Mayor de Blasio presents a budget (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)
Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled an $89.06 billion executive budget proposal for the 2019 fiscal year on Thursday, decrying new spending that the city must undertake to meet shortfalls and unfunded mandates imposed by the new state budget approved last month, and cautioning of federal actions that could affect the city’s fiscal future.
The latest budget proposal reflects a net spending increase of about $390 million from the mayor’s preliminary budget released in February. Back then, the mayor had promised to find $500 million in additional savings, and his new budget over-delivered by finding about $754 million through efficiencies at city agencies, implementing a partial hiring freeze for managerial positions, and reevaluating the city’s debts payments, he explained at City Hall on Thursday.
In total, the proposed budget is $3.82 billion more than the budget adopted last year in June. Much of the uptick is organic, stemming from increased labor costs and a massive headcount of city employees, which, like the overall budget, has increased significantly under de Blasio. The city is able to pay for the state “hits,” as de Blasio called them, and other elements of added spending in part through nearly $1 billion in new revenue at the city’s disposal.
On Thursday, de Blasio invoked his oft-stated goal of making New York City the “fairest big city in America” as he explained the proposed budget, though it is still unclear how he will measure whether that mission is being accomplished relative to other cities. Particulars of how New York is approaching that goal, according to the mayor, were evident in this and other budget presentations.
“All of the things that we’ve done and all the things we hope to do revolve around a simple principle...that progressives need to be fiscally responsible,” de Blasio said, repeating what has become a refrain of his budget talks. He argued that his approach contrasts with previous administrations that failed to create the savings and reserves that his administration has put away each year, and he defended the increases in city spending he has overseen.
“This is a downpayment on a more fair future for New Yorkers,” he said at one point.
The biggest new investment for the executive budget from prior spending plans, which the mayor had announced at City Hall on Wednesday at a celebratory press conference, is a $125 million infusion towards ensuring that city schools receive adequate “Fair Student Funding,” increasing the funding floor from 87 percent to 90 percent of what schools need citywide.
The executive budget -- which will now form the basis for the next round of negotiations with the City Council before a deal is due by July 1 -- also targets other specific areas for more funding: $41 million for cybersecurity; $103 million for 3,000 security barriers; $30.5 million to expand child literacy programs; $12 million to hire social workers for students in homeless shelters; and $20 million over the next two fiscal years to reduce the backlog of repair and maintenance work at public housing developments.
The city is also funding a $1.2 million study to assess the ThriveNYC mental health program and creating an online parking permit system for $2 million. Another $1.8 million will help provide a Mobile Trauma Response Unit to every borough and $7.1 million will go to workforce development initiatives.
The major areas where the city had to shell out funding related to the “hits from Albany.” The recent state budget foisted about $530 million in added costs on the city, about 25 percent of all new spending in the executive budget, but only 0.6 percent of the total spending plan put forth by the mayor.
De Blasio was at pains to point out that the city would have to spend $254 million in operating costs to help address the “mismanagement of State-run subways,” a requirement that Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature forced on the city through the state budget after the mayor had refused to fund half of the MTA’s $836 million Subway Action Plan. (The city will also have to spend another $164 million for capital expenditure under the plan).
The mayor also pointed to a $140 million shortfall in state education aid, which prompted the funding he announced on Wednesday. De Blasio later noted in response to a question from Gotham Gazette that the shortfall was based on the amount of funding the city projected it would receive from the state, following the pattern of state aid from the last few years. He said multiple times that the city had expected more education funding from Albany in part because it is a state election year, implying lawmakers would want to be able to boast to constituents in their districts about the school money they delivered.
One key unfunded mandate highlighted by de Blasio will cost $108 million to meet the requirements of the state’s “Raise the Age” law passed last year, under which 16- and 17-year-olds are no longer treated as adults in the criminal justice system and are instead brought under the juvenile justice system and housed in differently facilities from older detainees. The law will partially go into effect in October. The state also cut $31 million to the “Close to Home” juvenile justice program that the city is making up.
The budget also reflects a $159 million increase in spending on homeless services, as part of the mayor’s revamped plan to tackle the crisis. De Blasio defended the spending, which is forecasted to reach $2.1 billion for the 2019 fiscal year, insisting that the city is beginning to “turn the tide.”
“The new approach required opening a lot more shelters...That is a substantial cost and, as with many other things, the cost has grown but it will eventually help us save money,” he said, citing the planned closures of cluster sites and emergency hotel shelters under the approach.
