Gotham Gazette Tue, 22 Sep 2020 05:30:33 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) As General Election Approaches, Mixed Results for Efforts to Ensure More Votes Get Counted Myrie Gianaris State Senate voting

State Senators & election officials (photo: Senator Gianaris' office)

After the June primaries, when tens of thousands of absentee ballots were rejected on technical grounds or never cast because they were mailed to voters late or not at all, state lawmakers passed a series of measures aimed at correcting some of those mishaps. But several other bills introduced by legislators and pushed by voting rights advocates that could prevent thousands of ballots from being thrown out are still on the table as the clock ticks toward the general election.

Leading up to the June primary, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a series of executive orders to change the rules around absentee voting in an effort to avoid crowded poll sites during a pandemic. The measures extended absentee voting eligibility to all registered voters, required absentee ballot applications be mailed to voters, and guaranteed postage for mail-in ballots.

The unprecedented leap in absentee voting led to a number of new problems for voters and elections administrators that ultimately disenfranchised voters, often without their knowledge. In New York City, 84,000 mail-in ballots were thrown out, frequently on technicalities like having a missing signature or a partially unsealed envelope. In response, state lawmakers introduced a series of bills to ensure more votes are counted, including several related to notifying voters when their ballots might be thrown out.

Some were passed and signed into law in August, but many others remain unmoved as the state's elections administrators brace themselves for a four-fold increase in voters this fall. The early voting period will run October 24 through November 1; Election Day is November 3. The New York State Board of Elections is anticipating 8 million voters including as many as 5 million mail-in ballots, in a state with 12.9 million registered voters.

Two of the signed bills codify key elements of Cuomo's primary executive order and guarantee another election with a significant portion of the electorate voting by mail. The first expands eligibility to vote absentee to the entire electorate during an epidemic or disease outbreak. The second allows voters to apply for an absentee ballot online through the New York State Board of Elections website. (There has been no legislation or executive order that would require local boards of elections to mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters, as Cuomo mandated in the primaries.)

Others signed into law aim directly at problems that arose from the deluge of mailed ballots during the primaries.

Thousands of the absentee ballots were rejected in June because they arrived at boards of elections offices without a postmark, a problem that was completely outside voters' hands. A new law now requires election boards to count the ballots if they are time-stamped by the board by the day after Election Day, even if they are missing a postmark from the United State Postal Service (USPS).

Another bill seeks to work around the post office by requiring local boards to establish secure absentee ballot drop boxes. That bill is still in committee, but an executive order signed September 8, requires local boards to have drop boxes at early voting sites, Election Day poll sites, and their offices (in New York City, each borough office will have a drop box).

On the same day, Cuomo announced a campaign to raise awareness about the ways New Yorkers can vote, including early voting, an option watchdogs are saying should be more heavily encouraged to avoid the administrative stresses of absentee voting and long lines on Election Day.

As primary day approached in June, many voters still had not received the absentee ballot they had requested from the New York City Board of Elections (BOE). When he testified before state lawmakers in August, Michael Ryan, the executive director of the city BOE, said the absentee ballot application calendar did not grant enough flexibility in normal years and this year posed "an impossibility." A law signed later that month now allows voters to apply for absentee ballots prior to 30 days before an election, which is already giving local boards more time to process and fulfill requests.

A few days after he signed the August package, Cuomo signed an executive order that, among other things, requires local election boards to submit staffing plans and any staffing needs to the state by September 20, a measure to help ensure administrators can process the higher turnout.

Many of the ballots rejected this summer were tossed out because voters failed to sign their ballot envelopes.

One law signed in August would give absentee voters the opportunity to "cure" certain deficiencies on their ballots that would otherwise have them rejected -- namely lacking a signature, having a signature that doesn't match the one on the registration, or having an unsealed ballot envelope. Under the law, local boards of elections must notify voters within a day of detecting a defect and give them an opportunity to contest the rejection or correct the ballot. It extends the same type of due process right to absentee voters that in-person voters have when they sign an affidavit ballot at a poll site. A federal judge in Texas recently ruled a similar practice of rejecting ballots due to mismatched signatures there was unconstitutional.

Cuomo's August order requires the State Board of Elections to design a single "clarified envelope" for all local boards to use, which includes a large red 'X' where a signature is required.

Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat, is chair of the Senate's elections committee and sponsor of several of the bills that passed, including the curing bill.

"Taking away someone's vote for a missing signature or an unsealed envelope really is the embodiment of disenfranchisement," Myrie said by phone Thursday.

"It's not the sexiest legislative highlight and victory but it really was, I believe, one of the most important election law bills we've passed both this year and last year, because of the implications of people knowing and having the opportunity to have their votes count," he said.

"Given the newness of the [mass absentee voting] experience, legislation that allows voters the opportunity to fix unintended, minor and often technical mistakes, is the right way to go," wrote Blair Horner, executive director of New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), the good government organization, in an email. "Far too many ballots were tossed in the June primary over ridiculously technical challenges."

But several other common mistakes are addressed in legislation that has yet to pass, but could lead to thousands more ballots being counted, their sponsors say.

One bill would extend the same notice and opportunity to cure ballots when they are received partially opened, or closed with glue, tape, or another re-sealing agent. In these cases, the legislation would give recourse to voters to attest that they sent their ballot in the condition it was received in. The bill is still in committee.

A second bill would require absentee ballots to be counted as long as the voter's intent is "unambiguous," even if there are other markings on the ballot.

"It is so easy with a marker to make a mark. What if it's food? I mean, everybody is doing absentee ballots at home, right?" said Assemblymember Amy Paulin, a Westchester Democrat who sponsors the two bills along with Myrie, in a phone interview.

"You don't want any stray marks of any sort when the intent of the voter is clear to eliminate the vote from being counted. And right now it can be challenged," she said.

Myrie and Paulin are not sure whether their bills will pass in time to impact the general election and it is unclear whether the two chambers of the State Legislature will meet in session to pass any legislation before voters go to the polls (or the mailbox).

"We have no idea whether we're going back to session prior to the election," Paulin told Gotham Gazette. "Certainly if we are I'm going to be pushing [the bills] and if we're not then they're still worth doing."

Lawmakers will have to act especially quickly if they are going to pass another proposal that would make it easier to register to vote in time to enfranchise more eligible New Yorkers by this fall’s vote, which includes the presidential election, among many others for Congress, the State Legislature, and more. The bill, which would create online voter registration in New York City through the city's Campaign Finance Board, has passed in the Senate but not the Assembly.

The online registration bill has passed in the Senate but not the Assembly, while automatic voter registration has passed both houses but has not been sent to the governor (or been requested by him) for signing.

"I can't say with certainty when we'll meet again but I do know that if it's the case that we have to move swiftly -- and this is to help safeguard our democracy, particularly in light of the rhetoric that is coming out of the federal administration -- I think that the [Senate] majority has shown that we're ready to take those steps and I expect that we will do the same in this instance," Myrie said.

There isn't much time before the October 9 deadline to register to vote in the general election.

Voting advocates and some lawmakers also want to see the state pay for postage on absentee ballots, as it did during the primaries, but the proposal appears unlikely to move without another round of federal stimulus funding. Between federal and state allocations, New York's elections administrators had an additional $24 million to run elections this year, which has largely dried up, according to State Board of Elections officials. About 40 percent of the 1.8 million voters in the primaries across the state cast an absentee ballot. With 8 million voters expected in the general election, the proposal would likely require the state to pay postage on millions of envelopes.

In response to inquiries about whether the governor planned to issue more executive orders to provide for postage, curing certain ballot errors, and other measures proposed by legislators and advocates, Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget, wrote, "The State is providing unprecedented access to the ballot box and just last week the Governor announced a public service campaign to raise awareness that voters now have three options to cast their ballot: early voting, voting absentee, or voting in person on Election Day." He added that the executive order establishing absentee drop boxes has the effect of "negating the need to mail a ballot at all."

"The boards of elections have millions of dollars available to them from previously provided funding from the State and Federal governments and they should make use of those resources as the State is contending with a $62 billion revenue drop over four years," he added.

"In the absence of Federal funding to offset this revenue loss, the State, which funds schools, hospitals, and public safety, will have to make spending reductions, and anywhere we don’t reduce spending will mean deeper reductions elsewhere," he wrote. "This is another reason the Federal government must step up and provide States with necessary resources."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

As General Election Approaches, Mixed Results for Efforts to Ensure More Votes Get Counted Thu, 17 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Despite Requests, No Sign of De Blasio Plan for Managing Billions in City Borrowing He's Seeking requests despite mayor

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio continues to insist that New York City needs authorization from the state to borrow billions of dollars in operating funds to balance its budget, at least in the absence of federal aid to cover some of the massive loss in revenue from the pandemic fallout. The drastically-slashed new city budget for this fiscal year passed July 1 included $1 billion in undefined labor savings, which de Blasio said could be covered by federal aid or borrowing, or, if neither of those come through, potentially 22,000 laid off municipal workers.

But as he’s beat the drum for authority to borrow $5 billion to be granted by skeptical state government leaders, the mayor has yet to present a detailed plan for how that money would be spent and repaid, creating concern among lawmakers and fiscal watchdogs that he wants a “blank check” for the city.

By the end of the month, the mayor must present the state Financial Control Board, an oversight body, with a plan to find the $1 billion in savings needed to balance the $88.2 billion budget for the current fiscal year. But the city’s budget woes don’t stop there. The budget gap for the next fiscal year is expected to be $4.2 billion, though it could be higher pending revenue forecasts.

For months, the mayor has said that the state Legislature should allow the city to cover those costs through long-term borrowing, at times expressing frustration and exasperation about the unwillingness of his fellow Democrats to act. But they have raised questions and sought a specific plan that de Blasio has yet to provide. Asked repeatedly for any plan that de Blasio may have at this point, spokespeople for de Blasio did not respond to Gotham Gazette inquiries this week. Other relevant parties indicated that there is still no plan.

