Gotham Gazette

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Majority of Council Members Urge Mayor to Identify Budget Savings

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A budget handshake between the Mayor & Speaker (photo: William Alatriste)

Concerned about the city's increased spending and possible future budget deficits, a majority of City Council members have appealed to Mayor Bill de Blasio to have his agencies evaluate their priorities and find ways to reduce spending before he releases his next preliminary budget.

"After two years of experience, your agency heads should be asked to identify those policies that are either not working, or unnecessary," says the Dec. 31 letter signed by 26 of the 51 Council members. The effort was spearheaded by Council Member Dan Garodnick and, significantly, includes the signature of finance committee chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland. The signature of Council Member Steve Matteo, minority leader of the Council's Republican caucus, was accidentally omitted from the letter, his office told Gotham Gazette.

The letter, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, calls on the mayor to instruct his agency heads to find five percent in potential savings across the board in what would be a return to a cost-saving practice performed by his predecessors that de Blasio has moved away from.

Though the letter does not explicitly say so, the Council members are referring to a PEG or Program to Eliminate the Gap, which was used by prior administrations to identify ways of reducing expenses, eliminating waste, and boosting revenue to close projected gaps in the budget. It is called a good government practice by officials and budget watchdogs, some of whom have raised eyebrows as the city budget has grown rapidly over the past two years.

Mayor de Blasio did away with PEGs once he took office and instead launched a Citywide Savings Program in his May 2015 executive budget. The CSP relies on recommendations from city agencies, without a hard requirement. Some have called PEGs too ruthless, noting that in certain cases an agency may be ripe for finding reductions while another agency actually needs more funding.

"Budget monitors and rating agencies have all applauded this administration's fiscal prudence, with reserves at unprecedented highs, out-year gaps at lows, and a strong $1.1 billion citywide savings program for FY15-16 that we'll build on this year in collaboration with the Council," said Amy Spitalnick, spokesperson for the Mayor's Office of Management and Budget, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Spitalnick added that the administration has also secured "billions in unprecedented health savings" through the union contracts it negotiated. Those new labor deals - signed by de Blasio after he came into office with no municipal unions under contract - are part of the reason the city budget has grown under de Blasio.

The city budget for the current 2016 fiscal year is over $80 billion, though city reserves are at unprecendented level, in part due to a booming city economy. Spitalnick also told Gotham Gazette what she had told the Wall Street Journal, that "The city has prudently used revenue that came in above estimates to pay down future years' gaps and boost reserves."

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who chairs the contracts committee and signed the letter, seemed to scoff at this suggestion, writing on Twitter, "Admin response to "boost reserves" misses the point. There are always savings."

Spitalnick told Gotham Gazette in response, "We have a robust savings program in place AND we have simultaneously boosted reserves to unprecedented levels to protect the City in the event of a downturn. Seems like lots of folks are confused here."

A large part of the administration's argument against PEGs is that they would lead to billions of dollars in cuts to services and staffing, including tens of thousands of layoffs.

Estimates from the mayor's office say they would have to eliminate up to 45,000 positions -- including more than 10,000 teachers and 5,700 police officers -- and cut daily Fire Department emergency medical services by seven percent. It would also force a reduction in implementing Paid Sick Leave by costing the Department of Consumer Affairs dozens of staff.

Council Member Dan Garodnick pointed out that what the letter asks for is more of an advisory figure than a mandatory one. "That does not mean that we necessarily want to cut the budget by any particular amount," he said. "We just want to assess our priorities," he added, alluding to the exercise of finding "potential savings," as the letter requests.

Garodnick said the Citywide Savings program definitely helps, but agencies should undertake a more formal and complete review. "The agency heads are in the best position to identify what's working and what's not. We need to tap into that expertise to be able to do sound budgeting," he said.

The City Council itself has been party to the city's spending increases, of course. Aside from agreeing to the overall budget with the mayor, the funds directly spent by the Council has gone from $51.5 million in FY 2014 to $61 million for FY 2016 -- an 18.4 percent increase. Council members are also preparing to vote for salary increases for themselves and other city elected officials.