Perhaps the most significant omission from the mayor’s latest budget plan is funding for the Fair Fares proposal, to provide half-price MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers. The City Council, in its official response to the mayor’s preliminary budget, made Fair Fares its top priority and Council Speaker Corey Johnson has vowed to push for it in budget negotiations. De Blasio insists it should be the responsibility of the MTA, but that he is also happy to have it paid for through a tax increase on the city’s highest earners.
Another Council ask that the mayor has so far refused to fund is a $400 property tax rebate for homeowners that make less than $150,000 a year, which would cost roughly $187 million.
The city also maintains its current level of reserves though the Council called for another $500 million in rainy day funds and the city comptroller, Scott Stringer, has also called for increases in the “budget cushion” of savings. De Blasio’s administration has already put away about $5.5 billion in different pots of reserves, including billions in recurring set-asides each year.
The mayor indicated that he was open to negotiating all three items. “We will talk about each of those. We’re going to be really concerned about the pricetag and the impact on our future of each of those choices. But we have not concluded anything on any of them yet,” he said.
Speaker Johnson and Council Members Daniel Dromm and Vanessa Gibson, who respectively chair the finance committee and the capital budget subcommittee, said in a statement that they were “disappointed” that all the Council’s priorities were not funded, but “encouraged” that the city found nearly $1 billion in new revenue.
“The administration should use this additional revenue to institute Fair Fares to help our most vulnerable neighbors, fund a $400 property tax rebate for middle class homeowners, and put away $500 million in reserves to strengthen our financial position moving forward and increase our ability to weather future shocks,” they said.
Notably, de Blasio said the administration could not account for the budgetary effects of a recent executive order signed by the governor to appoint an independent monitor at the New York City Housing Authority. The order requires the city to fund any repair work mandated by the monitor, a currently indeterminable cost that could be in the millions, as first reported by the New York Times. “We are concerned that creates a very problematic precedent and in addition could have many unforeseen consequences for next year's budget,” de Blasio said.
The monitor should soon be chosen by a consensus of de Blasio, Johnson, and a NYCHA tennt leader, as dictated in the Cuomo order.
On the bright side, though the Trump administration seemed to threaten large budgetary cuts that would have affected New York City, major reductions in federal funding have not come to pass. “The negative impact on New York City has been much less than expected,” de Blasio said, though warning of the unpredictability of the winds in Washington D.C. “The federal context shifts not weekly, not daily, but hourly nowadays. We’re all a little thrown by that,” he said.
And the city has not experienced an economic slowdown that was widely expected in the last few years, even as the mayor admitted that wild fluctuations in the stock market continue to confound the city’s observers. Recent economic trends led to the increased revenue the city is using to offset the state maneuvers, and unemployment remains at or near record lows across the five boroughs. Still, some question whether de Blasio’s overall fiscal approach will lead to significant pain down the road, given the large increase in government headcount and associated pension and health care costs.
In a statement reacting to the executive budget, Comptroller Stringer praised de Blasio for the areas in which he is adding targeted spending, but also said reserves need to be boosted.
"While our economy is in a solid position, with continued hostility from Washington, it is critical that we harness this year’s extraordinary inflow of one-time, non-recurring revenue to bolster City reserves," Stringer said.
"We must continue to vigorously scrub City agencies for savings and I urge the Administration to shine a bright light on the effectiveness of agency spending," the comptroller continued. "We will continue to closely monitor the progress of City agencies toward achieving their goals in the most cost-effective manner possible, particularly those highlighted on our Agency Watch List: the Department of Correction, the Department of Education, and the Department of Homeless Services."
Similarly, watchdog organization Citizens Budget Commission took issue with the mayor's budget plan, with a statement saying that it "increases operating spending at more than twice the rate of inflation and misses an opportunity to bolster reserves as strong tax revenue growth continues." CBC pointed to rising spending and headcount, and ballooning costs of homeless shelters and overtime pay. It also pointed out that the Citywide Savings Plan does not include much by way of new agency savings. CBC did give de Blasio credit for taking "some prudent steps," such as more money to account for pension costs and removal of aniticpated revenue from taxi medallion sales that are unlikely to occur.
“No one sees storm clouds on the horizon,” de Blasio said, noting that the country is experiencing the second largest economic expansion in history. “It can’t go on forever. When it ends, we are going to have serious consequences here in the city. We don’t see it right now.”
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette