Council Speaker Adams with BLAC members (photo: Emil Cohen/NYC Council)
As Mayor Eric Adams prepares to release his executive budget proposal, the New York City Council's Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus (BLAC) is making a push for investments in education, economic mobility, housing, and health care in neighborhoods of color.
The BLAC, co-chaired by Council Members Kevin Riley and Oswald Feliz, two Bronx Democrats, includes 34 out of 51 members on the City Council, giving it significant influence in legislative matters and city budget negotiations. Council Speaker Adrienne Adams is an ex-officio member of the Caucus, which also includes Deputy Speaker Diana Ayala, and Majority Whip Selvena Brooks-Powers.
In an agenda released Sunday, the Caucus outlined fifteen budget priorities in five categories – education, legal services, workforce development, housing, and health – intended to ameliorate new and longstanding hardships faced by communities on the sidelines of the city's pandemic recovery. The list focuses on social services at a time when Adams is calling for across-the-board cuts and facing criticism for prioritizing funding for law enforcement, which is completely absent from the BLAC agenda.
The Caucus members pointed to the disparate impact of the pandemic on non-white New Yorkers and stressed the need for the budget to "reflect these realities." The statement called for universal 3-K, right to counsel for tenants facing eviction, and more affordable and supportive housing – all programs that have faced cuts or uncertainty during Adams' tenure.
“The BLAC chose to center its Fiscal Year 2024 budget priorities around five core items: education, legal services, workforce development, housing and health," said Council Members Riley and Feliz in a joint statement to Gotham Gazette. "We felt these five encompass the most pressing issues our city faces as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic."
On Monday, the day after the agenda was released, Speaker Adams and Council Member Justin Brannan, the Council finance chair, released the full Council’s response to the mayor's $102.7 billion preliminary budget, in which they identified an additional $2.7 billion in revenue compared to the administration’s projections, calling for nearly half of it to be invested in housing, social services, criminal justice initiatives, and education. Then, on Tuesday, the mayor's budget director, Jacques Jiha, sent a letter to city agencies instituting a new Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG), requiring a sweeping 4% cut to most city agencies (the exceptions were CUNY and the Department of Education, which must cut 3% of their budgets). The announcement, which comes after two previous 3% PEGs and an agency vacancy reduction initiative, was swiftly criticized by the Council and several progressive Democrats.
"We cannot improve the well-being of our students, support our legal service providers or meet the city's housing production needs as things stand," Riley and Feliz said in their statement. "The common denominator in addressing each of these critical areas is the need for a budget that provides the resources our city's essential services need to effectively function, and the BLAC will be a voice ensuring this happens."
The BLAC is also seeking investments in schools to promote social-emotional learning, mental health, and financial literacy. The lawmakers also want to replace temporary classroom buildings with school extensions.
The Council's budget response included a number of the BLAC proposals, according to a caucus spokesperson. Among them are $61 million in additional funding for 3-K and early-childhood education programs, $14.1 million for school social workers and guidance counselors, $33 million for school-based mental health clinics and support, and $500,000 for a financial literacy pilot program for middle and highschools. While it doesn't fully-fund right-to-counsel for tenants, the Council budget response includes $195 million for legal service providers and a $570,000 baseline for the Office of the Tenant Advocate.
In addition to right-to-counsel, the BLAC is pushing for funding for public defenders and legal services for immigrants. The BLAC also wants to see more workforce development programs, including for NYCHA residents and high schoolers, a subject Adams has also frequently spoken about.
The Council budget response included restoring $10 million that was cut from Small Business Services workforce development programs. It included another $12.5 million for workforce services supporting immigrants, NYCHA residents, and minority- and women-owned businesses.
On housing, the BLAC agenda includes more affordable and supportive housing, including for veterans, and the creation of an "Office for Homeowner Advocacy," with scant details on the latter. The BLAC is backing the Council's push on a number of housing proposals, including restoring $31 million in city funding to NYCHA, and $3.3 billion to affordable housing preservation and development.