After initially proposing to borrow $7 billion, the mayor lowered the request to $5 billion, which would be repaid over 30 years. In June, de Blasio wrote a letter to legislators in the State Senate and Assembly pressing for his demand, but it offered few details.

As de Blasio continued to press his case leading up to the finalized city budget, city and state officials -- from Governor Andrew Cuomo to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and City Comptroller Scott Stringer, among others -- expressed skepticism about new borrowing.

On June 27, State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat, released a statement saying, “New York City is the economic engine for our nation and our state, and so it is a priority for the Senate that it remains economically strong and viable. Prudence requires the development of a plan not rushed through before action is actually necessary, especially when the possibility of additional federal aid remains unresolved. Mayor de Blasio has made it clear we have several months before drastic measures like layoffs would occur and other city leaders have sent mixed signals about the wisdom and efficacy of the current request. The Senate will work with our partners in Government including the Mayor, the City Comptroller, the City Council, the Assembly, and the Governor to help New York City. We are open to approving limited loan authorization but more work needs to be done to develop a consensus around a sound approach.”

A spokesperson for de Blasio expressed disappointment in the State Senate.

More recently, some officials including Stringer and Johnson have changed their stance, albeit while still saying they want to see a real plan from de Blasio. Cuomo has continued to argue against new borrowing by the city to pay for operating expenses, saying the state would ultimately be on the hook.

The mayor and labor union leaders have been lobbying the state Legislature to approve the borrowing authority, which would both remove the need to cut spending on labor and prevent layoffs. “I've been asking Albany for months for something very fair and simple – long-term borrowing, which the city has received in past crises,” de Blasio said on Tuesday. “Hasn't happened. We're running out of options. Now, I do believe labor's working real help us in Albany and to come up with alternatives. So, I'm going to hold out hope that that's how we can solve this.” 

In a statement after publication, Julia Arredondo, a mayor's office spokesperson, said, "Long term borrowing is the fiscally responsible pathway to the City’s financial recovery. Without it, we face layoffs and steep budget cuts. We have had many conversations with the Council about our plan, and look forward to working together to protect the jobs of hard-working City employees and the programs and services that New Yorkers need and deserve."

The State Assembly nearly voted on the borrowing proposal in June – Speaker Carl Heastie has said he supports it – while the Senate majority remains open to the idea as well. "As we have said from the beginning we are willing to work with New York City to identify the best course forward without hurting working men and women and at the same time pursuing a fiscally responsible course,” said Mike Murphy, communications director for the Senate majority, in a new statement to Gotham Gazette. He did not say whether the mayor had presented a plan to the Senate. An Assembly spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

While Cuomo has so far been cold to the idea of allowing the city to borrow billions of dollars, the state itself has engaged in new borrowing as it struggles with lost revenue and prepares for potential cuts to local aid. Asked whether the mayor had given the state a specific borrowing plan, Division of Budget spokesperson Freeman Klopott pointed to the governor’s comments at an unrelated news conference on Long Island on Wednesday.

“The mayor has said he would have to lay off people if he didn’t borrow. I’m saying layoffs are the last thing you would want to do,” Cuomo said. “They’re the last option, especially in New York City where you have so many problems, you have the homeless problem, you have the crime problem, the city is dirty. So layoffs are the last option. But the $90 billion budget the City has, I’m sure there’s a lot of waste you can find. And that’s what you need to do before you go to borrow or lay off anyone.”

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli had his own tough words for the de Blasio administration. “The city used non-recurring revenue and some questionable savings to close its 2021 budget gap, while revenue continues to lag. The fiscal problems are daunting now but the duration is uncertain, and borrowing cannot become a crutch,” DiNapoli said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The city must provide a detailed, realistic plan for managing its finances for the next few years before turning to borrowing. It should be a last resort.”

Stringer and Johnson continue to call for a comprehensive plan, which has yet to be produced, for spending and repaying the borrowing. “We are in an unprecedented economic crisis, and so far the federal government has walked away from its responsibility to provide the relief we need,” Stringer said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The Mayor needs to stop threatening to fire frontline workers and propose a transparent, comprehensive financial plan with borrowing as one component to balance our budget and protect workers while preventing irremediable damage to the economic and social fabric of our City. The Mayor doesn’t get a blank check.”

The City Council was preparing to hold a hearing on September 21 on a non-binding resolution sponsored by Council Member Helen Rosenthal urging the state Legislature to approve the borrowing proposal. Melanie Hartzog, director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget was scheduled to testify. But the hearing has been postponed for the second time now. A Council spokesperson said in an email on Friday that they had expected the state Legislature to return to session, which it did not, and will reschedule the hearing once that occurs.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Johnson reiterated his support but explained what he wants to hear from the administration. “I want to avoid layoffs. That is a major reason why I support the ability to borrow long-term,” he said. “The administration has to come and participate in a meaningful way and take questions and answer them and outline their plans, their sequencing, and speak in a very specific, detailed substantive way on what they would use that borrowing authority for.”

He also said that the resolution from the Council, while potentially helpful to signal its buy-in on borrowing, is not what will or should make or break the request.

Rosenthal said in a phone interview that she hasn’t received any indication from OMB that they will provide a detailed plan prior to the hearing, or if one even exists. She said the lack of candor has been “frustrating,” particularly as the hearing was rescheduled to allow OMB officials to testify. “My gut, and I've been saying this for half a year now, is to allow borrowing, but they need to put a little meat on the bones,” she said.

“Here's everything we don't know. The amounts, over how many years. Do they have a plan for timing of paying the money back? Do they have any of those types of specifics and where are they with the labor savings?,” she said. She also noted that the city’s charter-mandated update on revenues and expenditures is due in November, when mid-year budget and four-year financial plan modifications will occur. “Are they starting to have a sense of how revenues are coming in compared to what was budgeted at the end of June?” she said.

“I guess the mayor's folks have a strategy on it,” she said of the overall plan. “I'm not sure what that strategy is because I would imagine the state people who are the ones who have to give us the authority are asking the exact same questions...Common sense would be, I think, that one would want to be as transparent as possible in order to justify to those who are giving you the authority, why you need it, and what your plans are.”

Rosenthal also said she’d been informed the Municipal Labor Committee will meet at the same time as the hearing, which may preclude labor leaders from testifying. “It'd be helpful to know where they are in those negotiations,” she said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with a statement from the mayor's office.

Note - this article has been updated to reflect that the City Council hearing on the borrowing resolution has been indefinitely postponed. 

Despite Requests, No Sign of De Blasio Plan for Managing Billions in City Borrowing He's Seeking Wed, 16 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Where De Blasio's Push to Borrow Billions Stands 1 billions push

The Financial Control Board meets (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio has until the end of September to present a state fiscal oversight body with a plan to find $1 billion in savings that will help balance the city budget for the current fiscal year. In lieu of a federal aid package to help replace lost tax revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic, the mayor and labor union leaders are pushing the Legislature and Governor Cuomo to allow the city to borrow billions of dollars to cover operating expenses, a proposal that many city and state leaders have generally balked at but might soon be seen as necessary if the city wants to avoid thousands of municipal layoffs.

Both City Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Council Corey Johnson initially opposed a borrowing plan but have warmed up to it in recent weeks. State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has pointed out that the de Blasio administration has yet to lay out a detailed plan that takes into account uncertainties, particularly about future revenue. Legislative leaders have similarly demurred on giving their approval, while Cuomo has expressed opposition to the idea.

The approval of the $88.2 billion city budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which began July 1, was predicated on the mayor’s promise that he would negotiate with labor unions to find $1 billion in recurring savings going forward or be forced to resort to mass layoffs. By October 1, the mayor has to present that savings plan to the state Financial Control Board (FCB), which monitors the city’s fiscal practices.

Short of identifying those savings, and without federal stimulus funds, the mayor has warned that the city will be forced to lay off roughly 22,000 municipal employees. Preparations for those layoffs began last month and, on Monday, the city was meant to send out 30-day layoff notices to workers. But the mayor said he would delay that process as discussions with union representatives continued and as labor unions sought to convince state leaders about the borrowing plan. “What our labor partners asked for is time to bring back the Legislature, to talk to the Legislative leaders and members and ask them to come back on an urgent basis,” de Blasio said. “I've said we will work with them on that, but it's going to be a day to day basis.”

Even as he held out some hope for federal help, the mayor has for months pursued long-term borrowing permission from Albany, which he now argues is essential to overcoming the city’s fiscal woes. Since May, he has been asking the Legislature to authorize borrowing to pay for the city’s operating expenses. His latest plan is to borrow $5 billion, to be paid off over 30 years. The mayor has expressed confidence that the city’s tax revenues, including personal income tax, will rebound as the city recovers and will be able to accommodate the added debt. He specifically said that he expects property taxes, which are an important base of revenue, to remain strong.

According to a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, the city would add about $70 million in annual debt payments for every $1.5 billion borrowed. For the current fiscal year, the city’s debt payments amount to $7.4 billion, and will increase to $8 billion for the next fiscal year. Paid through the annual operating budget, the debt service payments are virtually all for capital expenses.

The $5 billion would not only cover the labor savings for this year but also nearly the entire expected $4.2 billion budget gap for the next fiscal year. In order to come within the $1 billion of closing this year’s gap, de Blasio dipped significantly into the city’s reserves, using $4 billion of roughly $6 billion the city had set aside.

At his daily news briefing on Thursday, de Blasio reiterated the call for borrowing, warning that the city also faced the prospect of budget cuts from the state, which has its own $13.3 billion fiscal gap to worry about. That includes $8.2 billion in state aid to localities for education and healthcare, among other things.

“[O]ur central concern, of course, is where is the federal government with the stimulus? Well, nothing yet. Where is the state government with long-term borrowing? Nothing yet,” de Blasio said.  “In fact, there's a threat of cuts from the state government that will cause us to have to cut even more New York City personnel...Let's get to the work of figuring out what is healthy and safe for New Yorkers. And then let's get to the work of giving us the resources to actually protect people. And what Albany needs to do is give us that long-term borrowing authority.”

