Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/63 Mon, 24 Feb 2020 21:07:32 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) A Spike in Cyclist Deaths, A Call to the Mayor, and The Slow City Adoption of ‘The Dutch Reach’ https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9111-spike-in-cyclist-deaths-call-to-the-mayor-dutch-reach-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9111-spike-in-cyclist-deaths-call-to-the-mayor-dutch-reach-new-york dot taxi bike lane

Image via NYC TLC training video


Cyclist deaths plagued New York City last year; 2019 had the highest recorded number of such deaths in the last 20 years, and many street safety and cycling advocates have made an effort to raise awareness about the problem and what the city could do to help protect those who ride bicycles in the five boroughs.

This past July, nearly 1,000 people laid on the ground in Washington Square Park in a “die in” to demonstrate the dangers associated with cycling in the city and demand more protection. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a second-term Democrat, has announced several measures to enhance his signature Vision Zero program that seeks to eliminate traffic fatalities by lowering speed limits, redesigning streets, adding bike lanes, and other measures. But 2019 showed that progress is not moving quickly enough, which de Blasio and Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg have acknowledged, leading to a variety of calls for additional action.

Twenty-eight people were killed while riding a bike in New York City last year, an almost 21% increase in such fatalities from 2018, according to data from the city’s Vision Zero portal. The same data set shows that reported cyclist injuries dropped to 4,221 in 2019 from 4,306 the previous year.

Based on media reports, at least three of the 28 cyclist deaths in 2019 (11%) were the result of “dooring” incidents, which occur when someone opens a car door either into a cyclist or into an approaching cyclist’s path leading to a collision, usually resulting in injury if not death. Sometimes that collision is between the cyclist and the car door, sometimes between a swerving cyclist and an adjacent moving motor vehicle, and sometimes both.

Hugo Garcia, while riding an electric bike, was hit by a car door, then run over after being thrown into traffic in January 2019; 16-year-old Yisroel Schwartz, and 30-year-old Em Samolewicz both swerved to avoid doors before being run over by trucks in May and July 2019, respectively. All three incidents occurred in Brooklyn.

According to Michael Charney, a cycling advocate focused on safety for those who ride bikes, like each of the cyclists who died as a result of dooring in New York City last year, for such incidents “it’s a one-two punch.” The most common way dooring results in a fatal injury is by “being hit by the door or swerving to avoid the door, then run over by another vehicle,” he explained.

Data on doorings is often hard to come by. For example, the National Highway Safety and Transportation Administration (NHSTA) doesn’t count doorings as a type of crash. A 2015 study out of the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver found that doorings are the most common kind of bike crash in Vancouver, accounting for 15% of cyclist crashes. The second most common were collisions involving a left-turning vehicle, third was collisions involving right-turning vehicles, and fourth was conflict zones, such as driveways and parking lots. 

Charney, a lifelong cyclist who has been “car-free for 30 years,” started the Dutch Reach Project in 2016 after 27-year-old Amanda Phillips was killed by a dooring incident in his Massachusetts neighborhood in June of that year.

The Dutch Reach is a method for opening a car door whereby the person in the car -- whether driver or passenger -- uses their hand furthest from the door to open it. This movement forces one’s upper body to swivel and puts the person in best position to see oncoming traffic. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents says that the Dutch Reach creates a chain reaction of five events: reach, swivel, look back, open slowly, exit facing traffic.

According to Charney, the first known use of the Dutch Reach method was in Holland, thus the name, although it didn’t have a name there, it was just how they learned to open car doors. Charney named the method Dutch Reach because he knew it needed to be catchy, simple, and wanted to honor the roots of the method, he said in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

The goal of Charney’s campaign is to have the Dutch Reach technique institutionalized into increasingly more driver’s manuals and other educational materials.

The term itself has gained some popularity in the U.S. Outside Magazine did a video feature on the method after Charney began his awareness campaign, which now has over 3 million views. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Washington State use the term in their driver’s handbooks, according to Charney. Internationally, the term is catching on as well, including in the United Kingdom, and has been translated in French, Spanish and German, Charney said.

The first study of the efficacy of the Dutch Reach -- which is sometimes called ‘Far Hand Reach’ or ‘Reach Across’-- was done in Nottingham, England, and published in October 2018. The study noted “an observable difference between near and far-hand associated with the level of awareness of rear approaching hazards can be observed when participants were seated in the driver’s seat.” While this study remains the only one to evaluate the Dutch Reach, it is a step toward empirically determining the effect on public safety by using the approach.

