Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/56 Mon, 09 Dec 2019 02:41:14 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City Council Considers New Office to Aid Non-Profits https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8933-city-council-considers-new-office-to-aid-non-profits https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8933-city-council-considers-new-office-to-aid-non-profits cm farah louis

Council Member Farah Louis (photo: New York City Council)


The New York City Council is considering legislation that would create a new office to assist non-profit organizations in navigating regulations and applying for city contracts and funding.

Council Member Farah Louis, a recently elected Brooklyn Democrat, has proposed legislation that would mandate that the mayor institute an Office of Not-For-Profit Services. The bill is set to be examined by the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations at a hearing on Tuesday.

The legislation, which is thus far co-sponsored by Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Ben Kallos, and Justin Brannan, intends to create a resource center that can help nonprofits tackle the bureaucratic challenges presented by city government. Nonprofit human service providers are a crucial resource for the city, with more than 200,000 employees contracted out to deliver a range of services including housing, mental health care, job training, and care for the elderly, children, people living in poverty, and those experiencing homelessness.

“Across New York City, nonprofits are on the ground, doing vitally important work in schools, senior centers, libraries, and other public spaces, and providing services that our constituents rely on every day,” Louis said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

But the city’s nonprofit sector has long been in crisis and is headed towards a fiscal cliff. Across the city, nonprofits suffer from perennial delays in the payment of contracts by the city and nonprofit leaders say Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has been slow to respond to their calls for more funding to cover the costs of and related to their services.

A January report from Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office noted that 89% of human services contracts in the 2018 fiscal year were sent to the comptroller for certification after the contract start date. “This is a higher retroactivity rate than the city-wide average, suggesting that non-profit organizations wait longer for their contracts to be submitted for registration than vendors that do business with the City overall,” a summary of the report stated.

A separate study published in April by Seachange Capital Partners, a nonprofit merchant bank, found that contract delays in the 2018 fiscal year became “slightly worse” than the previous year. It found that social service contracts were registered an average of 221 days after their start date, up from 210 days in the 2017 fiscal year; only 11% were on time, slightly better than the 9% in 2017; and 20% continued to be unregistered after one year, marginally worse than the 19% in 2017. The report estimated that the fiscal burden on nonprofits from registration delays was as much as $744 million, up from $675 million in 2017.

“A nonprofit delivering services under an unregistered contract faces a growing cash flow burden associated with the unreimbursed expenses. It must also pay interest and fees on the debt it uses to finance this cash flow need – if it can be financed at all,” the study reads.

Council Members Rosenthal and Kallos cited that study in a July joint op-ed, criticizing the city’s “broken procurement system” and how delays affect nonprofits. “New Yorkers deserve the best services, and the CBOs providing those services deserve to be paid fairly and on time by a city government they can hold accountable. Overhauling the procurement system may be bureaucratic and slow in nature, but it is necessary if we are to properly serve the New Yorkers who are most in need,” they wrote, citing separate legislation they introduced to achieve that goal.

Though leaders in the nonprofit sector credit the mayor for creating the Nonprofit Resiliency Committee in 2016, they say more must be done to ensure the survival of essential partners in city services. Earlier this year, when the City Council and mayor came to an agreement over the $92.8 billion budget for the 2020 fiscal year, they did not include a $106-million funding request from nonprofit service providers.  

Louis’ bill seems intended to address some of the needs of nonprofits, while creating a general structure to ensure more city accountability for support of the sector. She said it would “provide guaranteed resources to anyone seeking to incorporate and successfully maintain a non-profit.”

The proposed Office of Not-For-Profit Services, which per the bill the mayor could choose to house under the executive office or as a separate office, would be charged with analyzing the problems plaguing the nonprofit sector and proposing solutions to them. It would act as a one-stop-shop to conduct outreach and give nonprofits advice and assistance, while also coordinating with other city agencies to refer organizations to services related to obtaining exemptions, waivers, permits, registrations, or approvals. It’s aim would be to simplify application processes and regulatory mechanisms.

“This office will function as a liaison between nonprofits and any city agencies, work to devise solutions to any problems that organizations might have with incorporation, financing, or administration, and keep the Council updated on issues affecting local non-profits,” Louis said.

But the bill does not solve the core issues facing the sector, said Allison Sesso, executive director of the Human Services Council of New York, which represents 170 nonprofits that provide 90% of human services in the city.

“The main issue facing New York City's human services nonprofit sector is not a lack of understanding of the City's policies and contracting processes, it's chronic underfunding,” Sesso said in an email. “While providing nonprofits with educational resources and assistance is a positive goal, it falls flat in a system that is setting those same organizations up for failure. One out of five providers in New York City are technically insolvent and organizations across the City are being forced to scale back services or consolidate just to survive. We need fundamental change to address the underfunded contacts and unfunded mandates that impact services across the City and stifle the wages of the human services workforce.”

Three other bills related to services for nonprofit providers are also being discussed at Tuesday’s hearing. Council Member Antonio Reynoso has proposed creating a nonprofit ombudsperson within the Department of Finance (DOF), and exempting in certain cases the lien sale of property owned by a nonprofit organization.

A bill from Council Member Diana Ayala would require the DOF and Department of Environmental Protection to create a single application form for the nonprofit real property tax exemption and exemptions from water and sewer charges. The third, introduced by Council Member Carlina Rivera, would require DOF to create an informational guide on relevant taxes and exemptions for nonprofits.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Considers New Office to Aid Non-Profits Mon, 18 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
After Rally with De Blasio, City Council Hears Bills on Private Sector Retirement Security https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8809-de-blasio-city-council-hearing-bills-on-private-sector-retirement-security https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8809-de-blasio-city-council-hearing-bills-on-private-sector-retirement-security sep mon rotunda

De Blasio, Council members, AARP members & others rally (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Just days after he ended his presidential campaign that was focused on issues affecting working people, Mayor Bill de Blasio rallied with AARP volunteers and City Council Members at City Hall on Monday to push for a proposal that could help millions of New York workers save for their futures.

The Retirement Security for All proposal, which de Blasio first raised three years ago and then again in his State of the City speech this year, would establish a retirement savings program for private-sector employees whose employers do not currently provide those options, and a city government board to oversee its implementation.

There are two bills in the legislative package that would create the system and the board and sponsored by Council Members I. Daneek Miller and Ben Kallos, who led a hearing on the proposal shortly after the Monday morning rally.

“You should not have to work until you die,” de Blasio said at the rally. “You should be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor. You should be able to have some time in your life when you retire with dignity.”

The mayor said that 40% of New Yorkers aged 50-64 have less than $10,000 saved for when they retire.

At the hearing of the Council’s Committee on Civil Service and Labor, chaired by Miller, there was broad support for the legislation as well as opposition from some who raised concerns about the administrative burdens the program could place on employers and small businesses.

Kallos’ bill would mandate that businesses with ten or more employees automatically enroll their workers in individual retirement accounts, while giving them the option to opt out. The retirement plans would be funded only through employee payroll deductions, at a default rate of 3% of income, though employees would be allowed to choose a higher or lower rate.

Miller’s bill creates a board of mayoral appointees to oversee the implementation of the program, which would likely hire an outside firm to manage the retirement plans and charge low fees to make the programs affordable and attractive to employees.

The bills are a solution to a stark problem. Testifying on behalf of the de Blasio administration was John Adler, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Pensions and Investments, who reiterated the data point that 40% of New Yorkers aged 50-64 have less than $10,000 saved for when they retire. Out of the roughly 3.5 million private sector employees in the city, only about 41% have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, down from 49% ten years ago, Adler said, citing a report from The New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis.