The city has lacked the power to unilaterally borrow funds for operating expenses since the state passed the Financial Emergency Act in 1975, when the city overleveraged itself to the brink of bankruptcy, in part by borrowing for operating expenses. That legislation, which also created the Financial Control Board, was meant to rein in the city’s shoddy fiscal management and ensure that the budget was balanced each year. The city could only plan to spend as much as it expected to receive in revenue. Borrowing authority was last granted to the city after 9/11, when the city was given permission to borrow as much as $2.5 billion, though it did not avail of the full amount.

The lessons of the 1970s, however, haven’t faded, which is why Cuomo, the state Legislature, and fiscal watchdogs have all been reluctant to support the mayor’s recent borrowing proposition.

Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but in May he said it was a “fiscally questionable” notion. On June 29, the governor again made it clear that he has misgivings about the proposal. “What is the loan? How do you pay it back? What is fiscally responsible?” he said. “Borrowing in of itself is not a great thing, but it’s not a bad thing. The question is how much? How are you going to repay it? What do you think is going to happen with the economy?” As governor, Cuomo chairs the Financial Control Board and has recently taken more of an interest in its workings. As NY1 reported in July, Cuomo nominated three close associates to the board – former Secretary to the Governor Steve Cohen, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, and sitting Secretary of State Rossana Rosado – who were all confirmed. The board’s other three members are de Blasio, DiNapoli, and Stringer.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has expressed support for giving the city borrowing authority, according to a NY1 report. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, on the other hand, has been circumspect to approve the city’s borrowing proposal, but has also not ruled it out entirely.

“As we have said from the beginning we are willing to work with New York City to identify the best course forward without hurting working men and women and at the same time pursuing a fiscally responsible course,” said Mike Murphy, communications director for the Senate majority, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

In a June 27 statement, Stewart-Cousins had also said the Senate was “open” to allowing limited borrowing authority, but stressed the need for more detail from de Blasio. “Prudence requires the development of a plan not rushed through before action is actually necessary, especially when the possibility of additional federal aid remains unresolved,” she said at the time, noting that there were still several months until layoffs were on the table.

Spokespeople for Heastie did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

DiNapoli has significant reservations about the city being granted borrowing authority. “There are too many unanswered questions right now to say if borrowing would be prudent,” he said in a statement. “Those unanswered questions include whether this year’s balanced budget will hold, whether there will be additional federal aid, whether economic progress will ease budget gaps in the out-years or whether the risks I and others have identified will make the situation more difficult. We certainly know that in the long-term, borrowing your way out of a problem, and committing future budgets and burdening future taxpayers, is not the best solution if it can be avoided.”

Stringer, who had previously warned against the amount of total debt the city could take on if it borrowed in the billions, recently seemed warmer to the idea. But he nevertheless emphasized that it would have to be approved with strict controls and an airtight spending plan, which, if it exists, the mayor has not presented publicly and his office did not provide to Gotham Gazette despite a request.

“We are in an unprecedented economic crisis, and so far the federal government has walked away from its responsibility to provide the relief we need,” Stringer said in a Thursday statement to Gotham Gazette. “The mayor needs to stop threatening to fire frontline workers and propose a transparent, comprehensive financial plan with borrowing as one component to balance our budget and protect workers while preventing irremediable damage to the economic and social fabric of our City. The mayor doesn’t get a blank check.”

De Blasio has said that he does not want carte blanche to spend all $5 billion and that the long period of repayment will impose a manageable burden on future budgets. “We do not want to use that authority if we don't have to,” he said Thursday. “For example, if a [federal] stimulus was passed and made us whole, we wouldn't borrow at all. If we only needed to use a small amount of the borrowing, we would use a small amount. But when you're talking about repayment on a 30-year basis, the debt service is quite modest. It does not change the fundamental reality of the budget.”

Fiscal watchdogs have argued that the city need not borrow funds nor implement layoffs to close the $1 billion budget gap. The Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit group, released a report on Wednesday that recommended a series of steps including reducing the costs of employee benefits (particularly health care spending) and implementing broader productivity reforms.

There are also several bills before the state Legislature that would increase taxes on the wealthy to raise more revenue, but they have been resoundingly rejected by the governor who has warned that it may drive high-income residents out of the state. Surprisingly, de Blasio has shared a similar sentiment despite his long-standing support for such taxes. The Democratic majorities in the two legislative houses have been in talks aimed at deciding which revenue-raising measures to pursue.

City Council Speaker Johnson has also recently shifted his opposition to long-term borrowing and has said the Council will discuss and vote on a resolution, sponsored by Council Member Helen Rosenthal and introduced on August 27, calling on the state Legislature to approve it. “Layoffs should be a last resort,” Johnson said in a Thursday statement to Gotham Gazette. “The State should give the City borrowing authority to avoid layoffs. That does not mean the City should not look for savings where it can.”

“I think that New York City deserves the authority to borrow funds to meet our immediate needs given the impact of COVID-19 on our revenue,” Johnson said at an August 27 virtual news conference. “When we do borrow, it needs to be responsibly to avoid the absolute worst options becoming our only options like a significant number of layoffs for workers and families at the height of a dire economic recession.”

The Council hearing on the resolution will be on September 21, and it may be voted on in committee and, if it passes there, by the full Council later that week.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, also a Democrat and likely mayoral candidate like Stringer and Johnson, told Gotham Gazette he too beleives the city should be granted borrowing authority, but he also offered caveats and criticism. “Because the City has waited to find necessary cost savings, Washington is failing New York, and we must not balance our budget on the backs of Black and Brown New Yorkers, I believe some borrowing may now be necessary to avoid even deeper inequality," Adams said in a Friday statement. "However, the City must also explain its plan to pay the debt and find a dollar in savings for every dollar borrowed. I believe we can identify these savings without laying off City workers or cutting vital services on which lower-income New Yorkers depend. We also must consider temporary revenue raisers like an ultra-millionaires tax and a fairer property tax system.”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has also lent his support to long-term borrowing, stressing that it would help prevent cuts to crucial services for New Yorkers. “This is a fiscally-sound and clearly-necessary strategy to meet the current economic crisis without further irreparable damage to vital programs and the New Yorkers who rely on them,” he wrote in a June 28 op-ed for Gotham Gazette, just prior to the passage of the city budget. “Borrowing is not a radical idea. Unlike short-term borrowing, it is not an imprudent proposal. In past crises, we have taken on long-term debt and been able to move forward and build a strong recovery. I believe we must do so again, and fear if we do not, that recovery will not come.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with comment from Eric Adams and info on the hearing on the City Council resolution, and then updated with a new date for the Council hearing on the resolution.

Where De Blasio's Push to Borrow Billions Stands Thu, 03 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Crunch Time for New York Census Count as September 30 Deadline Looms and Numbers Lag 3 census app research

A pre-pandemic Census press conference (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

With less than a month left till the U.S. Census Bureau intends to end its constitutionally-mandated decennial population count, elected officials and advocates issued a dire warning to New Yorkers on Tuesday to fill out the Census questionnaire or risk losing crucial funding for a raft of federal programs as well as political representation in Congress.

Last month, the Trump administration moved up the deadline for the 2020 Census from October 31 to September 30, leaving the Census Bureau and local and state officials scrambling to ensure an accurate count, which has already been thrown into jeopardy by the coronavirus pandemic. The Census Bureau currently has enumerators out in the field attempting to count those households that have not self-responded through the online portal or by mail.

As of August 31, the nationwide response rate to the Census was 64.9%, according to the CUNY Mapping Service’s Census tracking project; New York State’s response rate was 61% and New York City’s was 57.7%. Census data is used to determine many billions of dollars in funding to states and localities and seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

At a Tuesday news conference, New York elected officials and Census advocates raised concerns about the state’s response lagging behind the nation and the detrimental effects that could have over the next decade. The Census count determines how the federal government distributes funds for everything from education and health care to infrastructure, transit, and a range of social welfare programs. It also forms the basis for drawing electoral districts at the local, state, and congressional levels and New York, with it’s already declining population, stands to lose as many as two seats in the House due to an undercount in the Census.

As U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand pointed out at the news conference, New York receives more than $73 billion in federal funds annually for 55 programs, out of a $1.5 trillion pot.

“We need that funding to respond to this pandemic and prepare for the next one,” she said, noting that the state could lose money for Medicaid, maternal health, housing assistance, among other programs. “The federal government won't know how much our communities should get if they don't know how many people live there,” she added. Gillibrand has joined with Democratic and Republican Congressional representatives to call on the Trump administration to extend the deadline for delivering Census data and has pushed for that provision to be included in any potential stimulus package that is approved by Congress.

“The Census is more important than ever amidst the ongoing pandemic, which has already badly harmed our state and city budgets and has laid bare many of the inequities that currently exist in our communities,” said U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler of Manhattan and Brooklyn. “If we don't get an accurate count, this will only be made worse.”

The Trump administration’s move to shift the deadline has also been challenged in court and, on Tuesday, New York State Attorney General Letitia James filed an amicus brief in that case on behalf of a coalition of 23 attorneys general, five cities, four counties, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

“An undercount would skew state and local representation when the districts are redrawn and federal funding could be drawn off and decreased for many urban areas with large immigrant populations like New York City,” James said at the news conference. “This could affect our roads, our bridges, our schools, the number of first responders we have in our communities and so much more. And while each of these situations are on face value costly, it's important to note that what is at stake is so much more than just numbers. It's about the people who will be adversely impacted by these numbers.”

What makes the Census particularly challenging in New York is the number of hard-to-count communities that tend to not participate in the Census or that are often miscounted. That includes immigrants, low- and middle-income Black communities, Native Americans, seniors, children under the age of five, people with limited English proficiency and non-English speakers, among others.

President Donald Trump has also taken several steps that seemed geared towards discouraging participation. His administration unsuccessfully attempted to place a citizenship question on the Census and underfunded the Census Bureau. On July 21, Trump also issued a memo to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, ordering that undocumented immigrants be excluded from state populations for the apportionment of congressional representatives. That order has been challenged in court.

