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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, March 21

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This week will be another busy one when it comes to budgets: the City Council continues its preliminary budget hearings and state budget negotiations enter their final ten days - a state budget is due by April 1 and some say a deal could be announced before the end of this week. Don't count on it, though, state budgets usually come in just before (or, as was the case last year, just after) the March 31 midnight deadline. This practice under Governor Andrew Cuomo is actually a serious improvement given that the state used to regularly wind up with late budgets extending weeks past the start of the new fiscal year, which begins April 1.

There are a variety of issues to be worked out, with several of importance to New York City. As always, there are a number of high-profile items, like an increase of the minimum wage or government ethics reform, that could be pushed beyond the budget and into the legislative session to follow. That session runs until mid-June. The budget, after all, only must include necessary state expenses. Expect at least a couple of closed-door meetings among Cuomo and the two legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican. On Monday, City Council "Speaker Mark-Viverito and Council Members will travel to Albany to advocate for the City Council's 2016 State Budget and Legislative Agenda," according to Mark-Viverito's public schedule.

Also worth watching in Albany this week, the Assembly will consider internal reforms announced by Heastie and his conference at the end of this past week. The 40-plus reform proposals received a mixed reaction from elected officials and good government advocates, but still indicate a number of changes that many have been advocating for years. And, keep an eye out for a related conference in Albany on Friday, which will look at ethics reform through the lens of a state constitutional convention - details below.

While it is another busy week of budget hearings at the City Council, the Council will also hold a full-body Stated Meeting on Tuesday, at which new bills will be introduced and the Council will vote on the two high-profile zoning changes - Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) - that have been the source of months of discussion, negotiation, and controversy, and that are key to Mayor de Blasio's affordable housing plans.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - read our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Mayor de Blasio is doing a series of six media appearances to discuss his affordable housing agenda on Monday. He'll be on NPR, 880AM and 710AM radio, and on NY1, NY1 Noticias, and Univision TV.

Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Monday in Albany.

At 10 a.m. in Albany, following the full meeting of the NYS Board of Regents, the board’s newly-elected Chancellor and Vice Chancellor will hold a press conference with the State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

At noon Monday, a coalition of over 90 HIV/AIDS advocates will launch a statewide Week of Action on the steps of City Hall, calling upon Governor Cuomo to invest $70 million in a plan to end AIDS in the 2016 New York State budget.

At the City Council on Monday:

  • At 9:30 a.m., the Committee on Health will hold a hearing on a bill to prohibit the use of smokeless tobacco products at sports arenas and recreational areas that require tickets.
  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Health will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.
  • At noon, the Committee on Consumer Affairs will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Youth Services will discuss a bill requiring the establishment of a training coordinator to teach certain agency staff throughout departments such as Parks and Recreation, Homeless Services, and Human Resources Administration/Social Services how to identify runaway, homeless or sexually exploited youth and how to connect them with appropriate services. The committee will also discuss several technical changes relating to an annual report produced by the Administration for Children’s Services and the Department of Youth and Community Development on the number of sexually exploited youth each agency has come into contact with over the course of the calendar year.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Public Safety will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.
  • At 1:30 p.m., the Committee on Higher Education will meet to discuss a resolution to increase State funding to CUNY, and to reach a fair labor agreement with the University’s faculty and staff in the 2016-17 NYS Executive Budget.
  • At 3 p.m., the Committee on Civil Rights will examine a bill to broaden or incorporate a right to truthful information for a variety of activities covered by the New York City Human Rights Law, including lending, employment, and access to public accommodations and others.

At 2 p.m. Monday, "First Lady McCray will deliver opening remarks at a panel at Fountain House, an organization dedicated to supporting those living with serious mental illness."

At 6 p.m. Monday, the LGBT Task Force of Manhattan Community Boards 9, 10, 11, and 12 will host an LGBT Resource Fair featuring New York City Agencies. The event is sponsored by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

At 6:10 p.m. Monday evening, "Mayor Bill de Blasio will discuss affordable housing with an anticipated 10,000+ AARP members from New York City on an interactive call that allows participants to ask questions," according to AARP-NY.

On Monday at 6:30 p.m., schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will attend a town hall meeting of District 16's Community Education Council at MS 267 in Brooklyn.

Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Tuesday in Albany.

At 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Crain’s New York Business will host an event on how startup businesses take off in New York City, featuring: Gregg Bishop, Commissioner, NYC Department of Small Business Services; Howard Lerman, Co-Founder & CEO, Yext; Rachel Shechtman,, Founder and CEO, STORY; Adam Shwartz, Director, Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech; and moderated by Matthew Flamm, Senior Reporter, Crain's New York Business.

