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Inside the City’s Personnel Growth and Agency Hiring Practices


de blasio budget presentation

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


There were 313,092 full-time and full-time equivalent positions employed by the City of New York as of June 30, the final day of last fiscal year, according to headcount data provided by the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). According to forecasted staffing levels in the Adopted Budget for Fiscal Year 2017, released by OMB on June 14, the City plans to add another 10,108 full-time and full-time equivalent (FTE) positions by the end of the current fiscal year, to bring the total number of city government employees to 323,200 by July 1, 2017.

According to the FY2017 Adopted Budget, there are 12 city agencies each forecasted and budgeted to add over 300 full-time and FTE positions by next summer.

Those agencies are, in order of budgeted additional hires: the NYPD (civilian staff only); the Department of Social Services; the Administration for Children’s Services; the Department of Corrections; the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; City University of New York; the Department of Environmental Protection; the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications; The Department of Education (pedagogical staff only); the Department of Sanitation; the Department of Citywide Administrative Services; and the Department of Buildings.

NYC govt headcount growth forecast FY17 Fowler

This increase comes on the heels of unprecedented growth in city government headcount through the first two-and-a-half years of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s term. De Blasio has enjoyed robust city revenues and private sector job growth, allowing him to increase city spending, including on hiring of government personnel.

While the city has also been able to increase savings to record levels, de Blasio has received some criticism for the increases in city spending and headcount. Still, he is forging ahead with additions at a variety of city agencies. What is not always clear to the public, though, is what positions are being added and why; what happens when agencies are not able to fill the positions they are budgeted for; and why increases in certain types of personnel are not accompanied by decreases in others.

Under de Blasio, the two most high-profile broad personnel increases have been the addition of hundreds of new pre-kindergarten teachers and the addition of about 1,300 new police officers, staffing the expansion of de Blasio’s universal pre-K program and his neighborhood policing model, respectively.

“This administration has proven that you can be both responsible and progressive,” said Freddie Goldstein, a mayoral spokesperson for budget matters. “Our increased headcount helps us move forward the initiatives that make a real difference in the lives of New Yorkers - Pre-K For All, Vision Zero, more police officers keeping people safe. We’ve budgeted for these new hires and have done so while increasing our reserves to historic levels,” said Goldstein.

NYC govt headcount growth over time Fowler

Budgeting and Hiring Processes
The adopted budget, released after a new budget agreement between the Mayor’s Office and the City Council, is the last step in the process starting with the Mayor’s Preliminary Budget and including the Mayor’s Executive Budget, two rounds of City Council hearings, public lobbying, and behind-the-scenes negotiations. In part, the adopted budget indicates how OMB will allocate funding to different city departments, much of which is dedicated to agency personnel, including new employees each agency is expected to hire.

Providing a clear snapshot of the positions currently in the process of being filled requires information from city agency representatives, departmental website job portals, and other databases. While forecasted headcount is relatively easy to find on the OMB website, Gotham Gazette needed to request the end-of-fiscal-year actual headcount data from FY13 through FY16 and more information regarding the types of positions being filled. The actual headcount data from 2013 was provided by the Citizen Budget Commission (CBC), a nonpartisan nonprofit budget watchdog group.

While the city is now several months into the new fiscal year, executive budget hearing reports from the Spring, while dated, also offer important insight into each department’s intentions when it comes to hiring.

Agencies do not necessarily hire people for as many positions as the city has allocated funding, nor is there a maximum headcount departments may not surpass, though agencies must get permission from OMB for additional spending and often must explain why they do not hire for all the positions they have been budgeted for if that is the case.

The Department of Social Services (DoSS) was forecasted to add 805 positions in FY16. Instead, DoSS actually decreased its headcount by 289 full-time and full-time equivalent positions over the course of the fiscal period. And like with other agencies that did not meet last year’s forecast, DoSS is again forecasted to add many new hires in FY17, in its case for 1,616 positions.

Two questions that often faces agencies, OMB, and the Mayor’s Office is why an agency may not be able to reach its targeted hiring and whether money should be reallocated in the following budget for unfilled positions. The answers to these questions are determined in budgetary meetings between OMB teams and representatives from individual agencies throughout the year as headcounts real and forecasted are in flux.

“As programs move forward, agencies revise up and down how much staff is needed based on how best to achieve its goals as effectively and efficiently as possible,” said Goldstein, de Blasio’s budget spokesperson. “If an agency continues to need the positions to provide the services/programs, the headcount will still be available to them in the next fiscal year.”

There can be a variety of reasons why an agency does not meet its forecasted headcount, including difficulty competing with private sector employers for highly skilled applicants or finding it can do its work with fewer employees than initially expected. There are also logistical hurdles in hiring and not every agency has a well-oiled hiring process. Filling a large number of positions can be time-consuming for those most involved in hiring. It can also take time for higher-ups to approve certain hires.

While it’s more common to hire fewer employees than budgeted, in some circumstances agencies have expanded their headcount past the yearly budgeted amounts. When agencies exceed their forecasted headcount the circumstances often have to do with new city policies, as presented by the Mayor or the Mayor and the City Council, that involve hiring new employees.

There are several city departments involved in different phases of the hiring process beyond each agency’s internal process. While OMB has authority over allocation of the budgeted headcount, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) has actual oversight of hiring processes, and internal human resources offices handle the execution of each agency’s hiring protocols.

DCAS is responsible for administering the civil service system, which largely pertains to uniformed city employees like police officers, firefighters, corrections officers, and paramedics, and includes plumbers, electricians, and many other positions. Someone hoping to be hired in one of these positions must pass a civil service exam to be placed, in order of exam score, on the Civil Service List. The human resources department at each agency then hires from that list for the positions it covers, which often excludes top positions at each agency.

There are several exceptions to this system. For instance, the Mayor’s Office has its own independent hiring process for the hundreds of positions that fall under its purview. This is another area where de Blasio has greatly increased headcount.

Commissioner appointments are overseen by the Mayor’s Office of Appointments and made by the Mayor, oftentimes in consultation with the relevant Deputy Mayor. Other top departmental positions -- like Chief of Staff, Deputy Commissioner, Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, etc. -- require agencies to receive various levels of approval depending on the situation.

The Office of Appointments also works with the Department of Investigation, City Council, and the NYPD to vet potential higher-level managerial candidates.

Individual Agency Expansions
While the NYPD is continuing to add police officers to fill the additional 1,297 uniformed positions that the Mayor previously agreed to in negotiations with the City Council, according to the Adopted Budget for Fiscal Year 2017, the NYPD is forecasting to add an additional 1,930 civilian staff by next summer. These civilian openings include school safety agents, police communications technicians (911 operators), and traffic enforcement agents, all of which are posted on the NYPD website. The NYPD press office said there are currently 1,627 open positions and that the department expects to fill all of them.

The NYPD currently employs 35,990 uniformed officers, according to the department, while it seeks an average uniformed headcount of approximately 36,300 officers. According to OMB data, the NYPD’s uniformed headcount grew by 1,372 police officers in the previous fiscal year to reach its current number. The police academy is training four classes of officers throughout the fiscal year, according to the department, though the adopted budget only funds 35,780 of those positions -- 210 fewer officers than the department already employs.

According to the NYPD’s Executive Budget Hearing Report, the additional school safety agents will be sent as “meal relief” to schools with only one safety agent; the 911 operators will be staffing the newly opened Public Safety Answering Center II in the Bronx; and the traffic enforcement agents will be primarily dispatched in Manhattan to enforce the “Block the Box” initiative, aimed at enforcing the prohibition on vehicle operators obstructing traffic at an intersection.

The Department of Education (DOE), which has traditionally had the largest headcount in the city and has sustained the most significant growth in headcount of any city agency under de Blasio, is continuing to add to pedagogical staff while also being budgeted to lose civilian headcount.

The DOE is forecasted to add a total of 9,276 full-time and FTE positions (pedagogical and other) by the end of de Blasio’s term -- more than any other city agency. The department has already added 7,343 of those positions in the first two-and-a-half years under de Blasio. As of October 4, there were 120 open non-pedagogical positions listed on the DOE website. Pedagogical positions are not publicly listed on the department website. In order to view pedagogical listings, qualified applicants must file a general application to work in the DOE school system before being granted access to the teachers jobs portal.

A large portion of the DOE’s initial headcount growth under de Blasio is attributable to the mayor’s universal pre-kindergarten initiative, for which the department is continuing to fill positions, even those beyond classroom posts, like the Director of Special Projects that will “oversee the implementation of the Pre-K component of ThriveNYC, a citywide, mayoral initiative to support the mental health of New Yorkers,” according to the job description posted online.

According to the DOE’s Executive Budget Hearing Report from May 16, 2016, a good portion of the budgeted headcount growth for the current fiscal year is in response to rising need around special education students and properly serving those students in district schools.

In addition to hiring teachers trained in special education, the DOE is filling positions like “Special Education Operations Manager, Charter Partnerships” and “Director of Data Management - Special Education” -- both highly technical roles that will aid the department in providing the necessary tools and expertise needed for students with individualized education plans. Skilled data analysts are in high demand both in and out of government - this is one type of position where it can be more difficult for government agencies to attract qualified applicants.

The DOE declined to respond to a request from Gotham Gazette seeking information explaining the agency’s protocols and infrastructure for filling open positions and actual headcount data.

Currently, the Department of Sanitation has approximately 200 civilian vacancies, according to Vito Turso, a spokesperson for the department. According to the FY17 adopted budget, Sanitation is set to add a total 393 civilian and uniformed positions by next summer. As of October 4, there are 32 Sanitation civilian openings accepting applications via the citywide jobs portal. Civilian positions are first approved by OMB and then approved by the department’s internal human resources office. Within the department, the areas with the largest number of civilian vacancies are in the program areas of technology, building maintenance, motor equipment, and enforcement, according to Turso.

Uniformed sanitation worker positions are filled through the civil service list. While the FY17 adopted budget forecasts only 25 additional uniformed positions, Turso said the department is in fact expecting to hire over 350 sanitation workers by June 2017.

The Department of Buildings (DOB) is expanding its headcount as well. According to department spokesperson Joseph Soldevere, DOB’s hiring target for FY17 is 257 positions, including 57 for inspections, 79 technical positions, and 121 administrative or other staffers. The city has allocated funds for an additional 181 positions, according to the FY17 adopted budget, but the department has set their own goal of hiring 257 employees, as stated by Soldevere.

“The [DOB’s] staffing is up 31% over the last four years, and up 18% over the prior year,” said Soldevere, crediting “an expanded advertising push for job opportunities, numerous interview days for new graduates and industry professionals, and increasing our recruitment targets,” for the headcount growth. This increase comes as New York City is experiencing a historic construction boom, which as Soldevere pointed out, makes it difficult to hire construction professionals for public service positions. DOB is largely responsible for permitting construction and for building inspections.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) is also expanding its civilian and uniformed headcount in the current fiscal year. According to actual headcount data provided by OMB, DOC had 11,508 employees at the end of June. Based on the FY17 adopted budget, DOC expects to add another 1,060 positions by the end of FY17.

“DOC is striving to fill all budgeted positions as quickly as possible,” said DOC spokesperson Eve Kessler, by email. “No particular positions are expected to go unfilled, however there is a possibility that some may not be filled by the end of the fiscal year.”

According to DOC’s Executive Budget Hearing Report, several new uniformed and civilian staff will be allocated to the central visiting center on Rikers Island -- where there was a rise in inmate-on-inmate violence over the last year -- in order to better keep drugs and weapons out of inmate possession.

At many smaller agencies and offices, headcount has drastically increased in proportion to the number of department employees before de Blasio took office. One such agency is the NYC Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), which is forecasted to double in size by the time de Blasio’s current term is over -- increasing from 61 positions in 2013, to 123 by the end of FY17. Internally, the department has two human resources staffers and they use the citywide jobs portal to fill openings, according to CCHR spokesperson Seth Hoy.

“The rapid expansion of the NYC Commission on Human Rights over the last two years is reflective of Mayor de Blasio’s mission to ensure a viable and effective venue for all New Yorkers to report discrimination and get justice, regardless of who they are, where they came from or who they love,” said Hoy.

According to Hoy, CCHR is adding 12 positions in the current fiscal year including four community relations positions, five administrative staffers and three legal openings. One is for “testers,” who, according to the job description, are “sent to apply for specific jobs with specific companies and report back about their experiences...If a white tester was called for job interview, but an equally qualified African-American tester was not, it may show evidence of discrimination.”

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by William Fowler for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

The New York City Campaign Finance Board and Its Scofflaws


cfb website grab 

the NYC CFB website


On September 15, the city's Campaign Finance Board announced the latest round of fines coming out of the city election cycle that wrapped up nearly three years ago. The board penalized candidates from six unsuccessful campaigns -- for City Council, Public Advocate and the Mayor’s Office.

The board found that Joel Bauza, a candidate for City Council in District 15, owed $350 for failing to file disclosure statements, late filing of disclosures, and for failing to document an in-kind contribution. Sean Henry, who ran for the District 42 City Council seat, was slapped with a $850 fine and also told to repay $23,993 in public matching funds received from the CFB. The board fined Catherine Guerriero, who ran for Public Advocate, $5,539 for seven violations, with the largest penalties for accepting contributions over the legal limit. And former mayoral candidate George McDonald was ordered to pay a whopping $34,350 for accepting over-the-limit contributions.

If the past is a guide, most of these former candidates will cut the Campaign Finance Board a check and close the book on the campaign. A handful, however, may carry an IOU for years.

According to CFB records, as of August 23, some 77 people owe a combined $2.16 million in fines or required repayment of public financing. Repayment of public funds accounted for $1.59 million of that amount. Given the hundreds of candidates who have participated in the city's pioneering and complex campaign finance system — which requires broad disclosure, offers generous public matching funds and restricts fundraising and campaign spending — and the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been raised and spent since that apparatus was launched in 1989, the overdue list is fairly small.