“Under the Trump administration, the Census has become about fear and misinformation,” said Meeta Anand, the Census 2020 senior fellow at the New York Immigration Coalition, at Tuesday’s news conference.

Recognizing those many challenges, city officials are in the midst of a concerted $40 million Census outreach campaign and recently launched a home-stretch effort, particularly to target areas where the response has been far lower than other parts of the city.

Led by Census Director Julie Menin, appointed to the role by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city launched a massive ad campaign across 26 languages, more than 175 publications and websites covering radio, television, social media. City Census workers have made more than 3.5 million phone calls and sent more than 7 million texts about the Census, getting more than 423,000 New Yorkers to fill out the questionnaire, the city Census office said.

“Let's be clear what this fight is about. It's an insidious political ploy to defund cities like New York, to have us lose congressional representation and move that funding and congressional representation to Red Republican districts all across the country,” Menin said Tuesday.

The city is also attempting to reach the thousands of New Yorkers who left the city during the pandemic but who requested absentee ballots for the recent primary elections. Many of them completed the Census using their temporary addresses, which would require them to re-fill the questionnaire, which takes roughly 10 minutes, to be counted as New York residents.

At the state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo re-launched some semblance of Census outreach efforts at the end of July after months of inaction. The state was originally pledged to put $70 million toward the Census, including grants to community outreach groups and the reallocation of state agency resources, but the Cuomo administration did not follow through, in part, it has indicated, due to the budget crunch resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

As part of a recent “Census Push Week,” the state said it was partnering with Spanish-language media outlets to conduct phone-banking, while several public-facing state agencies such as the MTA and Department of State’s Division of Licensing Services rolled out awareness initiatives of their own. There has been little additional news, however. A request for comment to Empire State Development, the state’s economic development agency that is overseeing the Census effort, went unanswered.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Crunch Time for New York Census Count as September 30 Deadline Looms and Numbers Lag Tue, 01 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
As New York Looks for Smoother General Election, Long List of Voting Reform Bills Awaits Governor’s Signature or Legislative Action passed prop what

Inspecting voting equipment (photo: Senator Michael Gianaris)

The June 2020 primaries in New York were an unusually thick morass of bureaucratic challenges as the city and state election systems shifted to a mostly-mail-in format amidst the coronavirus outbreak.

In New York City more than 80,000 mail-in ballots were disqualified on technical grounds -- a full fifth of the 400,000-plus ballots cast that way and a tenth of the total. Tens of thousands of ballots were either sent out late by the New York City Board of Elections or never delivered to voters who requested them.

Thousands of ballots were thrown out by the city board because they weren't postmarked by the U.S. Postal Service, a move that was overturned last week by a federal judge who blamed "systemic failures" for the mass disqualification. The State Board of Elections said it would appeal the decision -- asserting that counting the rejected ballots now, as one commissioner put it, "will place a tremendous burden on the local boards of elections as they are preparing for the November general election and is highly unlikely to change the results in any contest" -- but the New York Attorney General, Letitia James, decided otherwise.

With fewer than 90 days until Election Day, administrators, lawmakers, voting reform advocates, and voters are looking ahead to the general election, where the presidential contest is expected to draw a groundbreaking number of voters. It is unclear how many will be heading to the polls versus voting by mail, especially given uncertainty around what the virus transmission risk will be and what provisions for broad absentee voting will be in play.

On Tuesday, the New York State Legislature is holding a joint oversight hearing to review the 2020 primaries as the fate of legislation impacting the way elections are run remains up in the air. There is a long list of voting-related bills that fall into three categories: those passed by both houses of the Legislature and waiting action by Governor Andrew Cuomo; bills passed by one house of the Legislature; and bills passed by neither house. There are also the matters of steps Cuomo might take by executive action, depending on what the Legislature does and developments between now and the fall election; administrative changes the New York State and City Boards of Elections might make, including around beefing up personnel; and the status of the Postal Service, which President Donald Trump appears to be targeting.

To reach the unprecedented expansion of mail-in voting in June, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a series of executive orders expanding eligibility, requiring pre-paid postage, and even mandating that every registered voter eligible for the primaries received an absentee ballot application in the mail.

In response to the mess that unfolded, state lawmakers in July passed a series of bills aimed at codifying or adjusting elements of the absentee ballot mailing and counting procedures to set clearer and more practical standards for local boards of elections. The governor has yet to sign any of them, nor has he said whether he would sign new executive orders, while elections experts and some legislators say the legislation alone will not be enough.

"I believe that they will be signed by the governor," said Assemblymember Charles Lavine, a Nassau County Democrat who chairs the Assembly’s election law committee and sponsored one of the bills, by phone.

"But beyond that," he continued, "I believe that if for whatever reason the governor decides not to sign any of the bills, the governor will himself cover the provisions of those bills through executive orders."

"We are reviewing the bills," wrote Caitlin Giouard, a spokesperson for Cuomo, in an email. The bills were delivered to the governor on Monday, according to the State Senate's website, giving him 10 days to act (not including Sundays) before they automatically become law.

Codifying and Improving the Expanded Absentee Voting Process for Fall 2020
The centerpiece of the package, passed by the Democratic-controlled State Legislature in the special session last month, is a bill sponsored by Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz, both Bronx Democrats, that would broaden the definition of "Temporary Illness" -- one of the acceptable excuses for absentee voting under state law -- to include the risk of spreading or contracting an illness like COVID-19.

The bill is similar to Cuomo's executive order for the primaries, which has expired, except that it applies to diseases beyond COVID-19.

"All of these executive orders are subject to renewal and expansion and contraction and ending. They're executive orders and nothing else is really happening," said Sarah Steiner, a veteran election lawyer in New York State. "Nothing is in effect for the general election."

Three of the other bills in the package aim to correct issues that arose in June, when the absentee voting option, which previously served voters numbering in the thousands each election, was taken by hundreds of thousands.

One partially solves the postmark issue by saying that ballots that were received by a board of elections on the day after election day will be counted, even if they are missing a postmark.

The judge's ruling last week expanded that buffer to two days after election day for missing postmarks, but advocates say that still leaves a large window within the acceptable statutory timeframe that mailed ballots must be accepted when they do have a postmark.

"They're willing to protect votes one day later with no postmark and two days later with no postmark, and that leaves a five-day hole," said Jarret Berg, an election lawyer in New York and co-founder of the advocacy group Vote Early NY.

"How you treat certain ambiguities in the election law, that's for the State Board to clarify," he added. "There is the statute, and we can clean some of that up, but between the statute and what the counties are doing is the State Board. It's either a vacuum or they put down some clear rules."

Berg says the State Board of Elections, a regulatory and oversight body governing county-level election boards, should be playing a bigger role in setting uniformity among the various pieces of the elections bureaucracy, including the increasingly prominent USPS. "Why isn't there a three-page MOU between the head of the Post Office in New York and the State Board of Elections that just explains how you handle election paper?," Berg asked rhetorically.

"The USPS has already acknowledged in writing they are supposed to postmark every piece of election mail by their own rules and regulations," wrote John Conklin, a spokesperson for the State Board of Elections (SBOE), in an email to Gotham Gazette.

"The SBOE and the local boards worked with the Postal Service’s Media Design teams to ensure that every county’s absentee ballot mail pieces were to USPS’s exact specifications so they would be tracked according to how the USPS needed them and word still didn’t get out to all post offices," Conklin wrote. "I don’t know what an MOU would do. We’ve been talking with USPS for months on these matters."

"The Postal Service’s policy is to postmark ballots, regardless of the postage-payment method," wrote Xavier Hernandez, a spokesperson for the USPS, in an email to Gotham Gazette. "Leading up to the June 23rd election, the Postal Service instructed employees in New York State about the Postal Service’s ballot postmarking processes and procedures. All delivery units in New York, reviewed the standard operating procedures for ballot postmarking."

"We are aware that some ballots may not have been postmarked and have taken action to resolve the issue going forward," he added. "We continue to work with the Secretary of State and all New York Boards of Election and look forward to a successful general election."

Another bill would allow voters to apply for an absentee ballot prior to 30 days before an election, which would give local elections administrators more lead time to begin processing them.

That was a problem in June, when thousands of registered and eligible voters did not receive their requested ballots until it was too late to cast them, or not at all.

"To those voters who did not have an opportunity to cast their ballots in the primary election, we should apologize for not doing more," wrote Douglas Kellner, the Democratic Co-Chair of the State Board of Elections, in a memo to the New York City Board of Elections.

"Elected officials and others warned that we were not deploying sufficient resources to mail out absentee ballots in a timely manner, and in hindsight we could have done more to address that problem," wrote Kellner (who was the same commissioner who said canvassing non-postmarked ballots cast in June after election certification would be a "tremendous burden").

Another bill, sponsored by Lavine and Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat and the State Senate's elections committee chair, would create a kind of remote curing process for absentee ballots that are not accepted due to a technical error. If an absentee ballot contains certain "deficiencies" like a missing signature, the voter will be notified and given a limited window to correct the mistake. But some voting advocates say the bill could have gone further to give voters more time to fix a wider range of technicalities.

"Arguably, no bill goes far enough," Lavine told Gotham Gazette. "I'm very pleased that we were able to take the first steps...We're going in the right direction.”

"I do understand the critique of the voting rights advocates but our government is all about compromise," he added.

The New York City Board of Elections, which is responsible for roughly 40 percent of the state's registered voters, would not comment on the package. "We don't comment on pending legislation," wrote board spokesperson Valerie Vazquez in a text message.

In June, Cuomo signed legislation permitting voters to apply for absentee ballots online after the June primary, a codification of part of his executive order. But there appears to be no legislation to require election administrators to proactively mail absentee applications to registered voters, as they were required to do by executive order for the primaries.

Other Voting Reforms on the Table; Registration Deadlines; & More
Some bills that advocates want to see before the governor have thus far failed to gain traction in both chambers of the Legislature, including some related to counting ballots despite certain deficiencies.

