Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio, City Council Shake on $82 Billion Budget

BdB MMV Budget handshake

Mayor & Speaker shake on fiscal 2017 budget deal (photo: William Alatriste)

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council announced a deal on an $82.1 billion budget for fiscal year 2017 on Wednesday, marking the earliest date in 15 years that a budget agreement has been reached. De Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito undertook the ceremonial handshake at City Hall after presiding over a press conference announcing the details of the deal, including the significant changes from the mayor’s executive budget plan.

An early budget was largely expected this year. There were few major points of contention for the City Council and the city is currently riding high on strong revenues and large fiscal reserves. The final spending plan is about $100 million less than the proposed executive budget, thanks to new projections and with the administration having responded to the Council’s concerns about additional savings, rainy day funds, and increased spending toward a variety of Council priorities, like library service and summer youth employment.

“We believe in budgets that are responsible, that are honest, that are progressive, and we believe this budget meets those criteria,” said de Blasio at the announcement. He stressed that there had been a “constant effort to find savings and offsets” and that the negotiation with the Council had been collegial even as the administration capitulated to the Council’s concerns in areas that weren’t its priorities.

Heeding the Council, the administration added another $440 million over the next two years to the current Citywide Savings Program, totaling $2.7 billion. The city also increased reserves by another $250 million, which was added to the Retiree Health Benefits Trust fund, for a total of $3.9 billion. The $1 billion General Reserve and $500 million Capital Stabilisation Reserve remained stable. The city is well prepared for an inevitable economic downturn, de Blasio and Council leaders said.

Of the issues and programs the Council had identified after the preliminary budget, the executive budget only included about $62 million in funding. The final plan bumped that up by $393 million for a total of $455 million. This funding will go to investments in city youth, cultural institutions, emergency food assistance, seniors, the offices of the District Attorneys, to name a few.

The budget baselines $39 million for 60,000 slots in the Summer Youth Employment Program, which provides six weeks of paid work to city youth between 14 and 24 years old. Another $21 million is being baselined to maintain six-day service at public libraries, which was first passed last year, though not baselined, and $10 million in additional funding is included for cultural institutions. The five district attorneys will receive $22 million in new city funding.

“This is a smart, responsible budget agreement,” Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at the announcement. “Not only are we expanding vital city programs...but we’re also strengthening reserves and safeguarding the city’s future.”

While budget monitors and fiscal watchdogs have praised the city’s budgeting and current fiscal health, there have been concerns over the cushion of reserves in the eventuality of a downturn. Comptroller Scott Stringer in particular has warned that the city needs to put more funding aside for the future.

“This budget also plans for the future,” Council Member and finance committee Chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland reiterated Wednesday. “We now have about about 10 percent of the budget in reserves, and we are building towards 12 percent to be able to withstand any downturn. Today we are proud to shake on a budget that addresses inequality responsibly.” Stringer believes the budget cushion - or savings related to annual expenses - should be 12 to 18 percent. De Blasio said that the city is in great shape, dismissing the notion that reserves are not where they should be when Gotham Gazette referenced Stringer’s recommendations on Wednesday. The mayor said he appreciates that the comptroller is focused on savings, though.

With the “budget handshake” concluded, the final spending plan will head to the Council floor for formal approval at the next Stated Meeting. (There is currently a stated meeting scheduled for June 21 but one could be called at an earlier date to pass the budget.) The new fiscal year begins July 1.

There are still items that need to be worked out, though, particularly the administration’s plan to overhaul the city’s municipal health care system, New York City Health + Hospitals. Speaker Mark-Viverito said the Council would continue its own oversight of the plan and “some of those concerns are still ones that we’re engaging in conversations.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Bills Aim to Expand NYCHA Jobs Program, Measure Impact

NYCHA trees building people

photo via NYCHA on Flickr

City Council Member Ritchie Torres and colleagues are introducing two new bills aimed at improving conditions and outcomes for residents of the city’s public housing. About half a million people live in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings.

Torres, a Bronx Democrat and chair of the Council’s Committee on Public Housing, is hoping to spearhead a citywide expansion of a jobs program offered to residents of NYCHA and also proposing that the city track the health and effects of services provided to those residents.

On Wednesday, Torres and co-sponsors Council Members Rafael Salamanca Jr., Laurie Cumbo, Donovan Richards and Mark Treyger will introduce the two bills at the Council’s full-body Stated Meeting. The first proposes an expansion of JobsPlus, a federal-local partnership program that works with nonprofits to provide site-based career services and ancillary supports to NYCHA residents. Besides job placement and training, the program also provides financial counseling, education, childcare, and transportation services, all aimed at ensuring stable career pathways for residents.