Jon Orcutt, director of communications at advocacy group Bike NYC and an avid cyclist in the city, said that he is skeptical that the method will be significant enough to reduce cyclist deaths, but also said anything is worth a try.

“The reason Dutch Reach works is because they’re Dutch. They are taught the method at such a young age, and we’re a far cry from that here,” Orcutt said.

During one of his weekly appearances on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked in June 2019 about the city’s lack of promotion of the Dutch Reach as a method to reduce spiking cyclist deaths. The caller, who identified himself as Pat from Staten Island and said he had a friend who had died in a dooring incident, described the technique and asked the mayor to promote it on the city’s social media accounts.

“I have never heard of it before either and obviously, you know, this city, I’ve been entirely devoted to Vision Zero,” de Blasio said. “I think that sounds like a really good technique. As someone who was a driver myself for many years I can see what you’re saying that it would make you think differently. So I will tell our team to put that out on social media because I think it’s something that would help people to think.”

Just a few hours after the interview, de Blasio’s government account tweeted about the method, saying, “The Dutch Reach’ is a small move that can make big difference in keeping our streets safe for cyclists. Thank you to Pat on Staten Island (by way of Miami) for calling in to @BrianLehrer for this critical reminder. #VisionZero.” The tweet also included the link to a New York Times article from 2018 titled “The Dutch Reach: A No-Tech Way to Save Bicyclists’ Lives,” which featured Charney.

Less than a week later, the city’s Department of Transportation also tweeted about the method, writing, “Getting “doored” is a leading cause of #bikenyc injury. Whether you are a driver or passenger, always look over your shoulder before opening the door. Reach across, using your opposite hand to open your door (i.e. drivers use right hand). Always watch for cyclists. #VisionZero.”

Since then, there has been some movement by the city on integrating the Dutch Reach into its Vision Zero messaging, but it is limited (and the city opts not to use “Dutch Reach” labeling, rather calling it “Reach Across,” in order to give it a more practical label it seems).

Published to YouTube in November of last year, a Department of Transportation training video for drivers of city vehicles, especially trucks, stresses the importance of being aware of pedestrians and bike-riders and shows the use of the Dutch Reach. The video was created in cooperation with the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) Fleet and the Vision Zero Fleet Working Group.

“After parking make it a routine to check for cyclists, and let them pass before opening the door. Reach across your body and use your far hand to open the door, this will help shift your body to see cyclists coming from behind you,” the video says. “Turns pose the greatest risk for fatalities and injuries. Scan the intersection ahead for potential hazards, on the approach reduce your speed by two to three miles per hour, cover the break and be prepared to stop.”

That is just one scene in a video that covers a lot of ground in attempting to stress to drivers of city trucks especially that the city is trying to be more pedestrian and bike-friendly and that they have a responsibility to drive safely.

dutch reach promo“This video is specific to drivers of trucks and other large equipment addressing particular issues common to urban environments,” a spokesperson for the city DOT told Gotham Gazette by email. “The “Dutch Reach” or reaching across the body to open the door with the far hand is included in this video,” the spokesperson added, also saying that the DOT is working with DCAS to create “agency-customized materials to accompany the video.”

The DOT has also made efforts to begin broader public education on the Dutch Reach “in light of recent crashes involving dooring,” according to the same spokesperson, who said that “in 2019, NYC DOT developed an infographic used on our social media channels. This infographic was also produced as a palm card that highlights a reach across image on one side and instruction on keeping bike lanes clear on the other.” (The spokesperson did not say how many of the palm cards have been distributed.)

Beyond these efforts, the DOT did not identify any other ways in which the Dutch Reach is being institutionalized among city fleet drivers and passengers or the broader public. The city messages the larger Vision Zero initiative in a wide variety of ways, including bumper stickers and advertisements.

According to the City Planning Department, New York City is home to over 200 different spoken languages. Charney said that given its multicultural nature, it is important to make sure any efforts to inform drivers and cyclists about the Dutch Reach are translated into a variety of languages or wordless descriptions that are universally understandable.

Other states have implemented versions of the Dutch Reach in legislation. Charney’s goal to get the Dutch Reach into legislation was first realized in his home state of Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation included the Dutch Reach in its driver’s manual as of May 2017, less than a year after Charney started the campaign. This was closely followed by Illinois and Washington State in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Nationally, the American Association of Automobiles (AAA) has included it in its How To Drive student manual.