At 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, the YWCA of New York City will host “its third breakfast panel for Women’s History Month “New York City Women Leaders: The Power of Influence and Purpose.” The panel will include Maya Wiley, counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio; City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley; and Carmelyn Malalis, commissioner of the city’s Human Rights Commission; among others.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, the Commission on Public Information and Communication will meet to discuss the implementation of the webcasting law and the establishment of a central portal for webcasts.

At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • At 9 a.m., the Committee on State and Federal Legislation will meet to press for authorization that Christopher Park in Manhattan is discontinued as city parkland.
  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Finance will meet to approve new designations for certain organizations to receive funding in the expense budget; to communicate the transfer of City funds between various agencies in FY ‘16 in the expense budget; and to communicate the appropriation of new revenues of $982 million in FY ‘16.
  • At 1:30 p.m., the City Council will hold a full-body Stated Meeting. The highlight of the hearing will be the Council’s votes on the MIH and ZQA zoning text amendments.
  • Before the Stated, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will host a pre-Stated press conference at 12:30.

Also prior to the Stated Meeting, at noon, City Council Members Costa Constantinides and Ydanis Rodriguez will host a press conference on the steps of City Hall to rally before introducing a bill to create a pilot program for electric vehicle charging stations on street parking. The program hopes to encourage the use of electric cars and reduce carbon emissions citywide.

Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Wednesday in Albany.

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Subcommittee on Libraries will meet jointly with the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations for a preliminary budget hearing on libraries.
  • At 11 a.m., the Committee on Contracts will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Courts and Legal Services will meet for a preliminary budget hearing.

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will host a Women’s History Month celebration at Mott Haven Library.

At 8 a.m. Thursday, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce will host a breakfast event focused on combating the rising tide of cybercrime and featuring Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance.

Friday and the weekend
At 1:30 p.m. Friday in Albany, a forum, “Can a NYS Constitutional Convention Strengthen Government Ethics?” The event, hosted by The Rockefeller Institute, will feature discussion about whether issues of integrity in government can be fixed statutorily, or if would be better resolved through constitutional change. Speaking will be former NYS Comptroller H. Carl McCall; and Columbia Law School Professor Richard Briffault, who is also a former assistant counsel to Governor Hugh Carey; as well as a panel of experts.

On Saturday, March 26, Participatory Budget voting begins in New York City Council districts running the program. In Participatory Budgeting, Council Members ask New York City residents “to decide how to invest public funds in their neighborhoods.” Voting will take place throughout the nearly 30 participating districts through April 3.

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Kelly Fan and Ben Max

The City Council's Complicated Budget Math

MMV and colleagues housing hearing

Council Speaker Mark-Viverito and colleagues (photo: William Alatriste)

Last week, the City Council’s finance committee voted to increase the Council’s operating budget for fiscal year 2017, which begins July 1, by $3.1 million, bringing it to a total of $64 million, a five percent increase over last year’s adopted budget. Each year, the Council is able to determine its own budget and insert that number into the Mayor’s Executive Budget.

The increase was to be expected, with necessary adjustments for the 32 percent raise in Council member salaries, from $112,500 to $148,500 annually, that was passed last month. It also takes into account a bump in funding for Council members to run their offices -- for rent, staff salaries, and other general expenses. Most Council members will now receive $441,000, up from $384,000 last year, in operating funds. (The Speaker provided a $25,000 increase last month, coinciding with the Council member raises, both retroactive to Jan. 1; and another $32,000 has now been added for fiscal 2017.)

But, in adjusting, readjusting, adding to, and subtracting from different sections of its budget, the Council has given little clarity, if any, about how the pay raises were retroactively provided, why a few Council members receive more office funds than most others, and how Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito was able to provide a $25,000 increase in office budgets to all members in February, mid-way through the fiscal year. This increase, aimed at allowing members to increase salaries for their aides, coincided with the Council voting through its own raises, though Council sources say that it was simply coincidental.

A Council spokesperson declined to provide further clarity about the shifting funds, but it is clear that, as usual, the Speaker has access to pots of money to be used at her discretion. Budget watchdogs say this is to be expected and that executives should have flexible funds, but that clear and open accounting is paramount.

“You want to give the Speaker the flexibility to be able to respond to needs that may change throughout the year, but there needs to be back-end transparency and accountability on how those funds are spent,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group. “If there’s vagueness at the beginning, there needs to be clarity at the end.”