Under the bill, the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) would have a year to create a plan that expands JobsPlus from the nine current sites serving specific developments to the entire city. There would be one facility for each geographical zone identified by NYCHA. The plan would include estimated costs and a timeline for implementation and would be submitted to the Council Speaker, the Comptroller, and the Mayor.

“JobsPlus is the most successful workforce development program, the most successful jobs program that you’ve never heard of,” Torres said in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. “It’s the best kept secret in public housing.”

Torres cited the challenges that public housing residents face and the successes of the JobsPlus program in helping boost opportunity. According to CEO, about 46 percent of working-age residents in the city’s 334 NYCHA developments do not report employment income and about 84 percent of households earn below the city’s median income. A 2010 report by the MDRC found that average earnings for residents in developments targeted with a JobsPlus program increased by 16 percent and those effects stayed strong for three years after the program ended.

The program was first implemented in New York City in 2009 and then expanded to seven additional sites in 2013.

“My goal is to shine a light on the lack of opportunity in public housing and to offer what I believe is the most empirically proven workforce development program in public housing,” Torres said. Comparing it to other such programs, he said JobsPlus is easier to gauge, owing to the division into geographical zones, and it provides the “missing ingredient” of financial empowerment that goes beyond wage increases.

Nonprofit providers who implement the program are, expectedly, excited about Torres’ bill. “It’s an ambitious and commendable aspiration,” said David Garza, executive director of Henry Street Settlement, which implements the program on the Lower East Side.

Garza emphasized that JobsPlus enhances accessibility and the organization’s ability to serve residents. “The ‘Jobs’ is all about employment. The ‘Plus’ is about vital support services to help individuals and families get stable,” he said. These support services can include tax preparation, legal aid, financial advice, among other services.

The key aspect is that it meets needs on-site, at the developments. “JobsPlus in concept and in practice reflects that core element in our program design” of location-based services, Garza added.

“It’s academic, it’s practical, it’s social,” said Bishop Mitchell Taylor, CEO of Urban Upbound, another organization that implements JobsPlus in Astoria, Queens. Taylor said Urban Upbound was an early adopter, informally implementing the program since 2005 before eventually partnering with the city. “It’s a great bite-sized way to get at unemployment in public housing neighborhoods,” he said.

He called Torres a “visionary” and said the bill would be a “great opportunity for people that have been underserved and overlooked for a very long time.” He pointed out that an important aspect of success in the program is neighbor-to-neighbor networking and community relationships.

Kizzie Brown-Duah, program director of JobsPlus at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration, echoed the sentiment. “It’s about connecting residents with the community and getting the word out,” she said. Her organization has enrolled about 1,600 people in the program since it started three years ago and of those about 580 have received employment. “It’s not just about getting them a job but helping them develop a career pathway and financial stability,” Brown-Duah added. “It’s a model that works.”

The’ second bill Torres and others are introducing would help measure the successes of the program. It requires the city to provide annual reports on the effects of services provides to NYCHA residents, including employment-related services (the number of residents placed into full-time or part-time jobs, for instance), outcomes of educational services and effects of financial assistance. The bill also mandates a survey of the health of public housing residents, determining whether they have access to health insurance and the approximate number of residents suffering from asthma, diabetes, obesity and HIV/AIDS.

[Listen: NYCHA's 'Core Challenge' - a conversation with Council Member Torres]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Skips Executive Budget Hearings for Several Committees

city council budget hearing

A City Council hearing (photo: William Alatriste)

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council appear to be on the verge of a budget agreement, establishing the city’s spending plan for fiscal year 2017, which begins July 1.

On May 24, the City Council held its final hearing on de Blasio’s $82.2 billion executive budget for fiscal 2017. The series of executive budget hearings was another step in the lengthy and detailed budget process that includes the mayor’s preliminary budget, a month of preliminary budget hearings, and the Council’s preliminary budget response. After executive budget hearings, final negotiations have been taking place between the de Blasio administration and Council leadership while Council members and advocates make their final public and private pitches for more funding.

During the budget process, though, there was one City Council committee with oversight of a city agency that did not hold either an executive budget hearing or a preliminary budget hearing, and six other Council committees held preliminary budget hearings, but did not have executive budget hearings. Declining to hold a hearing signals that there are no related budget issues to address.

The decision whether to hold an executive budget hearing is at the discretion of the City Council Speaker’s office and the Council Finance Division, which typically decide not to bring mayoral agencies back for an executive budget hearing if there were no major changes from the preliminary to the executive budget for those agencies. All agencies have preliminary budget hearings, a spokesperson for Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said.

Of the six committees that held a preliminary budget hearing but not an executive budget hearing, a few have oversight of agencies with budget issues. The Committee on Standards and Ethics, for example, has oversight of the Conflicts of Interest Board, which had three 2015 requests for additional funding denied by the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget (the requests were for about $200,000 in additional funding to hire more ethics trainers and give raises aimed at employee retention).