Advocacy groups are pushing for the promotion of the Dutch Reach on more facets of the transportation system. The bike community in Boston, including 14 advocacy groups, wrote a letter to app-based taxi companies Lyft and Uber to urge them to include some sort of training or information about cyclist safety in their platforms, Charney said. Uber is now piloting push notifications for passengers in New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Toronto to look for bikes if their drop-off location is on a bike route, encouraging passengers to look out for cyclists and cars before exiting.

As for New York City’s larger Vision Zero initiative, implemented beginning in de Blasio’s first year, 2014, it is aimed at achieving zero traffic deaths by 2024, including among those in cars, on bikes, on foot, or in other modes of street transit. According to the five-year report released by the city in March 2019, “overall traffic deaths have fallen by one-third” since 2013, the year before Vision Zero began.There were 299 traffic deaths in 2013 and 2018 saw 202 traffic deaths.

Orcutt said that Vision Zero “often gets misconstrued as targeted zero, but it’s supposed to be more of a philosophical approach where you start making fewer trade-offs with safety, and I don’t think the city’s been nearly aggressive enough in explaining Vision Zero and then executing on the fewer trade-offs.”

In response to the rise in cyclist deaths last year specifically, the city announced “Green Wave: A Plan for Cycling in New York City” in July 2019. It has six main components including expanding protected bike lanes, updating design where fatalities have occurred, expanding NYPD enforcement of traffic violations, promoting legislation/implementing policy, targeting trucks in safety initiatives, and expanding helmet safety awareness. 

“We are ramping up enforcement at crash-prone intersections, and targeting enforcement on high risk activities such as speeding, failing to yield and blocking bike lanes which directly affects bicyclist safety,” said NYPD Transportation Chief Thomas Chan in the press release.

Orcutt said expanding the network of protected bike lanes is one thing that the city is doing a good job with, and is helping improve safety for cyclists on city streets. 

None of the city’s ongoing efforts are specific to dooring, and neither Vision Zero nor Green Wave specifically mention dooring as an issue. Charney and others have suggested that individuals can take charge and begin implementing the Dutch Reach themselves. People can attach a ribbon to their car doors, Charney suggested, to remind themselves to reach with their far hand and helping to create a learned behavior.

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by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to reflect that Massachusetts does indeed name the Dutch Reach in its driver's manuel.

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A Spike in Cyclist Deaths, A Call to the Mayor, and The Slow City Adoption of ‘The Dutch Reach’ Tue, 18 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Report Shows Poverty in New York Far Worse Than Official Measures Say https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9139-report-shows-poverty-in-new-york-is-far-worse-than-official-measures-say-de-blasio-robin-hood https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9139-report-shows-poverty-in-new-york-is-far-worse-than-official-measures-say-de-blasio-robin-hood wes moore robin hood poverty

Wes Moore of Robin Hood Foundation (photo: Robin Hood)


Not nearly every New Yorker has benefited from the unprecedented economic expansion that the city has experienced in the last decade since the Great Recession. While official city and federal measures show that employment is high and the poverty rate has continued to decline over the years, a new report from the Robin Hood Foundation and its partners shows that the reality is far more insidious than other numbers may indicate.

According to the report, half of city residents observed during a yearslong study had lived below the poverty line in at least one of the last four years, and black and Hispanic New Yorkers were more likely to have experienced poverty.

In October, Mayor Bill de Blasio took a victory lap over new American Community Survey data that showed the city’s poverty rate had fallen to an all-time low of 17.3% in 2018, down from 20.9% in 2013. Over the same time, median household income increased by 13%.

“I was elected on a promise to end the Tale of Two Cities and that’s exactly what we’ve spent every day of the last five years working to do,” de Blasio said at the time. “Poverty in New York City is at historic lows. From fighting for a $15 minimum wage to guaranteeing Pre-K for every child to Paid Safe and Sick Leave, we are putting more money in the hands of working families and creating a fairer city for all.”

New York City has its own annual measure to calculate poverty, which takes into account additional metrics that are particularly pertinent in the city – the cost of housing and healthcare, and government benefits such as food stamps and tax credits. It usually shows poverty at a higher level than the federal measure (which is based on pre-tax cash income and doesn’t take into account local factors, like cost of living) and the last time the city’s measure was released, in June of 2019, it showed 19% of New Yorkers living in poverty and 43.1% living near poverty in 2017, down from 20.7% and 45.9%, respectively, in 2013, the year before de Blasio took office.

The mayor boasted of having raised 230,000 New Yorkers out of poverty or near poverty in his first term and said his administration was on track of meeting a ten-year goal of helping 800,000 New Yorkers. The city’s next report is meant to be released this spring. 