Dadey noted that the significant changes in the Council’s compensation structure necessitate transparency on the source of funds and an explanation of what programs or expenses might not have been incurred as a result of moving those funds to pay for salary increases.

It isn’t clear how much flexibility is actually built into the City Council budget. Adjustments are made over the course of the financial year and the Speaker does move money around, but it’s not always evident where the money comes from, or how it is allocated initially.  It is true, like with the larger city budget, that spending appropriations are accounted for in the end, with expenditures available to those seeking that information.

City Council operating budget documents show a somewhat complex picture. In the $64 million budget just adopted by the finance committee and voted through by the full Council, $49.2 million was allocated to Personal Services (PS), up from $44.9 in last year’s adopted budget. The funds for Other Than Personal Services (OTPS) decreased by about $1.25 million, from $16.2 million to $14.8 million.

In that PS increase, about $2.9 million more is allocated for Council members to spend on personnel. On the face of it, this is good news for the aides who will be paid higher salaries. But the budget doesn’t specify how many aides individual Council members employ or how that money is distributed. It’s likely the $2.9 million came from the increase in Council member office budgets - $57,000 more for each member than the Fiscal 2016 adopted budget. The OTPS allocation for Council members decreased by about $57,000 in total, staying fairly level.

The PS allocation is divided by Council members, committee staffing, and the council service division. The Council members allocation needed a significant increase to the pay raises. Meanwhile, in the Council Service PS funds for the Speaker’s office, there is a drop of more than $500,000, even though there is only one fewer employee than last year - this could simply be because expected hiring did not occur. Most categories of Council committee staff and services that lost employees saw a reduction in budget, which corresponded with redistribution across other categories. A Council spokesperson did not provide an explanation for this $500,000 shift.

Also included in PS funding is an increase in appropriation for the Council's new bill drafting unit, which began in 2015 after being created through the Council's 2014 rules reforms. Funded initially at about $695,000 in fiscal 2016, the bill drafting unit is now up to about $860,000. There is also an increase in the PS funds toward Public Tech, which is now being allocated about $715,000 after $347,000 in fiscal 2016. This increase may be related to the Council's new "labs" website.

In the OTPS portion of the budget, there is even less clarity. The OTPS for Council Central Staff is a lump sum appropriation of $9.4 million, down from $10.6 million last year, but projected spending is itemized. Still, there is wiggle room for moving funds around.

Three allocations for contracted professional services seem particularly puzzling. In last year’s budget, the allocation for professional legal services was $500,000, for professional computer services it was $523,500, and then, finally, the third and rather vague category ‘Professional Services - Other’ received a $564,000 allocation. These items, this year, were set at $150,000 for each of the first two, and only $64,000 for the third. Under the same appropriation, Office Equipment Maintenance was budgeted with $250,000 last year and only $65,000 this year. Again, given several days to explain the differences, a Council spokesperson was not willing to do so.

Maria Doulis, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan budget watchdog, acknowledged that the Speaker has flexibility with Council spending under her control, and did not take issue with it. “If you think of the Speaker as an agency commissioner then she’s got a lot of discretion to manage her agency budget.”

Doulis believes the Council budget changes are more or less innocuous in the grand scheme of the $82 billion city budget and that a number of considerations, some perhaps political, go into the allocations. But, she sees these as standard operating procedure and said the current Council and Speaker have been “pretty good about pushing for more transparency.”

“In the general budget, if we got as much detail, that would be super transparent,” she added, comparing the Council’s accounting of its budget to the larger city budget.

The Speaker’s office, however, did not have answers to any lingering doubts. “I don’t have those answers,” said Robin Levine, a Council spokesperson, in response to Gotham Gazette’s queries on these issues.

“It’s concerning that answers that should be readily available are not,” said Dadey of this response. “When information that should be readily available is not, it raises more questions than it should. It can erode public trust.”

Asked last week about the increases to the Council operating budget, Mark-Viverito explained that not only did the Council have to allocate the pay raises they recently passed, but that she has been making sure that the Council can “fulfill our functions effectively.” To do so, she said, “we need to ensure that we have the proper staffing and resources.”

“Prior to my becoming Speaker,” Mark-Viverito added, “the Council budget had been deprived over the years, and we had a lot of correction to do, beefing up the Council to really be a professional body, where we had staff in the legislative body, the finance staff, to really do our work effectively.”

