could barely see due to his cataracts. He told me that he rode a casino bus every day to collect a $15-$20 voucher, and used that money to pay rent. He needed proof of residence to qualify for benefits, but lived in an illegally converted 1-bedroom apartment with five other seniors. How could this be?

The second took place the same year. We held an affordable housing town hall in the basement of a church, expecting 100 people at most—and nearly 1,200 came. Mostly seniors and older adults, many of them waited several hours before even entering. How could this be?

And lastly, in 2017, there was the tragic life and death of a migrant sex-worker named Yang Song. She was targeted and harassed for months, all because she tried to report being assaulted and raped by undercover police officers. They made her life a living hell until, one day, the police raided her massage parlor and she died fleeing from her abusers. A local real estate developer mocked her death on Facebook as just another “hooker splattering.” How could this be?

This economic trauma and dehumanization is directly linked to soaring wealth inequality. How else can we justify children starving in our own backyard as we enjoy their favorite dim sum? How else can we justify walking past the scores of homeless folks and crowded food lines while rushing off to brunch?

We live under a myth that pathologizes the poor and glorifies the rich. When you are poor, there is something inherently “bad” about you—fundamentally deficient. And when you’re rich, you’re a hard worker, a “good person” entitled to all the world can offer.

But it’s our system that sustains wealth inequality to such an extreme degree. It’s our system that rewards leaders for their short-termism, extractivism, and exploitation to advance “economic priorities.”

Case in point: a group of real-estate developers has proposed a 3 million-square-foot luxury development in Flushing, the Special Flushing Waterfront District. The threat of displacement for thousands of working class people is all too real. Yet not one local politician has joined me in speaking out against this travesty.

I know that for some it is easier to turn to the wealthy for handouts disguised as solutions, rather than hold them accountable for the worst economic divide among all groups.

But as Asian-American leaders we must come to terms with the crises of our times. We need to fight for tax justice and a fair, equitable relationship between business leaders and our community.

Our current tax codes reward big real estate developers. They are incentivized to raise and transfer tax-free capital, creating artificial community “value” while displacing our most vulnerable residents.

We need to progressively tax real wealth, inheritance, and capital gain to the point that it no longer makes sense for private investors to simply hoard vast fortunes. Make it more viable to re-circulate their money into local economies, instead of stockpiling it for their families to roll over into tax-free capital investments—which only further inequality.

Lastly, every mega-project must start with a labor agreement, a minimum of 25% real affordable housing, and a public environmental review.

The next time you venture down Roosevelt Avenue and Main Street -- or the thoroughfares in your neighborhood -- don’t look away from the homeless seniors, day laborers, and migrant workers. Let their suffering open your mind and heart, and make you care enough to change the conditions that led them there.

If you’re able to pass them without a second thought, I hope you enjoy your brunch.

***
Ron Kim is a member of the New York State Assembly from Flushing, Queens and adjunct professor at Cornell University. On Twitter @rontkim.

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rkim@gg.com (Ron Kim) Opinion Mon, 30 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Can the Manhattan Borough President Stop the Chop? https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9941-can-manhattan-borough-president-brewer-stop-chop-helicopters-nyc https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9941-can-manhattan-borough-president-brewer-stop-chop-helicopters-nyc presi stop rd

Helicoptering over the city (photo: Julia Vitullo-Martin)


Thanks to an onslaught of out-of-town tourist helicopters and small planes flying over New York landmarks, a quiet weekend day in Central Park or Governors Island or the Brooklyn waterfront has become a thing of the past. Any revered site from the Noguchi Museum in Queens to Liberty Island south of the Battery is now subject to inundation by 85 to 95 flights starting at dawn on Saturdays and finishing at unpredictable hours, with some flying as late as midnight Sunday. And while helicopters in the old days tried to maintain heights of 1,900 feet to minimize noise, they now routinely hover at 1,000 feet, circling and swooping to maximize passenger views and photo opps. 

But New York has an advocate on the horizon—Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who is now doing everything in her power to tackle this new set of low-flying, loud, polluting helicopters operating in unprecedented numbers. While first setting up a task force of elected officials from New York and New Jersey to examine the issues and propose solutions, her second step is to gather data—no minor feat given that the helicopter industry refuses to release flight data to the public, as does the federal monitoring agency, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which asserts dismissively, "Any helicopter may fly over Manhattan." Not in Brewer’s view: “No issue has produced the number of complaints through the years as helicopters.” Indeed, an analysis by The City showed a more than 130% increase in helicopter noise complaints, rising to 7,758 as of November 13 of this year versus 4,400 for all of 2019.