Robin Hood’s Poverty Tracker, a collaboration with Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy (CPSP) now in its second year, examined 4,000 New Yorkers about every three months between 2012 to 2018 to more holistically gauge the city’s sustained challenges with tackling poverty. The report judges poverty based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which includes factors such as spending on food, clothing, shelter, and utilities, and housing costs - it differs for homeowners and renters. It is slightly different from New York City’s poverty measure. The Tracker also collects data on not just income but “core measures of disadvantage, material hardships and health problems,” as well as assets and debts, consumption patterns and social service program utilization, according to the report.

The report, released at a day-long Manhattan conference on Thursday, found that between 2015 and 2018, half of adults in New York experienced poverty in at least one of the previous four years.

“There are many single-year datasets that measure the poverty rate and show how many New Yorkers live below the poverty line, but these studies don’t provide information on the other forms of economic insecurity that people face, or how their circumstances may have changed over the past year,” said Sophie Collyer, a research director at CPSP, who co-authored the report, in a statement. “By collecting longitudinal data on several measures of economic disadvantage and well-being, the Poverty Tracker reveals that standard snapshots of poverty and disadvantage fail to capture the magnitude of challenges New Yorkers face.”

Individuals were driven into poverty by common, life-changing events, the report found. “What this report pinpoints is that things that pretty much every New Yorker will experience for the most part – losing a job, having a child, ending a relationship – are driving basically one out of every two New Yorkers into poverty,” said Jason Cone, chief public policy officer at Robin Hood, in a phone interview. He said the Poverty Tracker is “complementary” to the city’s poverty measure and its data is regularly shared with city officials.

Among the stark findings of the report is that poverty and hardship have a “strong racial and ethnic dimension,” Cone pointed out. About 59% of black and 68% of Hispanic New Yorkers were living in poverty in at least one year between 2015 and 2018. What’s worse is that 35% of those escaped poverty returned to it the next year.

“This Poverty Tracker underscores the urgent need for meaningful and sustainable economic mobility,” said Wes Moore, CEO of Robin Hood, in a statement. “We can clearly see how effective policies reduce the poverty rate and how pervasive poverty is over time. With this data, grantmakers, policymakers, and community members have the tools and information necessary to better understand the problem we’re working together to combat.”

Education, or lack thereof, was the most significant determining factor for individuals who fall into poverty after having a child. Those with only a high school degree or less were almost five times more likely to experience poverty than someone with a bachelor’s degree.

“Our public policies need to account for that,” Cone said, noting the high cost of everything from housing to childcare in New York City.

Cone did praise the mayor’s efforts to tackle poverty, which are mostly limited by virtue of the policies he can enact. Case in point, the increase in minimum wage to $15 per hour, which the city has touted as a significant factor in lifting people out of poverty, was an issue on which the mayor and his allies were advocated but was a matter of state law.

De Blasio has successfully enacted universal pre-kindergarten and is ramping up early childhood education for three-year-olds. He launched and repeatedly modified an ambitious housing program meant to build and preserve rent-restricted apartments with set asides for the poorest New Yorkers. The city is now funding free legal assistance to help tenants avoid eviction. De Blasio implemented and expanded paid sick leave. Just this week, the mayor was in Albany, urging state lawmakers to protect the city from proposed state cuts to Medicaid and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

But short of greater state and federal assistance, the mayor has little power to affect the overall state of the economy and the inequality rampant in the city.

“The poverty tracker study just sort of paints just an even more dire picture of the need to invest in those kinds of public policies,” Cone said.

“Most New Yorkers ride the subway on a given day and the person sitting across from you, if not yourself or a family member, has experienced poverty in the last four years,” Cone added, “and in the largest city in the United States that is a striking and startling statistic.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Report Shows Poverty in New York Far Worse Than Official Measures Say Thu, 13 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
What's The [DATA] Point? 2020 - De Blasio, Cuomo, and The Year Ahead https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9133-what-s-the-data-point-2020-de-blasio-cuomo-and-the-year-ahead https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9133-what-s-the-data-point-2020-de-blasio-cuomo-and-the-year-ahead whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 89 -- 2020 - De Blasio, Cuomo, & The Year Ahead, with Alyssa Katz & Laura Nahmias [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

ak ln wtdp89Six weeks into the new year, Mayor de Blasio (now in his 7th year as mayor) and Governor Cuomo (in his 10th year as governor) have now given budget presentations and made "State of" speeches, outlining their agendas for the year ahead and starting to navigate a set of challenges. Two journalists -- Alyssa Katz of The City and Laura Nahmias of The Daily News editorial board -- who have covered de Blasio and Cuomo extensively joined the show to discuss their agendas and what's ahead.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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What's The [DATA] Point? 2020 - De Blasio, Cuomo, and The Year Ahead Fri, 14 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio's 2020 'Save Our City' Agenda https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9135-max-murphy-podcast-de-blasio-2020-agenda-save-our-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9135-max-murphy-podcast-de-blasio-2020-agenda-save-our-city his 7 sotc