[Related: City Council Raises Provoke Questions About Staff Pay]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been edited to include additional information on Council bill-drafting and public tech allocations after further examination of the Council budget.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

Report Propels Debate Over City's Welfare Reforms

banks levin

CM Levin, left, & HRA Commissioner Banks (photo: William Alatriste)

A new report on the city's reengineered public assistance system concluded, among other findings, that it's too soon to tell whether the wide-ranging reforms put in place by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks are working. The updated analysis from the city's Independent Budget Office (IBO) not only leaves unanswered whether the Banks/de Blasio reforms are working, but how exactly to judge a system now geared towards long-term change rather than short-term reward.

Earlier this month, IBO, a nonpartisan city-funded agency, released a report on how the de Blasio administration changes to the welfare system, making it less punitive and refocused on education and employment for welfare recipients, rather than stressing work experience programs. Conservative critics of the changes, including Banks' predecessors from previous administrations, say that the city is becoming too lax and encouraging people to rely on government assistance. The administration says it is both taking a more humane approach and playing the long game, with greater payoffs down the road when people move off of assistance and don't need to return to it.

The IBO looked at the effects these reforms have had on welfare caseloads and the city budget. Caseloads have increased, in particular one-time grants, which also mean increased budget outlays projected for the coming year. One-time grants are cash assistance benefits to those who apply due to the most temporary hardship.

The report notes that over the course of December 2015, there were a total of 597,347 unduplicated welfare recipients, a slight increase from 591,544 in May 2014. It attributed this increase to one-time grant recipients, one group among welfare classes, which went up by 34,339, translating into $133 million over the course of a year ($60 million of which is city funds).

"The idea was that people would get better jobs and stay out there," said Paul Lopatto, the IBO analyst who authored the report, on the reforms. "The prediction that HRA is making now is that after a while, the caseload will decline, and that the increase is only temporary," Lopatto said. "It's not a surprise," he added. "It's a question of how long and how high it gets."

Alex Armlovich, a policy analyst at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said the IBO report echoes what he has already said about the new welfare system, that the increase in the cash assistance caseload is "policy driven, not driven by weakness in the local economy or by disenfranchisement of low-skilled workers. It does not look promising on its face but we still have to see how it plays out," he said.

Armlovich emphasized that one of the potential concerns about the system's new direction was "rubber stamping" in the education and training programs and that there was no way to tell if there was substantive improvement. "That's the fear," he said, insisting that HRA should put out tracking metrics for particular outcomes. He cited GED enrollment and completion as an easy figure to track and analyze.

"If you're directly and quantitatively accountable, that assuages any fear about the nature of the program," he said. "I don't think it's time to panic. It's just something we need to keep an eye on."

The need for metrics is one that City Council Member Stephen Levin, chair of the general welfare committee, which has oversight of HRA, agrees with. "We need strong metrics, strong data and strong measures in place to ensure that policy in New York City is working," he said of the welfare system reforms.

Levin was less concerned about the increase in caseloads or the resulting budget burden, although he said it was especially necessary to keep an eye on the latter. The increase in welfare recipients, he said, was to be expected after years of previous administrations artificially suppressing the rolls.

"The previous administrations spent a lot of money trying to knock people off the rolls," he said of the Bloomberg and Giuliani years, noting that HRA's new, more conciliatory approach is correcting these past policies. "If the numbers have gone up, we would expect that."

At a preliminary budget hearing on Tuesday, the general welfare committee heard testimony from Commissioner Banks on HRA's progress on these reforms. Council members asked few critical questions, if any, on the specifics. Levin chalked this up to the fact that HRA's plan was still being implemented and that the committee had little time as they were focused on a litany of other pressing issues. General welfare also has oversight of HRA's other programs, the Department of Homeless Services, and the Administration for Children's Services.

When asked about the IBO report, an HRA official cited similar reasoning. In a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette, HRA press secretary Lourdes Centeno said, "As part of our employment plan that is being phased in over two years, HRA is in the process of reforming its employment services through new RFPs and other program enhancements and continues to expand services that put recipients on a career pathway to long-term employment and self-sufficiency, which will replace the past policies that often resulted in only short-term employment and return to the caseload."

Centeno added that the fluctuation in caseloads was in part because of increasing one-time assistance to prevent evictions and utility shutoffs, and noted that the unduplicated recurring caseload was largely flat for eight years. "We are monitoring our budget to ensure that we are using our resources effectively to help as many New Yorkers in need as we can," she added.

[Related: In Departure From Predecessors, De Blasio Administration Overhauls Welfare System]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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