One would require boards of elections to count ballots where the envelopes have been sealed by tape or glue, as opposed to by the built-in adhesive. Another would require counting when the "intent of the voter is unambiguous," ensuring that a ballot will be accepted if a voter fails to provide a particular signature or date. Both bills are still in committee.

On Friday, State Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, introduced a bill that would allow local boards of elections to set up secure drop boxes for voters to submit their absentee ballots, rather relying on the postal service.

Hoylman and Assembly Member Dan Quart, another Manhattan Democrat, also sponsor a bill that would allow voters to track their absentee ballots like they would a package in the mail, and requires boards of elections to provide an explanation if the ballot is rejected. The bill has not advanced in either house.

For the June elections, Cuomo's executive order provided that the absentee ballots include postage paid envelopes, which they are currently not required by law to do. Senator James Sanders Jr., a Queens Democrat, and Dinowitz introduced legislation to codify that for future elections, but it has not come to a vote.

A different bill, which would allow online voter registration for New York City residents, passed the Senate but remains in committee in the Assembly. The bill would sunset in 2021, when the state's online voter registration portal is expected to launch, but would allow online registration in the city amid a massive drop in new voter registration brought on by the pandemic.

New voters must register by October 9 in order to vote in the 2020 general election in New York.

In July, the Senate and Assembly passed a bill establishing automatic voter registration, which does not go into effect until 2023. The bill requires certain government agencies to establish a procedure with the State Board of Elections to automatically register clients to vote when they provide the necessary personal information when seeking services.

Earlier this year, Myrie, the Senate's elections committee chair, introduced the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act (posthumously renamed) that would codify elements of the federal VRA into state election law. The bill has no Assembly companion at this time.

Many of the measures suggested by voting advocates and state elections administrators would require more personnel and resources, either to process absentee ballots, better utilize the state’s new early voting option, or address Election Day delays.

In his memo to the New York City Board of Elections, Kellner said the city board would have to take far greater steps to ensure shorter lines at poll sites during the likely explosive turnout of the general election. He implored the city board to strive to ensure voters aren't waiting at poll sites more than 30 minutes, as mandated by state law ("New York City has never come close to meeting that mandate in presidential general elections," he wrote) and suggested having the city close down streets and set up tents for outdoor voting near poll sites. In terms of processing absentee ballots, he said administrators need to "dramatically scale up" the number of tables and personnel dedicated to counting ballots.

"New York City has more poll workers than needed for primary and special elections and is understaffed in many locations for the presidential election," Kellner wrote. "The solution is obvious, albeit not so simple to accomplish. We need more registration check-in tables. That is where the bottlenecks typically occur. Yes, more tables mean that we need more poll-workers to staff these tables, and that means that we need more space."

Steiner, the election lawyer, believes the state's new early voting option has been under-promoted and under-utilized.

"You had nine days of early voting and only something like 52,000 people voted," Steiner said. "But those nine days that there are massive halls in which people can go and vote at their leisure" could have accommodated more socially distant in-person voting, she said. "You could have half the people voting early and it wouldn't be any stress on [elections administrators] at all."

A bill passed in July that goes into effect in 2021 would require counties to establish an early voting site in the largest population center, an additional requirement to the mandate that they be established for every increment of 50,000 voters. New York City would not be affected since it is a municipality that spans five counties (the five boroughs).

There are nine days of early voting for the 2020 general election, beginning Saturday, October 24, and extending through Sunday, November 1, with sites open for extended hours some evenings. Election Day is Tuesday, November 3.

In anticipation of another crush of mailed ballots, the New York City Board of Elections on August 4 approved the purchase of five state-of-the-art absentee-ballot counting machines -- one for each borough -- for roughly $1.5 million. The machines will help streamline absentee canvassing.

"That is something that should be watched,” Steiner said, “whether the absentee ballot handling is going to be improved, whether that is the only improvement to the handling of absentee ballots that they make.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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As New York Looks for Smoother General Election, Long List of Voting Reform Bills Awaits Governor’s Signature or Legislative Action Mon, 10 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
As State Withholds Contract Payments, Substance Use Treatment Providers Worry About Rising Overdoses, Disease Outbreaks comm train college

Naloxone training to reverse overdoses (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)

With the pandemic blowing a hole in the economy and leading to a drastic drop in state tax revenue, budget officials have for months been withholding payments for state contracts to manage cash flows. Among the victims of that fiscal approach are substance use treatment providers who are being forced to cut already-limited services and consider staff layoffs and furloughs, which they say will likely lead to a sharp increase in overdoses and new disease outbreaks around the state. 

The pandemic caused a 14% drop in expected revenue for the state in the current fiscal year, roughly $13.3 billion, leading the state to reduce $4 billion in spending so far by withholding contract payments across the board and imposing freezes on new contracts, hiring, and pay raises, according to the Division of Budget. Governor Andrew Cuomo has said the state cannot meet the shortfall unless the federal government provides aid, failing which he would cut about 20%, or $8.2 billion, of funding for local governments for everything from education and social services to health care programs. 

But several nonprofit providers that contract with the state to run substance use treatment programs – including syringe exchanges, sexually-transmitted infection (STI) screenings, naloxone overdose rescue training, and more – are already feeling the crunch, having gone months without being paid by the state. The state has also cut local funding for substance use and addiction treatment programs by 31%, according to news reports, exacerbating providers’ worries about being able to provide services.

In interviews, providers and harm reduction advocates painted a dire picture. They say that the already rising rate of overdoses that they are witnessing is at risk of spiking to the same levels as 2016, when the opioid epidemic reached its peak and spurred local and state officials into action. Since official data lags behind and could be unavailable until even a year after the fact, they fear that by the time the actual numbers become apparent, it will be too late. A generational crisis could be underway.  

Syracuse-based ACR Health receives nearly 90% of its funding from the state Department of Health and has been grappling with months of delayed payments. The nonprofit has had to furlough 70 out of 142 staff members and close three of its five offices. “We've really been struggling with the lack of consistent payments from the state,” said Wil Murtaugh, ACR Health executive director, in a phone interview, noting that the state was more than $1 million behind in payments. The first notice they received that funds would be placed on hold was near the end of June, leaving the group scrambling for solutions. 

Alessandra Miller, director of ACR’s Department of Drug User Health, said the organization was planning to resume outreach operations that were suspended when the pandemic hit. “We're no longer really able to perform physical outreach to this population because of this lack of funding,” she said. 

Besides Syracuse, ACR also has centers in Utica and Watertown, but they have had to cut services at those two centers down from five days a week to two. Their programs cover nine counties in and around the area, where people have the highest needs.

“Of course, that's going to increase overdoses and consequently deaths related to overdoses. But also, you're talking about latent consequences of drug use and substance use like HIV and Hepatitis C,” Miller added. Miller and Murtaugh said their testing program has already seen a massive increase in STIs.

Jay Dewey, a spokesperson for Hudson Valley Community Services, similarly said his organization has not been paid for most of its state contracts since February. They’re owed as much as $1.6 million and they may have to resort to dipping into reserve funds while also relying on a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. “But the TPP funding will be gone within a few days and so we estimate that by the end of August, we may need to look at furloughs, layoffs and a reduction of some of our services,” he said. 

The nonprofits may also have no option to enforce the contracts. Dewey said a state elected official suggested that they may have grounds to file a lawsuit against the state for nonpayment. “But that's kind of laughable because if we don't have money to continue programs, how will we have money for legal fees to sue the state of New York? So, it was an answer from a representative but not a very satisfactory one,” he said. 

At Evergreen Health Services in Buffalo, Emma Fabian, associate vice president of harm reduction, expressed concern about what cuts to programs could mean for rural communities that rely on their services. Evergreen runs syringe exchange programs in Buffalo and Jamestown and runs a mobile unit that serves surrounding areas. Between the two sites, the program serves more than 100 people per day, providing naloxone, sterile injection equipment, as well as medication-assisted treatment for addiction.

Already, Fabian said, fatal and non-fatal overdoses in Erie County are on track to be higher than in 2016. “What the numbers are showing is it’s not only statewide,” she said. “It’s perhaps a serious issue our entire country's going to be facing, again.” 

A spokesperson for the state Division of Budget emphasized that funding has not been cut, but is being withheld, at least for now. “There has been no permanent reduction in support for these services at this time,” said Freeman Klopott, the spokesperson. “Instead, the State is holding back a portion of payments as it contends with a cash crunch caused by a 14% drop in revenue due entirely to the pandemic and the State needs the federal government to deliver much-delayed funding to cover this revenue loss so that we can continue to provide support for the most vulnerable New Yorkers.”

The End Overdose NY coalition has been lobbying lawmakers and the governor to address the current crisis with more urgency, as service providers across the state increasingly head towards a fiscal cliff. Alexis Pleus, executive director of Truth Pharm and the co-chair of the New York State Harm Reduction Association, said the twin issues of non-payment of contracts and the cuts to funding for services are colliding, as localities without resources of their own cannot afford to step in to fill the gaps. “It's not even as if a county could suddenly support these programs that New York State is under contractual obligation to pay,” she said in an interview. 

“I don’t think the governor’s paying attention at all,” she said. “He's literally taking this population and just throwing their lives away, saying their lives are not valuable at all.” 

“Without those programs, diseases will run rampant, again,” Pleus said. The “ripple effect” of the lack of services could last a decade, if not more, she added. 

As advocates and service-providers have pointed out, the general public health guidance during this pandemic is in direct opposition to the advice that harm reduction providers give to substance users. People who would usually be told to avoid use alone are now being told in glaring public notices to maintain social distancing and isolate as much as possible. 

“We had a substance use disorder and opioid crisis before the pandemic hit, and because of the pandemic, we are now having more people suffering in isolation,” said State Senator Pete Harckham of Long Island, who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse and who has discussed his own battles with substance use and addiction. Harckham has called for a $38.5 billion federal emergency aid package for behavioral health programs across the country. 