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


February 12, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio's 2020 Agenda

PodcastMax & Murphy discussed Mayor de Blasio's "Save Our City" State of the City theme and the outline of his agenda as it relates to his time in office so far.

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 wbai.org.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio's 2020 'Save Our City' Agenda Wed, 12 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
‘We Put Them in the Jewish Community to Protect Our People’: City and State Add Permanent Security Cameras to Combat Rise in Anti-Semitism https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9102-new-york-city-state-protect-jewish-community-from-anti-semitism-security https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9102-new-york-city-state-protect-jewish-community-from-anti-semitism-security attends sec brief

the Mayor, the NYPD & cameras (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


In response to an increase in reported anti-Semitic hate crimes and violent attacks, New York City and State are simultaneously implementing a permanent increase in surveillance in several predominantly Orthodox Jewish communities.

The new surveillance technology -- including 100 new NYPD cameras and state-funded cameras and license plate readers -- comes after high-profile attacks in Jersey City and Monsey in the final weeks of 2019 and a multi-year increase in reported hate crimes, many of them anti-Semitic. Amid calls from Haredi leaders for a heightened police presence and a corresponding vow from government officials to protect the physical safety of Jews, a robust public response to growing anti-Semitism has particular resonance 75 years after the Holocaust.

But this specific response also shines a light on the movement toward mass surveillance by both government and private actors, still considered Orwellian by some but accepted as part of modern life by others. Civil rights advocates and other government watchdogs are questioning the proportionality of responding to contemporary fears with a permanent security apparatus that could have other applications now and in the future.

Speaking at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio affirmed the city’s commitment to protect Jews.

“We confront [anti-Semitism] by doing the things that so many nations never did. We take our police force, we take our security forces, and we put them in the Jewish community to protect our people. That is what we must always do,” he said. He described the “cold feeling” of considering how few the non-Jews were who acted against the intolerance that foreshadowed genocide of 17 million people, including 6 million Jews.

The recent surge in anti-Semitism has faced lawmakers and residents with the question of what it means in the 21st century to stand with the Jewish community, especially those who are more easily identified as Jewish (either because they wear traditional attire or live in certain concentrated communities). In response, the city and state have each taken a combination of short- and long-term approaches, including education, reconciliation, and, most immediately, security.

According to NYPD data, anti-Semitic hate crimes rose 26 percent in 2019, and 86 percent between 2015 and 2019, doubling the rise in total hate crimes. The high concentration of violent incidents in December -- including a triple homicide at a kosher deli in Jersey City and a knife attack at a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey -- have ignited calls to action at virtually every level of government.

In January, de Blasio reported the NYPD would be installing 100 new police cameras in Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Borough Park -- three neighborhoods with large Orthodox Jewish populations -- as part of an effort to prevent and punish hate crimes. Days later, in response to the Monsey attack, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he was directing up to $680,000 in state funds for security cameras and license plate readers in Monsey and New Square, two Orthodox Jewish enclaves in Rockland County (the Monsey attacker was tracked to Manhattan and caught partially using a license plate reader).

“An attack on the Jewish community is an attack on all New Yorkers. These new security cameras will increase the NYPD’s visibility into these neighborhoods, and help our officers on the ground keep New Yorkers safe,” de Blasio said in a statement. One hundred and fifty additional police officers are now patrolling those streets, he said.

“This new technology will enhance security in vulnerable communities and serve as a deterrent for future attackers,” Cuomo said on January 13 when he allocated new funding to “harden” surveillance in the two hamlets. He also deployed more state police to patrol in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods throughout New York.

Representatives of Cuomo and de Blasio, both Democrats, told Gotham Gazette the new cameras and license plate readers would be permanent.

Asked by email whether there were plans to review the need for cameras in the future, like in the event of a downturn in anti-Semitic violence, mayoral spokesperson Olivia Lapeyrolerie wrote, “these cameras will be permanent.”

