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City Comptroller Candidates Seek to Set Themselves Apart at Brooklyn Democrats' Debate

city comptroller candidates Dems 4

(l-r) Brad Lander, Brian Benjamin, David Weprin, Kevin Parker

Five Democratic candidates running in the primary for New York City Comptroller appeared at the first debate of the race on Sunday, trying to set themselves apart as most qualified and with the right vision to be the city’s next top fiscal officer.

The comptroller is the watchdog of city spending, with a job that involves auditing city agencies to root out waste and mismanagement, reviewing city contracts, acting as the fiduciary to the $240 billion public pension funds, providing oversight of the city budget, debt and finances, and enforcing prevailing and living wage laws, among other duties. The comptroller manages a staff of about 800, including accountants, economists, engineers, investment analysts, attorneys, policy experts, and more. Current Comptroller Scott Stringer, a two-term Democrat, is facing term limits and is running for mayor.

Sunday’s debate was hosted by the Kings County Democratic County Committee and moderated by NY1 anchor Errol Louis. It featured Manhattan State Senator Brian Benjamin, Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander, Brooklyn State Senator Kevin Parker, Reshma Patel, president of the Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club, and Queens Assemblymember David Weprin. Two candidates who recently declared their campaigns for comptroller but did not appear are veteran-turned-entrepreneur Zach Iscol, who dropped out of the mayoral race last week, and Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a finance journalist who challenged Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the 2020 Democratic congressional primary.

As Louis noted at the debate, most previous comptrollers have used their office as a springboard to seek higher office. Seven out of the last eight comptrollers, in fact, have run for mayor, though almost all did so unsuccessfully. “So picking a controller is also very likely picking a future candidate for mayor,” Louis said.

Savings and Cuts
The next comptroller may inherit one of the toughest fiscal situations the city has faced in decades, with an expected $5.25 billion budget gap for the next fiscal year alone that has yet to be resolved. Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly insisted the city cannot make up the gap without additional federal funds but has also instituted programs to find cuts and savings at city agencies, among other tactics. Though comptrollers cannot set budget policy, they can help influence it with their own ideas for belt-tightening and revenue raisers.

Benjamin was certain that the federal government will step in to help the city. But he also proposed finding savings in the budgets of the city’s Department of Education, Department of Social Services, the New York City Housing Authority, and the NYPD, “because I believe that there's some money there that should be reallocated to other places.”

Lander agreed on the need for federal funding but questioned Benjamin’s priorities, in one of several moments of conflict between the two perceived frontrunners, who lead the pack in fundraising and endorsements.

“Senator Benjamin is right that we need to look to Washington and Albany but I think he's wrong that we should cut education, social services, or NYCHA,” Lander said. Instead, he took aim at the $1.5 billion 421-a tax exemption, given to real estate developers for building some affordable housing in certain wealthier areas of the city, and insisted on savings at the NYPD and in the capital budget.

Weprin said the first place he would look for savings is in the roughly $17 billion spent by the city on outside contracting, particularly at the Department of Education, which spends $8 billion alone. “That money could be used to provide more services to the classroom, to hire more teachers, but certainly that is one place where I think we can save money through the audit function,” he said.

Patel agreed with Lander and Weprin. But she pointed out that one of the largest expenditures the city will make this year is $6.4 billion on debt service for borrowing through the sale of bonds. She said the city could save $1 billion by refinancing the debt, and should lobby Congress to restore the city’s ability to refinance debt on a tax-exempt basis. “If we get that ability back, we would be able to lower the cost of borrowing even more,” she said.

Though Parker said the federal government’s assistance would be crucial and that the state should raise taxes on the ultrawealthy to generate more revenue, he insisted, “We're not going to tax our way, and we're not going to cut our way out of this. We're only going to build our way out of this.” He said the city should instead be focused on creating full-time jobs that pay a living wage and provide benefits. “We have to put people back to work. New Yorkers do not want a hand out, they want a hand up,” he said.

“I have experienced after 18 years of being on the [State Senate] finance committee of closing multibillion dollar deficits,” Parker said. “I can certainly do it again here on a much smaller budget here in the city in New York.”

The comptroller’s office requires expertise and the ability to navigate complicated fiscal issues. The candidates in the race so far have varying levels of experience, with some having worked in finance in the public and private sectors, and some more familiar with city and state government budgets.