Harckham said the state’s withholding of contract payments is akin to “taking a tattered safety net and just shattering it. This is like cutting emergency rooms and ICUs in the middle of a pandemic. These clinics and these nonprofits are the ICU for people with substance use disorders.”

Harckham acknowledged that the state is in a difficult position as it lacks the necessary revenue to shore up these services. “But this is among the most vulnerable populations and for them to be on the brunt of this is really concerning,” he said.

“We're taking a step backwards with our health-care delivery,” said Murtaugh of ACR Health. “A program is a person, and if you have less persons, then you have less programs. Period. That's exactly what it is and it's very scary to step backwards like that.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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As State Withholds Contract Payments, Substance Use Treatment Providers Worry About Rising Overdoses, Disease Outbreaks Thu, 30 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Re-Launches State Census Efforts gov cuomo vote

Governor Cuomo at a Census conference early this year (photo: governor's office)

After months of relative silence about the ongoing 2020 Census count and with New York at risk of a large and costly undercount, Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday re-launched a state effort to urge New Yorkers to fill out the once-a-decade federal questionnaire.

The COVID-19 pandemic turned the 2020 Census on its head, forcing officials at the city, state, and federal levels to reconsider outreach plans and pivot awareness campaigns. The self-response deadline was extended from July 31 to October 31. The federal Census Bureau has since resumed limited field operations in several parts of New York and New York City officials have continued a robust alternative program to reach city residents through phone- and text-banking, a multimedia ad campaign, and more.

As of July 28, about 58.3% of New Yorkers across the state had filled out the Census, according to the CUNY Mapping Service’s census tracking project, compared to a 62.6% response rate nationwide.

The state effort lagged behind significantly even before the coronavirus outbreak in New York, and the governor’s announcement was the first major step since the pandemic hit the state. In a statement, Cuomo announced “Census Push Week” and emphasized the “absolutely critical” need for people to fill out the population questionnaire, which affects the level of federal funding the state receives and its electoral representation in Congress. With a loss of population over the last decade and a possible undercount, the state could lose as many as two seats in the House of Representatives.

“There's no doubt that COVID-19 has presented unprecedented obstacles to completing the Census,” Cuomo said. “However, the pandemic also highlights a key reason why the Census is so vital—New York State continues to seek substantial funding and aid from the federal government. I urge every New Yorker to complete the Census, and remember, New York State can help if you encounter any issues along the way.”

Originally Cuomo had pledged a $70 million Census outreach effort, including $20 million allocated in last year’s budget that was meant to be awarded to community-based organizations for direct contact but never went out the door. The state’s budget woes from the pandemic could mean that money will never be allocated (even as another $10 million was added in the new state budget passed in early April), an issue that has outraged advocacy organizations who say the state dragged its feet for far too long. The other $40 million was to be spent via a reallocation of state resources whereby different agencies and offices would work to get out the count -- plans now said to be launching many months after being promised.

As part of the new effort announced on Tuesday, the state Office for New Americans will partner with El Diario and Telemundo to host a two-day phone banking event, primarily for Spanish speakers. The state is also partnering with the Association for a Better New York, a prominent business group, to promote the Census through two events on July 30 and August 10.

At the same time, state entities have taken steps to urge participation in the Census without holding in-person events, the governor’s office said. The MTA is advertising across its subway, bus, and rail systems; the Department of State is promoting the Census through Community Action Agencies; and the Department of State’s Division of Licensing Services is boosting awareness through its customer service phone line. The Department of Financial Services and Empire State Development are also spreading the word through their respective networks.

State and local officials are organizing a slew of other events this week to barnstorm hard-to-count neighborhoods where self-response rates have been historically low. The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio is already in the midst of a “Census Week of Action” this week, and as part of that the New York City Census office has signed up 500 volunteers and is holding public events every day till August 2, including in-person events across the five boroughs. In Brooklyn, State Senator Zellnor Myrie is organizing a Census March for Racial Justice on August 2 to raise awareness in communities that are falling behind in the count.

The Census questionnaire is roughly ten questions and can be filled out by one member of a household to include all residents of that household. It can be filled out online or by phone, and the Census Bureau has also mailed paper questionnaires to households that have not responded.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Cuomo Re-Launches State Census Efforts Tue, 28 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Surveillance and the City: Cuomo’s Covid Security Theater update progress covid

Governor Cuomo headed to Georgia (photo: governor's office)

For years, travelers have complained about security theater at our airports. Even as we’re forced to do everything short of strip naked for TSA agents, people are still able to sneak guns, grenades, and even the occasional venomous snake onto planes. It feels as if the point of the multi-million-dollar investment in mass screening is to give the illusion of safety, not safety itself. And so is the case with New York’s newest form of airport surveillance: COVID-19 registration.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, New Yorkers were eyed warily by other states as nothing short of 21st century plague carriers. Some states went so far as to call in the National Guard to monitor for New York license plates and even threaten to close down the border itself. But now that New York is on the far side of the first wave, the tables have turned, and now New York is looking at out-of-state travelers with suspicion.

The threat of interstate COVID-19 transmission is real, but New York’s screening offers only a false sense of security. Governor Cuomo’s new order requires those flying in from dozens of states to register with New York state government or face a $2,000 fine. Those arriving in cars, trains, and busses also must register, though with no one greeting them at arrival to ask and no clear penalty for failing to do so. And if either set of travelers violate the 14-day mandatory quarantine, they face a $10,000 fine.

While the state has doubled down on airport travelers, there is no plan to track other visitors. Many of those driving into the state don’t even know about the requirement. Even Governor Cuomo himself acknowledged that there is no enforcement mechanism and that no fines had been handed out as of July 14.

A law with no clear enforcement mechanism creates the risk of selective enforcement, often at the expense of New Yorkers of color and other over-policed communities. Recent efforts to add airport “enforcement teams” is more about optics than public health, as there is still no plan for reaching other travelers. Even worse, once this data is collected, it just sits in government databases, with no actual follow-up by public health officials.

But just because public health authorities seem to have no interest in using this data, that doesn’t mean collecting it is harmless. Whether its abuse by law enforcement, other government agencies, or hackers, travelers can’t know how their data might be abused. Cuomo’s rushed executive order answers none of the questions that lawmakers would address through the legislative process. The end result is this: sloppy executive orders with poor enforcement mechanisms and expansive ambiguity.

Targeting out-of-staters may be a good soundbite, but it’s not smart policy. New York still has COVID-19 community transmission, spreading the virus at July 4th parties and day cares. Blaming travelers ignores that New Yorkers aren’t doing enough to protect our state: wearing masks, maintaining social distance, and washing our hands. We don’t need fines, we need clearer guidance and better role models from Albany.

None of that is coming from Governor Cuomo, who recently flew to Georgia’s COVID hotspot. Cuomo could have chosen to register and show New Yorkers that he’s willing to practice what he preaches. Instead he flew a charter flight and cited a technicality to avoid his own order -- and even failed at times to wear a mask while near other people at a press event. Technically, the governor doesn’t need to register and quarantine, since he went for less than a day, but that’s a detail that isn’t grounded in the science behind the order and that many of those threatened with fines at our airport will never know. 

The truth is that the governor never needed to get on that plane at all. He could have done what millions of New Yorkers (himself included) do every day, and hop on a call or video chat instead. But for the governor who has constantly craved good press in these terrible times, it’s just another example of public health taking a back seat to public relations. This is going to be a long, drawn-out crisis, and perhaps the only thing that will remain constant is the need to adopt COVID-19 policies based in science, not politics.

Albert Fox Cahn (@FoxCahn) is the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at N.Y.U. School of Law. He writes the monthly “Surveillance and the City” column at Gotham Gazette. Caroline Magee is a rising third-year student at Emory University School of Law and a civil rights intern at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

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Surveillance and the City: Cuomo’s Covid Security Theater Mon, 27 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Public Hospitals Were Unprepared for Major Crisis, Costing Lives During Covid Outbreak, Review Finds 5 health hos elmhurst

Mayor de Blasio visits Elmhurst Hospital (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

New York City and State governments’ lack of support for the city’s public hospitals left them underprepared in almost every way for the COVID-19 pandemic, even when the disease seemed likely to come to the city and despite warnings dating back to 2006 about the very conditions that would lead to an overwhelmed hospital system that became a real-life nightmare for New Yorkers, according to a preliminary report by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer

And when COVID-19 inevitably did come to the city, miscommunication and poor management of the city’s public hospital system worsened the outcomes for many New Yorkers, even “at a cost in human lives,” Stringer wrote in a letter to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo about the report, which was launched at Cuomo’s request amid some of the worst days of the crisis in New York, where more than 30,000 people have died of COVID-19.

"[T]he reported conditions in our public hospitals during this unprecedented public health crisis are alarming, and my office is committed to working with the Governor and the Mayor to find answers,” Stringer said in a statement. “Our public health system serves families and residents that already face significant barriers to quality health care, and our frontline workers can't take care of us if we fail to protect them. We must ensure that our public hospitals have the funding, protections, resources and support they need, properly managed and coordinated, to protect New Yorkers during these uncertain times."

In his preliminary report released July 17, Stringer outlined in detail the factors that contributed to New York City Health + Hospitals being overwhelmed by the pandemic that left New York as the worst-affected state (thus far) in the worst-affected country, with more than 23,000 of the 30,000-plus deaths among New York City residents, and over 400,000 cases across the state. 

And although H+H is a public benefit corporation, it is in significant ways run and funded by city government as a quasi-city agency, receives federal funds distributed through a formula in state law and, like all hospitals in New York, receives guidance from state entities, including in regards to preparing for and addressing a pandemic. For these reasons, Stringer’s report has implications as to how city and state government, including Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, could have put H+H in a better position to respond to the crisis.

Cuomo had asked Stringer to perform the review that was launched on May 14 during a time when public hospitals like Elmhurst Hospital in Queens and Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx were inundated with coronavirus patients. At one point, the two hospitals had patient-to-worker ratios of 23:1 and 15:1 in their emergency rooms, a ratio that normally should be kept at 4:1, according to The New York Times.