“The good news is that the industry has agreed to participate,” Brewer told me. “All stakeholders will be meeting, and we hope to make headway in stopping the tourism from above.” In a first for them, the FAA has even agreed to send expert observers to provide input and feedback, Brewer said.

Simply straightening out who’s flying above us is crucial because there have been many misunderstandings over the last few months. The NYPD, for example, is not a major culprit. Yes, the Aviation Unit has 8 helicopters, and some of them flew low and aggressively during the summer’s protests, but as FlightRadar24 shows, the NYPD seldom has more than one helicopter in the air at a time. To clarify this and other problems, Brewer has asked the NYPD to provide helicopter data that they don’t currently make public. She is also requesting a joint meeting with the television stations that use helicopters. In the past the media have used the protections of the First Amendment to fly with impunity, but those days may be numbered as New Yorkers discover via flight apps that it’s the media hovering above their neighborhoods for hours at a time sounding like giant dental drills in the sky.

Doors-Off Heli Hell from Across the Hudson
We live in odd times. We know that. The onslaught of doors-off tourist helicopter flights from New Jersey is a product, first, of the pandemic itself which shut competing New York heliports, and, second, the social media boom, especially Instagram, which encourages people to post current adventures, the more dramatic and outrageous the better. The heli blitz began in July, when New York was mostly locked down, but New Jersey somehow wasn’t. Still, many New Jerseyans had plenty of free time since far fewer people than usual were working or going to school. Some took to the skies—New York City skies.

They took helicopter rides over New York City as entertainment, especially easy to do from local heliports—Kearny, Linden, Newark, Teterboro and dozens more—and unusually cheap, because the heli companies have been offering bargain rates of $99 per ride and up. They also offer an array of 60%-off packages, encouraging tourists to take multiple flights and get their photos of New York City landmarks just right. Give the gift of flight, says FlyNYON:

“Holiday Deals Are Back at FlyNYON!
Get Ready to Fly Over New York City image1
Take the Perfect Shoe Selfie With a Doors-Off Flight Over Manhattan!” 

NYC’s Own Heliports Are Not the Current Culprits
New York City-based tour flights can only originate at the Downtown Heliport. The other two city-owned heliports ban tours. That’s not to say their flights are not annoying, but their flights are not the relentless tours over landmarks. Over 96% of East 34th Street’s flights, for example, are categorized as air taxi. 

Flights from the East 34th Street Heliport, directly across from both the Langone Medical Center and densely populated East Side residential blocks, were an early source of controversy so ferocious that Mayor Giuliani’s administration actually tried to appease neighbors by specifically imposing a mandatory 47% reduction in flights and banning heavy Sikorskys from sightseeing flights. But Giuliani was blocked by then-District Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who in 1997 permanently enjoined the city from regulating routes or banning flights. A federal appellate court subsequently allowed the city to restrict operations somewhat, but the lesson was clear: A locality, even a city of New York’s wealth and size, is the lesser power than the federal government when it comes to control of air traffic—which is one reason the FAA’s participation in Borough President Brewer’s task force is imperative.

Still, the pandemic has forced a reduction in flights that activists, ironically, were never able to achieve. As New York City Economic Development Corporation data obtained by the Manhattan Borough President show, flights in 2020 have been greatly decreased from 2019. In August 2020, the last month for which data are available, only 224 flights left East 34th Street, as opposed to ten times as many, 2,472, in 2019.

The heliport is closed weekends, which means no commuter flights from the Hamptons.

image2

The Hudson River Park West 30th Street Heliport wasn’t even supposed to be there. The 1998 act establishing the park barred all sightseeing flights from taking off or landing within its boundaries and prohibited any heliport from operating on park land. But a series of compromises between the city and the Trust effectively sited a heliport on park land. This matter could always be re-visited, though the creation of the huge Hudson Yards development to the immediate north produced a whole new set of potential helicopter-commuting customers, who especially like the huge Sikorskys that thunder across Queens and Manhattan at 1,000 feet, to and from the Hamptons, or up and down the Hudson River. Like 34th Street, West 30th flights have decreased by more than half—In October 2020 they had 403 flights versus 1,013 in October 2019.

image3

Which brings us to the Downtown Heliport, the only one in New York City permitting tours. From a helicopter pilot’s point of view, downtown is a splendid location, with many of New York’s riches right at hand—the Statue of Liberty, Governors Island, Brooklyn Heights, the Brooklyn waterfront, Chelsea, downtown Manhattan including Ground Zero, and so much more. But from a residential point of view, the helicopters are abysmally located, leaving their engines running while on the ground and producing deafening noise when taking off and landing.

Still, like the other two city-owned heliports, Downtown’s traffic is down substantially, with 162 flights (88 tour, 74 non-tour) in September of this year, and 144 flights (77 tour and 67 non-tour) in August, versus 1,891 tour flights in September of last year and 2,470 in August.

For the most part, New York’s heliports adhere to a 2016 agreement, by which helicopter companies based at the Downtown Heliport agreed to (1) avoid flying over land, (2) not fly on Sunday, (3) ban flights over Governors Island, and (4) turn around before the George Washington Bridge when flying up the Hudson. Every single one of these principles is regularly ignored by the tourist flights from New Jersey and, increasingly, Westchester County and Poughkeepsie. They all fly over land, Sunday is their big day, and they hover over landmarks—all of which put the few flights from New York’s heliports at a competitive disadvantage.

One oddity in all of this: the out-of-town tourist helicopters are, astonishingly enough, promoted by New York’s taxpayer-supported NYC & Company, which apparently believes they are part of what it calls hyperlocal tourism. As part of the promotion, the Empire State Building offers its tourists FlyNYON discounts to see the ESB from a helicopter. The Wall Street Journal recently approvingly cited Wings Air Helicopters, which it called “a flight service that typically drew 60-65% of its business from international visitors, is catering to locals with 12-minute sightseeing rides out of Westchester Airport for $90 a person.” It’s hard to make the intellectual leap from out-of-town helicopter flights to benefits for New York’s tourism industry, yet NYC & Company lists dozens.

When Is a Commuter Flight not a Commuter Flight?
Because the FAA classifies commuter flights as essential, anti-helicopter activists in New York City have generally avoided taking on this category of flight. Yet not all flights self-categorized as commuter are truly commuter and those that are tend to fly the lowest and the noisiest—sounding like low-flying diesel trucks—over residential neighborhoods. 

The flight apps show that a few rogue helicopter pilots who primarily fly commuter planes sometimes book tourist flights from both West Side and East Side heliports. So far the Economic Development Corporation, the heliport landlord, has not commented, but the matter of EDC oversight should be high on Borough President Brewer’s agenda: Who audits what helicopters are doing, where, and when? At the moment, the answer is no one.

Not only are there no audits telling New Yorkers who’s flying, we have no way of knowing why they’re flying—tourist joyride, essential commute, or, importantly, human organ transplant missions. A Bell helicopter, N39CL, emblazoned with the Blade logo, for example, recently flew from Teterboro across Manhattan at 800 feet, down the East River at 400 feet, over to Newark at 900 feet, and onto Linden where it landed—after what looked like a 30-minute jaunt around Manhattan. Will Heyburn, Blade’s Head of Corporate Development, said that far from being a jaunt, N39CL was delivering a human organ, a liver, picked up at Teterboro and delivered to NYU Langone on 34th Street. “This helicopter is used almost exclusively on organ transplant missions,” said Heyburn, “a very rapid service that was unavailable in New York before Blade. You have four hours max to deliver a heart, for example, and you really can’t do that on roads.”

Still, Blade’s logo does appear on tourist flights made by other companies, such as Zip. A private helicopter and seaplane service that prides itself on being a good corporate citizen, Blade responds when challenged that flights with its logo are not necessarily theirs, writing me: “Our largest concern in the industry are the FlyNYON doors-off flights above and around Manhattan buildings. None of the operator companies that we do business with conduct any over-Manhattan tours. Their operations are over water and around the island.” Yet heli companies like Zip take advantage of the loose oversight to fly questionable routes that are indeed over land, including Central Park.

This is good news and bad: good, because Blade and its very articulate CEO Rob Wiesenthal should be natural allies of Brewer’s task force, but bad, because this simply reinforces what we already know—anyone can fly above us at any time, unobstructed by regulatory agencies or even a corporation whose name is on their plane.

Embedded in all of this is another reason for policy-makers to pay attention to commuter flights: the growth of what Wiesenthal calls “synthetic suburbs,” in areas like the Hamptons or the Hudson Valley not normally accessible for daily trips to the city—but accessible via Wiesenthal’s helicopters.

Can Brewer Succeed?
Brewer has taken on a very tough assignment in which her legal authority is limited even as the grievances of her constituents become ever larger and more persistent. At the moment, hers is the only serious effort to address an increasingly contentious problem. And while a single company, FlyNYON, is responsible for most of the egregious flights, they have recently been joined by others: HelifFlight out of Linden, which offers Groupon discounts, and WingsAir from Westchester County Airport. Both book late-night tours.

The FAA itself warns that “even experienced pilots can miss something as big as a mountain at night,” especially when flying under Visual Flight Rules. Yet night flights have become a constant in New York’s pandemic age, as helicopter companies and pilots push the outer limits of good sense, circling famous skyscrapers at night recklessly.

Can they be stopped? All New Yorkers should be watching Brewer’s efforts carefully.

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Julia Vitullo-Martin is a long-time editor and writer on cities. On Twitter @JuliaManhattan.

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Note: this column has been updated with additional information and comment from Blade.

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jvitullomartin@gothamazette.com (Julia Vitullo-Martin) Opinion Thu, 26 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Green Gentrification and Environmental Racism in Flushing https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9928-green-gentrification-environmental-racism-flushing-special-waterfront-district https://www.gothamgazette.com/authors/130-opinion/9928-green-gentrification-environmental-racism-flushing-special-waterfront-district flushing creek site citi field view sfwd

One part of the Special Flushing Waterfront District site


Flushing residents, local environmental organizations, and nonprofit groups have long despaired over Flushing Creek. The waterway has been a symbol of environmental racism and community disinvestment for many years; it frequently runs cloudy and sulphurous with industrial waste and sewage overflow.

In 2016, local environmental organizations Guardians of Flushing Bay and the Riverkeeper released a vision plan for an integrated and ecologically healthy waterfront. Activists, community residents, and the Flushing Rezoning Community Alliance also published a plan that prioritized the needs of existing residents and discussed safeguards against displacement. Both of these plans were created after many representative community meetings and envisioned a neighborhood free from air and noise pollution, with a clean creek and community resources like senior centers and public parks. 

What Flushing residents may receive instead is a massive luxury development proposal driven by the monetary interests of real estate developers F&T Group, United Construction and Development Group Inc, and Young Nian Group. The Special Flushing Waterfront District would be a huge mixed-use development hosting over 1,700 luxury condos, a hotel, retail spaces, and a privately-managed “public” waterfront. None of the community resources supported by locals in previous plans have been incorporated into the proposal. Moreover, the imagined “public” waterfront has the authority to limit access to locals. 

Familiar Promises Waiting to be Broken Once More
In 2013, City Council Member Peter Koo approved F&T Group’s bid to purchase Municipal Parking Lot 1 for a severely discounted price. Koo also supported a number of tax benefits and special permits that loosened height restrictions and setback regulations (the minimum required horizontal distance between the sides of a structure from the property line). In return, F&T agreed to build affordable housing units and space for a YMCA in the proposed Flushing Commons, which was built on top of Municipal Parking Lot 1. 

Since 2013, F&T has completed Phase 1 of Flushing Commons, constructing two apartment buildings featuring prime office condominiums, luxury apartments, retail spaces, and a new 982-space parking garage. The promised YMCA, publicly accessible spaces, and affordable housing units are scheduled for construction in Phase II. Under the false pretense of community benefit, F&T has only intensified the problems of displacement and crowding in Flushing. In recent years, Flushing has lost many affordable housing units and rent stabilized units because of persistent rezoning and luxury development and existing units face continual threats.

Environmental Racism in Flushing
Like many low-income communities of color, residents of downtown Flushing must live with higher rates of air, water, and noise pollution than their whiter, wealthier neighbors. A 2019 Union of Concerned Scientists report states that "Asian American residents are exposed to twice as much PM2.5 pollution (fine, inhalable particles) as are white residents [in New York].” Furthermore, this type of pollution “is the largest environmental health risk factor in the United States, responsible for 63 percent of deaths from environmental causes (Tessum et al. 2019; Tessum, Hill, and Marshall 2014).” Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Better Buses Restart Plan noted that the intersection at Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing was the third busiest pedestrian intersection in the city. These traffic jams contribute to the noise and air pollution that harm the health of Flushing residents. 