“This program has the potential to significantly reduce future poverty among retirees in New York City,” Adler said in his opening remarks at the Council hearing, “and take an important step towards helping over a million New Yorkers maintain or improve their standard of living when they stop working.”

The proposal is also similar to programs that have already launched in California, Illinois, and Oregon, and following their lead would allow New York City to avoid any hiccups in implementation, he said. De Blasio estimated earlier that the city’s management of the programs would cost between $1.5 to $3 million each year for the first three years, and that the program would eventually be self-funded through fees on the investments made by the retirement plans.

Though New York State passed a measure last year to allow employers to create voluntary retirement savings plan, there has been little movement on that front. Adler said that program, which is an opt-in rather than an opt-out plan, would likely fail to expand access like the city’s proposal.

“We don’t think that we should be waiting for the whims of Albany to possibly change or strengthen their plan,” he said. “We have a crisis now in New York City...and frankly every month that we wait is an opportunity that’s lost for workers to begin saving for their own retirement.”

Adler also recommended that Kallos’ bill be amended to establish a 5% default contribution rate, insisting that it does not discourage participation as is evident from other jurisdictions with similar programs.

The mayor’s push for the retirement security proposal in 2016 died soon after because of the Republican-led Congress, which struck down an Obama-era rule by the Department of Labor that explicitly allowed municipalities to create private sector retirement programs. But that Republican measure did not change the underlying federal retirement law, which Adler said still allows the city to move forward. That’s why other states have been able to legally create their own retirement savings programs, he said.

The two bills have limited support so far from other Council members, at least as far as co-sponsorship goes. Kallos’ bill has five other sponsors besides him and Miller, while Miller’s bill has four other co-sponsors. But Kallos seems confident that the bills will advance quickly, particularly with the mayor’s backing. At Monday’s hearing, Council Member Andy King also said he would sign on to the legislative package. The bills have no timeline for passage but the mayor’s office, in a release sent out Monday afternoon, estimated that the program would be launched by the end of 2021, when de Blasio and most of the City Council will be leaving their current posts due to term limits.

Experts and researchers who testified at Monday’s hearing recommended several measures to ensure that the city’s program is a success. Caroline Crawford, assistant director of state and local research at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, said “three criteria are essential to success” of the program – a mandate to ensure employer participation, minimizing opt-out behavior and an adequate default contribution rate.

Representatives of the Communication Workers of America and AFL-CIO also supported the bills at Monday’s hearing.

A crucial mover behind the proposal has been the AARP, which first rallied with the mayor for Retirement Security for All in 2016. Beth Finkel, state director of AARP New York, noted that employees were 15 times more likely to start saving money if offered a retirement program by their employer. Finkel also urged the Council members to strengthen the proposal, by expanding the mandate to employers with five or more employees and to establish a 5% default  contribution rate.

“New York City is the greatest city in the world but it is also an expensive city and we know Social Security alone is not enough to retire on alone,” she said.

There was some pushback against the bills. Aliya Robinson, senior vice president of Retirement & Compensation Policy at the ERISA Industry Committee, brought up concerns about how the legislation may affect existing retirement programs. Robinson urged changes to Kallos’ bill, including completely excluding all employers that provide a retirement plan under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, setting restrictions on eligibility based on age and number of hours worked as established by the ERISA law, and exemptions without reporting requirements for employers similar to programs in Oregon and Illinois.

Alison Wielobob, general counsel of the American Retirement Association, similarly echoed Robinson’s testimony. She said the bills would “would place undue complexity and burdens on employers by imposing a set of rules that parallel the extensive and effective set of federal rules that already apply to workplace retirement plans.”

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, also warned that the bill could violate the ERISA law, despite other jurisdictions having faced no legal challenges yet, and cited anecdotal comments from the restaurant industry to insist that tipped workers with small paychecks will be hesitant to participate. He also raised the spectre of complications for businesses that employ undocumented workers.

But there was ample testimony that indicated those concerns were largely unfounded or insufficient to not act.

Rick McGahey, senior fellow at The New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, said a failure to act could mean that by 2026, about 825,000 middle class workers in the state could face poverty at retirement – half of those workers live in the city.

Michele Evermore, senior researcher and policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, spoke of the racial wealth gap that persists into retirement, and the need to address it through any means necessary, including a retirement security program.

And Angela Antonelli, research professor and executive director of the Center for Retirement Initiatives at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, laid out multiple benefits of New York City creating an automatic enrollment retirement savings program – it would help millions of workers save money and be more mobile, make small businesses more competitive, help gig economy workers, benefit underserved populations, reduce burdens on state and federal budgets, and create a model for other states, among other positive impacts.

Michael Parker, executive director at the Oregon Savings Network, which was the first-of-its-kind plan when it launched two years ago, touted the success of the state’s program in testimony via video conference. He said about 50,000 new retirement accounts had been established, worth about $30 million saved, with the rollout continuing. The program’s participation rate is holding steady at about 72%, he said, meeting projections. “By not having compliance at the beginning, we sort of set up a culture of noncompliance instead of the other way around,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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After Rally with De Blasio, City Council Hears Bills on Private Sector Retirement Security Mon, 23 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Food Policy Agenda on Menu at City Council Hearing https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8797-food-policy-agenda-on-menu-at-city-council-hearing https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8797-food-policy-agenda-on-menu-at-city-council-hearing corey johnson delivers

Speaker Johnson at food policy speech (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The City Council is set to consider a number of bills related to food policy at a hearing Wednesday, including a proposal to codify an Office of Food Policy, a month after Council Speaker Corey Johnson unveiled an expansive food equity plan with the creation of the office at its center.

The Council’s Committees on General Welfare, Economic Development, and Education will meet at City Hall Wednesday afternoon to examine a package of 14 bills and two resolutions dealing with nutritional access and public education, urban agriculture, and food waste.

Together the bills touch on many of the planks in Johnson’s nascent food platform, which includes expanding existing food programs and tying economic opportunity to farming and nutrition, all under a comprehensive citywide plan coordinated by a newly empowered Office of Food Policy.

Representatives of the Speaker say Johnson will not be attending the hearing, which is expected to be led by Council Members Stephen Levin, Paul Vallone, and Mark Treyger, who chair the three committees. Other members who are either lead sponsors of the legislation at hand or are members of the committees or otherwise interested will also participate.

A number of prominent stakeholders, like Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Andrea Strong of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance, plan to testify. A representative of the office of Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services is also expected to speak.

“Food is a human right. Yet in our city — one of the richest in the world — more than 1 million New Yorkers are food insecure and there is inequitable access to fresh and healthy food in many neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The Council is working to address these gaps with new legislation and budget proposals.”

On August 1, Johnson released a report entitled “Growing Food Equity in New York City,” which outlined the Council’s agenda to combat inequities in accessing nutritional food and ensure the city has a comprehensive food policy responsive to the needs of different demographics like students, seniors, low-income residents, and non-white New Yorkers. Wednesday’s joint hearing will be the first time the bills are discussed in a formal legislative setting.

Johnson is the co-sponsor of two of the bills being considered, including the proposal to establish an Office of Food Policy and one to increase reporting on the city’s food system, whose main sponsors are Ben Kallos and Paul Vallone, respectively. Council Members Kallos, representing the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and Diana Ayala, representing East Harlem and the South Bronx, are co-sponsors of every piece of legislation under review by the committees.

“A lot of these bills are bills on issues we have been working on for quite some time,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette in an interview. “In terms of the overall package, it’s amazing to work with a Speaker who is really empowering so many members -- taking such a large package that is going to do so very much, and sharing it with many members and bringing them into the fight against food insecurity and hunger.”