At Elmhurst Hospital and others, trucks with built-in freezers had to be sent to be able to preserve the increasing number of dead bodies. With variations among the facilities, Health + Hospitals’ 11-hospital system appeared completely overwhelmed, with new accounts every day of staff working without PPE, huge surges in patients and deaths, and other harrowing stories. Questions quickly became evident as to why a small number of the 11 hospitals were exceedingly overwhelmed and not able to rely more on other facilities within the system. This led to Cuomo to ask for Stringer’s review.

But one answer quickly provided by elected officials and experts was the leadership of Cuomo and de Blasio, which has come under scrutiny due to their slow responses during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak in New York, around decisions like closing schools and businesses or issuing a stay-at-home order, delays experts have said cost lives. Stringer’s initial findings in an ongoing investigation into Health + Hospitals further highlight issues with city and state leadership, and within H+H itself, in preparing New York’s public hospitals for a major public health crisis and addressing issues that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic’s peak.

Stringer’s finding that problems at the city’s public hospitals cost lives appears to contradict a claim Cuomo has repeatedly made during the crisis, that no one died in New York because they did not get the care they needed.

In his letter to Cuomo, Stringer noted that, partially due to a lack of funding, public hospitals already served more people, and particularly more underinsured and minority populations disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, than private hospitals. And H+H hospitals were short on personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators vital to safely treating infected patients and keeping those with the worst cases alive. The lack of equipment mirrored a lack of planning on how to deal with such a situation, leading to “on the fly” solutions, as Stringer’s report puts it, to problems New York officials had been aware of since as early as 2006.

The most prominent issue highlighted in the report was hospitals seemingly complete lack of a plan for transferring patients from overwhelmed hospitals to those that still had open beds, despite past warnings from experts who testified to or developed plans for elected officials regarding pandemic preparedness. At first, individual staff at overwhelmed H+H hospitals would make calls to another hospital to try and arrange a transfer. But this inefficient system is partially what led to the accounts at hospitals like Elmhurst, which was completely overwhelmed and where staff worked inordinate and dangerous shifts.

While Elmhurst was overwhelmed, other hospitals were not, leading to inequitable conditions across H+H that were eventually addressed through a daily conference call and then an email portal to manage patient transfers, according to Stringer’s report.

Stringer made multiple recommendations, such as codifying ad hoc solutions like the email portal that was developed, as well as increasing training — especially critical care training — for H+H doctors and nurses and creating a set protocol for dealing with the types of situations that arose during the pandemic.

“The lack of preparedness forced all players to improvise responses, sometimes successfully, sometimes not — but inevitably at a cost in human lives,” Stringer said in the letter to Cuomo. “Several deficiencies were noted, including inadequate access to needed supplies and equipment, a lack of systems and procedures for managing patient loads across hospitals, and insufficient protocols for deploying staff.”

Cuomo’s office did not specifically address multiple requests for comment regarding the apparent fact that Stringer’s findings contradicted the governor’s comments about lives lost or regarding the state’s role in H+H challenges outlined in the report that the governor had requested.

“We commend the comptroller for undertaking this effort, we will review these preliminary findings, and look forward to his final conclusions,” Cuomo senior advisor Rich Azzopardi said in a statement.

In a statement, Health + Hospitals press secretary Stephanie Guzmán largely ignored criticisms brought up by Stringer and focused on the efforts H+H has made to save lives.

"NYC Health + Hospitals has been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, providing the highest quality care to all New Yorkers in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic,” Guzmán said. “Throughout this crisis, we acted as a system, coordinating across facilities and with our central office. Lives were saved across our city at the virus's peak thanks to the heroic efforts of our staff, who tripled and quadrupled, ICU capacity, surged resources and personnel, and even came to the aid of our city's private hospitals in their times of dire needs. We remain focused on providing the highest possible care for New Yorkers across our 11 hospitals for the duration of this crisis and beyond."

Some of the findings in Stringer’s review provide significant insight into Health + Hospitals’ struggles during the pandemic. Despite repeated warnings, the city and state did not seek to increase its stockpiles of ventilators or PPE before it was too late, the review showed, leading to dangerous conditions for patients and health-care workers.

For example, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene published its Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response Plan more than a decade ago in 2006, which suggested the city maintain a six- to eight-week stockpile of masks and gloves. However, hospitals did not maintain stockpiles of PPE, which Stringer attributed in part to a recurring problem for H+H — not having enough money to both address current needs and prepare for future ones. 

And when H+H sought to get its hands on more PPE in January, they had already become a global commodity that was near-impossible to obtain. With many hospitals across the world facing similar shortages, though, the Centers for Disease Control changed its guidelines regarding how often a protective facemask could be used, which Stringer’s report alleges was “driven by lack of available supplies, rather than by science and medical standards.”

“The State Department of Health disseminated the CDC guidelines, despite their obvious deficiencies, and H+H and other hospitals followed them: the lack of sufficient supplies precluded them from following more medically sound standards,” the letter reads. “The changing guidance and ensuing confusion rendered H+H health care workers even more vulnerable to COVID-19, with many becoming sick and dying.”

According to the letter, at least 35 members of the New York State Nurses Association had died of COVID-19 as of early June. In an attempt to address unsafe conditions related to a scarcity of PPE,  Cuomo announced on May 3 that New York would be working with neighboring states to buy PPE and that he would mandate all hospitals to have a 90-day stockpile of PPE. But, Stringer’s letter says, “the State has yet to issue such order promised on that date. In addition, fulfilling the order would be nearly impossible in the current supply-constrained circumstances.” 

The same 2006 New York City response plan also predicted a shortage of ventilators, and said the city could be short as many as 9,500 in the case of a pandemic. Stringer’s review also showed that additional concerns about ventilators, PPE, and other issues (like a shortage of hospital beds) the city ended up experiencing were expressed in a presentation on Medical Emergency Preparedness in 2007, a hearing on the city’s response to H1N1 held by the City Council’s Committees on Governmental Operations, Health, and Public Safety in 2009, and New York State’s November 2015 Ventilator Allocation Guidelines.

The only time the city had acted on these concerns was when, in 2006, it acquired a few hundred ventilators that were soon auctioned off due to the cost of maintaining them, something mentioned in Stringer’s letter and reported by ProPublica in April.

Another issue past public health experts had the foresight to see, but the city was unprepared for, was that of hospitals being unable to transfer potentially contagious patients, especially in the face of some facilities reaching max capacity.

“The surge of patients requiring medical treatment at an H+H hospital was uneven across the H+H system,” Stringer said in the letter. “In an effort to address the disparities between the demand at each facility and its available resources, individual H+H staff would telephone another facility to attempt a transfer.”

The lack of a centralized system resulted in inefficiencies as public hospitals already struggling to deal with unprecedented numbers of patients with a highly contagious virus needed more space. “The surge of patients requiring medical treatment at an H+H hospital was uneven across the H+H system, as press accounts about issues confronted by Elmhurst Hospital revealed,” the letter says, referring to the Queens hospital that on March 24 had 13 deaths in one day and faced severe shortages of PPE, ventilators and staff.

H+H eventually developed an email portal to streamline transfer requests, and a process using a 1-800 number for the distribution of PPE to hospitals that needed it most, according to Stringer’s review. The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene began a weekly distribution of PPE from its warehouses to all hospitals, public and private, in late March, according to Stringer’s report.

But patients weren’t the only ones whose transfers were mismanaged, according to Stringer, as some staff were deployed to areas they should not have been due to a lack of recent — or any — training required to complete the tasks they were assigned. Struggling under great strains and running out of qualified staff, H+H assigned existing staff to areas where the need was greatest.

“[S]uch action resulted in doctors and nurses being redeployed to assignments that required specific skills they either did not have or had not used in many years, often without adequate or needed training,” Stringer said in his letter. “This included, for example, assignment of neonatal nurses to the intensive care unit, or of a physical therapist who had not worked as a respiratory therapist for decades to treat COVID patients in respiratory distress.”

And when H+H used paid volunteers, some of whom were recruited through city and state efforts, it exacerbated these issues.

“[I]ntegrating those volunteers magnified redeployment issues. The volunteers needed to be credentialed and did not have access to or knowledge of H+H computer systems,” Stringer’s letter says.

As experts had dating back to at least 2006, City Council Member Carlina Rivera, chair of the Council’s Committee on Hospitals, also said she had been calling for H+H preparation and management issues to be addressed for some time.

“Many advocates and I have been calling for New York hospitals to work together in this sort of fashion since before the COVID-19 pandemic, and long before the capacity situations at Elmhurst Hospital and elsewhere reached crisis levels,” Rivera said in a March 30 statement, after Cuomo announced plans for intersystem hospital coordination across the state. “There are specific reasons that certain hospitals are facing more challenges in responding to this pandemic, and they often go back to issues of further contraction of our inpatient hospital systems as well as inequitable funding and distribution of under or uninsured patients. Some of these issues would also be easily solved in the long-term through a universal healthcare system.”

Rivera had also called for the city to increase preparedness efforts for coronavirus as early as January, per a statement she released at the time. The mayor and top city health officials said in late January and into March that the city was well-prepared and ready, including at a March 5 City Council hearing on that preparedness, which was chaired by Rivera and City Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the Council’s health committee. 

In a statement responding to Stringer’s report, she reiterated another aspect of its findings: that many of the issues highlighted within it — from a lack of supplies and staff to no centralized management — stem from insufficient funding. In his report, Stringer notes that because H+H patients are disproportionately either uninsured or on Medicaid (70% of H+H patients fall under these categories, compared to 40% in private hospitals), H+H hospitals rely on public subsidies to fill their budget gaps. 

The report also notes that those gaps may be widening, as after falling in recent years, the number of uninsured H+H patients rose by 8% in the first four months of the 2020 fiscal year (July-October 2019). With many New Yorkers losing their employment, and so their insurance, due to COVID, it is likely the situation has worsened. Yet, the recent state budget adopted at the start of April cut Medicaid funds by $2.2 billion, which the report says, “could affect H+H’s bottom line.”