On health, the BLAC is calling for more community-based health centers; resources for diabetes, mental health, and nutrition; expanded opioid prevention centers; and investments in the mental health workforce. The Council’s response included $200 million to establish four new public neighborhood health care centers, run by New York City Health and Hospitals, and a range of spending on diabetes, mental health, and food insecurity. It also included $20 million to bring overdose prevention centers in every borough.
"A number of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus' priorities are reflected in the Council's Preliminary Budget Response, which presented a responsible path forward for our city that balanced economic concerns with key investments," wrote a spokesperson for Speaker Adams, in an email to Gotham Gazette. "Both documents recognize that the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget must commit funding for the stability and success of our health, education and housing infrastructure to benefit all New Yorkers."
Both the agenda and the full Council’s response also illustrate the daylight between much of the Council and the mayor on key spending questions.
"The Council will continue advancing a vision that prioritizes the City's fiscal health and New Yorkers’ needs in contrast to the Administration’s plan that obsessively focuses on round-after-round of unnecessary, destabilizing cuts," the spokesperson wrote.
The next step in the budget process will come from the mayor in the form of an executive budget proposal, which will serve as the basis of budget negotiations ahead of the July 1 start of the city fiscal year. Hovering over talks is the overdue state budget, which will determine the fate of billions of dollars in state funding to the city.
"In Mayor Adams’ Preliminary Budget, the administration made critical investments in public safety, affordable housing, clean streets, and so many other areas New Yorkers care deeply about — while simultaneously continuing the mayor’s strong record of fiscal responsibility and investing in our city’s future," mayoral spokesperson Jonah Allon said in an email. "The city faces significant fiscal and economic headwinds, including more than $4 billion in migrant costs by next year, funding labor settlements, and potential cuts and cost shifts from the state, which require prudent fiscal planning to ensure that we are spending within our means. We respect the Council’s Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus’ role as partners and will work with them to negotiate a budget that delivers for New Yorkers."
The BLAC agenda has the backing of the progressive Working Families Party. “With the Mayor proposing even deeper cuts to agencies that deliver life-saving services and care, we applaud the BLA Caucus for fighting for investments that will support working families and strengthen our communities,” said WFP spokesperson Ravi Mangla, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.
The caucus’ goals also reflect many of the state-level priorities being pushed by some of New York City's Black elected officials. In a letter to Governor Kathy Hochul and state legislative leaders last month, Speaker Adams, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and twelve other Black elected officials from the five boroughs outlined a separate set of 17 priorities for the state budget. The letter, first reported by Politico New York, highlighted the the economy's impact on an exodus of Black New Yorkers.
"It cannot be ignored that two hundred thousand Black residents left New York City in the past
decade due to the cost of raising a family and lack of economic opportunity," the officials wrote.
The letter calls for funding for public safety, health, education, legal services, and housing, with a number of overlaps with the BLAC priorities. Among them are funding for Pre-K and 3-K in New York City, $90 million for immigrant legal services, and $50 million for legal services for tenants.
Like the BLAC agenda, the letter to state leaders similarly eschews calls for funding law enforcement, as much a priority for Hochul as it is for Adams. It's public safety section calls for the creation and funding of a state task force on missing women and girls of color, victim services funding, and passage of the Clean Slate Act, which they say will eliminate barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated New Yorkers and boost annual earnings by $7.1 billion, predominantly for people of color.
In December, the State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, & Asian Legislative Caucus released its own "People's Budget" priorities with a focus on transitioning from fossil fuels, affordable housing preservation, raising the minimum wage, and raising taxes on the wealthy.
The People's Budget outlined goals in a much broader range of categories than either the BLAC or the coalition of Black New York City electeds. There were a number of parallels with the BLAC, however, including expanding diversity in the medical workforce, funding for diabetes and mental health in communities of color, and expanding workforce development programs.
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
Note - this article has been updated with comment from the mayor's office.