Gotham Gazette Fri, 15 Jan 2021 14:53:49 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) De Blasio Releases $92.3 Billion Preliminary Budget for 2022 Fiscal Year de blasio budget address

De Blasio in 2017 (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio released a $92.28 billion preliminary budget for the 2022 Fiscal Year on Thursday, expressing optimism that the city will receive additional federal funds but warning of cuts from the state.

The mayor’s budget plan for next fiscal year, which begins July 1, is more than $4 billion larger than the budget that was adopted last year for the current fiscal year, and reflects a nearly $20 billion increase from the last budget he inherited from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But it is lower than the $95.3 billion budget that he had proposed in January last year, when the city’s economy was at a peak and warnings of the coronavirus had yet to be heeded.

The mayor said his chief priority in the newly-released budget plan is ensuring the city’s recovery from the pandemic and he highlighted new spending that includes direct covid response measures, closing gaps in education caused by the pandemic, and maintaining essential city services. “Everything is about building the framework to get to recovery. That's what we're going to focus on,” he said.

The budget plan will be the subject of City Council hearings, followed by the mayor’s executive budget, released after a new state budget due by April 1. Both the city and state fiscal pictures will continue to depend on what comes out of Washington, D.C., among other key factors like economic recovery that may be spurred by the covid vaccine rollout.

The coronavirus pandemic decimated the city and has led to an expected sum of $10.5 billion in revenue losses for fiscal years 2020-2022, de Blasio said Thursday. About $1.5 billion of that drop has happened since November. Property taxes, a typically steady and crucial element of the city’s revenue, are expected to decline by $2.5 billion alone in fiscal year 2022. Despite job gains in the past few months, unemployment, which reached a high of more than 20%, remains at about 12.1%.

That leaves the city with an expected $5.25 billion budget gap for next fiscal year (FY22), which de Blasio said would be covered through a combination of measures including additional federal stimulus funds and fighting off potential cuts from the state. He said he will mandate a Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG) to cut $1.4 billion in costs at city agencies, along with a citywide savings plan. The mayor’s office will set an example by cutting its own spending by 13%, de Blasio said. “We want people to see we're tightening our belt. We expect every city agency to tighten their belt,” he said. Overall, the efforts will account for $3.6 billion in reductions between fiscal years 2021 and 2022, he said.

The mayor also plans to reduce the city’s workforce, though he has no current plans to carry out mass layoffs that he had warned about for much of last year, he said. Instead, de Blasio said the city will reduce headcount by about 5,000 workers by through attrition, mandating that for most agencies, they can only make new hires for one position for every three vacancies, saving $349 million through fiscal year 2022. The city has already cut the workforce by 7,000 since January 2020, he said. Additional savings will come from the city pension system – $430 million this fiscal year and $300 million next fiscal year, the mayor outlined, through measures to more immediately use pension investment gains and reduce the expected rate of return on the pension funds so there is less strain on the city budget to make up the difference.

Another $1 billion is meant to come from unspecified labor savings.

There was some good news for the city on Thursday. In total, the city has spent $5.9 billion on the response to the pandemic, of which $1.3 billion had not been covered so far by reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). But just prior to the mayor’s presentation, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, soon to be the Senate majority leader, announced that the incoming Biden administration had agreed that FEMA would fully cover emergency costs for New York and provide another $2 billion to the state and city.

About $1 billion of that, de Blasio said, is owed to the city alone and would help prevent cuts that he had planned for the budget. De Blasio said the city will no longer have to cut $150 million for Fair Student Funding to schools in the next fiscal year and will not have to delay the expansion of free pre-school for three-year-olds, which would have meant a $44 million cut.

There remains, however, the risk that the state’s own fiscal woes will end up harming the city. Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly cited a $15 billion deficit for the state, without taking into account the second round of fiscal stimulus delivered in December. Without additional federal aid to fill the state’s budget hole, Cuomo has warned that he will have to cut $8 billion in aid to localities, with a $4 billion hit to New York City.

“This is the hidden danger here, massive potential state cuts that we have to be ready to guard against, and we need that stimulus in particular to help us do it,” de Blasio said Thursday. Even pre-pandemic, Cuomo has often sought to cut funding to the city or offload costs for shared entities like CUNY, Medicaid, and the MTA. The city’s fiscal picture has been far stronger than the state’s for a number of years. De Blasio and allies have beaten back some of those attempts but not others.

As de Blasio estimated Thursday, the second stimulus package included $4 billion to fund K-12 schools in New York State, and the city expects $2.3 billion from that sum. But, because the language of the legislation was not clear, the mayor is worried that the state could choose to cut from other areas, a process called supplanting. “We've already spent a huge amount of money to get schools back open and to support remote learning and to support free devices for kids who needed them,” he said. “We deserve this federal funding to make us whole and to help us move forward and we need to fight for it.”

Instead, he urged the state to increase taxes on the rich, noting that 120 billionaires in New York have seen their net worth increase by $77 billion even as working and middle class families have suffered. “If you want to avoid cutting the vital services that cities and counties and towns provide to their people, here's a solution,” de Blasio said. “Tax the wealthy. The wealthy of New York State have never been taxed at the level they should. They have not paid their fair share.”

To fight the pandemic, the city has budgeted about $200 million for the vaccination and test and trace programs in FY22 (which could be reimbursed by the federal government). “What matters most, well, unquestionably defeating covid, that's what matters most. We are throwing in the kitchen sink to put covid in the rearview mirror,” de Blasio said, noting that those costs will likely grow.

Other spending the mayor outlined Thursday includes $62 million in the current fiscal year for the Learning Bridges child care program for students in ‘hybrid’ learning, expansion of WiFi in homeless shelters at a cost of $14 million in the current fiscal and $3 million in the next fiscal year, $52 million in the current fiscal for food relief, $35 million in the next fiscal to fund social and emotional learning programs, $10 million in extra funding in each of the current and next fiscal years to bolster the 311 city helpline, and $132 million in the next fiscal year to restore 70,000 Summer Youth Employment Program slots, though advocates have called for many more.

The mayor also announced measures that will be music to the ears of homeowners. He said the administration has reached an agreement with the New York City Council to reform the city’s tax lien sales process to save homeowners struggling during this pandemic from hardship while also maintaining $1 billion in revenue for the city. He said the Council will vote on the reforms later this month.

Additionally, he said again that “there's no way in hell” he will raise property tax rates. “That would be wrong, it would be counterproductive, it would hurt so many homeowners and everyday New Yorkers who are struggling through the covid crisis,” he said. Noting that property tax assessments are still set to increase because of state law, he said the city will create a new rebate, using federal stimulus funds, for owners of 1-3 family homes with a market value of less than $500,000. The rebate will affect 293,000 families, he estimated.

The preliminary budget for next fiscal year also includes an increase in capital spending for infrastructure needs. The ten-year preliminary capital strategy is $118.8 billion with a major focus on affordable housing, Vision Zero projects, and climate change and resiliency construction.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio Releases $92.3 Billion Preliminary Budget for 2022 Fiscal Year Thu, 14 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Excuses for Slow Vaccine Rollout Contradict Prior City Statements of Readiness mayor slow vaccine

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

Three weeks after New York City received its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines, and more than five weeks after officials knew when they were coming, only a third of the half-million doses had been dolled out, raising questions about why the city wasn't more prepared to step into "the light at the end of the tunnel."

That has been a favorite phrase of Mayor Bill de Blasio since he signaled the city was on the verge of receiving the life-saving, pandemic-ending treatment over a month ago. But in the weeks since, the roll-out has been plagued by limited access to the vaccine and limited buy-in from the first groups eligible to take it. The situation has led to the latest round of blame and bickering between de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, fellow Democrats who are notorious for their public disagreements.

Since December 14, the city has received roughly 487,000 doses of covid vaccines developed by the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Maderna, of which about 150,000 (31%) have been injected into willing participants as of the end of the day Wednesday, according to the city’s online dashboard. Included in the first phase of vaccinations are hospital and urgent care workers, EMTs, and nursing home residents and staff. The universe of eligibility was recently expanded beyond those groups by the governor, who is keeping tight control on distribution. In total the groups number an estimated 2 million statewide, with 917,000 in New York City.

The mayor has offered a wide range of excuses for the rocky start with a fair share of finger-pointing to higher powers at the state and federal levels, some of which appears legitimate but seems to have come too late to improve the first phase of vaccine distribution. His other explanations are vague and conflict with statements he and the city's top public health officials made weeks earlier about how well-prepared the city would be.

"We understand that in the first few weeks there was tremendous caution and care about making sure people understood how to use the vaccine, the refrigeration issues," de Blasio said on Monday, January 4, after a holiday weekend when fewer than 7,000 doses were administered across the five boroughs despite the hundreds of thousands of doses in stock. "There was a lot of care to make sure things were done right and safely to make sure that we saw good responses from the folks who were vaccinated," the mayor said, without providing specifics.

While the state dictates the parameters of eligibility and closely controls vaccine distribution, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is responsible for coordinating citywide vaccine delivery. It does it through the city's very loose network of public and private hospitals, which have facilities equipped to store the sensitive new treatment, and through over 100 hubs scattered throughout the five boroughs. Generally, hospital employees will receive vaccinations at their place of work, while unaffiliated healthcare workers -- roughly 50,000 of them -- may visit one of the hubs, as well as the public hospitals, run by New York City Health + Hospitals, according to a spokesperson for the mayor.

On Wednesday, following criticism that many providers were not offering the vaccine on nights, weekends, and holidays, de Blasio announced two 24/7 vaccination sites would be opened in the Bronx and Brooklyn by Sunday. The mayor said new online and phone sign-up systems were in development but not yet operational. The day before, his press secretary, Bill Neidhardt, said the administration was scouting city-owned property in all five boroughs to house "mass vaccination sites," as part of a new goal set by the mayor to administer 1 million doses by the end of January.

In a December 9 press release, the administration indicated some of that work was already underway: "The Health Department is prepared to stand up and operate temporary sites for additional capacity to supplement hospital vaccinations," the mayor’s office stated. "The City is additionally prepared to launch sites citywide in coordination with emergency response partner agencies to offer vaccinations, ensuring access and availability citywide."

Both the Pfizer and Moderna covid innoculations require two doses administered weeks apart and both must be kept refrigerated, though the Pfizer vaccine, which the city received about a week before Moderna's, requires "ultracold storage" at temperatures close to negative 80 degrees Celsius.

While after the first week New York City's vaccination rate was more than double the national rate, by week three, the city's public hospital network, Health + Hospitals, had only administered a third of its doses, falling into the bottom 10% of hospitals statewide, according to state data.

"There are no holidays. There are no nights. There are no weekends going forward. Everything has to be on a 24/7 basis," de Blasio told reporters on Tuesday when asked about the particularly low figures around New Year's Day, when just 147 doses were administered. "Going forward everyone's getting a clear message from me and I'm responsible."

De Blasio has largely attempted to focus press and public attention on his 1 million-dose January goal and calls for Governor Andrew Cuomo to loosen state rules around which categories of people are eligible to be vaccinated. He acknowledged the city’s rollout “should have been better on January 1,” but otherwise has taken limited responsibility for the slow pace.

Despite the mayor's recent claims about refrigeration concerns, in early December — before the first doses had arrived — his health commissioner and Health + Hospitals system leadership assured city lawmakers that all but one of New York City's 55 hospitals had access to ultracold storage.