"People cannot breathe anymore because of the numbers of cars [passing by] and construction being done everywhere," Jay Kim, a resident of 3733 College Point said. "During the Tangram House South construction, I would not dare to open the window even in the hot summer when I am cooking. From my kitchen window, industrial debris was coming in constantly…the outside looked hazy with dust."

With Flushing intersecting numerous flight paths to LaGuardia airport, the rise of condominiums like Flushing Commons and the proposed Special Flushing Waterfront District project stand in direct violation of Federal Aviation Administration height restrictions. This is yet another way the rezoning proposal is a mismatch for the community. These restrictions exist to protect the quality of human lives, yet developers like F&T have attempted to sidestep the FAA  height restrictions with waivers on numerous occasions in hopes of building higher towers. "Planes fly very close to the ground in Downtown Flushing…and make a lot of noise. I cannot even open the door in the summer,” Kim said. 

Flushing locals hope that the planned development will not cause them to relive the nightmare they endured in 2016 when Sky View Mall was constructed. During that time, nearby NYCHA Bland Houses public housing communities suffered from environmental harassment and rat infestations. Tenants reported giant rats in the courtyards, garbage disposal rooms, and hallways. Enduring the seemingly endless cycles of construction in an already polluted environment is an ongoing source of indignity and pain.

“Where is the remedy?” Kim asked. “Why do we need to suffer the consequences of someone's greed? When the rezoning is approved and construction starts, it will be even worse than before considering the magnitude of the construction."

In addition to environmental pollution, Flushing Hospital’s 2019 Community Health Needs Assessment found that effects of poverty continued to impact their patients’ health. In short, Flushing residents face health impacts from pollution related to environmental racism and poverty as these systems of oppression reinforce and escalate each other’s consequences. 

Green Gentrification and Displacement
This rezoning and development are embedded in economic structures and personal choices that promote money-making condominium developments without regard for local residents. Particularly in communities already suffering environmental injustices, luxury housing will lead to economic displacement. In an interview, Assistant Professor Lara Cushing at U.C. Los Angeles noted that “racism doesn’t only operate at an interpersonal level. Our society was set up with laws and zoning practices that maintain segregation. The whole system is not designed to bring about equality.”

The developers promise to bring “environmental cleanup to a vacant, blighted parcel of land” but do not incorporate provisions to protect existing residents from being displaced by the increased property values that come hand in hand with amenities like a usable waterfront. Urban greening and climate resilience projects play a pivotal role in the history of displacement in New York City. A 2019 research study found that the establishment of new greenways near historically disinvested neighborhoods – like the Flushing waterfront – are particularly strong predictors of gentrification. The authors say that parks can “trigger” and “foster” displacement. 

Audrey Cho, a junior at local high school Townsend Harris asked, “How could one expect luxury developments to benefit a community where nearly 60% of residents are rent burdened? How will commercial properties serve a town where countless are waiting for food each week, businesses are shutting down, and families are facing eviction?”

A Better Flushing for All
The risk of ‘green gentrification’ causing displacement and health issues more than justifies careful development planning with close community coordination. However, this is not what has happened. A negative declaration on the Environmental Assessment Statement (EAS) prevented the additional public hearings that are required for a final environmental impact statement.

Rushing this rezoning and development will have consequences for Flushing residents’ health and environment. Real questions about the development plan remain insufficiently answered. For example, the EAS includes plans to remediate soil for the construction areas. However, the site is not continuous, the U-Haul building sits between proposed developments. Longtime resident and community activist Bobby Nathan sums up the community fear that, “if the U-Haul site is not cleaned up, it will re-contaminate both sites. It's just a waste of time and money.”

Residents ask why they should endure the construction of apartments they cannot afford or support the remediation of a park they may not have full access to. Downtown Flushing communities, composed primarily of immigrants with limited English proficiency and low-income people of color, are being forced to bear the burden of this rezoning project without being allowed to provide any input. This proposal imposes a solution rooted in environmental racism onto a community already facing negative health impacts from their polluted environment. 

Flushing residents desperately want a clean creek and usable waterfront. However, this already-vulnerable community should not accept displacement as the price they must pay for this environment.

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Zander Pellegrino, Seonae Byeon, and Jane Wang are volunteers with the Flushing Anti-Displacement Alliance, a volunteer group of workers who have roots in Flushing and oppose the Special Flushing Waterfront District Rezoning. On Twitter @Flushing_ADA.

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mauthors@gothamgazette.com (Zander Pellegrino, Seonae Byeon & Jane Wang) Opinion Wed, 25 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000