The list includes long-shot candidates who haven't been heard from since their bid for public office ended. But Assembly Member David Weprin, State Senator Jesse Hamilton, City Council Member Andrew King, and Deputy Brooklyn Borough President Diana Reyna are on the roster as well.

McDonald looks set to join that list. Head of the prominent nonprofit The Doe Fund, he claims his violations were the result of following state campaign finance law, which has more permissible limits for campaign contributions. He screamed at the CFB during its public hearing on his campaign fundraising, claiming he’d never pay the amount assessed.

That list of 77 CFB debtors includes candidates who owe fines from as far back as the 2001 election cycle, suggesting that the board's enforcement tools could be sharper. At the same time, the presence of prominent names on the roster suggests that, for better or worse, CFB fines and repayments incurred through races gone by may shape future elections.

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Crafted in response to municipal corruption scandals during the Koch administration and drastic disparities in candidate spending election cycle after cycle, the city's campaign finance law limits the sizes of campaign donations and requires detailed disclosure of where candidates' money comes from and where it goes. It also offers candidates a chance at public financing: If a campaign collects a threshold amount of money from a minimum number of donors, and agrees to a cap on total campaign spending, the board will match with taxpayer money some portion of the contributions the campaign collects from New York City residents.

Along with the introduction of term limits in 2001, the public campaign finance system is credited with permitting dozens of political newcomers to mount credible campaigns for elected office in New York City. In the 2013 cycle, the board sent a combined $38.2 million in public funds to 149 campaigns; private donations to city campaigns in that cycle totaled $95 million.

The campaign-finance system's twin missions of preventing corruption and using public financing to foster a more equal playing field lend themselves to strict rules about which entities can donate, how much can be accepted by campaigns, how campaign money can be spent, and the manner in which all of it is recorded and submitted to the board. To ensure compliance with those rules, the board regularly monitors campaign accounts, particularly for candidates who choose to participate in the public matching funds program. In September, a candidate from a 2015 City Council special election in Queens was indicted for reporting fake donations in order to receive public matching funds. She was charged following a routine compliance visit by CFB personnel.

"This is an example of how the CFB's rigorous audits help protect the public matching funds that ensure New Yorkers get elections focused on their interests, and not those of deep-pocketed special interests,” said Amy Loprest, CFB executive director, in a public statement after the indictment. “City taxpayers should be aware that the CFB discovered the alleged fraud and that no public funds were ever paid to this candidate.”

The board also conducts extensive audits of every campaign once the election is over — a process that can take CFB staff years to complete. After an audit is complete, the board holds a public hearing where candidates may appear with legal representation to explain the circumstances of any possible violations or to dispute a finding by CFB attorneys. After hearing the case, the board votes on how to address the missteps identified during the review.

The most common violations it finds are accepting corporate contributions, accepting over-the-limit contributions, making improper post-election expenditures, or filing disclosure statements late.

For violations of the rules, the CFB can impose fines ranging from $100 to several thousand dollars per violation. Candidates and treasurers can also be held personally liable for those penalties. In the 2009 campaign, for instance, 89 of 232 campaigns were told to pay penalties. The median penalty amount for that cycle was $3,786.

The board can also order a campaign to return public financing that the board deems the campaign did not qualify to use. Of the 140 campaigns that received public funds in 2013, 87 were ordered to repay more than $1.5 million of the $38 million that was dispensed.

Campaigns that have money left over can use it to pay fines, but sometimes — particularly when large repayments of public funds are ordered — there is nothing left. The availability of public financing means city campaigns are now attracting true political novices — a healthy thing for democracy, but a complicating factor when it comes to collecting major fines. Some candidates simply don't have the savings or income needed to pay their debts. Others might just decide not to pay, even though they could.

In its penalty letter to a candidate, the board typically gives 30 days for fines to be paid. If a candidate fails to pay fines or repay public funds, their name and the unpaid amount are posted to the CFB website. A candidate can choose to negotiate a payment plan with the board, in which case his or her name is not posted.

A candidate may also choose to challenge the board’s decision in New York State Supreme Court within four months through what is called an Article 78 proceeding. These appeals, which are usually resolved within a year, largely go in favor of the CFB.

Conversely, if violators do not pay fines, the board can sue them in civil court and obtain a judgement. In those cases, the board can put a lien on a candidate’s property and can garnish their wages. Court records indicate that since 1992 the CFB has sought court judgements against more than two dozen candidates, and often succeeded.

Under a 2005 court decision, however, the board has less latitude when it comes to getting public funds repaid. While candidates are liable for fines, campaign committees are responsible for repaying public funds -- and committees often disband or run out of money before those funds can be paid back. The City Council later codified the thrust of the 2005 decision into law, tying the CFB’s hands. Pending repayments, not fines, count for a majority of the funds due to the CFB.

The board does still have some leverage, however, against candidates who may want to run in a future election: individuals are unable to receive public funds if they have any pending fines or repayments left.