Last year, the Council was successful in its push for adding 1,300 more officers to the police force, adding around $100 million to the city budget. Just last month, the Council, with an overwhelming majority and in partnership with the Mayor, passed a controversial bill that would use public funds to pay for security guards at private and religious schools. In the debate over the bill, its lead sponsor, Council Member David Greenfield, said the $19 million price tag was affordable since the city is "flush with cash." Greenfield did not sign the December letter to the mayor.

Council Member Ferreras-Copeland did sign, though, and she could be heard on the floor of the Council responding to Greenfield and others that the city is 'not that flush' with cash, cautioning her colleagues to be mindful about assuming there is money for everything or an ever-increasing budget.

"What was powerful about the PEGs was setting strict targets for agencies to meet and so it generated greater savings," said Maria Doulis, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission. Agreeing with the intent of the Council members' letter, she said, "It's the responsibility of everyone in government to be constantly questioning whether things are operating as cost effectively as possible."

De Blasio is expected to release his preliminary Fiscal Year 2017 budget toward by the mid-January deadline, which will trigger the first round of Council budget hearings, starting with the mayor's budget director appearing before Ferreras-Copeland's finance committee. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito did not sign the letter, but a spokesperson for the speaker told Gotham Gazette that during preliminary budget hearings the Council will be looking for ways city agencies can find savings.

Ferreras-Copeland explained her support for the formal request: "As this letter states, asking agencies to review their budgets is sound policy, and we ask them to conduct these analyses with the goal of finding 5% in savings," she said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "These efforts will help ensure that our considerations in the Finance Committee are balanced as we develop a budget that reflects the values of efficiency, equity, and fairness for New Yorkers."

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid     @GothamGazette

At Homelessness Forum, Manhattanites Voice Local Concerns on Pressing Issue

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Homelessness town hall on the East Side (photo via @RosieMendez)

At a Tuesday night town hall hosted by City Council Members Dan Garodnick and Rosie Mendez at Gramercy’s Church of the Epiphany, stakeholders voiced concerns about problems related to homelessness, an increasingly controversial issue facing the East Side of Manhattan.

After presentations from city officials and nonprofit leaders who work on homelessness issues, local residents asked questions about how they can resolve problems specific to the area, like the myriad issues with the 850-bed 30th Street Men’s Shelter (also known as “Bellevue”).

“New York City is dealing with a homeless crisis today,” said Council Member Garodnick in his opening remarks. “And this crisis is felt rather acutely in our neighborhood, because we have a lot of facilities which are serving homeless people.”

The most significant one, Garodnick added, being Bellevue.

One audience member asked officials about reducing the size of the shelter: “Can we really think about a path or a strategy to get [the 30th Street Men’s Shelter] from 800 beds to 200 beds, which could then be manageable for all of the fabulous people that work there and all the great programs that you’re doing?”

Garodnick replied that “850 beds is obviously far too large for a particular community to deal with and we see the effects of that every day. We also have a crisis in the city where the city can’t find, build, access facilities sufficiently enough and quick enough to be able to deal with the problem in the entire city.”

Bellevue was a frequent topic of concern and conversation Tuesday night.

“How many people at the 30th Street Center are paroled violent felony offenders?” one person asked. “It’s never related to the public, so we have no way of knowing.”

Though officials mentioned that Bellevue has no sex offenders, they did not indicate that the city has the same knowledge about violent offenders. “I can’t answer that question, because we don’t track every crime category of every client that comes into the shelter system,” Department of Homeless Services security official Louis A. Molina said. Molina also followed up with the person who asked the question after the Q&A session.

Around two hundred people attended the event. In addition to brief remarks from Garodnick and Mendez, other speakers included Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Liz Krueger, Council Member Ben Kallos, and Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steve Banks - who is leading the de Blasio administration’s review of its homelessness policies. Garodnick led the fielding of audience questions.

Banks informed the audience about the city’s new Home-Stat program, which is aimed at helping those living on the streets, and reiterated support for a “commitment that was made to the community to convert a number of beds at Bellevue into an employment program.” Banks left the forum early to assist a street outreach team, but said that he would receive the community’s input from staff members that attended.

Earlier on Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio announced the hire veteran health administrator Dr. Herminia Palacio as deputy mayor for health and human services. The position, which includes oversight of homeless policy, had been vacant since August.