A spokesperson for the state police responded: “License plate readers (LPRs) are permanent installations that are employed by a number of state and local police and public safety agencies all over the state.” A spokesperson for Cuomo later clarified that the same is true of the additional security cameras.

While leaders of Orthodox Jewish communities have praised the measures, the permanent increase of government surveillance, especially in faith-based communities, has raised flags for civil liberties watchdogs.

“We shouldn’t engage in the business of dispensing with our privacy and security in some ways in order to gain a measure of comfort in others,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

"I think we always need to balance the use of technology and government monitoring in a way that respects people's civil liberties,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, responding to a question at an unrelated press conference Tuesday. He said the city should avoid “doing anything in a dragnet-type of way, which we have seen happen in this country."

"But at this moment in time, I do think it's appropriate that we should be using our resources to protect neighborhoods across New York City that have been targeted with anti-Semitic violence and I am proud that the City of New York are taking those steps." he added.

A response to rising anti-Semitism -- mostly measured by an upswing in reported hate-motivated vandalism, with several violent assaults -- the efforts are also part of a decades-long proliferation of video surveillance, both from government and private entities, which has accelerated since the September 11, 2001 attacks. Security cameras are now ubiquitous throughout the city, forming a network of NYPD and private devices, which are often used to conduct police business whether involving counterterrorism or not. The mayor recently visited the new Homelessness Joint Command Center in Lower Manhattan, where multiple city agencies now monitor homeless people living on the street using dozens of police cameras in an effort to reach unsheltered New Yorkers more quickly.

Surveillance as Security
Civil liberties advocates have for years raised alarms about the dearth of information about how the cameras are used, especially by the police. With the expansion of artificial intelligence and biometric surveillance, like facial recognition technology, new questions arise about the power to monitor individuals and groups.

Civil rights advocates are concerned about the potential for abuse.

“There are significant unanswered questions that have to be asked in conjunction with the mounting of a massive video surveillance network in any community,” Lieberman said.

She listed examples: “What happens to the footage that is captured on video? Who has access? How long is it stored? Is it shared? Is it safeguarded in any way? And what kind of security is in place to protect against the wrongful use of this footage?”

“This is important because whatever benefits are anticipated, video surveillance doesn’t just capture the images of people who want to be on camera or who are engaged in wrongdoing. It captures everybody who goes by, and that is probably hundreds of thousands of people a month,” Lieberman added.

"It's something that the city of New York should be mindful of when we are putting in technology like this, how often do we check and see if it's necessary to be there? Do we want it to be there for 10 years, 20 years, 25 years,” Johnson said Tuesday.

While civil rights concerns are being played out in public debate, Orthodox Jewish leaders on the ground are seeking guarantees for their communities’ protection by the city and state.

“The handful of people who have criticized the increased police presence within the Orthodox Jewish community, guess what, they don’t live in those communities. So I laugh at that,” said David Greenfield, who formerly represented Borough Park in the City Council, in a recent interview on the Max & Murphy podcast. “People want more police presence, they want more safety, they want more visibility, they want more deterrence and more of an ability for the police to respond quickly to these crimes that are happening.”

Asked whether the de Blasio administration believed mass surveillance was necessary for keeping all New Yorkers safe, and whether that is the direction the city as a whole is moving, Lapeyrolerie said that ship has already sailed: “There are security cameras all over the City – whether operated by the NYPD, MTA or private buildings.”

Other Approaches to Rising Anti-Semitism
Hate crimes rose 20 percent from 2018 to 2019 and anti-Semitic ones rose 26 percent even as crime in other categories fell, the NYPD reported this January. Of the 428 hate crimes reported in 2019, 234 of them were considered anti-Semitic. A vast majority of those hate crimes are categorized as “aggravated harassment,” including the drawing of swastikas, which were up by 55 incidents from 2018 to 2019, according to Chief of Crime Control Strategies Michael LiPetri.

At the state level, statistics released by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services show that anti-Jewish hate crimes, either against a person or property, have remained relatively flat since 2013, increasing less than five percent from 2017 to 2018, the last year data is available.

In addition to the new security technology and deployment of state police patrols, Cuomo has made $45 million available in security grants up to $50,000 for certain faith-based institutions, like schools and community centers ($25 million has already funded 500 projects since the start of the program in 2017, according to a press release). The governor has proposed another $25 million in his executive budget for next fiscal year, which would be available to a larger list of institutions, including houses of worship. He has also proposed designating certain hate crimes as acts of domestic terrorism, more school curriculum on diversity and tolerance, and expanding the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City to help facilitate school and other visits.