“Candidates who owe penalties or public funds to the CFB are ineligible to receive future payments, which provides an effective incentive for candidates to fulfill their obligations,” Loprest said in a statement to Gotham Gazette and City Limits. “Information about candidates’ outstanding obligations is publicly available on our website, so voters can hold candidates accountable for the conduct of their campaigns. Beyond that, the CFB makes every effort to collect the penalties and public funds repayments that candidates owe.”

And to make it known that those IOUs areout there. The overdue amounts are public knowledge. “We don’t write things off or forgive liabilities,” said a CFB spokesperson. “That’s part of the accountability of the program.”

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Sixty-three former candidates currently owe penalties to the board; the largest overdue amount belongs to Felipe Luciano, an East Harlem community activist and journalist who racked up more than $54,000 in violations when he ran for City Council District 8 in 2005. Luciano was also a participant in the public matching funds program and was told to repay nearly $17,000.

Also prominent on the list: Miguel Martinez, the one-time Upper Manhattan Council member who went to federal prison over a scandal dealing with stolen city money.

When it comes to public funds repayment, Asembly Member Weprin's tab dwarfs all others: $319,700. The next highest is Brooklyn Deputy Borough President Reyna, who owes a repayment of $139,000. Martinez also owes the board substantial public funds repayments. Those three, along with 2001 City Council candidate Garth Marchant, represent the four largest debts to the CFB — comprising 36 percent of what the board is owed.

MORE: Who Owes Money to the City Campaign Finance Board

Weprin was assessed a substantial penalty for the conduct of his 2009 campaign for city comptroller. An investment banker by trade who chaired the City Council's Finance Committee during his tenure there, Weprin was assessed $28,000 in penalties for violations like accepting money from unregistered PACs or taking over-the-limit contributions. He paid those penalties. “The Assemblyman is committed to a fair election process and the responsible use of CFB funds,” wrote a spokesperson for Weprin, Sumeet Sharma, in response to questions.

But the public funds repayment of $319,700 is still due. That stems from Weprin’s campaign opening a so-called segregated account, which is supposed to be used for expenses that public funds can’t be used on, like to make donations to other candidates or to pay debt from a previous election. The CFB concluded that Weprin’s 2009 campaign had deposited into that segregated account donations that were matched with public funds. It ordered the campaign to repay the matching funds associated with those donations. But by then, all the campaign’s money had been spent.

Asked about the board’s findings, Weprin spokesperson Sharm told City Limits: “In 2010, after the Committee ceased to exist, the CFB made technical revisions to funds that were originally declared as valid contributions, deeming valid contributions as invalid. These repayments were requested one year after the end of the campaign and after the Committee was disbanded,” addding that “the Assemblyman does not agree with all of the determinations of the CFB as these funds were spent on campaign related expenses.”

The amount owed by the 2009 campaign represents an undeniable obstacle to Weprin seeking municipal office again. In 2015, when David Weprin’s brother Mark gave up his City Council seat to take a state post, David Weprin notably did not vy to replace him--perhaps because he would have had to pay off his CFB debt if he wished to tap into public financing for such a campaign.

“The CFB determined that these funds would have to be repaid by the Committee if David Weprin was to seek City Office,” Sharma wrote. “And althoughAssemblyman Weprin is committed to the overall mission of the CFB and will address any repayments if he does seek an office for the City of New York in the future.”

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The fines don’t seem to discourage people from seeking public funds to run campaigns. In the 2013 election, 92 percent of candidates on the primary ballot participated in the program, according to CFB data.

But some candidates do complain that the CFB’s disclosure and documentation requirements are severe and that the auditing process is long and drawn out. As is evident from the latest hearing, even though the CFB has about 50 employees, nearly half the agency, working full-time to audit campaigns, the process can take years.

“I’m a little bothered at the fact that three years later I’m still being called in,” Joel Bauza told Gotham Gazette after making his case to the CFB, “the treasurer is still being called in…to answer questions on stuff that we submitted on time and we gave to them the reasons. I don’t see the difference on what was written and what was said today.”

Bauza also chose not to participate in the public matching funds program because of its “tedious” documentation requirements, a decision he said was made at the advice of State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. Bauza did praise the CFB for being informative and helpful during the entire process but insisted that there is room to improve. “I think there’s a lot of little tedious things, a lot of things that they need to look at again,” he said. “What they’re going to be questioning...Items that are noticeable where large amounts of contributions are made. Talk about those things, but little things...You’re going into the little things that don’t really make sense.”

To its credit, the CFB carefully examines systemic issues after each election, proposes reforms to be enacted through legislation, and does routine updates to its rules. In September, the board proposed a number of rules changes that would, in part, make it easier for candidates to run their campaigns. The board invited feedback that was heard at the September 15 meeting and will now consider that before approving the changes.