Under the legislation, the Office of Food Policy would be responsible for developing and coordinating initiatives in four categories: 1. promoting access to healthy food for all city residents; 2. developing support programs to make nutritional food more affordable; 3. expanding reporting in the annual Food System Metrics Report published by the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability; and 4. collaborating with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to update food standards for meals purchased, prepared, or served by city agencies. The director of the office would be appointed by the mayor or the head of a mayoral agency.

There is currently an Office of the Director of Food Policy under the mayor, but the position is vacant. It was previously held by Barbara Turk, who has been serving in another role -- senior advisor at the city’s Administration for Children’s Services -- since April, according to her LinkedIn account.

“We’re hoping to have a director, make sure that that director position is filled, and ensure that they have a directive that spans multiple agencies and that they can hold the agencies accountable,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette.

“We believe that the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy should continue to remain an important asset in the City’s food policy efforts and look forward to discussing these proposals with the Council,” a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, Avery Cohen, wrote in an email. The mayor’s office did not respond to emails asking when the next director of food policy would be appointed or for information about the hiring process.

The bills being heard Wednesday include measures that would fall under the food policy director’s purview, whether that office is codified into law or not.

One bill, sponsored by Bronx Council Member Vanessa Gibson, would require the office to consult with city agencies, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders in the food system to develop a ten-year plan focused on food equity and insecurity. The plan would set goals to increase access to nutritional foods through existing and newly-developed programs, reduce food waste, and develop the economic conditions surrounding urban agriculture. The Office of Food Policy would be required to report on the progress made toward those goals.

Other bills in the package would establish new governmental bodies to deal with other elements of Johnson’s food platform. One measure sponsored by Bronx Council Member Andrew Cohen would create an advisory board to assess and make recommendations regarding the city’s food procurement policy and to evaluate contract bids. Another, sponsored by Council Member Rafael Espinal of Brooklyn, would create an Office of Urban Agriculture and an accompanying advisory board to develop and report on a plan to protect and expand urban agriculture.

Under the package, community gardens would be partially protected from opposing land-use interests. The city’s reporting and assessment of the community garden system would be centralized and farmer’s markets would be allowed to operate on their premises, making them more economically viable and increasing access to community-produced healthy food.

The package also includes a focus on improving public engagement with the city’s existing food access programs like Health Bucks -- coupons for low-income New Yorkers to use at farmer’s markets -- farm-to-city projects, nutrition programs in schools, and summer meals.

Another theme is reducing food waste in New York. Johnson’s report cites a National Resources Defense Council analysis claiming the average New York City household wastes 8.7 pounds of food per week, of which six pounds are edible at the time of disposal.

One bill sponsored by Council Member Carlina Rivera of Manhattan would require any city agency with food procurement contracts to come up with a plan to limit the amount of food that doesn’t make it to the plate. Under the bill, each agency would be responsible for designating a coordinator to report on its food waste reduction plan and its implementation.

As a whole, the new food plan would require coordination among a myriad of city agencies, like the Human Resources Administration, Department of City Planning, and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, among others. Many of the bills in the package are intended to facilitate or mandate that coordination. Two resolutions call on the state to expand supplemental nutrition assistance benefits, one of which will require action by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

“A lot of our food programs are spread across multiple agencies and we need somebody focused on them, all working together comprehensively to ensure folks don’t have to deal with hunger or food insecurity,” said Kallos.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Food Policy Agenda on Menu at City Council Hearing Tue, 17 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio, City Council Look to Move Ahead with Private Sector Retirement Savings Program https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8773-de-blasio-city-council-private-sector-retirement-savings-program https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8773-de-blasio-city-council-private-sector-retirement-savings-program retirement saving event

Feb. 2016 (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)


In his State of the City speech in January, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised that the city would create a system of retirement security for millions of New Yorkers who work in the private sector and may not have access to employer-provided savings plans. It was a revival of an effort the mayor had first pushed in 2016 but that bumped up against the change in presidential administrations and federal approvals apparently needed. But eight months after de Blasio’s speech at the start of this year, the New York City Council is ready to look at the idea through two bills that will be examined at a hearing later this month.   

“We'll create a universal retirement system in our city, because if you've worked for decades, then you've earned the right to retire in peace,” the mayor declared in January. There has been little public movement since, but as the mayor continues his presidential campaign, an initial Council hearing provides new promise.

De Blasio first put forward a “Retirement Security for All” proposal in 2016, but the legislative effort to achieve it was cut short in 2017 when President Donald Trump approved new federal regulations passed by a Republican-led Congress that undid an Obama era rule and limited municipalities from creating private-sector retirement programs. City officials believe they can still move ahead, however.

In May 2018, City Council Members Ben Kallos and I. Daneek Miller sponsored the pair of bills that would establish such retirement savings programs for roughly 2 million private sector employees working in New York City.

Kallos’ bill would create individual retirement accounts (IRAs) for workers at New York City businesses that employ 10 or more people and do not currently offer such programs. Employees would be automatically enrolled unless they choose to opt out and the IRAs would be funded through payroll deductions at a default rate. Though they would have to help administer the paperwork, employers would not have to contribute to the savings, nor would any public funds be directed to the individual accounts. The bill also sets up a complaint mechanism for employees in case businesses do not comply and creates varying civil penalties for violations of the law.

Miller’s bill creates an unpaid three-member retirement savings board appointed by the mayor to oversee the private IRAs. The board would be responsible for investing IRA funds and contracting with financial institutions to manage them; it would also be charged with ensuring that fees for the programs remain low and for informing employers and employees of their rights and responsibilities under the law.

“All New Yorkers deserve the opportunity to plan for the future and save for their retirement,” said Laura Feyer, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, in a statement. “The Mayor called for retirement security for all New Yorkers in his State of the City earlier this year, and we look forward to working with the City Council to make retirement security a reality for millions of New Yorkers.”

Despite what seem to be hurdles at the federal level, both bills will be considered on September 23 at a joint hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Civil Service and Labor, which Miller chairs, and Committee on Contracts.

Miller said the city’s involvement in the program, through the board his bill would create, will mitigate some of the administrative burdens that small businesses would otherwise face. “We want to try to fill a gap here,” he said in a phone interview. “I think there's a real opportunity for a win-win for everybody involved to provide sensible retirement opportunities.”

Miller said the need to pass retirement security legislation was much like the issue of climate change, something that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” he added, referring to the stark data around the many thousands of New Yorkers who have little to no retirement savings.

Kallos said in an interview that he is confident the proposals will pass and stand up to scrutiny under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, citing other jurisdictions that have advanced similar programs, including New York State.

“What has changed is that several jurisdictions have moved forward with the program with thousands of Americans gaining access to retirement accounts for the first time ever, and we're not seeing those plans being challenged,” he said. “And that seems to be putting forward a pathway for us.” 

At least ten states including New York have enacted legislation to allow private sector retirement programs. In last year’s state budget, the Legislature approved the creation of the New York State Secure Choice Savings Program, which, unlike the Council proposal, is a voluntary opt-in plan for private sector employers rather than an opt-out one. It is meant to be formulated over two years. 

“I think there's a national energy around this,” Kallos said. “The mayor, he's bringing universal pre-K around the country. And I think that in a nation that is growing more and more concerned about how and when they will be able to retire and whether social security will even be there for them, having ‘Retirement Security for All’ is something important for the mayor to interject into a national conversation.” 

Kallos expects an aggressive timeline, saying that the bills could pass as soon as October and be signed into law by the mayor by November. If so, and even as they simply get new consideration and attention, they could provide a headline issue that the mayor can tout if he continues to seek the Democratic nomination for president.

On the campaign trail, de Blasio has focused on issues he believes are of paramount importance to “working people,” including his signature universal pre-kindergarten program. That includes his boasts of a proposal to give paid personal leave to private sector employees, something the mayor has repeatedly said will happen this year even though the City Council does not appear close to approving it. 

“When the mayor’s chosen to champion issues, he’s made it happen,” Kallos said. 

Beth Finkel, state director of AARP New York, praised the Council’s and mayor’s efforts. “We're very interested in anything that helps people to be more prepared financially for their retirement,” she said, noting that individuals are 15 times more likely to save for retirement if they have access to a savings program that automatically makes payroll deductions. “That's our mission, that people can age with dignity and be prepared for their retirement. And you can't wake up when you're older and say, okay, now's the time. So having something like this in place where people can save throughout their career, that's exactly the type of policy that AARP is very, very supportive of.”

AARP members, Miller, and Kallos were among those who celebrated at the February 2016 City Hall rally de Blasio held to advance the retirement savings plan, which has stalled in the three-plus years since.

Both Kallos and Miller expect little opposition at the local level, but there is a possibility that the bills may come under fire from private groups such as the ERISA Industry Committee, which lobbies on behalf of the country’s largest private employers with regards to employee benefits policies, or companies that sell retirement investment products.

“Retirement Security for All is tantamount to what would be the equivalent of a public option for insurance companies,” Kallos said. “And ultimately, companies that sell 401(k), 403(b) and other investment products have traditionally opposed this because they would rather see people not saving for retirement than see competition. And I think the real competition is having the fees that they can charge undermined.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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De Blasio, City Council Look to Move Ahead with Private Sector Retirement Savings Program Wed, 04 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Launch of Required City Reporting on Required Reports Shows Gaps in Reporting https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8765-new-york-city-government-reporting-required-gaps-in-reporting https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8765-new-york-city-government-reporting-required-gaps-in-reporting council holds oversight

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The New York City Council regularly passes bills mandating that city agencies create reports on their work, ostensibly as part of the Council’s oversight responsibilities. From city jail populations to hate crimes statistics to use of force by police officers, the Council has passed bills requiring a report be delivered to it.

The Council passes so many reporting bills that last year, it passed legislation that would help it track the number of total reports required under local law, the City Charter, or mayoral order. The bill compelled the city’s Department of Records and Information Services to create a central list of every single report required from every city agency, board, or office.

The result: a 57-page document that lists a whopping 842 required reports of various types due at a variety of time intervals. Of those, 490 are listed as not received by DORIS, despite some being producing by agencies on a regular basis, raising questions for Council members about whether agencies are refusing to comply with the law or are overwhelmed with burdensome reporting mandates.

The Council often requests information from city agencies to gauge the effectiveness of city services and programs and to decide on annual budget allocations. City agencies, however, can sometimes be less than forthcoming, necessitating that the Council put the force of law behind their inquiries.

But agencies just as often fall out of compliance with their reporting requirements, which even City Council Members admit can be onerous and time- and resource-intensive. Council Members themselves can forget about their requests once they’ve been legislated. Some have questioned whether passing a “reporting bill” is good for a press release or constituent newsletter but leads to little follow up from the Council members who insist on their importance.

The initial posting of the list, which was due July 1, shows that the mayoral administration, city agencies and boards, and the Council have a long way to go to prove that the reporting bills so frequently passed are actually essential to effective and efficient city government, and getting completed and used.

“Transparency is essential for responsive and effective government. We need accurate and up-to-date information to be easily available to the public,” said Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who sponsored the bill as chair of the governmental operations committee, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Cabrera inherited the bill from former Council Member James Vacca, who introduced it last session as chair of the technology committee but was term-limited out of office before it passed.

Cabrera said the bill was a response to a review that showed reports from several years either missing from agency websites or unavailable on the DORIS website. His legislation now requires a full list of all such agency reports, the frequency with which they are due, the law mandating them, and the date they were last published.

For example: The Department of Homeless Services’ shelter repair scorecard, due every quarter and last delivered to DORIS on July 15. The Department of Buildings report on injuries and fatalities at construction sites, produced monthly and submitted to DORIS but marked as not received on the list. The Department of Corrections’ latest report on punitive segregation in the third quarter of 2019, available on the DOC website but listed as last received by DORIS in July 2014.

Starting in January 2020, the report will also have to include links to the reports online, and DORIS will be required to request each report from a specific agency if it is not delivered within ten days of its due date.

“People have a right to easily access the information that the law requires be made public. This is about accountability,” Cabrera said.

For some agencies, such as the Department of Education, the Council also has a limited ability to pass new laws dictating policy or procedure, and has to instead rely on requiring greater transparency that can lead to better oversight. “There's nothing more meta than a report on reports,” said Council Member Ben Kallos, a member and former chair of the governmental operations committee and co-sponsor of the legislation, in a phone interview.

“As a legislator, I try to avoid legislation that requires a report, a task force or a study, because they always seem like a waste of time,” Kallos added. “I prefer to focus on legislation that just does things. That being said, with certain non-city agencies, we're left with no other choice.”

The current report includes dozens of city agencies and the information they are meant to publish everywhere from just once to monthly, quarterly, annually, or every two, five or ten years. The Department of Environmental Protection tops the list in number of required reports, with a total of 48; the Department of Transportation is second with 41; the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is meant to produce 35 reports; and the NYPD is mandated to provide 34.

A glimpse at the report of reports might give the impression that agencies are being negligent with their reporting responsibilities, given that 490 of the 842 are listed as not received. But the list is far from perfect. Those reports that are listed as having not been received include many that have been created and are regularly maintained by city agencies on their websites, which is part of the problem that Cabrera pointed to in his statement.

Ironically, the report even notes that DORIS itself has not submitted an annual report “on powers and duties, cost of savings,” as required by the City Charter. 

Jose Bayona, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said the discrepancies stem from processing the hundreds of required reports which, for a small agency like DORIS, is an intensive task. “It takes time,” he said. Reports may have been sent but not included in the list or have not been sent and DORIS has pushed agencies to provide them, he added.

“DORIS continues to expand content on the government publications portal by working with agencies to submit all of their reports, as required by the City Charter,” Bayona said in an email. The publications portal is meant to contain digital copies of every report produced so far by city agencies, commissions, and boards. “The number of reports available on the portal has increased from 4,180 in [Fiscal Year 2015] to 23,089 today.”

On DORIS’ annual report, Bayona explained, “DORIS submits data about its powers, duties and costs in the [Mayor’s Management Report] and considers that to be an annual report. Nevertheless, the Librarians listed the charter requirement for an annual report as a separate document because one of the Council’s requirements is that the Library list all required reports.”

For Council members seeking greater transparency from the administration, the report is illuminating, even with its deficiencies. “I can’t say I’m not disappointed,” Kallos said, pointing to the picture of “rampant non-compliance” that emerges from the report. He said agencies often withhold reports from the City Council that they are required to provide.

“It's no surprise that if they didn't send reports to the City Council, that they didn't follow their charter requirement to submit them to the Department of Records and Information Services. After all, very few people even know that DORIS exists.” He did concede that perhaps agencies themselves are unaware of their responsibility to send reports to DORIS, an issue that this new report might rectify.

Kallos said he often requests reports from agencies which they will send to the Council but not to him, leaving him to track them down. Then, agency officials will embarrass him at City Council hearings. “It's a game of cat and mouse in the very worst way of Tom and Jerry where the mouse actually clobbers the cat,” he said, noting that the DORIS report would help him in those efforts. “If there's a report I can't get my hands on and [DORIS] can't either, then it seems like maybe the agency didn't do their job.”

Council Member Ritchie Torres chairs the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, and he said the report of reports is a valuable tool for the Council’s scrutiny of the administration but might also prompt a more “holistic” review of how the Council requests information.

“Reporting bills can be a powerful advocacy tool for shining a spotlight on a matter of public concern,” he said in a phone interview. “But here's the problem. Even if a reporting requirement has merit, the accumulation of the requirements over time becomes a real imposition on a city agency. The notion that a reporting bill has no fiscal impact is something of a myth.”

Similarly, as the city’s new reporting on reports law went into effect July 1, state legislators in Albany are looking into whether they are imposing burdensome “study bills” on state agencies. Polltico New York reported earlier this month that State Senator James Skoufis and Assemblymember Brain Barnwell plan to introduce a bill requiring an examination of state study bills. “We do need to, as silly as it sounds, study all of these study bills,” Skoufis told Politico.  “Perhaps if nothing else, it will shine a light on this issue and make us think twice about just doing study bills to make a political statement.”

Torres said the Council should refocus on a more demand-based approach to obtaining the reports they need, to ensure that the information being produced is not obsolete.

“Rather than have ongoing reporting requirements that persist in perpetuity, why not make the reporting requirements dependent upon written request from the City Council, from the Speaker or relevant committee chair?,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Launch of Required City Reporting on Required Reports Shows Gaps in Reporting Thu, 29 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Fixing the City’s Broken System that Puts the Social Safety Net at Risk https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8682-fixing-the-city-s-broken-system-that-puts-the-social-safety-net-at-risk https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8682-fixing-the-city-s-broken-system-that-puts-the-social-safety-net-at-risk speaker m mv cm helen westside

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The recently-passed New York City budget greenlights billions of dollars to some of the most vital programs across the five boroughs. These dollars will help to fund homeless shelters, emergency food pantries, senior services, mental health services, and early childcare for the most vulnerable New Yorkers.

The City of New York contracts with over 1,000 community-based organizations (CBOs) to provide these essential human services at a cost of $6 billion annually. But thanks to the City’s broken procurement system, CBOs are forced to wait a very, very long time to see their money. In fact, according to a recent Comptroller’s report, human service providers wait an average of 221 days before being reimbursed for services and labor they have already provided.

Under the current system, CBOs are forced to essentially cover the City’s costs and then wait over seven months on average for payment, which, when it arrives, doesn’t cover their actual costs. What private business would accept -- or be able to operate under -- these terms?

This awful status quo persists because there are virtually no timelines attached to the City’s procurement process, which allows bureaucrats to sit on contracts and deprive local nonprofits of desperately needed funds. After a contract is awarded, it goes through the supervising agency’s review process, then to the mayor’s office, and, if all goes well, on to the comptroller for registration. Only the comptroller is subject to a time limit, however, which is 30 days.

As a result, 80 percent of all contracts issued by the City are currently delivered late, with a whopping 89 percent of human services contracts arriving tardy. For nonprofits and charities that provide crucial citywide services, these delays can be catastrophic. Since these organizations cannot close their doors to those in need, many opt to take on loans. The problem is, these loans often come with interest. 

One study estimated that late contracts cost New York City nonprofits a staggering $774 million in 2018 ($756 million in negative cash flow and another $18 million in associated financing costs). This is up from $675 million in 2017.

Think of the critical services -- for the elderly, young children, and disabled people -- that could have been provided by the $18 million lost to interest payments.

This burdensome debt not only drags down the vital services that CBOs can provide, but also threatens the livelihood of their employees. As Human Services Council Executive Director Allison Sesso writes, human service workers “increasingly find themselves in the very same position as their clients -- in need of social service assistance to provide for their families.” The financial strain also disproportionately affects already marginalized populations, as women and people of color represent 85% and 75% of human service workers, respectively. In an industry with already high employee turnover, the City should be doing everything in its power to bolster, not undermine, these organizations’ finances.

This is why we are introducing legislation that will help end the long delays within the City’s contracting process and bring relief to CBOs. Our legislation, Intro. 1627, would require the City’s Procurement Policy Board to establish time limits on each bureaucratic phase of the procurement process for any contract exceeding $100,000. The limits would be developed in consultation with each contracting agency and the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services (MOCS).

Not only will this legislation help CBOs and other human services providers be paid in a timely manner, it will also require MOCS to report publicly on each agency’s adherence to the time limits, providing the public with a necessary source of accountability.

New Yorkers deserve the best services, and the CBOs providing those services deserve to be paid fairly and on time by a city government they can hold accountable. Overhauling the procurement system may be bureaucratic and slow in nature, but it is necessary if we are to properly serve the New Yorkers who are most in need.

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City Council Members Helen Rosenthal and Ben Kallos represent Manhattan districts. On Twitter @HelenRosenthal and @BenKallos.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Fixing the City’s Broken System that Puts the Social Safety Net at Risk Thu, 18 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Calling for 'Climate Emergency' Declaration, Council Members Examine City's Progress in Renewable Energy https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8633-declaring-climate-emergency-council-examines-city-s-progress-in-renewable-energy https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8633-declaring-climate-emergency-council-examines-city-s-progress-in-renewable-energy declaring council examines

Climate emergency rally (photo: @BenKallos)


The likely future of devastation caused by climate change is one of several reasons activist Becca Trabin said New York City needs to declare a climate emergency.

“You look out at this beautiful cityscape. You don’t just see these tall buildings that are standing here today, you see what this space will look like if we continue on our current trajectory,” Trabin said. “I see devastation all around, I see death. And I see that there is still time to avert that trajectory.”

Trabin was surrounded by about 90 activists in front of City Hall on Monday – including City Council Members Ben Kallos, Costa Constantinides, and Rafael Espinal – who rallied ahead of a hearing of the Council’s Committee of Environmental Protection that included discussion of a resolution to declare a climate emergency in New York City.

The resolution, sponsored by Kallos, declares a climate emergency and calls for immediate emergency mobilization to restore a safe climate. It would not have the force of law, but would be a symbolic step toward pushing climate-change deniers to finally do what must be done to save the planet, as Kallos put it. New York City would be the largest city in the world to declare a climate emergency, according to Kallos, and join London, Los Angeles, and elsewhere.

Including the resolution, eight proposals (all focused on renewable energy and its implementation) were discussed at the Council environment committee meeting, which was also billed as an oversight hearing on the city’s efforts to move to renewables.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has goals for the implementation of renewable energy through his “New York City Green New Deal,” which aims to have city government commit to carbon neutrality by 2050 and 100% clean electricity by 2040.

The city plans to meet these goals through a variety of measures and programs, including the use of solar and wind energy, transitioning the extensive city vehicle fleet toward electric cars, and more.

One of the bills discussed at the Council hearing, Intro. 49, sponsored by Constantinides, requires the Department of Citywide Administrative Services to conduct a study on the installation of utility-scaled battery storage systems on city buildings.

A battery storage system is a “set of methods and technologizes utilizing a range of electrochemical storage solutions, including advanced chemistry batteries and capacitators, for the purpose of storing energy,” according to the bill. Battery storage systems store the energy from wind and solar power, and work to ensure electricity is uninterrupted, even if wind and solar assets are minimal.

The city’s renewable energy goals would be accomplished in part through battery storage systems in the city. Representatives of the mayor’s office testified in general support of the bills in front of the committee Monday. Susanne DesRoches, Christopher Diamond, and Anthony Fiore spoke on behalf of the de Blasio administration and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services about the goals for battery storage and the progress on achieving that goal.

“We expect growth in this sector to accelerate by a combination of the city’s commitment to expediting permitting for small and medium lithium battery installations,” said DesRoches, Deputy Director of Infrastructure and Energy at the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency and the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.

Currently, there is one battery operated system at Jacobi Hospital and three additional systems being installed across the city, said Fiore, Deputy Commissioner and Chief Energy Management Officer for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.

The goal for battery storage is 500 Megawatts by 2025 citywide. The city presently has about 18,000 kilowatt hours (or 18 Megawatts) in battery storage. However, this amount is expected to significantly increase with a state-incentivized program.

“There is a program that will be rolled out between now and 2023 where there’ll be 300 Megawatts of utility scale storage that’s incentivized by the state and procured by ConEdison,” DesRoches said.

A combination of Megawatts from the ConEdison program, public, and private storage facilities is expected to make up the 500 Megawatts goal by 2025. In terms of battery storage goals for city buildings, Fiore said that the city’s goals are consistent with the overall goal, but didn’t lay out specific figures on how city buildings would work to meet it.

Among the bills related to battery storage and geothermal technologies, several people testified about Intro. 140, which would require the Department of Environmental Protection to conduct a feasibility study on the implementation of a community choice aggregation program.

Community choice aggregation allows local governments to purchase energy for entire communities as an alternative supplier to existing utility providers. CCAs often promote renewable energy, and those who testified about the program highlighted how CCAs could help the city meet its goal of 500 Megawatts by 2050.

“Existing Community Choice Aggregation Programs have been a resounding success in eight states thus far, and a similar program in New York City would likely be no exception. In 2017, over 750 CCAs provided 42 million megawatt hours of energy to an estimated 5 million consumers,” Michael Gersho, a Green Building Worldwide Research Fellow, said during his testimony.

Most of the testimonies about CCAs were in favor of the program but varied in implementation methods. Some said New Yorkers should be able to opt-in to the program while others said a better strategy would be letting people opt-out, meaning all citizens of a community would be automatically enrolled and could choose not to participate.

If the bill passes, and the proposed study finds that CCAs would be feasible in the city, the program would start March 1, 2020.

Along with Intros. 49 and 140, and Kallos’s resolution, the committee heard Intro. 51, which would establish a pilot program for a district-scale geothermal system and Intro. 269, which would require the Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability establish a residential renewable energy pilot utilizing solar thermal district heating systems and photovoltaic systems.

The committee also heard Intro. 426, which would require the Department of Citywide Administrative Services to conduct a study on the costs of installing solar and thermal energy and heating systems in city-owned buildings; Intro. 1076, which requires the Department of Environmental Planning to study areas most suitable for geothermal mini-grids or district heating; and Intro. 1375, which calls for the creation of a database of geothermal energy systems in the city.

As expected, none of the bills or the resolution was voted on at Monday’s hearing. Negotiations around the legislation may continue internally at the Council or between the Council and the de Blasio administration before any of it moves ahead to a committee vote.

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by Caitlyn Rosen, Gotham Gazette
     

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Calling for 'Climate Emergency' Declaration, Council Members Examine City's Progress in Renewable Energy Tue, 25 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council Passes Campaign Finance Bill Roiling Early Mayoral Race https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8601-council-passes-campaign-finance-bill-roiling-early-mayoral-race https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8601-council-passes-campaign-finance-bill-roiling-early-mayoral-race Johnson Kallos City Council

Council Members Kallos, left, & Rodriguez, right, with Speaker Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The City Council passed a much-anticipated, controversial campaign finance bill Thursday, raising the cap on how much public funding a campaign can receive and altering other dynamics of the city’s matching system. The bill -- the source of significant consternation over the past several days, particularly among likely 2021 mayoral candidates - passed by a vote of 41-6, with one abstention, and three absences.

The legislation, which Mayor de Blasio has indicated support for, increases the public matching funds ceiling so that campaigns are able to raise only smaller donations and still have enough money to hit their spending limit. It also has a retroactivity component, a bill change within just the past 10 days, that caused a stir and appears likely to impact several upcoming races, including the Democratic primary for mayor.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a likely 2021 mayoral candidate, and City Council Member Ben Kallos, the lead sponsor of the bill, defended the legislation, including retroactivity that will make candidates return money raised in 2018 above new lower donation limits if they choose to opt into the newer of two programs that has more public matching.

That portion of the bill stands to benefit Johnson and hurt competitors like Comptroller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

“We are literally doing something that is entirely consistent with what we did three months ago and now all of a sudden we are being criticized for it,” Johnson said at the press conference, referring to actions the Council took to make new campaign finance rules approved by voters last year apply to the special election for Public Advocate.

Johnson, who pledged in January not to take any donations larger than $250 as he explores a mayoral run, said he has long supported the legislation and it has nothing to do with the race. He and Kallos also pointed out that the retroactivity component was discussed during an April hearing on the bill and recommended by the Campaign Finance Board so that an entire four-year election cycle would be run by the same rules, for whichever of the two programs candidates choose.

Still, neither Kallos nor Johnson had a clear answer for why the amendment to the bill had come so close to the Council’s votes on the matter.

Johnson noted the difficulty in creating legislation that affects lawmakers themselves.

“It’s hard to vote on these things because every time you do you’re potentially affecting yourself and your colleagues in what you do. It’s one of the challenging things you deal with as a current elected official when you start to look at the system that exists and you seek to improve it or change it,” Johnson said.

“For the current election cycle, just like we did for public advocate, when no one criticized it, you need to pick option A or option B,” Johnson said at the press conference. “No one is being forced to opt into the 8-to-1 [matching] system. We are just saying if you are going to opt into one system, be consistent throughout the entire cycle,” Johnson said.

If Stringer or others opt into the new system, they would receive its 8-to-1 match on all qualifying donations $250 or under, but under maximum individual donations of $2,000 (down from $5,100 for citywide candidates), and they would, based on the new Council bill, have to return the difference on any donations above the new maximum. That last aspect is what has driven Stringer and others to call Johnson out.

Others have criticized the bill for using more taxpayer money.

“I’m not sure how we look a homeless person in the eye and tell them we can’t find them an affordable place to live but don’t worry we have money for our next campaign mailing,” Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat, said on the Council floor before the vote. He voted no, as he had done in committee on Tuesday.

Supporters of the bill pointed out it’s potential to decrease the power of special interests and large donors in politics.

“I can’t believe we’re standing here having an argument over how much big money people should get to take after the voters said they want politicians to get less big money,” Kallos said at the press conference.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone say to me ‘I don’t want my dollars matched.’ The public match is increasing participation and the taxpayers, the residents actually like it. They like having their voices amplified and direct access to elected officials that they otherwise wouldn’t,” Kallos added.

“There’s a lot of cynicism in government because people feel like big donors have too much access in government, and here’s a way to take big money out and have it be publicly financed,” Johnson said at the press conference.

Representatives for Stringer, who would likely have to return the most money under the new system, if he sticks with the program of lower donation limits and higher matching, called Johnson amending the legislation and pushing it through a “brazen power grab” and using his government position to advantage his campaign.

“Johnson is rushing through a law that explicitly benefits him,” wrote Stringer spokesperson Tyrone Stevens on Twitter. “It’s deeply unethical and it’s not good government. Shame on him.”

"I’m a firm believer you don’t change the game in the middle of the game,” Adams told the Max & Murphy podcast on Wednesday, “...any major changes in the system should not be beneficial to any party involved. And I think that’s part of what Scott Stringer was saying." Adams said he wasn’t yet sure which of the two campaign finance programs he’ll choose.

A spokesperson for Diaz Jr. did not respond to a request for comment.

At the Council on Thursday, among those voting no was Yeger, who sits on the Committee on Governmental Operations, which first heard and passed the bill, sending it to the full Council. Joining Yeger in opposition were Council Members Mark Gjonaj and Ruben Diaz, Sr., both Bronx Democrats, and the Council’s three Republicans: Council Members Eric Ulrich, Steven Matteo, and Joseph Borelli.

Council Member I. Daneek Miller was the sole abstention. Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who was absent for the committee vote on Tuesday, was also absent for the vote by the Council, despite having been present during the press conference preceding the full Council meeting.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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Council Passes Campaign Finance Bill Roiling Early Mayoral Race Thu, 13 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Amid Controversy, City Council Moves Ahead with Campaign Finance Bill Extending Public Match https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8593-amid-controversy-council-moves-ahead-with-campaign-finance-bill-extending-public-match https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8593-amid-controversy-council-moves-ahead-with-campaign-finance-bill-extending-public-match committee gov op

Council Members Yeger, left, and Cabrera, right (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Significantly more public funding of political campaigns appears on the way given legislation that the City Council Committee on Governmental Operations passed on Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, aims to prevent corruption and increase engagement with local communities by adjusting the public matching funds system to allow candidates to raise only relatively small donations and receive enough public money to reach the spending limit in their race.

Though the bill has over 30 sponsors in the 51-seat Council and passed the committee 4-1 on Tuesday, a last-minute amendment to the legislation caused a significant stir, including accusations of impropriety by Comptroller Scott Stringer against City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, both likely mayoral candidates in the next election.

Expected to be passed by the full Council on Thursday, the bill lifts the cap on how much public funding – or taxpayer money – a participating campaign can receive from Campaign Finance Board. The cap, currently set at 75 percent of the spending limit for participating candidates, would rise to 89.9%, effectively making it a full match relative to the spending limit when the private funds involved are also taken into consideration.

The city’s campaign finance system currently has two tracks, “Option A” and “Option B,” that only apply to the 2021 election cycle, before the newer of the two programs takes full hold. That program, “Option A,” includes lower individual donation thresholds and matches the first $250 of individual contributions at an 8-to-1 ratio for a maximum disbursement of $2,000 in public funds per contribution.

These rules are the result of a November 2018 referendum that both raised the disbursement cap and increased the public matching ratio. But it also left in place the old system, which has much higher contribution limits and matches the first $175 of donations at 6-to-1.

Different offices, from citywide posts like mayor and comptroller to borough presidencies to City Council seats, have different donation and spending limits.

The change to individual contribution limits in Option A dropped the maximum donation limit from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide candidates who opt into that program.

Related to that new donation cap, an amendment to the legislation being passed this week has caused a rift among mayoral candidates and raised eyebrows around city government.

The amendment requires candidates who opt into the new system to return contributions from 2018 that go over the new maximums, which could mean a $3,100 return on each maximum donation for participants.

The November referendum allowed candidates participating in the system to choose between the new rules – with the higher public match but lower contribution limits – and the old rules until 2022, when candidates will have to conform entirely to the new rules to receive public funds. The 2021 city elections are expected to be highly competitive, crowded affairs, with almost all city seats open due to term limits.

Comptroller Scott Stringer, one of several likely mayoral candidates in the upcoming election, would be particularly impacted by the amendment. He’d have to return many thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the past year if he wanted to opt into the new matching system. As first reported by the Daily News, Stringer viewed this amendment as a “brazen power grab” by fellow mayoral candidate and Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

“The voters passed a groundbreaking campaign finance system to clean up government, not corrupt it,” a Stringer spokesperson said. “Speaker Johnson is trying to circumvent the will of the voters and change the rules to benefit himself. The Council should reject his brazen power grab.”

A spokesperson for Johnson reiterated that it’s optional for candidates to return their contributions and said that the amendment was created at the recommendation of the CFB.

“The changes were made at the strong urging of the CFB. Both because of fairness and administrative efficiency,” Jennifer Femino, a spokesperson for Johnson, said. “That said, no contributions made in a prior election cycle will have to be returned. Any candidate who wants to keep their big money donations from the last cycle is free to do so and maintain their edge over the competition.”

Council Member Kallos stressed to Gotham Gazette that not only did the CFB recommend retroactivity because it would then make administration of the program easier, but that Kallos led an extended conversation on changing the bill to include retroactivity during the initial April hearing on the legislation. The amendment wasn’t made until just days before the committee vote, however.

On Tuesday, governmental operations committee member, Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat, referenced the Stringer-Johnson rift during the hearing, though he didn’t name either of them. He said he was “certainly sensitive to the concerns that have been raised amongst those who are current candidates that feel this bill has a negative impact on them,” but remained supportive of the bill and voted yes.

There was opposition to the bill at the hearing, from City Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat. He said it disregards what the voters decided with the 2018 referendum and amounts to little besides another big dip into taxpayers’ pockets.

“It doesn’t seem to me that when the voters voted in November, they put an asterisk next to their vote and said, ‘Hey, this is what we’re voting for, but just in case you get a chance, take some more money out of our pockets and do this a little better,’” Yeger said. “I don’t think we got that message. I didn’t get that message, that’s not what I heard. What I heard was, there was a yes/no question, and the yes won.”

Yeger was the sole no in the 4-1 vote, with Council Members Kallos, Powers, Alan Maisel, and committee chair Fernando Cabrera voting to approve. Two committee members were absent from the vote: Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez and Bill Perkins.

The bill now goes to the full Council for a vote on Thursday. If it passes there, it will go to Mayor Bill de Blasio for likely approval.

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by Caitlyn Rosen, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Amid Controversy, City Council Moves Ahead with Campaign Finance Bill Extending Public Match Tue, 11 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Expected to Pass Bill - with Controversial Amendment - Raising Cap on Public Matching Funds for Campaigns https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8591-city-council-expected-to-pass-bill-raising-cap-on-public-matching-funds-for-campaigns https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8591-city-council-expected-to-pass-bill-raising-cap-on-public-matching-funds-for-campaigns Ben Kallos City Council

Council Member Kallos (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


A City Council committee is expected on Tuesday to pass a bill aimed at reducing the influence of large donors on New York City candidates and elections by creating the possibility for candidates to essentially raise all smaller donations and earn enough public matching funds to fully reach the spending limit imposed by the city’s campaign finance program. But the bill, which has recently been amended in a significant way, is stirring controversy as it heads to a vote, with accusations against Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Ben Kallos, the bill's lead sponsor, that they are playing political games.

If adopted, the bill would lift the cap on the amount of public money a campaign can receive as a percentage of the spending limits on candidates who choose to participate in the matching funds system, which is run by the city's Campaign Finance Board (CFB). If passed as expected on Tuesday by the Council’s governmental operations committee, the bill would then move to a Thursday vote of the full Council, where it would be overwhelmingly likely to pass.

The new amendment to the bill, however, poses a potential hiccup in the process. The legislation now requires any political candidate who opts into the new campaign finance system -- with its lower individual donation limits, more generous public matching of small donations, and the potentially higher match threshold that the bill would create -- to return any contributions over the new system's maximum received in 2018. The maximum has dropped from a $5,100 individual contribution to $2,000 for citywide candidates, meaning a $3,100 return on each maximum donation if a candidate decides to opt into the new system.

Comptroller Scott Stringer, a likely mayoral candidate along with Johnson and others, would particularly be impacted by the bill amendment, and his campaign is calling out Johnson and Kallos, as first reported by the Daily News. If Stringer wants to access the new matching system, which is optional for only the current 2021 election cycle, he would have to return many thousands of dollars in contributions he received last year as he built a significant war chest for the upcoming race.

"Speaker Johnson is trying to circumvent the will of the voters and change the rules to benefit himself," a Stringer spokesperson said in a statement. "The Council should reject his brazen power grab.”

With the vote scheduled for Tuesday's noon committee hearing, it appears unlikely the bill will be derailed.

Responding to Stringer's criticism, Jennifer Fermino, a spokesperson for Johnson said, “The changes were made at the strong urging of the CFB. Both because of fairness and administrative efficiency. That said, no contributions made in a prior election cycle will have to be returned. Any candidate who wants to keep their big money donations from the last cycle is free to do so and maintain their edge over the competition.”