In New York City, the NYPD increased patrols and installed spotlights in some Brooklyn neighborhoods, and created the new Racially and Ethnically Motivated Extremism unit to investigate organized hate groups. In September, de Blasio launched the Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes, which is already rolling out programming. The mayor is also launching inter-community “safety coalitions,” and directing the Department of Education to develop “hate crime awareness programming,” according to a recent press release.

And in the face of rising hate crimes, Cuomo, de Blasio, and others across the political spectrum have proposed revisiting bail reforms passed by the state Legislature in 2019. Those calls have been characterized by many as fear-mongering and based on tenuous connections, largely unsupported by NYPD data.

How Involved are Communities?
Lapeyrolerie said the city’s first 30 new cameras will be deployed by March “based on NYPD’s security analysis,” which would include looking at sites with frequent incidents of graffiti, for example. According to a press release, the remaining 70 cameras will be installed with the input of community members.

“We are finalizing what our community engagement process will look like, but will endeavor to ensure the process is inclusive,” Lapeyrolerie said.

Two weeks after announcing the new cameras, the mayor’s office announced the formation of three “anti-hate crime neighborhood safety coalitions,” operating in the same neighborhoods, modelled on other anti-violence programs in the city. When asked, Lapeyrolerie did not say whether these coalitions would be involved in placing the remaining 70 cameras.

The state is less forthcoming with information about where exactly the new tech will be and what it will monitor. “Information on location strategy will not be divulged as it is a police matter,” the state police spokesperson wrote.

Wherever they are located, it’s clear the license plate readers have the capacity to capture broad swaths of information. According to a press release from the governor’s office, “This technology automatically captures all license plate numbers that come into view, along with the location, date, and time. The data, which includes photographs of the vehicle, is then uploaded to a central server and relayed to police agencies across a wide area.”

In terms of access to NYPD footage, department spokesperson Al Baker told Gotham Gazette the NYPD stores footage for 30 days “unless video is required as part of an investigation” and “video access is permission-based.” He did not provide details on how to gain permission and who has the ability to grant it. In terms of safeguards for the wrongful use of footage, Baker wrote in an email: “Internal NYPD access is controlled by user permissions,” with footage watermarked with the permitted user’s name.

While they may help, it is hard to prove cameras deter hate crimes, but they may make it easier for police to catch perpetrators. The NYPD does not have a particularly high arrest rate for hate crimes, at just over 40 percent, as Gotham Gazette previously reported.

Whatever their potential value, advocates want to see protections accompany the use of police surveillance technologies.

“The fear is legitimate that between government and private surveillance, our lives are an open book there for the picking...because the safeguards are so absent,” Lieberman said.

"I think that for people who believe that, ‘Well, if you haven’t done anything wrong what do you have to hide?’ -- all we have to do is take a look at the corruption at the highest levels of government to know that we all have enormous cause for concern when a combination of government and private actors is tracking our every move," she said.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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‘We Put Them in the Jewish Community to Protect Our People’: City and State Add Permanent Security Cameras to Combat Rise in Anti-Semitism Tue, 11 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
In Albany, De Blasio Enlists Legislators' Help to Fight Cuomo Budget Proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9125-in-albany-de-blasio-enlists-legislators-help-to-fight-cuomo-budget-proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9125-in-albany-de-blasio-enlists-legislators-help-to-fight-cuomo-budget-proposals budget hearing jfc

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio made his annual trip to Albany on Monday to testify before the state Legislature on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget proposal, which is $178 billion for the 2021 fiscal year, and urged lawmakers to help prevent what he called nearly $1.4 billion in potential funding “cuts” to the city that could result largely from a proposed overhaul of the state Medicaid program.

Testifying before the joint fiscal committees of the State Senate and Assembly over the course of two-and-a-half hours, the mayor issued dire warnings about how Cuomo’s budget proposal would affect New York City and fielded pressing questions from lawmakers about a range of issues including the city’s special education services and property tax system, the impact of recent criminal justice reforms, and more. Facing two Democrat-controlled chambers, it was a mostly friendly reception for the mayor and there were few areas of disagreement with lawmakers.

Naturally, the issue at the center of the mayor’s testimony was the governor’s proposed Medicaid overhaul. “The cuts in this year's executive budget are of a magnitude we have never seen before,” de Blasio said. “These cuts would be nothing less than devastating for everyday New Yorkers.”