Sean Henry, who ran in 2013 and did avail of the public financing program, shared some of Bauza’s views on the CFB. “I think sometimes the compliance requirements are little bit too onerous,” he told Gotham Gazette. “Campaigns are small. Especially when you start, you don’t have a lot of people. I think some of the documentation is not necessary. I think there are easier ways that things can be done.”

He did say, though, that the CFB was “efficient” and “fair” to his campaign and in helping his people navigate the public funds program, and that he wasn’t entirely deterred from participating again. “It’s a good way for candidates to get involved in the process,” he said.

NUMBERS: Who Owes Money to the City Campaign Finance Board, at City Limits

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by Samar Khurshid of Gotham Gazette and Jarrett Murphy of City Limits

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been corrected to accurately reflect why Miguel Martinez went to jail, it was not related to CFB funds.

Bill de Blasio Versus NIMBYism


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Mayor de Blasio at a town hall (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


In recent weeks, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s policies have run up against an age-old forces of inertia and resistance in the city, especially one that springs forth in policy debates on everything from housing to bike lanes to school desegregation and even closing down Rikers Island jails. That force -- NIMBY or Not In My Back Yard-ism -- has taken distinct forms on different issues, but has been causing the de Blasio administration trouble and frustrating the mayor. At the same time, some critics of the administration say that the NIMBYism it is facing is stronger because the administration is not being a proactive, collaborative partner with communities.

In some ways, the pushback is more sympathetic, like in cases where communities face real pressures of gentrification and displacement, and in others, less so, like when residents perceive even the smallest change to their neighborhood as contributing to a decline in quality of life.

For de Blasio, persistent NIMBYism poses a multi-faceted challenge as he nears the final year of his first term. He has to choose at times to capitulate to demands from communities or local elected officials, and at other times, he must use unilateral but unpopular action that, in the administration’s view, will have long-term benefits. Three recent instances, in particular, highlight this obstacle of NIMBYism to the administration’s larger vision of equity and justice, which can be messier when being applied to neighborhoods than when explained in principle.

In the last two months, two rezoning proposals that would’ve added to the city’s stock of affordable housing were nixed by the local Council members for their respective districts, eliciting charges of short-sighted NIMBYism by the Council members and the portion of their constituents they were listening to.

The first proposal, in the Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood, was voted down by the City Council in August after Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez opted to reject it. He had signaled support for the project, but appeared to bend to vocal community pressure as his final decision neared. Rodriguez has been an outspoken and active ally of de Blasio’s, especially around the Vision Zero plan to eliminate traffic deaths.

It was the first private rezoning application before the city under the newly passed Mandatory Inclusionary Housing zoning rule. Rodriguez vetoed the proposal despite the city and the developers having reached an agreement in which half the housing would be affordable. By tradition, the full Council usually votes with the local member on land use applications, and did so with Rodriguez.

In the second case, in Sunnyside, Queens, a nonprofit real estate developer withdrew a rezoning application in the face of opposition from the community and the prospect of a veto from Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer.

The editorial boards of the Daily News and the Observer sharply criticized the two Council members for their “NIMBY” thinking. “A developer could propose Eden and somewhere, somehow, someone’s constituents would find it wanting,” the Daily News editorial board wrote, calling on the mayor to get tough with the Council in such instances. “It is interesting,” wrote the Observer editorial board, “make that a euphemism for disheartening, to see supposedly liberal/progressive City Council members echo the call for affordable housing—except in their own districts.”

While Rodriguez defended his decision around the affordability of the proposed units and the added density to the neighborhood, Van Bramer explained his as especially related to the height of the proposed project, as well as the added density and need for related infrastructure improvements.

The third example is local opposition to a City proposal to convert a Holiday Inn Express in Maspeth, Queens into a homeless shelter. Residents of the neighborhood are outraged, citing concerns about public safety and the location of the shelter. In an argument central to NIMBYism, many have even said they don’t oppose creating shelters for the homeless, just this particular one. They have protested outside the home of Commissioner Steven Banks, head of the city’s Human Resources Administration and marched to the home of the hotel owner. De Blasio told them to protest at his home, Gracie Mansion.

“I think that’s the quandary with many policies,” said Christina Greer, professor of political science at Fordham University. Greer called NIMBYism the “achilles heel of liberalism and progressive politics.” Although many people might support policies such as those put forward by the de Blasio administration, Greer said, “When it comes time to affect them in a personal way, these coalitions and conversations tend to fall apart.”

In his weekly segment on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on September 16, the mayor also addressed the Maspeth controversy, saying the issue of homelessness “brings out a lot of contradictions in people” and said the NIMBY mindset had grown in the city over decades. “And, as someone who’s served here a long time, I don’t have an illusion that we’re going to snap our fingers and make it go away,” he said.