In a recent statement, Rivera said H+H funding shortfalls likely made worse issues of insufficient stockpiles of key medical supplies, not enough beds or staff, and more.

“H+H worked to alleviate some of these challenges, and while there are certainly numerous issues that H+H must reckon with and improve, the ultimate failure lies with the State for never pursuing real health care equity and reform,” Rivera said. “The same crises that every hospital system faced were magnified at H+H by a State budget that unfairly allocates more Medicaid and Medicare funds to private hospitals over our public system, by a State health insurance system that forces uninsured and under-insured New Yorkers to use H+H emergency departments as their only source for medical care, and by State health leaders who never sought to explore a universal healthcare model where patient loads and supplies could be more easily shared and planned between hospital systems. We’re not going to permanently solve the failures of any one hospital system unless we first consider the radical reforms we need to the way health care is delivered in this State and our nation.”

In his report, Stringer first put forward short-term solutions to the problems raised in preparation for a future health crisis, including a potential second wave of COVID-19 this fall. He recommended that the state and city departments of health, the city’s Department of Emergency Management, and other state and city government offices, and major public and private hospitals, should come together to form a plan that “provides clear chains of command and responsibility for different aspects of crisis management,” in the event of an emergency. Stringer recommends H+H create the same plan for within its own system, too.

He also advises that a centralized inventory and procurement system for things like PPE and ventilators be created. This would help identify and obtain critical supplies in advance of the next health crisis and ensure supplies are available when needed. Stringer also recommended that innovations such as “mechanisms developed for the transfer of patients between and among H+H facilities” be formalized; that H+H doctors and nurses be cross-trained to support ICU and critical care staff; that transferred or volunteer personnel be provided with training in skills they have not had to use for some time; and that state and city departments of health, H+H and other hospitals develop health and safety protocols and guidance to avoid confusion and miscommunications.

Stringer also included in his letter to Cuomo a similar sentiment as expressed by Rivera — that larger issues played a role in creating and worsening problems for H+H and should be addressed.

According to Stringer, H+H hospitals were already at a disadvantage due to chronic underfunding, as well as hospital closures and downsizings that have resulted in about 20,000 fewer hospital beds in New York State since 2000. In his letter, Stringer mentions that Elmhurst Hospital serves over 372,000 New Yorkers, while private hospitals such as NYU Langone serve 127,000 and the citywide average is 174,000. This translates into public hospitals’ abilities to serve their patients, as it can take as long as 12 hours to be admitted to some of them, compared to a citywide average that is half that long.

And public hospitals serve populations disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, such as Black and Hispanic New Yorkers who, as of mid-May, had an age-adjusted death rate that was twice as high as their white and Asian counterparts, according to Stringer. This added to the strain that was put on H+H hospitals during the pandemic.

“The City and State must address the underlying inequities in access to health care that both directly resulted in a disproportionately high death toll among the City’s most vulnerable populations and threatened to overwhelm existing capacity and systems,” Stringer wrote.

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

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New York City Public Hospitals Were Unprepared for Major Crisis, Costing Lives During Covid Outbreak, Review Finds Sat, 25 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Requests for Emergency Rent Grants Fell During Pandemic, But Expected to Skyrocket When Evictions Resume tenants eviction protections rally

Tenants on edge amid eviction moratorium (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

A city-run emergency grant program that helps keep people in their homes has seen fewer applications during the COVID-19 pandemic, seemingly due to a moratorium on evictions. But housing advocates worry that the program will be hard pressed to respond to a “tsunami of evictions” that is likely to follow once the moratorium ends, which could happen as early as next month.

As the pandemic raged across New York City, more than a million people lost their jobs, income, and ability to pay rent, leading to skyrocketing applications for city benefits in the form of food stamps and cash assistance, which are provided by the city’s Department of Social Services/Human Resources Administration. In March, Governor Andew Cuomo imposed a 90-day eviction moratorium, which was later extended for certain tenants through August 20, and negotiated a suspension of utility shutoffs with major providers (in June, he signed that moratorium into law as well).

As a likely result of those measures, the Department of Social Services gave out nearly half the number of “one-shot” emergency assistance grants in June as it did in February. One-shot deals are intended to provide housing stability by helping with rent, mortgage, and utility payments, staving off eviction, foreclosure, homelessness, and other negative outcomes through help to individuals and families during a rough patch. Two out of three one-shots are awarded for rent arrears, according to DSS.

These grants are distinct from recurring assistance that is provided on a regular basis to those in need who qualify for certain city subsidy programs. Isaac McGinn, a spokesperson for DSS, said eligibility is determined on a case-by-case basis, assessing whether a grant can prevent an imminent eviction and whether the client can continue to afford to pay the rent going forward.

Since the pandemic hit, one-shots have fallen dramatically, from 3,803 households (covering 8,021 people) in February to 1,814 households (3,993 people) in June, a 53.2% decrease. The number of cases in June was about 49.5% lower than in June 2019, according to DSS data.

“In these unprecedented times, as New York City reopens and continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and New Yorkers get back on their feet, helping New Yorkers remain stably housed is our top priority––and we are doing all we can to protect tenants and continue leveling the playing field,” said McGinn.

Two looming potential deadlines could make for an expected flood of evictions and a corresponding increase in the number of people seeking assistance from the city. The governor has not indicated whether he will extend the eviction moratorium beyond August 20. First, on July 31 the additional weekly $600 federal unemployment benefit that was included in the CARES Act is set to expire. Congress is currently considering a second major round of stimulus funding, which could include direct payments as well as unemployment benefits, but it’s unclear when that will pass and what it might include. And while housing courts have been closed in New York for months, they partially reopened a few weeks ago before the Office of Court Administration issued guidance to pause all eviction proceedings till August 5.

While the state did pass and is now implementing a $100 million rent relief voucher program for low-income New Yorkers who have lost income, some are calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature to take additional action along with more federal aid.

“We are about to go over a cliff here in this city, in terms of people potentially losing their housing and we have to stop it,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in his daily press briefing on Tuesday. “We need help from the federal government. We need rental assistance money for the people of this city and people all over the country who are facing this challenge. We need the State of New York to pass the laws that will give people the ability to pay the rent when they finally have an income but make sure no one is evicted simply because they can't pay the rent. We have so many things we have to do, and we're looking for every possible innovation.”

Housing advocates are worried that the city and state aren’t taking strong enough steps to prevent what could easily become a major additional homelessness crisis as a massive number of tenants are evicted from their homes. According to a July 8 Bloomberg Businessweek report citing the Community Housing Improvement Program, a trade association of rent-stabilized property owners, about one in four New York City apartment tenants had not paid their rent since March.

“There’s going to be a huge demand for one-shots,” said City Council Member Stephen Levin, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Council’s Committee on General Welfare, calling them a “valuable tool” in the city’s belt. “The city should be prepared to process a huge influx of applications for one-shots and they should be prepared to be able to do that very quickly.”

Levin said the state needs to cancel rent and mortgages if it wants to avoid the inevitable fallout at the end of August. “It’s really hard to contemplate or even fathom how devastating it could be,” he said. And he said there should be mechanisms where the city and state can cover future rent as well as back rent. “We don’t have the capacity to deal with a huge influx into the shelter system. It's unsafe as a public health policy. We don't want people in congregate settings at all,” he said, referencing the ongoing pandemic. “It’s incredibly destabilizing to families. So all around, it’s a better investment to prevent families from entering the shelter system to begin with.”

One-shot assistance, which typically costs about $200 million annually, is among a suite of related housing and assistance programs that the city employs. McGinn of DSS said that the rent arrears program serves all New Yorkers who qualify and funding for it does not run out. The city also helps people with monthly rent payments and provides free legal assistance to many low-income tenants facing eviction in housing court.

Ellen Davidson, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, was not surprised that the number of one-shot grants have dropped, since they often require an individual to show a future ability to pay rent.

“We have no reason to believe that there's enough staff to even process all of the applications that are coming their way,” Davidson said of DSS and the expected boom in need. “And considering that once someone is in housing court, time is of the essence, if applications get so backed up that they're not processed, people would be evicted who would qualify for rent arrears grants.”

She said the city should ease some of the requirements for one-shots, particularly as many tenants may still be unable to show that they can make their rent in the months ahead, which is a prerequisite for the program.

Davidson worries that the administration could choose to use federal funds to balance the budget rather than provide rent relief to tenants, pointing out that the city received nearly $400 million and has not shown how that has been spent. “The amount of attention that this administration has put toward the extreme risk that tenants are facing? They've spent no time on it. It's not on their radar screen,” she said of the de Blasio administration. “Everyone else has been talking about the eviction tsunami. It's just not something that the city seems to care about.”

Cea Weaver, from the Housing Justice for All coalition, similarly said the city and state should not be waiting for federal funds when there are measures they can take right now. “We need Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature to act,” Weaver said. “I don’t think it’s OK to pass it off to the feds when the state government has the ability to raise taxes on corporate landlords and all rich people. We have the ability to raise revenue in our state to pay for things like housing assistance and housing support and we should be doing them in this moment of crisis.”

When asked about the plight of tenants who may owe months of back rent once the pandemic eases, Cuomo has repeatedly touted the eviction moratorium as a temporary fix without offering a long-term solution. In an interview with NY1’s Roma Torre on Wednesday, he said the moratorium had “removed the anxiety and the pressure altogether of rent.”

“It's for the entire COVID crisis,” he said of the moratorium. “We have not yet determined when the COVID crisis is over, because the COVID crisis isn't over. And then obviously, it's not going to be one day the virus disappears. There'll be a recovery period. So we'll have to figure that out.”

The city, Weaver said, should urge housing courts and marshalls to not carry out evictions while investing funds in the rent programs that have proven effective.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Requests for Emergency Rent Grants Fell During Pandemic, But Expected to Skyrocket When Evictions Resume Thu, 23 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000