"New York City Health + Hospitals has been preparing for quite some time over the past several months in anticipation of receipt of the vaccine of which we are incredibly excited," said Dr. Andrew Wallick, Health + Hospitals' ambulatory care chief medical officer, in testimony before the City Council’s committees on hospitals and health in a joint oversight hearing on December 4. "We have outfitted each of our 11 acute facilities with ultracold storage...We plan to follow our flu vaccine model where we will have a centralized hub, if you will, at each of our 11 acute facilities."

A few days later, New York City Health Commissioner Dave Choksi confirmed that 44 hospitals citywide had ultracold storage in-house and ten others had access to the vaccine through those storage facilities. As of December 9, five days before the first vaccine doses arrived in New York, only one hospital in New York City did not have access to an ultracold facility, Choksi indicated at a press briefing with the mayor.

The mayor’s repeated statements that the city's slow pace was in part based on the need to ensure the vaccine had no major negative side effects flies in the face of repeated city assurances, throughout December, that the vaccine was safe -- assertions made based on federal approval of the vaccines and the advice of top city health advisors. "Leading scientists have confirmed that it is a very good vaccine in terms of safety and ability to protect against COVID-19 illness," Choksi said on December 14, the day of the first inoculation in New York City and the United States, while with the mayor. "I, myself, have poured over the studies, including what was released last week."

Even as some have joined de Blasio’s calls for Cuomo to open up more eligibility for the vaccine, there has been widespread criticism of the de Blasio administration's vaccination efforts from Cuomo, members of the City Council, and others.

"Vaccination in New York City is basically only occurring during regular business hours,” City Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the Council health committee, tweeted on January 3. “Very little on weekends. Almost none on holidays. We are in a war-like situation. We need to be vaccinating TWENTY FOUR-SEVEN. We are losing precious time."

"Vaccinating as many New Yorkers as quickly as possible is job number one right now but the pace of vaccinations so far is unacceptable, despite what the administration told the Council in December about being prepared," said City Council Communications Director Jennifer Fermino, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "We are holding a hearing on this critical issue to determine if the city is doing everything in its power to vaccinate people efficiently and to find out what needs to be done to pick up the pace." The Council has scheduled its second joint oversight hearing focused on the vaccine rollout for January 12.

On Monday, de Blasio again said the city's slow start was the result of deliberate care and caution, which he said was necessary to build public trust in the new vaccine. "The issues were addressed, the refrigeration was handled properly. The vaccine was handled properly. Those who got the vaccine had a good experience. Almost no instance of a negative reaction. That has allowed trust to build," he told reporters during a press briefing.

"That's allowed people to see and feel comfortable in the vaccine. Getting it right in the first few weeks was the trendsetter," he added. The mayor says the city will now aim to provide 100,000 more doses by the end of the week, ramping up to 400,000 doses per week by the second half of January.

But rapid roll-out had been the name of the game for de Blasio, Choksi, and others in the days leading up to the first doses' arrival. "Remember the vaccine shipments are going to be coming in weekly. So, we're going to be quickly able to get more and more. But we have to get going right away," de Blasio said December 3. "The important thing is to work through each category of people, but move it fast and then go on to the next priority category," he said a week later.

Early on, health officials did warn the effort could take some time to ramp up. "The initial week to two weeks we will see [a] more limited number of doses and there will be a plan with respect to exactly how those will be allocated," Choksi said on December 3. "But as the supply increases we expect within a few short weeks that we would be able to cover everyone that is in that top priority group."

Vaccine eligibility is controlled by the state based on guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and consultation with New York City. Under the direction of Governor Cuomo, the first tranche of vaccines has been reserved for healthcare workers with direct patient contact. The doses have been shipped to hospitals where many of those people work. State officials estimate roughly 2 million people fall into the first phase of eligibility statewide, over 900,000 of whom are in the city, meaning there are more eligible recipients than doses in the initial shipments. Officials have recognized the possibility of roughly 20-30% of those eligible may initially decide not to take the vaccine.

Residents and staff in nursing homes are also part of the first phase and have been receiving vaccines through a federal public-private partnership program with pharmacies, which too has been saddled with delays.

New York City's slow roll-out mirrors the state and nationwide trends to varying degrees. Governor Cuomo has been criticized for taking the mass vaccination plan out of the hands of counties, which have been preparing for such an event for over a decade (at least since the H1N1 outbreak in 2009), and for keeping the initial group of eligible people too limited. In turn, Cuomo has blamed the management of local leaders, like de Blasio, and hospital administrators. This week he outlined penalties for hospitals that don't immediately use their allotted doses, including fines and blacklisting from future shipments, while also imposing even steeper fines and threatening criminal charges to those who knowingly break the priority distribution protocols.

De Blasio and public health officials say they are limited by the discretion of the priority populations, many of whom could take the vaccine but have not yet opted to. The mayor this week called on Cuomo to expand eligibility to other groups -- as demand in the broader population certainly outpaces the current supply of vaccines in a state of roughly 19.5 million -- particularly to all first-responders and people 75 years of age and older.

Yet in December, de Blasio appeared to brush off the possibility that the city's inoculation rate could be slowed or halted by low buy-in from the public. "I don't think we're going to have a leftover problem. I think we can say that. I think there's going to be honestly tremendous need, tremendous interest and speed of execution," he said on December 3.

This seemed to fly in the face of the city's own polling, which in October indicated that only 53% of New Yorkers would be willing to take the vaccine, according to Dr. Jane Zucker, who leads the city health department's Bureau of Immunization, in her testimony at the December 4 City Council oversight hearing. Twenty percent said they would be unwilling to take the vaccine and 27% said they were unsure, she said.

"There is such a contingency plan," Choksi said at the mayor’s press briefing the day before. Through the citywide immunization registry "we'll be monitoring in real time exactly how doses are being distributed as well as the actual uptake of the vaccine. So for finding that there are places that are not able to use their initial allotments, we can shift around demand and then also shift around subsequent supply of the vaccine for future weeks. So that is an integral part of our planning for both the initial phases, as well as beyond that."

On Wednesday of this week, de Blasio announced the city would open pre-registration for seniors who will be eligible in the next phase of vaccination.

"I am pleased that the Mayor has now announced they will begin pre-registering seniors shortly, but I remain troubled that the City did not plan for this earlier," said Comptroller Scott Stringer, who made a similar proposal Tuesday, in a statement on Wednesday. "We can't reopen our economy or get people back to work without widespread vaccination. Lives and livelihoods are at stake."

"We're all anxious to get the vaccination to 1B, 75 year old New Yorkers, and essential workers," wrote Cuomo's communications director, Peter Ajemian, in a statement Thursday referring to the next phase of distribution (1A is the first). "However, we must establish competent administration because if a government fails to administer 1A vaccines, what makes anyone think they can competently administer 1B?"

Neidhardt, the mayor's press secretary, defended the city's work. "We've vaccinated tens of thousands of people," he wrote in a statement posted to Twitter. "We've set up over 125 hubs. Are we perfections? No. Are we going to let that get in the way of saving the lives of first responders and the elderly? That seems like a horrible argument to make."

For the city to meet the mayor's new goal of 1 million doses by the end of January, it will also need a steady supply of the vaccine. On Tuesday, de Blasio sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence calling for a number of provisions, including increased production under the Defense Production Act and a fair share of doses coming to New York City, which is administering them to out-of-state residents who work in the five boroughs.

The letter also includes a request for technical assistance and financial support to providers and FDA approval to pre-fill syringes, indicating that the city's limited person-power is contributing to delays, despite assurances from Choksi a day earlier that the city had 13,000 untapped members of its Medical Reserve Corp ready to assist in vaccinations. Nevertheless, this week the city also put out inquiries for volunteers to help staff vaccination centers.

"If multiple doses could be drawn by the pharmacist and given to a nurse to administer ahead of time, the pace of vaccinations could increase, as would the savings of staff time," the letter reads.

"As we're announcing more and more sites, obviously we have to have a staffing plan to go with," de Blasio said Thursday.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio Excuses for Slow Vaccine Rollout Contradict Prior City Statements of Readiness Thu, 07 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Chuck Schumer's Moment 3 nys congressio

U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (photo: governor's office)

With Democrats poised to win both seats in the Georgia United States Senate runoffs, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York is poised to be one of the most influential elected officials in the country, with enormous implications for his home state and city. After four years leading the minority conference, Schumer is on the verge of being able to set the agenda in the Senate under Democratic President-elect Joe Biden and in partnership with a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives under Speaker Nancy Pelosi.    

After the November general election, Democrats held 48 seats in the Senate to Republicans’ 50, with the two seats in Georgia undecided. In the runoff election that concluded January 5, Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock was declared the victor on election night against Sen. Kelly Loeffler while Democrat Jon Ossoff leads against Sen. David Perdue by one point. Though there are votes that remain to be counted, most are from Democrat-heavy counties and Ossoff is expected to prevail. With the two parties holding an equal number of seats, the vice president -- soon to be Kamala Harris -- would cast the deciding vote on anything deadlocked before the Senate.

On Wednesday morning, Chuck Schumer declared himself the next U.S. Senate Majority Leader. If that declaration holds, it will be the culmination of a long and ambitious political career for the Brooklynite who was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and New York State Assembly before being elected to the Senate in 1998. And it will likely be an immense boon to his home state and city, which are in desperate need of aid from the federal government stemming from the coronavirus crisis and several crises and challenges that pre-date the pandemic.

“President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris will have a partner who is ready, willing and able to help achieve a forward-looking agenda and deliver help and bold change to the American people,” Schumer said in a Wednesday morning statement.

The Democrats’ likely one-party rule over the federal government is what New York and other ‘blue’ states have been hoping for after suffering a barrage of punitive domestic policies under President Donald Trump, the outgoing Republican president who has governed with an especially heavy focus on politics and appeared largely indifferent to the spread of and suffering under the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting with additional federal aid to shore up state and local government budgets, more funding for mass transit, and additional economic recovery stimulus, New York is looking for a new federal approach on everything from taxes to housing to transit to immigration. And in Schumer, the state and city will likely have one of their own at the helm.

“This was a very, very big win for the Democratic Senate and it bodes well for the state of New York,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, at a news briefing on Wednesday as he congratulated Schumer on becoming majority leader. “Washington has abused New York State for four years, and that is not rhetorical.”

“Brooklyn’s own, New York City's own Chuck Schumer could not be better for this city and for this nation and Chuck Schumer working, of course, with Vice President Kamala Harris will lead the Senate and allow us to finally get the support we need to fully recover and move forward as a city, as a nation,” Mayor Bill de Blasio, a second-term Democrat, said at his daily news briefing on Wednesday, where he said he was “feeling bubbly.” “Senator Schumer has been tenacious defending the interests in New York City. He feels New York City in his heart, in his soul but he's also been a great leader for this whole country.”  

At a time when factions of the Democratic Party are often at war with each other – moderates like Pelosi continue to clash with progressives like the representatives of “the squad” and its New York co-founder, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – Schumer has shown himself as somewhat adept at accommodating the left, which has an especially active presence right in his backyard, and evolving to meet the wants and needs of a diversifying party. Though he was once a tough-on-crime and pro-Wall Street centrist, he’s also been a staunch liberal on social issues and has more recently come to embrace the party’s progressive wing, at least to an extent — the true measure may be how he navigates the upcoming waters in a new position of such great powers. Schumer remains popular in his home state, where he makes a concerted effort to visit every county and focus on local issues. He has a ubiquitous presence, speaking at college graduations and inaugurations for local elected officials, holding Sunday press conferences on quality-of-life issues, and popping up at fairs and other events. Schumer lives and breathes politics and has always played both the short and long games of garnering press attention and setting himself up for career advancement. 

“Chuck is really in the driver's seat, both in the Senate and in his influence with the new administration,” said George Arzt, a veteran Democratic consultant in New York. “Chuck is knowledgeable, has been around for a long time, knows the Senate backwards and forwards and is probably one of the few top officials who never forgot his roots.”

Challenges lie ahead, however, for the likely next Senate majority leader. He will have to corral the ideologically divergent members of his own party just for the bare minimum of votes to pass legislation. “Everyone is going to have their hand out and rightfully so,” said Dr. Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University. “The beauty and the curse of the Democratic Party for Chuck Schumer is that it is incredibly diverse in all senses of the word. And so he's going to have to negotiate all of the different shades of blue and all the sometimes competing interest from within the party.”

Biden, Harris, Schumer, Pelosi, and their party have less than two years of runway to make an impact and hold their legislative majorities. Schumer is up for reelection himself in 2022 and, historically, the party and president in power tend not to fare well in the first midterm elections of a presidency. There’s the vague threat of a primary challenge to Schumer, stoked by some on the left in New York who don’t believe he has fought hard enough for major progressive causes like a Green New Deal and Medicare for All, neither of which he has endorsed. Ocasio-Cortez has been asked if she will seek to run against him and has repeatedly left the question open, though most political observers believe it is unlikely she would challenge him. He still may face a formidable primary opponent in the upcoming election, which will likely coincide with a fourth-term bid by Cuomo, a moderate known to attract a challenge from the left and whose fate is now far more intertwined with his home state senior senator.

Progressives have had their reasons to be skeptical of Schumer. He helped author the 1994 crime bill, voted for the Iraq war, supported the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 (a major New Deal banking regulation), and once supported building a border fence between the United States and Mexico. 

Now, there are already progressive groups calling on Schumer to accede to their demands. Last month, members of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America marched to his office to call on him to support a slate of progressive legislation, such as the Health Care Emergency Guarantee Act, a green jobs guarantee, and the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. On Wednesday, activist group Empire State Indivisible called on him to “deliver structural change commensurate with the moment.”

“The road to recovery post Trump, amidst the raging COVID19 pandemic, must start with direct and immediate economic stimulus complete with critical state and local aid as well as a full commitment to passing Democracy reforms like HR1’s For the People Act and statehood for the District of Columbia,” the group said in a statement. “Senator Schumer must meet this historic moment with historic leadership. We will be watching to see if he is up to the job of leading us into a more progressive future. Our work has just begun.”

Schumer has shown that he is willing to embrace some such progressive wish-list items, albeit at times in measured doses. For instance, last month, he stood with newly-elected Members of Congress Jamaal Bowman, Mondaire Jones, and Ritchie Torres to push for his plan to cancel up to $50,000 in debt for federal student loan borrowers. He also rallied with New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a hero of the New York left, and environmental justice groups to push for investment in green energy infrastructure.

“He's got great political instincts and he knows how to get consensus,” said Arzt. “He’s a person who knows the game and knows it well.”

“I can't imagine anybody better,” said Carol Kellermann, a friend and former staff aide to Schumer who has held a number of prominent roles in and out of New York government. “He's got boundless energy, he's got a great relationship with everybody in the caucus...If anybody is going to be able to marshal the troops to have a productive session, I think it's him.”

An open question is whether Schumer will wield power with the same degree of political calculation as Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom Schumer is planning to succeed. Progressives have pushed Schumer to eliminate the legislative filibuster so they can pass bills with a simple majority, but he has so far been noncommittal.

“Democrats tend not to be good at offense. Republicans are great at it,” said Greer. “I'm curious to see how long it will take Chuck Schumer to recognize that he needs to take power and take charge and set an agenda and be ruthless for the American people the way Mitch McConnell was ruthless against the American people.”

For New York, the chief concern at the moment is another stimulus package that delivers billions in government aid. The state needed as much as $59 billion over two fiscal years to cover costs for state and local governments and, crucially, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which alone needed $12 billion to stay afloat and not make major cuts to subway, bus, and commuter rail services. The agency received $4 billion in the latest stimulus package, leaving it with an $8 billion hole. 

Schumer has shown a deep concern for the MTA, as well as for broader infrastructure funding for New York including projects like the Gateway Tunnel, buoying the hopes of transit advocates.

“The Georgia Senate runoff results are shaping up to be very good news for public transit riders in New York and across the nation,” said Betsy Plum, executive director of Riders Alliance, an advocacy group, in a statement. “With Brooklyn's own transit champion Senator Chuck Schumer as likely majority leader, riders look forward to winning more COVID aid and equitable investment in our common infrastructure. We are eager to work together to get public transit back on track and realize its potential to help meet the country's pressing needs for climate and racial justice."

Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander, in an interview last month, noted that the MTA has long been underfunded by the federal government and Schumer has always “doggedly” fought for it. “Having somebody from here who rides the subway, who knows that we have to save it, and who has a track record and a history of fighting for it, that's very valuable for New York.” 

Schumer has promised to advance legislation to provide another $2,000 in direct individual aid, which is sorely needed in New York at a time of high unemployment and an eviction crisis looming. Democrats could not convince Republicans in the Senate to approve more than a $600 payment in the recent, months-in-the-making round of stimulus and campaigned in Georgia on the promise of providing more should they win. 

“I think his goal will be to hit the ground running, get the $2,000 checks passed,” said Kellermann, noting that the funding was first championed by progressives but supported by moderates as well. “And that’s kind of the best way to resolve the differences is to get everybody to work together in the beginning, at least on things that are acknowledged to be necessary...and things that everybody would agree on and kind of build bridges.”

Schumer confirmed as much during a brief press appearance in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, where he discussed the Georgia results and his likely ascension before heading into what promised to be a long and arduous process of finalizing the electoral college votes to put the final stamp on Biden’s victory over Trump and turned into a day marred by a violent, pro-Trump insurrection at the Capitol, spurred on by the outgoing president himself.

“One of the first things that I want to do when our new senators are seated is deliver the $2,000 checks to the American families,” Schumer said Wednesday. He added that he was not ready to get into further specifics, but that he was looking forward to seeing the certification of the presidential election as well as the Georgia runoffs, the seating of the new senators, and the transition of power on the presidential and Senate levels. "I'm excited," Schumer deadpanned in typical fashion.

“I was sitting at home in Brooklyn, watching my television,” he told reporters when asked when he realized he was likey going to be the next majority laeder, “and at about midnight, having talked to Ossoff about three or four times and Warnock several times, I realized that even though he was behind then by about a couple of thousand votes, that all the votes that were coming in were going to be Democratic votes and the odds were very, very high that he would win. And wow, who would have thought? As I said, this is not the path we chose to get here, but we're here.”

Of course, Schumer’s ascension means that he will have to negotiate with up to 99 other members of the Senate as well as House and White House leadership on issues, spending, and legislation affecting the nation. New York’s agenda may naturally fall more to the state’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. “It's always good when we have someone at the table, but for local issues, I think that makes Kirsten Gillibrand’s plate a little bit more full,” said Greer.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

Chuck Schumer's Moment Wed, 06 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Previewing Bill De Blasio's Last Year as Mayor and the Race to Replace Him mayor delivers sotc

Mayor de Blasio at his 2020 State of the City (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

December 23, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Previewing Bill De Blasio's Last Year as Mayor and the Race to Replace Him

Mara Gay of the New York Times Editorial Board and Sally Goldenberg of Politico New York joined the show to discuss Mayor Bill de Blasio's legacy to this point, what to watch for in his final year as mayor, and key aspects of the developing race to replace him in the 2021 election, with the all-important June primary rapidly approaching.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

Max & Murphy · Episode 266: Bill De Blasio's Last Year As Mayor And The Race To Replace Him

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Previewing Bill De Blasio's Last Year as Mayor and the Race to Replace Him Wed, 23 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
'Shameful': No Sign of City's Long Overdue Plan for 250,000-Plus Disconnected Youth 2 still no sign

Organizers and activists (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

While unemployment booms and New York City faces its worst economy in decades, the fate of the city's disconnected youth -- people aged 16 to 24 who are both out of work and out of school -- is getting a shrug from city government.

The city's Disconnected Youth Task Force, created by the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio to examine the factors that inhibit employment and school enrollment among this group numbering in the hundreds of thousands, is more than two years late to submit its first report, a requirement of the 2017 legislation that created it.

Now it appears as though the de Blasio administration is waylaying the report again after a draft circulated among members this summer. Practitioners in the field say the endless delays point to a lack of commitment from both sides of City Hall to address young people falling through the cracks, with one task force member calling the hold-up "shameful."

"It is shameful that it's not out yet, given the crisis, given that it's been almost two years," said Marjorie Parker, head of JobsFirstNYC and a member of the task force, in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. "They shouldn't sit on this thing for two years. I know covid happened but other people have done reports in shorter periods of time than that."

The urgency has only increased during the pandemic, during which time youth unemployment increased sevenfold -- reaching 35% in June -- and gun violence has soared. (While the mayor regularly cites a confluence of factors, including rising unemployment, to explaining the uptick in shootings, there is no definitive causation.)

The task force, set up through legislation passed and signed in April 2017, has been plagued by delays from the start. The bill, sponsored by City Council Member Mathieu Eugene, then chair of the Council’s youth services committee, under former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, required the Mayor and the Speaker to appoint its members within 30 days. Its mandate was to explore barriers and policy solutions to youth employment and education gaps and produce a report with recommendations by March 1, 2018.

Close to two years later, in February 2019, de Blasio only announced the launch of the task force under the leadership of Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson, with 20 appointees, five fewer than the law established and mostly representing city agencies with a handful of nonprofit partners. The report is still lost in the offing.

“It is critical that we provide young people the tools they need to thrive in our city,” de Blasio said in a statement the day of the launch. “This taskforce will build our work already underway in this area and will help better identify and meet these needs. I look forward to seeing what recommendations they develop.”

Thompson said the administration was already taking steps to address the vulnerable population at hand but that he would work with the task force members "to develop a better coordinated strategy among programs servicing youth citywide."

At the time the task force bill was first heard in City Council committee, in November 2016, an estimated 172,000 New York City residents aged 18 to 24 were out of school and out of work, close to a fifth of that age group citywide, according to a report prepared by Council staff. Two-thirds of that population did not have a high school diploma. In 2019, pre-pandemic, there were 129,000 disconnected 16- to 24-year-olds, according to the Aspen Institute, a global nonprofit focused on equality. It is not clear what factors contributed to the drop in disconnected youth by 2019.

The latest estimates from Aspen Institute in July indicate the number of out-of-school-and-work young people more than doubled in the first months of the covid crisis in New York, falling anywhere between 259,000 and 324,000 16- to 24-year-olds, or 27% to 34% of that population in the city.

Figures available from November on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website place the nationwide number of unemployed and not-enrolled 16- to 24-year-olds at roughly 5 million. That number is significantly lower than what was reported in a Pew Research Center study from June, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data, which revealed that nationwide 28% of youth ages 16 to 24, 10.3 million people, were out of work and school. The rate more than doubled between February and June, from 12%, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and forced economic shutdowns across the country.

According to Richard Fry, a co-author the Pew study, "there is some seasonality to enrollment, both at high school and college." The fall months, when many students are back in school, account for the precipitous drop between June and November, he told Gotham Gazette.

In addition to representatives from agencies like the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development and the Department of Education, the mayor was given six appointees on the Disconnected Youth Task Force and the Council speaker was given five. The 2019 press release of the launch lists the members but not who appointed them and the speaker's office, now under Speaker Corey Johnson, did not clarify how many were selected by the Council.

In response to Gotham Gazette inquiries about the Council's role in the task force, a spokesperson said that when the body creates a task force through legislation, the Council makes appointments as required by the law, but the administration is "in charge."

"As you know covid changed many dynamics in the city," wrote Jose Bayona, a mayoral spokesperson, in October, who at the time said an update would be available at the end of November. On November 23, Bayona told Gotham Gazette, "it seems like we are releasing the report in the first week of December.”

The report has not materialized as of December 17 and representatives for the mayor, Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and Council Member Eugene have not been able to provide updates since.

"Our office will provide an update as soon as possible," said Adam Ullian, a spokesperson for  Eugene, a Brooklyn Democrat who is currently running for borough president.

Unlike past recessions, the coronavirus pandemic has had a unique impact on young people, spurring unemployment while also driving down community college enrollment, which has historically risen during economic downturns.

According to new figures released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and reported by The 74, undergraduate college enrollment dropped 29% in fall 2020 among low-income high school graduates nationwide, close to double the rate among students from high-income schools. While enrollment fell among all students, the most acute decline was among Native American students, followed by Black students, both of which continued downward trends from last fall. The Clearinghouse figures show that undergraduate enrollment at Historically Black Colleges and Universities declined more sharply than the national average.

At the same time, in New York City, youth unemployment has skyrocketed during the pandemic. In June, City Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report showing the unemployment rate among 16- to 24-year olds had risen to a staggering 35%, from under 7% pre-pandemic.

Contributing to youth disconnection is the ongoing digital divide, the gap between populations that have the technological infrastructure to stay on the grid from home, and those who do not. The latter group is disproportionately composed of people living in poor communities, public housing, and homeless shelters, predominantly impacting Black and Latino New Yorkers. The divide makes remote education and finding a job increasingly difficult during the ongoing shutdown.

While de Blasio's office cited the pandemic as a reason for the report's further delay, the mayor regularly discusses the city's major increase in unemployment, and has connected it and other upheaval to the significant rise in gun violence this year. But he has not offered any city solutions to better engage disconnected youth and even cut long-established programs.

Youth aging out of foster care are particularly vulnerable to missing out on job and education opportunities, especially during the pandemic when many transition services were upended. "[Education and employment] is certainly an issue in that our membership, the foster care agencies, are considering it very heavily and adding it to decision-making about discharging youth at this point," said Lisa Gitelson, head of the downstate programs of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies.

Statewide, 205 young people were discharged to "another planned living arrangement," or self-responsibility, between January and October, according to data published by the state Office of Children and Family Services. More than half of them, 121, were in New York City.

Yet while there are risks involved in discharging youth from foster care, there are also risks in postponing it -- ones that play into other, more clinical, public health issues that have gotten greater attention from elected officials. "Many of our foster families, whether they are kinship or non-kinship, are older families and they're families with co-morbidities that put them at risk," Gitelson said.

"There's a slew of problems around young people right now that we're trying to figure out," Parker told Gotham Gazette, referring to the work of her organization, JobsFirstNYC, which focuses on workforce development.

"We've never had a crisis like this but whenever we've had crises, young people are at the back of the line," she said. "You always focus on the professionals, getting them back to work, and eventually work your way down to young people. But this time is very different and I think we need different strategies."

Even some of the city's existing programs to improve the experience of disconnected youth have suffered under the economic contraction, which has led to billions in lost revenue for the city and state. High on that list is the city's Summer Youth Employment Program, which pre-pandemic connected young people with roughly 75,000 paid job opportunities during the summer months. During budget negotiations this year, the program was scrapped and only reinstated after an outcry from advocates and elected leaders, and then only partially reinstated.

The Disconnected Youth Task Force report is supposed to include an assessment of the barriers to work and school employment and map the skills and education employers are seeking. The law also requires the task force to analyze the policies and programs that impact disconnected youth and provide recommendations to the city for improvements.

"There's not a reason for it to have taken this long," said Parker. "For something to take this long shows that it's not a priority."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

'Shameful': No Sign of City's Long Overdue Plan for 250,000-Plus Disconnected Youth Thu, 17 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio's Shelter Plan Moves Ahead 3 may first lady intake

Mayor de Blasio at a homeless shelter (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

“We’ve opened shelters in communities that have never had shelters before,” New York City Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks said in October, at an online event hosted by New York Law School that took place amid controversy over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to move homeless men from the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side after uproar from some local residents.

Banks alluded to the de Blasio administration’s “Turning the Tide” initiative, a plan to reduce homelessness in New York City released by the mayor and Banks in February 2017. As part of the plan, the city pledged to eliminate the use of commercial hotels and “cluster site” shelter units in favor of shelters run by the Department of Homeless Services and efforts to reduce the homeless population through preventative and re-housing measures.

But the plan got off to a slow start and some advocates, like Coalition for the Homeless, say it is outdated in light of the pandemic and that the mayor is using it to deflect criticism from his handling of the Lucerne controversy, in part by repeatedly citing the goal of eliminating the use of commercial shelters. When the residents of the Lucerne were initially moved there from congregate settings to avoid the spread of COVID-19, they were not provided necessary support services and security was lacking.

When the administration announced Turning the Tide, de Blasio was on the receiving end of relentless criticism over his handling of homelessness in the city, and he acknowledged coming up short against the enormity and complexity of the problem. According to the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), the city shelter census currently stands at 53,778. That’s under the goal Mayor de Blasio set in 2017 of getting the DHS shelter census to about 57,500 by 2022, though it’s unclear how the covid eviction moratorium is impacting the numbers and what may happen when those protections are removed -- some are predicting a potential tsunami of homelessness. The city’s actual homeless population is far greater than the DHS census, which does not factor in all types of shelters in the city and does not account for the number of people living ‘doubled up’ or other crowded conditions after loss of housing.

The mayor and Banks are pledging to site 90 new community-based shelters by the end of this year that, in Banks’ words at the time, would be “as close as possible to the anchors in people’s lives.” The idea being that if people do wind up in shelter, they can keep continuity with regard to jobs, school, family, and other key pieces of their lives, helping them maintain some stability as they deal with housing insecurity and the challenge of returning to stable housing.

As of early this month (December 2020), 43 of the 90 shelters are operational and 37 are sited but not yet operational. Of those 43 operational shelters, about half (21) are located in the Bronx, with eight in Queens, nine in Brooklyn, and five in Manhattan, with none operational yet on Staten Island.

Of the 80 total sited shelters, whether operational or not, under Turning the Tide, 31 are in the Bronx, 14 in Manhattan, 19 in Brooklyn, 14 in Queens, and 2 on Staten Island. These numbers don’t exist in a vacuum, however, as the shelters are being opened to replace the use of hotels and other elements of the hodgepodge shelter system, and the overall plan said that the city’s shelter footprint would actually shrink significantly if the plan were to be implemented as planned, and in conjunction with other measures to prevent homelessness and re-house people who do enter the system. Yet there are also questions about whether the city should be dedicating so many resources to opening new shelters instead of investing time and effort into permanent housing, such as increasing the value of certain housing vouchers.

Overall, as of October 31, there are 132 Department of Homeless Services shelters in the Bronx, 127 in Brooklyn, 118 in Manhattan, 75 in Queens, and one on Staten Island, for a total of 453. These numbers include so-called “stop-gap” locations or commercial hotels being used due to the pandemic -- combined, there were 164 such locations throughout the five boroughs as of October. According to the Department of Social Services (DSS), which Banks runs and coordinates with DHS, these numbers represent a 28% decrease from the 647 various buildings in use before Turning the Tide was launched.

The 90 opened, sited, or planned but not sited new shelters are a mix of traditional shelters and specialized ones, such as those supporting families with children, adult families, employment-focused, or for LGBTQ New Yorkers.

Four of the city’s 59 community board districts will be getting their first traditional shelters through this program, including Brooklyn 13 (Coney Island and Bensonhurst), Bronx 8 (Riverdale, Kingsbridge), Queens 9 (Woodhaven, Richmond Hill), Staten Island 3 (South Shore), and Manhattan 1 (Lower Manhattan), according to DSS.

As of now, this will leave six community board districts throughout the city without any DHS shelters, according to DSS, including Bronx 11 (Allerton), Brooklyn 10 (Bay Ridge) and 11 (Gravesend), Staten Island 2 (Mid-Island), and Queens 6 (Forest Hills) and 11 (Bayside), even after Turning the Tide is fully implemented. However, shelters could be coming to those community districts in the remaining batch of ten shelters that still need to be sited under the plan.

Additionally, there will be 21 specialized shelters in community board districts where such shelters have never been before, including three in the Bronx, seven in Manhattan, seven in Brooklyn, and four in Queens.

Neha Sharma, associate press secretary at the Department of Social Services, told Gotham Gazette that the city expects all 90 planned shelters to be sited "by the end of this year" and most to be operational by the end of next year, which is when Mayor de Blasio leaves office due to term limits. She noted that DSS has “a responsibility to make sure neighborhoods that never had shelters have the resources to support those who need them.”

According to Sharma, Turning the Tide “represents this administration’s holistic effort to really change the way we provide shelter” and “transform the physical footprint of shelters in this city.” Sharma stressed that the pre-de Blasio shelter system was “built up over several decades” and reflects “about forty years of inherited policy.”

DSS’ focus when opening new shelters is making sure communities have the resources to assist those experiencing homelessness within those communities, Sharma said, adding, “as we right-size the geographic footprint of the shelter system, the idea is making sure all communities share in this responsibility and have the resources they’d need to offer anyone from the community or neighboring communities to stabilize their lives there.”

Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, told Gotham Gazette that “it is possible the administration may be on track with the goals they’ve set. However, it remains to be seen if that capacity will be able to meet the needs in light of the economic devastation brought about by this pandemic.” She criticized the mayor’s homelesness policies as lacking a focus on permanent housing and said “the commitment for permanent housing for homeless people has been inadequate to date.”

“We were disappointed at the time [Turning the Tide] came out that the administration was projecting they were only going to be able to decrease the number of people in shelters by about 2,500...and based their capacity planning on that very unambitious goal,” said Simone.

Simone sees a “bifurcation of responsibilities in City Hall where there’s one side of the government that works on homelessness issues and there’s one side that works on housing issues” and that “those issues are treated separately instead of recognizing that housing is the answer to homelessness.”

Coalition for the Homeless and other housing advocates have been critical of the mayor’s handling of the controversy surrounding the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side being used as a temporary shelter. Simone said that “Mayor de Blasio has repeatedly alluded to this Turning the Tide goal to get out of commercial hotels as an excuse” for moving unhoused persons out of the Lucerne. He did so during September 10 and September 14 press conferences, during the height of the controversy, as well as at other times.

Simone believes that the Lucerne saga will have ripple effects throughout the city, where she is already seeing shelter sitings being contested in “almost every neighborhood, unfortunately,” where sitings are being attempted. She also believes that “the mayor’s capitulation will only make these shelter siting issues more challenging than they already were.”

She explained that by agreeing to move the unhoused persons from the hotel, de Blasio has “emboldened other NIMBY groups throughout the city and we’re already seeing other neighborhoods object to the presence of homeless New Yorkers nearby because they’ve received a very clear message from City Hall that the Mayor won’t defend homeless New Yorkers and his priority is to instead defend this vocal group of NIMBYs.”

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to reflect that the de Blasio administration is planning to have all 90 new shelters sited by the end of 2020 and to correct the pronoun used for Neha Sharma - we regret the original error.

De Blasio's Shelter Plan Moves Ahead Thu, 17 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Dermot Shea's Rocky First Year as NYPD Commissioner 3 cere swearing

Mayo de Blasio & NYPD Commissioner Shea (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

This past Wednesday, December 2, marked one year since Dermot Shea was sworn in as the 44th commissioner of the New York Police Department, the third commissioner to serve in the role under Mayor Bill de Blasio. Shea’s first year in the top-cop job has been tumultuous and punctuated with controversy; a trial by fire in unprecedented times, and he often came up short, as judged by critics on both his left and his right and those simply frustrated by police brutality and rising crime.

During his first year as NYPD commissioner, Shea repeatedly made false and misleading statements and undermined his boss, the mayor; he publicly criticized many other elected officials, at times in unbecoming rants; he led a police force that repeatedly used excessive force against peaceful protestors while failing to stop multiple nights of looting and a surge in gun violence throughout much of the year, and that enforced new pandemic-related rules in such a racially-biased fashion that de Blasio, in a rare move to hold Shea and his department accountable, quickly removed such enforcement from the NYPD. All while Shea was unable to get much of his police force to follow rules for wearing masks to stop the spread of COVID-19, even as many officers got sick and died. Some of de Blasio’s closest, long-time allies openly criticized the mayor for not better managing the police; some members of the mayor’s administration left.

The year was of course dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed dozens of NYPD officers and sickened hundreds of others while disrupting life throughout the city. It also saw a major spike in shootings and murders that began before the covid outbreak. The streets surged with renewed public attention to police misconduct and systemic racism in policing, with accompanying calls to drastically reform and, from some, to “defund” the police. The rift between many New Yorkers, especially Black and Hispanic residents of the city, and the officers meant to serve and protect them has only grown.

Shea and many other members of the NYPD felt unfairly targeted for incidents that happened elsewhere, like the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and resented what they and the mayor see as a lack of acknowledgement for extensive and ongoing reform efforts. Officers were physically attacked, NYPD vehicles were burned out. Shea and others opposed pieces of reform legislation passed at City Hall and in Albany. Questions have been raised about whether officers engaged in their own partial work stoppage.

And while Shea has often sought to address criticism and quell concerns, to establish his devotion to responsible, unbiased policing, stronger accountability, public safety, and the community good, many of his words and the actions of his department have led some to question his commitment, with calls for his firing, and the results are largely to be seen as de Blasio heads toward his final year in office and what is all-but-certain to be Shea's last year atop the NYPD. 

Shea was a controversial pick in certain quarters from the day of his appointment. Like his predecessors under de Blasio, Bill Bratton and James O’Neill, Shea is a white, male Irish-American. His elevation to the department’s top spot came with no dearth of criticism for the mayor, who had passed over an experienced candidate of color for the third time during his tenure. Two of those times, the department’s second-in-command, Benjamin Tucker, who is Black, had been considered and rejected. 

“Everyone has to understand that this particular job, you know when it comes down to it, we're asking one human being to do an extraordinary set of things and...that's a special calling,” Mayor de Blasio said in a November 5, 2019 appearance on Inside City Hall, after Shea’s appointment was first announced.  

A 29-year veteran of the department, Shea was previously the chief of detectives and, before that, he oversaw CompStat, the department’s crime data tracking system, as chief of crime control strategies and the deputy commissioner of operations. He took over at a time when crime was at historic lows, and arrests, fines, and incarceration had all been significantly reduced through new policies pursued by the City Council and the mayor. 

“You gotta say, no matter what side you’re on on this, that he’s had the toughest year out of probably any police commissioner in recent memory,” said City Council Member Bob Holden, a conservative Queens Democrat and a staunch defender of the NYPD, in a phone interview. “He's got his hands full. It's probably the second toughest job in the city of New York at this point other than the mayor’s.” 

Shea has indeed faced several major challenges since he took the helm of the largest police department in the country, now with nearly 35,000 uniformed officers and well over 10,000 civilian employees, an annual operating budget of around $6 billion, with billions more in NYPD-related spending each year. Though several major felony crimes have skyrocketed this year, others have dropped precipitously, and the total number of seven major index crimes was virtually flat through November of this year compared to the same period in 2019.

But the latest data shows ongoing, highly-concerning increases in murders, shootings, burglaries, and car thefts, and both de Blasio and Shea have both made many excuses as to why the police department hasn't been better able to quell the violence, repeatedly citing a "perfect storm" of factors, some of which hold water. After the pandemic hit the city in March, nearly a fifth of the NYPD’s uniformed personnel were out sick with coronavirus or coronavirus exposure within a month. In the summer, Black Lives Matter protests tested the police’s ability to handle massive demonstrations and, after its glaring failures, prompted calls for defunding the NYPD by at least $1 billion, which became the focus of city budget negotiations and a great deal of heated debate in June.

The resurgent movement for police reform also led to the passage of several new laws at the city and state levels that de Blasio and the NYPD has resisted for years, as well as some changes they supported. Among those were the outlawing of police chokeholds and other restrictions that some say led police officers to back off in their work to stem serious crime.

“I think he's doing a great job under tremendous administrative that he's forced to do more vis-à-vis a year of lockdowns and protests with less staff,” City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican and staunch NYPD supporter, said of Shea. “That’s hard for any commissioner of any agency.”

When Shea first took office, he attempted to build good will with a listening tour, meeting with members of the City Council, community advocates, and faith leaders. He made the obligatory appearance at National Action Network’s House of Justice to meet with civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton. “It's very fitting that I'm here, I think, because I am the police commissioner to-be, of not the police department but of all New York, of 8.5 million New Yorkers,” he said at a news conference after the meeting. 

Tellingly, as Shea’s first year as commissioner was coming toward an end, the police department he leads was conducting a series of listening sessions due to an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo mandating that local jurisdictions create community-informed police-reinvention plans. Meanwhile, New Yorkers are awaiting the outcomes of multiple major investigations of, as well as hundreds of civilian complaints about, the NYPD’s protest policing. Potentially dozens of lawsuits against the department are in motion.

The NYPD press office did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with Shea about his first year as commissioner.

Though it now seems like a lifetime ago, Shea’s early steps endeared him to some elected officials. “He really jumped out of the box in a good way, really engaging and really listening to folks about what policing should look like in various communities, because we are not one-size-fits-all throughout the city,” said City Council Member I. Daneek Miller, a Queens Democrat, in a phone interview.

But by the start of 2020, just over a month after Shea took the job, data showed that homicides had increased over the previous year. The high-profile murder of a young Barnard College student, Tessa Majors, in December had unnerved many in the city. Just two months before, four homeless men were beaten to death in Chinatown. The incidents lent themselves to a perception of danger more so than the reality that the city was still about as safe as ever before, if not more so, according to the actual crime numbers. 

But in February, data showed a nearly 17% increase in major crime in the first month of the new year compared to the same time last year. Still, the data showed the city was exceptionally safe overall.

“The uptick in crime is relatable to the change of law and policy that a hundred people are responsible for, not named Dermot Shea,” Borelli said. 

Some, including Shea and other top police officials, attributed the uptick to recent reforms in bail laws approved by the state Legislature last year that became effective January 1 of this year, though the data sample was small and often misconstrued. Shea and de Blasio were among those who wanted to see the bail reforms rolled back and relied on flawed arguments, which NYPD data refuted, to support their views. 

The police commissioner had even gone so far as to write an op-ed in the New York Times headlined, “New York’s New Bail Laws Harm Public Safety.” At the time it was published, the laws had only been in full force for 23 days. “The New York Police Department favors criminal justice reforms and bail reform, but within a framework that is fair both to the victims of crimes and to those accused of committing them,” he wrote, arguing that judges should be able to consider the risk a defendant poses to public safety while deciding to set bail. “The time has come to rethink these reforms to achieve the desired goal of a fairer criminal justice system that doesn’t undermine, but supports, public safety.”

The state Legislature would eventually water down the sweeping bail reform, though not fully in the direction that Shea had pushed for. To some, Shea’s fervent advocacy appeared highly political, but the commissioner said it was part of his job as the city’s leading law enforcement official to shape criminal justice policy and the mayor backed Shea’s outspokenness, even when presented with the fact that Shea was peddling misinformation. While de Blasio was typically careful not to repeat the same falsehoods Shea presented, the mayor chalked it up to Shea's passion and differing opinions.

"When the Commissioner took office, I hoped that we could work together on issues of transparency and accountability – and to his credit, I’ve found him accessible to myself and my office,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a frequent NYPD critic and criminal justice reformer, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “But a year into Commissioner Shea’s tenure, any progress and reform has been outweighed and overshadowed by a series of misdiagnosed issues, misdirected energy and missed opportunities. He and the Mayor have both been wrong for this moment.” 

In March, the city became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, testing every facet of municipal government, including the police. Police officers were pressed into enforcing social distancing guidelines, a decision that proved misguided when it emerged that 90% of those getting arrested or ticketed were Black and Hispanic New Yorkers.

In a May 13 news conference, Shea denied any racial bias when confronted with instances of violent enforcement caught on camera. “I will push back strongly on any notion that this is business as usual for the NYPD or that this is ‘racist police.’ I think this could not be anything further from the truth,” he told reporters at a news conference with the mayor, arguing that criticism of those actions also endangered the lives of police officers. 

“Accountability is what we must have from this police department and I, as the police commissioner, will not stand for excessive force nor will I stand and defend indefensible actions, but I will also not have my police department called a racist police department,” he said. At a City Council hearing the next day, he conceded that the videos reflected badly on the department. “We have taken a hit to our credibility and to everything that we have worked toward in the last several years,” he said. 

The summer was marked by additional contradictions and complicated dichotomies. Police officers were falling ill in droves but there were dozens of examples of them publicly refusing to wear masks to follow the public health guidelines and protect themselves and others from coronavirus exposure. The large increase in shootings and murders led to calls for more intensive policing while at the same time hundreds of thousands were protesting racist policing and police brutality after George Floyd was killed, urging the city to reduce the size of the police force and to reallocate funds from the NYPD towards communities in need. 

The NYPD responded with brutality against largely peaceful protests against police brutality. But Shea, with the mayor in his corner, repeatedly denied the plainly obvious evidence that was captured in dozens of witness videos and experienced by hundreds of New Yorkers, from aggressive use of batons and pepper spray to inconsistent enforcement of protest behavior and of the weeklong curfew instituted by the mayor, to the use of “kettling” and unwillingness to communicate with protestors. 

Some justified the police crackdown because of instances of violence during the two weeks of protests. More than 350 police officers were injured during the protests, NYPD officials testified at a June 9 City Council hearing. Five officers were hospitalized while 200 were treated and released. There were 232 incidents of vandalism to vehicles in the eight days before the hearing, including police cars that were burnt or had their windows smashed in.  

The NYPD’s behavior prompted hundreds of complaints with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a quasi-independent oversight body, lawsuits from civil rights groups, internal NYPD investigations, an investigation ordered by de Blasio to be carried out by the city’s Department of Investigation and corporation counsel, and an external investigation by State Attorney General Letitia James.

The opposition to Shea’s leadership eventually crystallized in calls from activists and elected officials for Shea to resign or for the mayor to fire him. A notable voice calling for his termination was Maya Wiley, who was formerly counsel to the mayor and also led the CCRB. “If we believe black and Latino New Yorkers deserve to be safe — physically, economically and emotionally — and if we want to truly reform policing, then we need our leaders to lead,” she wrote in a July 9 op-ed in the New York Daily News as she laid the groundwork to launch her own 2021 mayoral bid. “Dermot Shea has proven that he is not up to the task. He must go.”

In a June hearing convened by James to examine the NYPD’s conduct, Shea defended the department’s actions which included the arrests of legal observers, kettling protesters, using pepper spray, beating them with batons and even an instance where officers drove into a crowd of protesters behind a barrier. He portrayed a department under siege and decried, as he had previously done with very limited evidence, the actions of “outside agitators” and anarchists with premeditated plans for violence at protests. “I think the officers used an incredible amount of restraint in terms of allowing people to vent,” he said. “I am proud of their performance in policing these protests, ending the riots, and upholding the rule of law.”

Shea said kettling -- by which lines of officers cut off protest movement on all sides until they decide to let protestors disperse or make arrests -- is not part of the NYPD patrol guide and appeared to feign ignorance about its common use by his commanders.

Reports from James and the other investigation entities have still not been published in full or at all. After months of delay, de Blasio said this past week that the investigation he ordered is due to show results this month. A month prior, in early November, he had said a report was imminent.

Holden praised Shea for sticking up for the department where he said the mayor would not. “Shea did what he's supposed to do. He did stand by his officers in situations that I think he needed to do,” Holden said. “And you have to walk a fine line. I don't think he had a mayor that actually backed him up many times.”

For police reform advocates, Shea’s leadership during the protests was only confirmation. “Commissioner Shea’s first year has been marked by multiple occasions of him misleading the public and enabling police violence,” said Carolyn Martinez-Class, a spokesperson for the Communities United for Police Reform coalition. “Top NYPD officials, including the commissioner, have used their massive public relations apparatus to mislead the public on various issues, including their baseless fear mongering around bail reform, false claims about the reasons crime stats have gone up, and not holding officers accountable when they harm New Yorkers.”

Eileen Maher, a community leader at advocacy group VOCAL-NY, said flatly, “I just think he's doing a terrible job.” But she also blamed the mayor for enabling the commissioner and the NYPD to act with impunity. “There's definitely this kind of sense or aura of ‘we only answer to ourselves, and basically the mayor or anybody else, they don't matter...The next mayor is definitely gonna have to step in and curb the authority of the commissioner.”

As the protests reached critical mass, legislators at the city and state levels quickly moved to approve several policing reforms that had languished for years. The City Council passed a series of reforms including a law criminalizing the use of chokeholds by police during an arrest, which included a provision that also prohibited any method of restraint that could compress an individual’s diaphragm. A less restrictive version of the law was first proposed by Council Member Rory Lancman six years ago after the death of Eric Garner, and it was expanded based on recent events, particularly Floyd’s killing. The mayor begrudgingly expressed support for it and signed it into law, though even at the bill-signing he said the law may need to be tweaked, an extraordinary statement. Shea publicly critiqued the decision, calling it “incredibly reckless” in a videoconference with interfaith leaders after it was approved by the Council.

Asked about Shea’s criticism of the reforms, de Blasio said at a July 6 news conference, “I respect that sometimes people need to express their frustrations because they are deep frustrations. They're working so hard to try and keep people safe and they feel there's some real challenges they are up against. I’m not going to tell people not to say what they feel about that. But in the end, we come to a common approach and we implement it.”

“I know that he has faced challenges like few Commissioners have, internally and externally – from the COVID-19 pandemic and an increase in shootings to widespread protests for racial justice and a disastrous curfew,” Public Advocate Williams said of Shea. “But in many of these instances the Commissioner, like much of the administration, has failed to rise to the moment. He has opposed major policing reforms and criticized new bail reforms, stoked inaccurate conclusions and defended inarguable failures. Commissioner Shea may be well-suited to the old ways of thinking about policing, but that has made him less willing to meet the current moment, where we need to re-envision public safety. Unfortunately, he and the Mayor have very often refused to even acknowledge the reality of problems, much less take meaningful action to fix them.

The chokehold law wasn’t the first time Shea undermined the mayor or lashed out at the city’s elected officials. The debate around cutting the NYPD budget reached its zenith as the City Council and mayor negotiated the city budget ahead of its July 1 deadline. And even as the mayor was celebrating reaching an agreement with the Council that would redistribute some funds from the police and commit to other cuts including to overtime and canceling incoming cadet classes, Shea was condemning the final deal, comments that came shortly after he had expressed some general support for shifting NYPD funds elsewhere. 

“Cutting overtime, cutting head strength at a time of rising crime is going to be an extreme challenge for the men and women of this department,” he said in a PIX11 interview on June 30. “It's going to impact our patrol strength, it's going to impact our training, and the sad part is it's probably going to impact people of color more than anybody else.”

In another interview on Fox 5’s Good Day New York, on July 1, he said, “You're seeing the City Council bow to mob rule. And let’s mark the date on the calendar on how long it’s going to be before we’re having a conversation about New Yorkers crying out for more police. I think that day is coming.”

Just two weeks later, Shea took aim at the city’s political class in a CompStat meeting with other top officials. “So many systems of government are literally cowards who won’t stand up for what’s right,” he said, according to video that was first reported by the New York Daily News. “They’re failing at every possible measure to be leaders, and they throw it onto the backs of the men and women of this police department and curse them with one hand and then blame them with the other. How dare they? How dare they?”

He added, “People that don’t have a clue about how to keep New Yorkers safe suddenly think they know about policing. I have another thing to tell them: they don’t have a goddamn clue what they’re talking about. But we are not going to let them destroy this city.”

[Police Commissioner Repeatedly Contradicts Mayor on NYPD Reform]

In the face of criticism, whether when he first appointed Shea as commissioner or since, de Blasio has consistently called Shea a reformer. In an August appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, when the mayor was asked about years old misconduct complaints against Shea, he said, “I wish that people in this city knew him better as a human being, because he is a profound reformer. He's...been such a crucial part of the reforms and improvements that have been made. Everything we've done, whether it's ending stop-and-frisk, reducing arrests, changing the marijuana policy, you name it, Dermot Shea has been front and center in that. And he's actually moved police discipline cases faster as police commissioner.”

Shea has taken some steps to improve police accountability and transparency and improve community relations. He disbanded the plainclothes “anti-crime” unit, which accounted for a disproportionate number of complaints of misconduct from the public. The department’s policy for body camera footage, invaluable for investigations of misconduct, was amended for quicker release. New disciplinary measures were put into place based on the recommendations of an independent panel appointed by the previous commissioner. The department also recently held the series of community forums to solicit feedback on how policing should change, though that last step was mandated by the Cuomo executive order.

Advocates say it's mostly tinkering around the edges and that Shea is not the right person to lead the real policing transformation that is needed.

Council Member Miller said Shea can still repair trust between the police and New Yorkers. “The police department is a very large organization. I know it can work because we became the safest big city in America. And that was not just a catchphrase, that was the truth,” he said. 

“That adversarial relationship, that ‘us vs them’ that has occurred on both sides that has begun to manifest itself again is taking us back...We're not where we want to be but we’re certainly not where we were and we need to get back on that track,” he said. “I think he can do it.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Dermot Shea's Rocky First Year as NYPD Commissioner Mon, 07 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
City's 'Open Storefronts' Program Critiqued as Too Late and Too Limited But with Room to Grow 1 nycsbs

SBS Commissioner Doris at a small business (photo: @NYC_SBS)

Frustrated City Council members and hopeful––yet weary––small business advocates took to a hearing Tuesday to express their concerns about the Open Storefronts program launched recently by Mayor de Blasio after outcry from the business community, particularly smaller retailers. Small businesses, many of which are struggling to hold on if they haven’t already closed due to the pandemic and a lack of government help, can enroll in the program that, as of now, will give them through December 31 to sell their merchandise right outside their establishments.

After months of city government action mostly focused on the restaurant industry, the city’s Business Improvement District Association wrote a letter in early October to the mayor and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson calling for such an initiative, proposed to mirror the success of the Open Restaurants program, increase foot traffic, and drive up sales for retailers. The BID Association pushed for the inception of the program for months before its launch on October 28, weeks after its open letter.

Tuesday’s City Council hearing was led by the Council Member Andrew Cohen, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Council Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing, and Council Member Mark Gjonaj, also a Bronx Democrat, who chairs the Council Committee on Small Businesses.

Cohen began by acknowledging the effect online shopping has had on local communities, citing a lack of storefronts in “typical high-traffic areas.” He acknowledged the impact of COVID-19, calling the pandemic a “final nail in the coffin” for some small businesses and large retailers alike. He attributed the survival of small retailers to either resilience or “pure New York-style hustle,” but also pointed out that as of November, small business’ retail revenue was down 35% compared to January. Whether it’s due to the lack of the tourist market, the number of people working from home or avoiding shopping, or the capacity restrictions for stores, even small businesses that are weathering the storm are still suffering, he said.

Open Storefronts is intended to combat some of these trends, and help small businesses in the city survive.

“Today, the committees are eager to hear directly from retailers on their experience with the program,” Cohen said. “We are also grateful that the administration has made time to be here today, as we would like to hear the reasoning for some of the elements of the program. For instance, I’m curious as to why the program was not started earlier, perhaps in the summer when people could take advantage of the good weather. I’d also like to know why the program doesn’t fully extend the same permissions as the outdoor dining initiative…We’re also keen to hear how widespread the program is. Outdoor dining has been well-received so much so that we have passed legislation to make it permanent, but the success of outdoor retail is less clear.”

Gjonaj opened with a handful of daunting statistics regarding unemployment rates, revenue loss, and business closures. “According to a city comptroller report,” he said, “over 800 retail establishments have closed permanently between March 1 and July 10, causing a permanent loss of jobs and wages in the city, as well as tax base.” He acknowledged gratitude small business owners feel for the city Department of Small Business Services’ funding assistance programs and thanked SBS Commissioner Jonnell Doris for his work to get the initiatives up and running.

But Gjonaj also made clear his worries of whether or not it's enough to sustain struggling businesses. “I fear that small retail stores will soon be a relic of the past,” he said. “They need more than we’ve given them, and they need it today.”

According to Commissioner Doris, roughly 40,000 businesses across the city are eligible to participate in the Open Storefront program, but just 563 businesses are signed up so far — a rate Cohen called “modest.”

When asked, Doris did not have data for how many retailers do not qualify for the program due to issues like a lack of sidewalk depth (participating stores must have 8 feet clearance for foot traffic as well as space for merchandise).

The commissioner cited a couple of reasons for limited participation thus far. “One, we know that some of the stores are already participating in the program,” he said. “We also know that many of the stores put their wares out front [without applying], so we have to go around––which we have been doing––to just tell them to sign up for the program. That’s just that information gap there. The reality, the harsh reality, is that...we’ve heard from some of our BID partners, we’ve heard from businesses, as well, that the pandemic has caused somewhat of a slowdown, [with the] uptick in COVID transmission in hot zones, et cetera.”

In response to Cohen’s question on why the urgency to create this program wasn’t parallel to that of the urgency for Open Restaurants, Doris responded, “We do know that this is the time that our small businesses need it––particularly our storefront businesses. This is the time that they actually get 70% of their sales. We want to make sure that we highlight this time and give them the opportunity to do it during the holiday season. The last several months of the year [are] when they make the majority of their sales.”

While “no one is turned away” from the application according to Doris, there was a general acknowledgement at the hearing that there is a lack of awareness about the program. Council Member Karen Koslowitz, a Queens Democrat, said that while walking down Austin Street, the “5th Ave of Queens,” she noticed only one store had their merchandise displayed outside. The commissioner explained that outreach is “extensive,” noting they are partnered with 76 BIDs, have conducted 233 webinars and done trainings, have taken to the grounds to speak with businesses, connected with the chambers of commerce in the boroughs, utilized media, and sent out materials.

The hearing, however, demonstrated that there are multiple concerns––the narrow timeline being one of them. Responding to Gjonaj’s question on whether or not the program will be extended after the end of the year, Doris said he did not have an announcement to make but that the administration is open to, and reviewing, the idea. Gjonaj urged Doris and the administration to give small businesses a “fighting chance” and to make the decision sooner rather than later, adding, “They’ve got four more weeks, hopefully, to the end of the year. They’re second-guessing whether or not they should make any investment, and the creativity of how to market their products, enclosures, so on and so forth…There’s no reason to wait for the last moment.”

Gjonaj continued to bring up the $37 million Lower and Moderate Income Storefront Loan spearheaded by de Blasio and Doris, clarifying with the commissioner that $35 million of that investment is for loans, not grants. He raised the clause within participation in the loan program that requires storeowners to make personal guarantees, calling this requirement “odd” in light of New York’s recent ban on similar clauses presented to renters by landlords. He suggested that these types of clauses are potentially deterring small businesses from participating.

“We’re partnered with a lender…and those are regular loan procedures that occur when we have small business loans,” Doris said. “We certainly hear that as a concern. We don’t believe that that would be an issue based upon our research with the businesses that are potentially able to utilize this program. We will monitor it to see if it is, but don’t think it will be and we don't think it's something that is prohibited…It’s generally how business loans are operated now.”

There is a “backstop” to handle these challenges, he clarified, citing a loan loss reserve and noting the program is interest-free. He claimed confidence in the product, that it is a “targeted” fund to lower- and moderate-income communities who were not assisted by the federal government.

In response to Gjonaj asking if the commissioner believed $35 million in the loan program to be “enough,” Doris said no and called for another federal stimulus package, saying the only entity that can make a true difference is the federal government. To this, Gjonaj recalled the recent de Blasio proposal for a $900 million school bus program.

“The money that we’ve thrown into this so far is laughable…We’ve abused small businesses as the piggy banks in the well that we constantly go to to draw water from, and in their time of need, we weren’t there for them,” Gjonaj said. “The facts are in the dollar amount. I know, commissioner, that if you had it your way, if we had a magic wand, we’d be giving billions of dollars out in grants…To replace the word ‘targeted,’ I would use the word ‘discouraging.’” 

Issues regarding the physical execution of storefront operations like utilizing sidewalks while following guidelines, sharing space with restaurants, obtaining access to roadways, and dealing with competing street vendors were also detailed as problems during the hearing.

Council Member Peter Koo of Queens referred to downtown Flushing, in his district, asking how businesses are supposed to compete with large amounts of unlicensed vendors selling “everything under the sun” and taking up sidewalk space without any authoritative enforcement. He also mentioned security concerns with putting merchandise outside (they are required to be pulled back inside at the end of each day) and inquired about the possibility of a tax moratorium for small businesses during the holiday season. Doris said the Department of Small Business Services is not an enforcement agency and that he doesn’t have any information about a tax moratorium. He acknowledged the concerns and pledged to continue to work with downtown Flushing businesses and Koo.

Koslowitz, Gjonaj, and Cohen expressed similar concerns regarding street vendors, alleging that rules are not enforced by the city. Gjonaj said it’s a potentially dangerous race to see who can get on the sidewalk first. “We need to make a plan before we have to be reactive to a tragedy,” he said. Expressing frustration, Cohen said that there were no answers given on the matter during the hearing because there are no policy answers in general.

Mark Caserta, the executive director of the Park Slope 5th Avenue BID representing the BID Association, outlined reasons for hesitation to join the program and presented numerous suggested improvements. He noted that concerns include budget and staffing restrictions, lack of experience with outdoor setups, busyness and stress, and weariness to be “early adopters” of such a program. He recommended that the program be extended at least until capacity limitations inside stores are lifted, an education program for businesses who do not benefit from BID Associations, and a publication of data in a similar vein to that of the Open Restaurant program.

The president of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce, Lisa Sorin, agreed and addressed concerns similar to Caserta’s. She attributed the short timeline to use the program as well as the late notice of its existence, weather issues, worries about enforcement problems resembling what restaurants experienced, and oversaturation of sidewalks with merchandise, restaurants, and homeless individuals. She also brought up the storefront loan program, telling an anecdote about a minority-owned business facing eviction and in “desperate need” of the money, but unable to apply until after December 13 because they are in the second phase of the loan distribution. The store will only be eligible if there is money left in the loan program and if the store meets all criteria, she said.

Camelia Tepelus of the Morris Park BID in the Bronx continued the conversation on vendors, calling for more enforcement. She also said there is no visual distinction between vendors and small businesses once they’re operating outside and suggested some kind of demarcation for participating businesses. CEO and president of the New York Women’s Chamber of Commerce Quenia Abreu called for more promotion, and more direct involvement of small businesses in decision-making roundtables, as well as the inclusion of the organizations that work closely with small businesses and assist with loans and grants.

In final remarks, Cohen acknowledged the work SBS has done facing a daunting task. Gjonaj closed saying, “Nothing is perfect, but as long as we keep trying and improving on what we have, we continue to make a difference.”

by Angelica Crisostomo, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City's 'Open Storefronts' Program Critiqued as Too Late and Too Limited But with Room to Grow Tue, 01 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
‘Hanging On’ is Not a Management Strategy fy202 eb

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography)

As required by the state Financial Control Act, last Monday Mayor de Blasio presented a modification of New York City’s current fiscal year budget and four-year financial plan. This “first quarter mod” is usually a no-drama, technical adjustment that makes few substantive changes to the budget adopted at the start of the fiscal year in July. It incorporates changes in revenue projections based on receipts actually received through September and any unanticipated adjustments in expenses (usually increases). But this has been anything but a usual year, and a more urgent tone and more aggressive budget changes were called for and not delivered. 

Budget watchers hoped that the new budget documents would present a more realistic picture of the serious fiscal situation the city faces and the concrete steps the de Blasio administration will take to address it. Covid continues to wreak havoc on the city’s residents and its economy. Despite the expected arrival of a vaccine in the next few months, it is far from certain that things will bounce back and tax revenue will quickly return to pre-covid levels. Even during prior (”normal”) recessions, it has taken three years for the city’s economy to recover, and this recession is not normal.

Tourism, commercial real estate transactions, entertainment, and other activities may well take years to rebound and/or may undergo permanent changes and retrenchment. How will the city adjust its revenue and spending over the next four years to respond to these changes over an extended period of time? This budget modification doesn’t tell us.

We know that in addition to further income, business, and real estate tax revenue losses, the city could also face severe cuts in state aid because the state is in even worse financial shape, but that is not  reflected in the budget either. One billion dollars in state school aid to the city has already been removed from the state’s baseline budget for fiscal year 2022. In addition there is potentially $8 billion in unspecified statewide local aid cuts that could mean a loss of $2-3 billion to New York City. Instead, the city’s new budget mod relies on debt service savings (which are routine, not the result of new, affirmative steps by the city government), minimal efficiencies, and largely symbolic, non-recurring measures like short furloughs of management employees and postponements of payments to public employees (laughably characterized as “savings”) to balance this year’s budget and reduce the 2022 budget deficit by $400 million to $3.8 billion. 

According to Mayor de Blasio, the strategy is to ‘hang on’ because sometime soon, there will be an infusion of federal stimulus funds which will close both the city and state gaps: 

“….first of all, we need relief immediately to be able to continue to provide city services and to be able to keep people employed…We do not want to reduce services exactly when we're trying to come back and when people are in such dire need. So, this was a way of getting us to next year. But we've said all along, the only way we can actually make all of this come together is with the stimulus…And the federal government was supposed to protect us. Obviously, that didn't happen…So, for us to just keep hanging on is the right approach to get to the day where there's actually the federal support we deserve and which I absolutely believe is within reach.”

But federal aid to states and localities is far from certain. Hopes for imminent help were first focused on the post-election Congressional session, which will likely end by mid-December. There is discussion of a last-minute stimulus deal before Congress recesses in the next few weeks but Republican Senate recalcitrance makes adequate help for state and local governments unlikely, even though a number of ‘red’ states are in financial trouble as well as 'blue' ones.

The mayor’s preliminary budget for next fiscal year must be submitted to the City Council in January. Will President-Elect Biden be able to deliver any more state and local aid than is possible in the current Congress? Not necessarily. And if making that determination takes until February, or even later, is Mayor de Blasio going to ‘hang on’ even longer without taking any steps to solve our fiscal problems? Delaying the start of gap-closing measures will only make the problem and the necessary solutions more painful.

Federal funding to assist the city and other jurisdictions that faced economic shutdowns because of the pandemic is unquestionably necessary and appropriate, but whatever amount is authorized — if any — will unlikely be sufficient to cover the full New York City deficit and will not last for more than one or two years. As Citizens Budget Commission President Andrew Rein has said, federal stimulus will only be a bridge to a more sustainable future; the City and State will face continuing budget gaps if the economy doesn’t fully recover by 2023. So, what’s the plan? 

The MTA and Port Authority, also struggling with dramatically-reduced revenue, have presented budget plans showing how they will survive without federal aid. The prospects of reduced transportation service are daunting indeed, but the public needs to understand them and be prepared if these difficult scenarios come to pass. Governor Cuomo has temporarily withheld substantial state aid payments to localities and cut back agency spending, warning that these cuts and more could become permanent. Mayor de Blasio prefers to avoid proactively making tough decisions that will make New Yorkers unhappy, but the uncertainty is already causing distress and there will be anger if New Yorkers feel they were misled to believe that federal aid would make everything better and they are confronted with service cuts, layoffs, tax increases, or a combination of all of these at the very last minute.

If the administration will not present a specific plan for multi-year gap closing then the Financial Control Board (FCB) should require that it do so. It is the FCB that requires the city to maintain a balanced budget, prepare a four-year financial plan, keep it updated, and demonstrate the fiscal discipline to maintain long-term fiscal stability. At the FCB meeting in August the Executive Director suggested that because of the unique circumstances wrought by covid it would be appropriate to hold another session in November to review the budget modification. But it is December and it doesn’t appear that such a meeting has yet been scheduled and the Executive Director of the FCB retired in mid-October; no replacement has been announced. It is critical that the FCB adopt a more assertive strategy to assure there is clarity about how state aid cuts will impact the city and hold the mayor accountable for a real fiscal management plan.

Moreover, if the mayor is going to ‘hang on,’ he will be leaving his successor to confront revenue shortfalls along with the larger issues of how to get the economy back on track. When he took office the mayor complained that his predecessor left him with a raft of unresolved labor contracts. What he seems to be ready to leave his successor is much worse. The media and voters should start asking mayoral candidates what their plans are for closing our budget gaps if federal funds do not make our fiscal challenges go away. The sooner we hear from them about this crucial issue, the better.

Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018. Norman Steisel was a First Deputy Mayor of New York City, Sanitation Commissioner, and First Deputy Budget Director, all between 1974 and 1994.

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‘Hanging On’ is Not a Management Strategy Tue, 01 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
In Fits and Starts, De Blasio Moves Toward Internet Goal Set in 2014 media avail com

Mayor de Blasio's slow-moving internet promises (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

It took a global pandemic that brought the city to a grinding halt for Mayor Bill de Blasio to order that wi-fi be installed at every homeless shelter in the city housing children and to strike a deal to install high-speed broadband internet in every New York City Housing Authority public housing development.

More than six years after the mayor promised to create high-speed broadband networks across the city, nearly 20% of New Yorkers still lack access to the internet at home or by mobile device. While advocates have praised the mayor’s recent efforts, which includes a long-awaited Internet Master Plan for citywide “universal broadband” he announced in January, they wonder why it took so long to address this glaring problem in one of the richest cities in the richest country on earth.

In May 2014, just a few months into his tenure, de Blasio gave the keynote address at the opening of Internet Week New York and, as is his style, made lofty promises that were not followed through on.

“Our approach is going to be bold and it’s going to be decisive, because we simply haven’t done well enough in this city,” de Blasio said in the speech. “The goal is quite simple: We must have universal, affordable, high-speed internet access throughout this city. It’s as simple as that. And broadband’s essential for everything this community needs to do. It’s essential for everything we need to do to be a fair and just city. Because we can’t continue to have a digital divide that holds back so many of our citizens.”

“We really believe in an inclusive economy, in an effective education system, in a vibrant democracy, it all runs through broadband access,” the mayor said.

But the city has taken slow and faltering steps in achieving that goal. About 18% of New Yorkers, more than 1.5 million, do not have a broadband or a mobile internet connection, according to American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau. About 40% or 3.5 million people, only have one or the other. During the coronavirus pandemic, the lack of internet access for so many New Yorkers, especially poor people and people of color, including children living in shelters and public housing residents, has come into stark relief and been the source of controversy for the de Blasio administration.

On November 24, the mayor announced that the city had reached a settlement in a lawsuit with Verizon Fios which will require the company to provide high-speed broadband access to 500,000 more New Yorkers, including every resident of all NYCHA developments. “We've had a digital divide. We've had a huge disparity of who gets access to the internet and who doesn't, who gets reliable, fast broadband service, who doesn't, who can afford it, who can't,” he said, “But more and more, we understand that we have to create a society in which everyone has equal access...It has taken a lot of work and there's been some real struggle here and some real challenges, but we've gotten to a point where something real and tangible is going to happen for people, particularly working people and folks who have been left out.”

Among earlier achievements the administration has boasted is the LinkNYC program, which converted old payphones into free public wi-fi kiosks around the city. As of November 30, the city had set up 1,809 active LinkNYC kiosks since the program was launched in February 2016; 13 more kiosks have been installed but do not have wi-fi yet. The program, however, has been criticized for less presence throughout poorer communities than in areas of high commuter and tourist foot traffic, particularly in Manhattan. The administration also prides itself on having provided free internet service to the NYCHA Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in the country with more than 6,000 residents, mostly Black and Hispanic families.

It was only in January of this year that the mayor released his Internet Master Plan, which aims to leverage city infrastructure and franchise agreements authorized by the city to provide affordable broadband access citywide. The plan would create competition where there currently barely exists any because of how private companies have been allowed to operate in the city so far. It entails creating an open-access fiber cable network across the five boroughs, prioritizing low-income communities, which can be used by multiple providers.

At a City Council hearing last month, the city’s Chief Technology Officer John Paul Farmer said the administration is getting ready to release its Universal Solicitation for Broadband, which will encourage competition and therefore create more affordable options. Real initial progress on the plan will only be seen in 2021, de Blasio’s final of his eight years as mayor.

[Read: De Blasio Administration Pledges to Finally Address City's Persistent 'Digital Divide' with Universal Internet Access]

The plan does promise boons for the city. In the best-case scenario, by 2045, it could create 165,000 jobs, increase personal income by $49 billion and create $142 billion in Gross City Product in that time, the plan predicts.

The need for equitable internet access has never been more dire. As the city closed its schools, thousands of children did not have the ability to access remote learning. Without the internet, families could not access health services which had transitioned online. The decennial Census was carried out mostly online this year for the first time. From public assistance application to rental benefits, government services are being provided through the internet en masse and those who required them most had the least access.

It’s the school system, however, which really seems to have brought the digital divide to the fore. Remote learning required internet-capable devices, and the city set out to purchase hundreds of thousands of tablets when schools were first closed. Since then, the Department of Education has handed out more than 300,000 internet-enabled iPads to students and another 175,000 devices to schools. But nine months into the pandemic outbreak in the city tens of thousands of students still do not have either a device or access to the internet.

In interviews and news conferences, de Blasio has been defensive when pressed on that glaring problem.

“I appreciate that there are professional critics in this society, but I really think there has to be recognition of the work that people did to close the digital divide,” he said in a November 19 news conference when presented with criticism from other elected officials and advocates, “to do something that had never been done before, back in April, as the pandemic was horrendous, to put these devices in the hands of kids. And I don't quite understand why the same question keeps being asked when in fact, the evidence is that immense work was done to provide devices, to address any problem with devices, to provide service if they need a different service. That work has literally been done now, family by family, for kids in shelters. Sometimes it's true that we don't have as many devices as we want to. But the bottom line is it's just been an endless effort to provide free technology to any family who needs it. And that's never stopped, and it's been consistent.”

What rankles advocates like those at the Legal Aid Society representing homeless families and elected officials like Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is that the city had ample time and resources to address the digital divide, particularly by providing broadband access at city-funded and -run facilities like homeless shelters and NYCHA buildings. But the administration only took expedited measures after the pandemic made them absolutely necessary.

“This administration is littered with lost opportunities to bridge the digital divide,” said City Council Member Ben Kallos in a phone interview last month. Kallos’ main gripe with the administration is that it hasn’t taken advantage of its power to approve franchise agreements with internet service providers. For instance, he pointed out, when the city and state approved the merger between Spectrum and Time Warner in 2016, he said the de Blasio administration should have insisted that the company provide free or low-cost internet to all public housing buildings in lieu of the nearly $150 million in franchise fees that the company pays every year. “At the time, we didn't need $150 million and I would still argue today that we still don't need that money. We can use that money in kind to get more low-income New Yorkers internet,” said Kallos, who chairs the Council’s contracts committee.

He also pointed out that the LinkNYC program, which held much promise, has been slow to realize its goals and the city has not held CityBridge, the consortium contracted to create the system, accountable for missing its target. By 2022, there were meant to be 7,500 kiosks across the five boroughs; there are less than 2,000 currently, and the system did not provide the revenue for the city that was projected.

“A revenue-first approach to the internet, whether through a franchise or a kiosk, is not the model we should have,” Kallos said. “We should have a model that prioritizes connectivity.” Kallos told Gotham Gazette that he is preparing a proposal that would use the city’s zoning regulations to help expand broadband akin to how the de Blasio administration has implemented the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy to build affordable housing. His idea, which could be termed Mandatory Inclusionary Internet, would take advantage of the expansion of 5G networks in the city, providing companies that provide affordable broadband access with incentives in the form of favorable placement of 5G cell towers and antennas.

The de Blasio administration’s Internet Master Plan deals with both short-term and long-term solutions for broadband access, and while providing universal broadband could be a years-long project, there are immediate steps the city could take. “I supported the plan then, I still support it now. I just don't know what the delay is,” said Gigi Sohn, distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Technology Law and Policy, who served as counselor to former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Tom Wheeler from 2013 to 2016.

“They need to start on the shorter-term, like yesterday,” she said, pointing to city-owned facilities that could easily be used to expand internet access. “You’ve got all these community anchor institutions. Those are universities, schools, libraries, hospitals, all over the city...So the connectivity is there. You've just got to harness it.”

Robert Seamans, associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, analyzed the digital divide when he served as senior economist on President Barack Obama's Council of Economic Advisers between 2015 and 2016. In an interview, he expressed concerns about how the city’s digital divide could end up having longer term effects, particularly for low-income students without internet access who will fall behind their wealthier counterparts. “I worry a lot about education and the resulting disparities in education that we're going to see coming out of this one-to-two-year period where there's some households that won't be affected that much and others where their kids are just gonna basically be two years behind where they should be,” he said.

Seamans suggested several different means of tackling the problem, which address the causes behind it such as lack of consumer choice or the inability to afford access. “My belief is that there's not one single policy that we should believe would be a panacea of some sort,” he said.

Besides creating more competition among providers, which the mayor’s plan aims to do, he said the city could provide supply-side subsidies to companies to extend access to underserved areas and demand-side subsidies in payments to consumers so they can afford internet access.

But the best solution for both accessibility and affordability, on which there’s broad agreement, is a municipal broadband option that can undercut the pricier options provided by private firms with a profit motive.

As Seamans noted, unlike other states, New York does not prohibit localities from creating their own public internet option. And a public provider would be successful in a densely populated city like New York. “You would imagine that you'd be able to sign up a lot of customers. And we observe that these types of public providers have been operating, and in some cases, operating very successfully in a number of other cities and areas throughout the U.S. So it sort of stands to reason that you could have the same thing here in New York City,” he said.

Farmer, the city’s chief technology officer, has said that building out a citywide system will require buy-in from private firms.

“One of my biggest criticisms of this administration is, while there is a passion to do it, and seemingly bridge the digital divide, it hasn't done so in a comprehensive and a centralized manner,” said Noel Hidalgo, executive director of BetaNYC, a civic technology group. “It's had a number of different initiatives, all coming from different perspectives, but seemingly never really getting the complete attention of the mayor.”

Hidalgo said the mayor should appoint a deputy mayor who can continuously lead programs that chip away at the problem. Though the mayor’s former counsel, Maya Wiley, who is now running to succeed him, did make it a priority issue, the portfolio seems to have been largely ignored after she left the mayor’s office in 2016. “It isn't something that just happens,” Hidalgo said. “There needs to be incremental steps taken constantly to get us to building a concrete bridge over the digital divide.”

Hidalgo said the city needs to invest in fiber-network infrastructure for all public facilities, which some agencies like the NYPD have already done. But it should also be vigilant in sustaining that infrastructure, he said, pointing to the failure of NYCWiN, an internal wireless network that cost the city more than $900 million since 2009 and which the administration decided to scrap after it crashed in 2019. The system was too expensive to maintain, the mayor said last year, and the city would switch over to a commercial provider.

That was yet another missed opportunity to expand the reach of broadband, Kallos said. “We should have flipped the switch on NYCWiN,” he said, “and given it to the people.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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In Fits and Starts, De Blasio Moves Toward Internet Goal Set in 2014 Mon, 30 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000