The mayor added, “I think we have to show people that we will take care of the surrounding community, but I’m not ever going to allow folks who say, ‘not in our community, put it in someone else’s community’ – I’m never going to buy into that. That’s just not – that’s not New York values. It really isn’t.”

At a news conference on Thursday, when the mayor was asked again about Maspeth and the communication with local leaders, he admitted that the administration could do a better job. “I would say there’s a substantial amount of dialogue that goes on but we need to do better,” he said. “And we’re trying to perfect the approach that we can use everywhere in the same way, to do a better job of communicating with elected officials and other community leaders.”

He had more forceful words for the Maspeth protestors, however, which took dead aim at a NIMBY mindset. “If they think that they can not have responsibility for a problem that’s everyone’s problem, they’re wrong,” he said, before criticizing their “disgusting” rhetoric and their “reprehensible” threats to HRA’s Banks and his family. “Those individuals are saying, ‘There’s a homelessness problem, some of those people come from our community and we don’t want any of them here,’” de Blasio said. “I don’t accept that. And I’ve told them I welcome their pickets as many times as they want because I will happily stare them down. We are going to put a roof over people’s heads.”

The term NIMBY has been used in the past as a pejorative for wealthy white neighborhoods that wanted to avoid any change to their communities that they considered undesirable, including an influx of people. It’s a loaded term that can imply class and racial biases. But, over time, the term has become more common and has evolved beyond its original meaning.

“Just as the rain falls on rich and poor alike, NIMBYism is found among the rich and poor alike,” said Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College. The difference, Sherrill pointed out, is that with low-income communities, their NIMBYism is largely founded in justifiable concerns about gentrification and rising rents that contribute to displacement. That was one of the elements at play in the Inwood rezoning proposal."

“These are forces that every mayoralty in New York City has come up against,” said Wiley Norvell, a spokesperson for the mayor. “It’s a durable feature of the political landscape.”

It is an undisputable fact that NIMBYism is universal and has cropped up all over the city in various policy battles. Earlier this year, proposals to expand the CitiBike program into Brooklyn faced local opposition that smacked of NIMBYism. A caller from the mayor’s home neighborhood of Park Slope called into WNYC on Thursday morning to tell him the new bike installations there were a problem because they took away needed parking. Similar efforts in the form of lawsuits have been launched since the city announced the CitiBike expansion in 2014.

Another lawsuit, against bike lanes installed by the city in Park Slope, was withdrawn just last month after stretching for six years.

Especially in more controversial discussions, such as the plan to close down Rikers Island jails, NIMBYism is a significant factor. Although there is fairly widespread agreement on shuttering the doors of the prison complex, elected officials do not generally favor relocating inmates to community-based facilities. The Speaker of the City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito has a commission in motion to create a long-term plan for shutting down Rikers jails, the notion of which has already faced local backlash. Addressing affordable housing-related rezonings, Mark-Viverito recently said that the de Blasio administration needs to be more proactive in engaging with City Council members and their communities.

The city’s movement to rezone some schools with an eye on desegregating nearby schools has met NIMBY detractors in Downtown Brooklyn and the Upper West Side, though other critics say that the administration has not moved quickly or comprehensively enough on the issue overall.

But in issues of land use and infrastructure, NIMBYism is perhaps most consistently pronounced, on both sides. On the one hand are more well-off neighborhoods opposing facilities that have historically saturated low-income communities, like homeless shelters and waste processing centers. On the other hand, are low-income communities resisting the march of gentrification across the city and opposing infrastructure that would put further pressure on their neighborhoods.

Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, sees a lot of NIMBYism in his line of work. His group advocates for a more even-handed distribution of burdensome city infrastructure that is often clustered in low-income communities of color. These efforts, more often than not, come up against some or another form of NIMBY opposition.

Bautista pointed to a classic example exhibited on the Upper East Side last year in local objections to a marine waste transfer station. “NIMBYism and environmental justice are polar opposites,” he said. And the converse argument, that low-income neighborhoods are being NIMBY by refusing development, does not hold water, he emphasized. “It can’t apply to communities where everything is in your backyard, when your community is saturated.”

Couched in Bautista’s argument is the principle of “fair share,” the city policy aimed at equitable distribution of necessary city services and infrastructure across all neighborhoods. “The fair share approach is an important principal,” said Council Member Brad Lander. “Some people hear “fair share” and hear “NIMBYism.” That has eroded the real argument for fair share.”

Lander said the opposition in Maspeth may be the “most strident” example of NIMBYism and said each neighborhood has a fair share obligation to house the homeless. The administration has identified 250 homeless people whose last known address was Maspeth, but the community has no fixed shelters. “It’s not only about not getting more than your fair share but doing your fair share,” Lander said.