The unfulfilled requests were discussed at the March 8 preliminary budget hearing for COIB. After that hearing held by the Committee on Standards and Ethics, COIB sent a letter on March 10 to the city budget office requesting about $26,000 in additional funds for its most “critical budgetary needs,” which was met. However, COIB made it clear at the preliminary budget hearing that it was struggling to retain staff and to meet its charter-mandated role due to a lack of funding, and that senior management staff had even taken pay cuts in order to hire new staff. COIB settled for requesting what it saw as a minimum in additional funding after having several requests denied, something which could have been readdressed at an executive budget hearing.

When asked why the Committee on Standards and Ethics did not have an executive budget hearing, chair of the committee, Council Member Alan Maisel, told Gotham Gazette, “I can’t answer that…I have no idea, call the budget office.”

The City Council Committee on Contracts also did not hold an executive budget hearing. On May 26, after executive budget hearings had ended, 47 Council members signed a letter to the mayor asking the administration to fund a 2.5 percent increase for the administrative costs of nonprofits that contract with the city. Dozens of nonprofit workers and several Council members rallied on the steps of City Hall, raising the same issues that these nonprofits, like the Human Services Council and the New York Immigration Coalition, had brought up during the relevant preliminary budget hearing. The letter from nearly the entire City Council made it clear that the funding needs of nonprofits that contract with the city remained unaddressed.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, chair of the contracts committee, said she believes that no executive budget hearing was held because “It’s not really for the director of the Office of Contracts to respond to this. It’s the OMB who is responsible for allocating these funds to the agencies. But I was asking and other Council members were asking at each of the agency hearings as well, what are we doing to cover these costs?”

Rosenthal did indeed raise the issue with OMB during the first executive budget hearing on May 6.

The Committee on Consumer Affairs, which oversees the Department of Consumer Affairs, also did not hold an executive budget hearing, despite the agency’s growth under the de Blasio administration. Chair of the committee, Council Member Rafael Espinal, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette that his committee did not have an executive budget hearing “because there was a very minimal change in the agency’s executive budget from the preliminary budget,” as “the agency’s only new need was for $180,000 in personnel services costs and other adjustments totaled less than $500,000.”

The mayor’s office did not respond for comment regarding those agencies not asked back to the Council for executive budget hearings.

The Committee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Council Member Vincent Gentile with oversight of the Department of Investigation, also did not hold an executive budget hearing, “because the DOI agency requests were unchanged from the Mayor’s preliminary budget and were fully met in the FY’17 executive budget,” said Travis Lamprecht, communications director for Gentile.

Neither the Committee on Civil Rights nor the Committee on Courts and Legal Services have direct oversight of specific city agencies, and neither held an executive budget hearing. Chair of the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, Council Member Rory Lancman, told Gotham Gazette, "There were no substantial changes in our area of jurisdiction between the preliminary and executive budget, so the Committee instead held an oversight hearing on court record accuracy."

One committee, the Committee on Civil Service and Labor, chaired by Council Member I. Daneek Miller, did not hold a preliminary or executive budget hearing, and has no hearings scheduled before a budget deal is due. A spokesperson for Miller said that his committee “does not have a preliminary budget hearing because it does not oversee a City Department or Agency. The closest one it oversees is the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, but that is only over City employees.”

DCAS is the principal administrative support agency for the city of New York and has been allocated $1.1 billion in this year’s executive budget. According to its website, DCAS “supports City agencies' workforce needs in recruiting, hiring and training City employees; provides overall facilities management for 55 public buildings; and purchases, sells and leases real property,” among other functions.

Four other committees (of the City Council’s 37) did not hold preliminary or executive budget hearings - those committees do not have direct oversight of any specific city agency.

The Committee on Recovery and Resiliency, chaired by Council Member Mark Treyger, has oversight of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, the Build it Back Program, and the Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability. All within the Mayor’s Office, none is an official city department.

Strangely, the recovery and resiliency committee twice had an executive budget hearing scheduled in May, but both were deferred, and no preliminary budget hearing took place. Instead, Treyger, told Gotham Gazette, the Committee on Recovery and Resiliency held an oversight hearing on June 6 on “budget items with regard to the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, Build it Back, and all of the Sandy recovery applications, and whether there's equity on resiliency spending.”

“I was very insistent in making sure that my committee holds an oversight hearing with regard to budget matters before budget adoption,” Treyger added.

Another of those four is the Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections, which has oversight of Council structure and organization as well as appointments to city boards. The rules committee deleted a committee that the Council had deemed unnecessary during a March hearing, in part citing that it did not have oversight of a city agency. The Committee on State and Federal Legislation, which rarely meets and mainly does so to pass resolutions, also did not hold a budget hearing. And, the Committee on Waterfronts has met just once this year.

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

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