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City Council Questions Mayor's Additional Planned Cuts to Internal City Government Watchdog

City Council Member Gale Brewer (photo: Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit)

The New York City Department of Investigation has lost 86 budgeted positions, 21% of its staff, in the last two fiscal years, and is being hit with further vacancy reductions in Mayor Eric Adams’ proposed $102.7 billion preliminary budget for 2024. Those cuts threaten to undermine the agency’s work to root out waste, fraud, and abuse in city government, as it continues to handle an unchanged workload with fewer resources.

The Department of Investigation (DOI) is a mayoral agency with law enforcement powers meant to be the inspector general for city government, operating without fear or favor toward the mayor. Given its powers, its commissioner is one of a very small number of mayoral appointments at that level of government that requires the consent of the City Council.

At a City Council budget hearing on Tuesday, DOI Commissioner Jocelyn Strauber testified to the agency’s dwindling staff and the efforts the office has taken to streamline operations in response. DOI has its own personnel budget and also receives funding from other agencies for dedicated Inspector General staff. For fiscal year 2024, which begins July 1 of this year, DOI’s overall budget proposed by the mayor is $45.27 million – a more than 15% cut from the budget adopted last year – while another $1.6 million will flow from other agencies and public authorities like NYCHA and NYC Health+Hospitals.

“This committee is concerned that after multiple years of reductions the department is not adequately funded,” said City Council Member Gale Brewer, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations, in her opening remarks at Tuesday’s hearing.

The mayor’s preliminary budget proposes a cut of 55 budgeted positions at DOI, from a budgeted headcount of 348 when the current budget was adopted last June to 293 for next fiscal year. That cut includes 18 positions that were added at the urging of the Council last year but not baselined in the budget as well as another 37 vacant positions that were cut as part of the mayor’s Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG), wherein the mayor sought 3% in savings across most agencies.

As Strauber noted in her testimony, the PEG “hit DOI particularly hard because we already had a high vacancy rate due to difficulties in hiring and retaining staff over the past several years.” The agency currently has 63 positions that are vacant. “DOI is staff-driven, not program-driven, so our PEG cuts principally impact our headcount,” she said. Strauber, a former federal prosecutor, was appointed to the role by Mayor Adams during 2022, his first year in office.

At the same time as it continues to lose staff, DOI’s workload has increased on some fronts. In the 2022 calendar year, the agency received 12,580 complaints, an increase of about 3.5% from the previous year. It opened 940 investigations, 46 more than in 2021. There were also 1,526 active investigations and another 837 closed investigations, roughly consistent with 2021. The agency also reduced its backlog of personnel background investigations to about 910, down from a high of 6,500 in 2019.

“You've done more with less so I know you could do a lot more with more,” Brewer told Strauber.

Strauber emphasized that the agency has strived to fulfill its responsibilities. “I certainly don't think there's work that we're not doing or important investigations that we're not pursuing,” she said. But, nonetheless, the staffing reductions have had an adverse impact. “Overall there may be a slower pace of work and we are…trying to make good and efficient choices about how we pursue investigations. So we're doing everything we can with what we have.”

Strauber said the agency needs at least 30 more baselined positions at a total cost of just $1.7 million. That will free up staff to focus their attention on investigations rather than spending 20% of their time on administrative complaint intake, she said. Twenty of those staffers would include confidential investigators, auditors, lawyers, and other specialists, and six of them would be dedicated to a squad overseeing four agencies that handle more than $6.7 billion in capital projects. “That Squad has not been fully staffed to date which has hampered its ability to strategically establish its docket,” Strauber noted.

Strauber also said that without baselined funding, the agency will struggle to fill empty positions and hire more investigators. “We can't really recruit people where we don't have assurance that the money will be there,” she said.

“It is hard for me to envision how we could hire someone without a commitment that we have the funding to pay them for more than one year,” she later added.

When asked by Brewer about the potential for DOI workers to be allowed hybrid work schedules, including some ability to work from home, Strauber said it would make it easier to hire personnel. “Our hiring, we think, would be considerably easier if we could offer even a moderate remote hybrid option,” she said. Mayor Adams has insisted that all city employees report to their official workplaces, continuing a policy put in place by Mayor Bill de Blasio after the worst of the covid pandemic.

Brewer had broached the subject of DOI’s vacancy reductions and the administration’s stance on work-from-home policies on Monday, at the first Council hearing on the mayor’s proposed budget. At the hearing, Jacques Jiha, director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, defended the cuts in vacancies as part of the broad effort to reduce spending across city government. On the issue of hybrid work schedules, he declined any real discussion, instead pointing to a pilot hybrid work program that the administration has agreed to explore with DC37, the city’s largest public sector union. Brewer stressed that many non-union employees, like those at DOI, should be offered a hybrid schedule, and pointed to the lack of hybrid schedules as a major barrier to hiring and retention.

On Tuesday, Strauber said that remote work had not negatively affected her agency’s work. “We had the vast majority of our staff work remotely during the pandemic,” she said. “Obviously that was a challenging time, but their ability to do their investigations really continued unabated. And certainly remote work we don't view as posing an issue to our ability to be productive and to work collaboratively as a team and as an agency.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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