If passed by the full Council, the bill would then be at the mercy of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who would be likely to approve it. If it becomes law, the new thresholds would alter the landscape for the already-underway 2021 city election cycle that is set to feature an estimated 500 candidates for a wide variety of city offices. Most current officeholders from the mayor through the borough presidents and City Council members are term-limited from seeking reelection. Many term-limited officials, including Stringer and Johnson, will be seeking election to higher office.

The city’s campaign finance system is among the most robust of its kind and is lauded as a model for regulating campaign spending while promoting competitive elections, regardless of the wealth of candidates. Its signature components include a voluntary public financing program that matches small-dollar contributions; spending limits and restrictions on expenditures for participants; and thorough disclosure requirements and auditing.

“This legislation expands the new campaign finance laws overwhelmingly adopted by 80% of the voters on November 6, 2018, from only matching 75% of contributions to matching all of them at 89.89% so that the voices of everyday working New Yorkers are amplified over that of big money and lobbyists,” Kallos said in an emailed statement to Gotham Gazette, referring to a successful ballot referendum that passed last year to increase matching funds and reduce individual donation limits.

The matching system encourages candidates to seek small-dollar contributions and, as a result, reach out to more constituents, rather than soliciting large contributions from the city’s wealthiest political donors who often have or want city business or favors.

Supporters say it reduces the risk of corruption and contributes to the diversity of candidates. Through a series of public referenda and legislation since it was established in 1988, the public match has been expanded along with limits on the types of contributions participating candidates can receive and the amounts they can spend. The most recent changes to the program came out of the referendum to revise the City Charter last November.

There is currently a cap on the amount of public funds a participant in the city’s program, administered by the Campaign Finance Board, can receive. Caps are set at a percentage of the total spending limit for the different offices, forcing candidates to rely on a mix of public and private dollars, which the CFB believes has important benefits. To the board, striking the right balance with sensitivity to the shifting demands of campaigning in New York is key to the program’s success.

“The Program remains strong because of our work with the Council over the years to ensure that it evolves to meet the challenges of an evolving political landscape,” said Amy Loprest, executive director of the CFB, before the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations when she testified on an earlier version of the bill in April.

Kallos’ bill is sponsored by 31 other Council members in the 51-seat chamber and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. It would tip the balance toward a full match and would also codify into the city Campaign Finance Act relevant pieces of the ballot referendum approved by voters last year.

Supporters of a full public match argue the system still leaves the city’s rich and powerful with outsized influence, especially in citywide races where candidates rely more on large contributions than candidates for City Council do. “In a system where every small dollar is matched, big money, PAC money, and lobbyist money that is not matched is far less valuable,” reads a press release from Kallos’ office.

One concern from the CFB is that increasing the amount of public funds limits the ability of candidates to spend campaign dollars on non-qualified expenditures -- things like childcare, post-election spending, payments in cash, and attorney fees for defending nominating petitions, among others. After an election, candidates must return any unused public funds and have to pay back money used on expenditures if they cannot show they were qualified. (Kallos’ bill, Intro. 732, has been amended since the April hearing to allow expenditures on ballot petition defense to become a qualified use of public funds.)

Candidates also have to return funds if they lack serious opposition or “do not end up running serious campaigns,” according to Loprest. For the candidates with the fewest resources -- the campaigns the program is intended to best support -- these liabilities can be discouraging and ultimately crippling.

Last year’s referendum, placed on the ballot by the 2018 Charter Revision Commission, resulted in the creation of new program parameters including increasing the public match on qualifying smaller donations from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1 and raising the amount of funds available from 55 percent to 75 percent of the spending limit.

The public matching funds program now matches the first $250 of contributions at a ratio of 8:1, meaning an individual contribution of that amount could trigger a disbursement of $2,000 in public funds. It also reduced the amount an individual can contribute from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide races, from $3,950 to $1,500 for borough president races, and $2,850 to $1,000 for City Council races.

Another change allowed public funds to be disbursed to candidates earlier in the campaign cycle.

For the 2021 elections, participating candidates will have the choice of opting into the new program, known as “Option A,” or sticking with the old rules, “Option B.” After 2021, the new system will become the only option. The choice was created to allow candidates who have already raised money under the old rules to stick with them.

The earlier disbursement of public funds can exacerbate the risks associated with unqualified expenditures for candidates who rely too heavily on them, according to Loprest. While making payments earlier in the election cycle allows candidates to be more competitive from the start and provides more time to deal with compliance issues, it can also lead them to spend more money that may need to be returned later, if they or their opponents drop out.

Kallos, a Democrat representing parts of the Upper East Side, was the prime sponsor of a law passed in 2016, which dealt with the risks of early disbursement by setting a limit on the payments made before the ballot is finalized. The 2018 charter commission also bars early payments to candidates who could not show they were opposed by a serious candidate.

The original version of Kallos’ bill removed that prohibition, raising concerns for the CFB. The new version being considered Tuesday includes a number of changes apparently aimed at addressing those concerns. Financial disclosures would have to be filed prior to early payment dates and candidates would be required to complete a certification of participation in advance of any payment date, Kallos told Gotham Gazette. Candidates receiving funds before the ballot petitioning period would have to be “actively campaigning” in order to make qualified expenditures.

“We were pleased to work with the Council in this most recent version of the legislation to address some of the concerns we raised in April,” Matt Sollars, a CFB spokesperson, told Gotham Gazette by email. Kallos echoed the sentiment, saying that the Council listens to “a lot of testimony” and changed the bill as a result of feedback from the CFB and other experts.

Most controversially and at the last minute, the new version of the bill also has language that would make the new rules for Option A -- both the 8-to-1 match and the lower contribution limits -- retroactive to apply to contributions received before the referendum changes went into effect on January 12, 2019. Candidates seeking to benefit from the new higher match would have to return any contributions above the new limits, even if received prior to the law changing.

For candidates running for citywide posts, that means $3,100 of every maximum contribution would have to be returned.

This could be especially challenging for candidates like Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, all of whom have been raising money in planned campaigns for mayor. The fourth expected Democratic mayoral candidate at this point is City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who began raising money for a mayoral run earlier this year with a number of self-imposed rules, including not taking any donations above $250. Johnson stands to benefit, comparatively speaking, from the amended version of Kallos’ bill that would make others return thousands of dollars if they opt into the new system.

The move that particularly stands to hurt Stringer and help Johnson, is being called a "power grab" and using of government position to impact a political campaign.

“If I need to pass a law to get people to do the right thing I'll do it,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette over the phone when asked about the amendment. “If they don't want to participate in the new system, there is nothing saying they have to,” he added.

The bill could also of course help Kallos and many of his other Council colleagues who may be seeking higher office like a borough presidency or the comptroller’s seat.

Kallos was also the author of a law passed this year that allowed candidates running in the February special election to replace former Public Advocate Letitia James to opt in to the new public matching parameters established in the referendum. For Loprest and the CFB, the election showcased the positive effects already unfolding from the increase in the partial match.

“Early data from that special election shows that this new iteration of the Program is working as intended,” she told the committee in April. “The most frequent contribution size across all candidates was just $10, compared to $100 in previous citywide races.”

For the bill on the table Tuesday, supporters in the Council are eager for the cap on public funds to be raised further. “We need these reforms now,” wrote Council Member Fernando Cabrera, a Democrat from the Bronx who chairs the governmental operations committee, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated, and will continue to be updated as the situation around the bill changes.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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City Council Expected to Pass Bill - with Controversial Amendment - Raising Cap on Public Matching Funds for Campaigns Mon, 10 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000