Weprin touted his record of having worked on Wall Street for 25 years, during which time he was appointed by former Governor Mario Cuomo to serve as Deputy Superintendent of Banks and Secretary of the Banking Board for New York State, and was New York District Chair of the Securities Industry Association. As a City Council member, he chaired the finance committee from 2002 to 2009. In the Assembly, he has served on the Ways and Means committee. “I’m the only one that has the relevant finance experience in both the public and private sector,” he said.

Patel boasted of more than 18 years of public finance experience, including eight years as financial advisor to the city comptroller's office. “So [I] really know the nuts and bolts of the office,” she said, arguing that she’s one of the few experts who knows how to structure and refinance New York City’s debt.

Parker, like Weprin, has a portfolio that includes working for Mario Cuomo at the Urban Development Corporation (now known as Empire State Development Corporation). He has previously worked on Wall Street and also under former State Comptroller Carl McCall (who has endorsed Benjamin’s campaign). Parker also listed his various committee appointments in the Senate. He has led the Energy and Telecommunications Committee, and has served on the Finance Committee for two years, and the Banking Committee and Insurance Committee for more than ten years. “My whole professional career really has been culminating to this moment,” he said.

Lander was proud to note that he hasn’t worked on Wall Street or as a for-profit private real estate developer, the latter a reference to Benjamin. Rather, he touted his 15 years running two nonprofit organizations before his time on the City Council where he’s been part of deciding city budgets and legislation. “There's a reason we don't hire someone from Wall Street for this job but instead elect it,” he said. “What we want is someone who shares the vision and value of New Yorkers, who knows the city budget inside and out, and who has the chops to make government work better, make those city agencies work better, so that we can get there.”

Benjamin pointed to the decreasing returns of the city’s pension funds investments as he spoke of his background in investment management as a necessary qualification for comptroller. “I do believe that someone with a finance background is a relevant role when you're trying to be the chief financial officer of the city,” he said, in apparent reference to Lander.

During the cross-examination section of the debate, Louis allowed the candidates to question each other, and they took the opportunity to try to put their opponents on the back foot.

Benjamin asked Lander why, as a Council member, he has repeatedly voted to increase the NYPD’s budget over the last decade and only opposed more spending last year. “How were you thinking about those decisions you were making when you were passing the police budgets year over year?” he asked.

Lander countered with his record of passing police oversight legislation, chiefly the Community Safety Act of 2013, which put new limits on police racial profiling and installed the NYPD Inspector General over a veto by then Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as conducting additional scrutiny of the NYPD. But he also seemed to concede Benjamin’s point. “You're right. This past year, I made a real clear set of principles,” Lander said, going on to discuss his vote against the city budget deal because it did not go far enough to reduce spending on police.

Lander in turn asked Benjamin about his call for an audit of the NYPD without proposing specific changes to how cuts would be made to spending, arguing that Benjamin should already be more familiar with the police department’s annual operating budget and other spending. “When the City Council, which you were a part of, was making a decision about whether they should defund the police or not defund the police, none of the conversation was about the actual facts of the matter,” Benjamin responded. “It was about a billion dollars and it was about tweets and texts...and my view is as the comptroller, my job is to be the referee of this conversation and to provide transparency and accountability around these numbers.” He said he is familiar with NYPD spending but specifically wants to look more closely at pension obligations and other costs.

When it was Parker’s turn, he asked Weprin about how he would, as comptroller, ensure the restoration of jobs in the wake of the pandemic, particularly in communities of color.

Weprin appeared to struggle to provide specifics, saying it was important to bring people to the table, but added the city needs to ensure equitable distribution of the coronavirus vaccine so businesses can reopen. He also reiterated his call for new revenue through legalizing recreational marijuana for adults and mobile app-based sports betting.

Patel also turned to Weprin, asking him how the comptroller can look out for immigrant-owned small businesses, like the ones in his own Assembly district. Weprin said he would ensure that there’s more diversity in his office’s investment staff while also conducting outreach in immigrant communities. “I would certainly make that a priority as comptroller,” he said.

Weprin directed his question to Lander, pressing him on his support for cutting the NYPD budget at a time when hate crimes were rising in the city.

“I think hate crimes is actually an area where nonpolice response is essential,” Lander responded, insisting that the solutions lie more in outreach and education rather than aggressive policing. “We want a city that's safe for everyone and we're not gonna get there just by sending police officers,” he said.

Rikers Island
The candidates did draw some deep distinctions in their positions on the city’s plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex and replace it with four new borough-based jail facilities at a rough cost of $8.2 billion.

Benjamin was ardently in support of the plan. “I think that not only is it more humane, it's cheaper,” he said.