On issues of land use planning, Lander - who is de Blasio’s successor in the City Council seat representing Park Slope and nearby neighborhoods - believes the opposition may be more justifiable, “especially at a time when rents are high, there’s a lot of anxiety, there’s a lot of development taking place.” “That is the challenge of government,” he added. “That’s a big challenge for Mayor de Blasio. That’s a big challenge for the Council.”

In part, that’s also the administration’s argument. Norvell, the mayoral spokesperson, said, “We’re in a moment of deep insecurity and tremendous fear of displacement.” He chalked this up to agreements made by past administrations that were not always delivered upon. For instance the rezoning of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, where the city failed to create all the infrastructure and services that were promised. He said the failure of the rezoning proposals in Inwood and Sunnyside were par for the course. “When you play on a field as big as we are, you’re gonna win some, you’re gonna lose some,” he said. “Nobody bats a thousand.”

He also sought to dispel the notion that recent “noise” or even past opposition were hobbling the administration’s progress on its larger core agenda.

Norvell pointed to the expansion of affordable housing and CitiBike, “both instances where the NIMBY phenomenon surfaced itself in various degrees of intensity but our policy and political goals were achieved nevertheless.” Under the affordable housing agenda, about 53,000 units, a quarter of the goal administration’s ten-year goal, have been financed and CitiBike is on course to double capacity, Norvell said.

The moment of insecurity that both Norvell and Lander speak of may not just be for everyday New Yorkers. It’s a challenging time for the mayor as well. He’s fast approaching reelection and can ill-afford to make unpopular decisions. His relationship with the City Council has become more challenging, particularly after he expressed some public dismay with Council Member Van Bramer over the Sunnyside deal (while also expressing respect for Van Bramer). Affordable housing is one of the main planks on which he has expended significant political capital, and must continue to do so in various local battles.

Professor Sherrill said the new equation of power between the Council and the mayor precludes the possibility of unilateral action. “An entire generation, 20 years, of atrophy for the Democratic political machine puts de Blasio in a position in which it is almost impossible for him to do anything that would entice members of the Council to do something he would like that is unpopular with...their districts,” Sherrill said. “This is not Bill de Blasio’s problem. This is the problem of anyone who becomes Mayor now and mayors are going to have to find new ways of building relationships with neighborhoods.”

At a press conference on September 14, asked about the success of a housing proposal in the Bronx and the failure of Inwood, Speaker Mark-Viverito defended the leverage that Council members hold over land use decisions and seemed to criticize the mayor. “The mayor and the administration need to focus on being proactive and engaged with Council members in their districts and with the communities that we represent to make sure information is being arrived at in the most transparent way about what a project is and what it seeks to do, that needs to happen,” she said.

Earlier, in a late August interview with Gotham Gazette, Mark-Viverito, whose home district is largely East Harlem, leaned into a fair share argument when talking of rezoning and the siting of homeless shelters. “I think there needs to be more equity in the way that services are distributed,” she said. “There are literally some districts that have no shelters in them. You look at one like mine, that we have probably over 2,000, 3,000 beds...And that’s a real challenge.”

But she also stressed that local decisions must involve dialogue and engagement with the communities that are affected, even if they don’t agree. “And I have found that when you really engage in that conversation and take the time to really explain the process of your thinking and why, even if people don’t agree with you they’ll respect that, and you can work with your constituents and navigate through that,” she said.

Mayor de Blasio does seem to be taking some of these critiques to heart. He has stepped up his efforts at personally engaging with New Yorkers. Besides his weekly radio appearance, where he takes questions from callers and promises assistance to those who need it, he has hosted a number of town halls in the last few months, connecting with people more directly in all five boroughs.

“For neighborhood planning, I believe it’s better to engage people more and sooner,” said Council Member Lander, who thinks the administration has shown strong participation in certain proposed rezonings, including Gowanus, Bushwick, Far Rockaway, and East Harlem.

Professor Greer said that she thinks de Blasio “has to convince people that ‘this is a good idea and worth doing,’ either through political pressure or logrolling. If he needs to be successful, he’ll find a way to sweeten the deal.”

Bautista praised the mayor for reframing city policy along the lines of equity, but said, “It can’t just be a framing and messaging conceit.” He said the mayor has to ensure consistency in applying his governing principles and show authentic community engagement. “There’s a difference between having a fait accompli and coming to the community with that decision, versus a real engagement where you have a policy goal in mind,” he said, getting at one of the repeated criticism of the de Blasio administration, that it too often presents to communities a fully-baked plan. “That’s crucial to minimizing NIMBY.”

Norvell contends the administration has made “honest and sincere” engagement efforts in city planning, and that the ultimate goal is to “do the most good for the most people.” “At the end of the day, you can’t make everybody happy,” he said.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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