The forum amid heightened political and policy controversy around homelessness, which has become a multifaceted crisis for de Blasio. After months of criticism over the city’s response to it, the de Blasio administration began a 90-day review of its policies and announced the departure of Gilbert Taylor from his post as head of the beleaguered Department of Homeless Services.

Homelessness is also the latest policy issue in the crosshairs of the feud between de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a harsh critic of the city’s management. On Jan. 13, Cuomo will reveal a plan for the city’s homelessness in his State of the State address.  

Earlier this week, Cuomo issued an executive order mandating that municipalities across the state make efforts to move all street homeless individuals into shelters during below-freezing temperatures; that shelter hours are expanded; and that shelters are kept in good condition. De Blasio has indicated that the order would not alter city policy.

During Tuesday’s East Side forum, Commissioner Banks explained that community input will influence his review and recommendations.

“During our 90-day review, we’re certainly going to be looking at how to implement the kind of employment programs that we want to implement, from HRA’s perspective, from DHS’ perspective, and from the community and from the leadership of the community’s perspective,” Banks said.

by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette

Eyeing Diversity, New Push for Demographic Data on Community Board Members

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Council Member Ritchie Torres (photo: William Alatriste)

In an effort to ensure that local community boards are representative of their neighborhoods, New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres will introduce a bill on Wednesday requiring the city to publish demographic information about board members.

The bill, co-sponsored by Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Ben Kallos, is straightforward and reads much like a general population census. It would require the reporting of community board members’ names, neighborhoods, occupations, and employment, duration of board service, who they were appointed by, as well as aggregations by borough.

The bill also mandates the publishing of members’ attendance records and the number of vacancies on each community board.

The most important aspect of the bill, according to Torres, is the reporting of detailed demographic information -- obtained through a voluntary survey -- including race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, income, employment status, marital status, level of education, disability status, veteran status, language spoken at home or if they own or lease a car.

“The conventional wisdom is that community boards are the most local unit of government, the most local form of representation,” said Council Member Torres, in a phone conversation with Gotham Gazette. “We want to ensure that they are genuinely representative of the districts where they’re located.”

In the past few months, community boards across the city have shown the power they wield in influencing major city decisions. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, which requires changes to the city zoning rules and the individual rezoning of several neighborhoods in the five boroughs, is under fire after more than two dozen community boards came out against the citywide rezoning plans. While the boards play a largely advisory role, the feedback has forced the mayor to take a step back, reconsider his approach, and acknowledge that changes will be made.

Taking this and other examples of community board influence into consideration, Torres, a Bronx Democrat, feels it is important to judge whether such opposition is representative of larger community preferences. His bill would provide the data to help do that, he says. Torres believes that community boards can be a “lagging indicator” indicative more of the past than present situation of a community so it’s necessary to ensure diversity in their composition.

“I would argue that the more diverse a community board, the greater its capacity for representation and broad-based community engagement,” he said.

Community board members are unpaid local representatives appointed by borough presidents and are often politically-connected, long-time local advocates. They have the most power relative to land use issues and can also be effective in terms of persuasion, especially in terms of influencing City Council members and borough presidents. City Council members often have experience on their local community board before being elected. There are no term limits for community board members.

Torres’ bill isn’t the first attempt at making community boards accountable, transparent, and diverse. In April 2014, Council Member Kallos sponsored a resolution calling for borough presidents to adopt best practices for recruiting and appointing community board members. The resolution was based on a report from earlier that year which came out of a hearing of the governmental operations committee, which Kallos chairs. The report recommended, among other measures, more inclusive outreach and recruitment methods and a standardized application process for board members. There has been some reform by borough presidents, but much still varies borough by borough.

Another bill, from December 2014, also attempted to establish term limits for community board members to ensure evolving memberships. (Torres opposes term limits saying that there is “no one-size-fits-all solution” for community boards in different boroughs.) That bill has not seen widespread support in the Council.

Torres’ bill will be introduced at Wednesday’s full-body Stated Meeting of the Council and will go before the governmental operations committee. Torres expects that there will be sufficient cooperation from community boards on the optional surveys and also from Council members and borough presidents. The idea is that more demographic data will help make it clear that more should be done to help diversify the boards where needed.

“My message to community boards is this: There’s nothing to fear from diversity,” said Torres. “The goal isn’t perfect proportionality but broad-based representation.”

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid    @GothamGazette

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