Lander, who voted for the plan in the Council, said the city can afford investing capital funds in the plan, particularly since capital spending also creates jobs. “We have room for the kind of long-term investments that make our city safer and that make it more equal,” he said.

Parker, on the other hand, opposes the plan and would rather see Rikers overhauled and renovated. “The facility is a horrible facility and we can fix it,” he said. “But you don't have to close it and open up other facilities in communities that may be more dangerous for those community members, and at a time when we have very little money.”

Patel seemed to hedge. While she supports the closure of the Rikers jails, she didn’t take a firm position on the new jail facilities. “We should have discussions on where these prisons should be because there have been a lot of community protests,” she said. “And that is something that we need to take into consideration but I don't think the solution is to keep Rikers open.”

She did say, though, that she would try to work with community leaders to try to convince them of the need for facilities that are closer to courthouses and to the communities where family members of detainees live.

Weprin too supports the closure of Rikers but doesn’t agree on its replacement. “I'm not necessarily convinced that these particular sites that do have some community opposition are the right sites,” he said, though he offered no alternative ideas.

Pension Investment Philosophy
As fiduciary to the city’s pension system, with roughly $240 billion in assets, the comptroller can play an influential role through investments, though it comes largely as an advisor to the boards of the five funds. Comptroller Stringer, for instance, has successfully pushed three of the five pension funds to begin divesting from the fossil fuel industry and has also pushed for more diversity on corporate boards where the city is a shareholder.

Weprin said the pension fund needs to diversify its portfolio further. “We should be exploring various entities and expanding some of the private equity funds and hedge funds,” he said.

Lander said the city should take the long view on investment returns and minimize risk, noting the recent market volatility because of the GameStop situation. “We probably should be looking at reducing our exposure in private equity and hedge funds, which aim for short-term gains,” he said. “We want the kind of investments that are going to provide long term durable security.”

He said he would put forward a strategic plan for responsible investing “that brings together both those long-term investment philosophies with the values of the folks whose money it is, so that we can make those decisions proactively aligned with other investors, public sector and private sector, guarantee the retirement security of those public sector workers, but do it in a way that's also in sync with their values and their future.” He also said he would create a sustainability audit team and an equity audit team to audit city agencies for energy waste.

Patel said the pension fund should invest in businesses that will help rebuild the city, like small businesses and startups, and companies with greater board diversity, which tend to be more profitable.

“My investment philosophy is that if it doesn't make dollars, it doesn't make sense,” Parker said. He said he would push for more diversity among “who manages our money” and invest in businesses that invest in the city, but he also indicated he would be most focused on returns and not any other agenda.

Benjamin said the pension funds should be used to advance the city’s strategic goals such as investing in affordable housing and permanent supportive housing besides divesting further from fossil fuels. “We can execute our values, while at the same time provide great returns for our retirees,” he said. But he took a measured approach, saying a social agenda should not affect fiscal returns. “I believe in order to get the fire and the police on board, they need to feel confident that they're not going to lose returns for their retirees in order to advance social causes that we believe in,” he said of the two union pension funds not currently signed on to divest from fossil fuel company holdings.

Weprin said the comptroller’s primary concern should be “to get the best returns on your assets.”

Nonprofit Contracting
Nonprofits contracted by the city to provide human and social services have long complained about the city’s bureaucratic hurdles that prevent their contracts from being registered and paid on time. In 2018, Comptroller Stringer found that 90% of contracts were submitted to his office by city agencies for registration after the contract’s start date. Louis noted that comptrollers continue to promise fixes and the problems persist.

Benjamin said the process for reviewing contracts needs to be streamlined and run in tandem. “But that requires the comptroller to work with the mayor's office to come up with an agreed solution where we can together expedite this process through the bureaucracy,” he said.

Lander touted a bill he has co-sponsored with Council Member Helen Rosenthal to allow the comptroller and public to track a contract through the entire process. “It's like a black box,” he said. “The city has a system that it has set up for the agencies to look at. We need to have the controller able to see that and the public and the nonprofits themselves able to see it.”

“I think what I would do differently is simply eliminate the red tape,” Parker said. “We just simply need to change the law to make sure that first nonprofits get paid first and...if in fact, this doesn't happen in a timely fashion, that is automatically approved, and that will force agencies to move faster.”

Patel agreed with Lander. “[W]e need to have more transparency and we need to be tracking it better, and nonprofits and the public need to be able to see it so they at least know how to budget,” she said.

Weprin pledged to open an office in each borough to reach nonprofits where they are based and “streamline the process and meet with different people in the community that are complaining about this particularly in the not-for-profit world.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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