In reality, de Blasio’s $1.4 billion in threatened state “cuts” to the city is a combination of cost-shifts, less-than-expected funding increases, and actual programmatic aid cuts. And within that number is a disagreement between the de Blasio and Cuomo administrations about how to quantify the potential fiscal risk to the city from the governor’s Medicaid proposal, which the governor’s office says is far less than the mayor’s is asserting, even if fully realized. Like all of the executive budget, the details will be the subject of negotiation between the governor and the Legislature ahead of the April 1 deadline for the new state fiscal year.

With the state confronting a $6.1 billion budget gap, mostly from rising Medicaid spending, the governor this year is seeking to implement drastic changes to how the state assumes the cost of Medicaid for municipalities. He reconvened a Medicaid Redesign Team to find $2.5 billion in savings and also proposed that localities that exceed a 2% property tax cap (which doesn’t apply in New York City) and where Medicaid spending grows past 3% annually must pay for the entire cost above that growth rate. For the city, where the Medicaid growth rate was about 7% last year, that would mean a $1.1 billion cost increase over the $5 billion the city already spends annually, according to the de Blasio administration (according to the governor’s office, the full liability for the city is only $221 million).

De Blasio sought to drive home the negative consequences of that move, noting that the proposals this year alone would eclipse the cumulative $1 billion in cuts, cost-shifts and unfunded mandates that the city has absorbed from the state in the last six years. “We need your help more than ever before,” he pleaded to legislators, worried that if the MRT does not find the requisite savings, it could translate to further cost-shifts and outlining for lawmakers what some of the projected impacts could be, from closed health care facilities to reduced public hospital system staff.

Additionally, he said the state budget proposal leaves the city with shortfalls of $136 million in school aid from the city’s expected increase and $100 million over two years through a 5% cut to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (which was already cut by 10% last year). “These cuts year after year are adding up and are going to take away our basic capacity to serve people,” he said.

The governor's office sought to later refute the mayor's testimony point by point. Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the Division of Budget, said in an email that over the years, local Medicaid costs taken on by the state and school aid sent to the city totalled about $27.8 billion in additional support, rather than a $1 billion cumulative cut as the mayor claimed. He also noted that the proposed budget increases school aid to the city by $224.4 million and that there is no cut to the TANF program (the state will pay 85% of the program and the city will pay 15%). 

“The mayor used his time on the soapbox to misinform the public about our Medicaid reforms," said Robert Mujica, state budget director, in a statement. He said the MRT "will bring spending in line with targeted growth while ensuring 6 million New Yorkers maintain the same high-quality care they have now. The Mayor’s solution to raise taxes and increase spending without any accountability is a recipe for fiscal instability and inefficiency in a program charged with caring for the most vulnerable among us, and that’s unacceptable. Also, he claimed he hasn’t raised property taxes – and no New Yorker believes that one."

De Blasio however painted a grim portrait of the results of the city having to take on another $1.4 billion in spending – it would not only jeopardize New York City Health+Hospitals, the public hospital system that the administration pulled back from the verge of bankruptcy, but would also necessitate broader cuts to services the city provides. “This would literally set us back years,” he said.

The city would have to consider the closure of 19 neighborhood clinics that serve 140,000 city residents and lay-offs for 1,300 doctors and nurses; they may have to eliminate both the Summer youth Employment Program which enrolls 70,000 young people and the COMPASS after-school program which serves 120,000 students. What de Blasio did not acknowledge is that the city’s own fiscal picture, with flush coffers even as the mayor has drastically increased city spending during his tenure, would likely allow it to make up for even the worst-case scenario, though potentially exhausting a good chunk of the city’s surplus and fairly robust reserves. The mayor has insisted that the city needs to keep those reserves at significant levels to be prepared for an economic recession or unexpected catastrophe, not to help the state balance its books.

De Blasio particularly pushed back against Cuomo’s suggestion that the growing Medicaid costs are because localities lack the incentive to find savings – the governor called it “blank check syndrome” in his budget presentation – as the mayor noted that the state controls the program while localities simply act as “enrollment agents” for Medicaid. “The state of New York sets the rules. The state of New York sets the rates,” de Blasio said, while stressing that the city is ready to work with the state to identify any efficiencies possible.

The mayor proposed three solutions. He called on the MRT to work with localities to find savings (the mayor said the city had identified as much as $260 million in basic efficiencies, building on $180 million that the city has already saved the Medicaid program over three years). Notably, the governor did not include any city representatives on the MRT. De Blasio also said the state should revise the “artificial restraint” of the Medicaid Global Cap that sets limits on how much spending on the program can increase; and he pushed for increasing taxes on the wealthy to raise revenue rather than risk cutting health care services or Medicaid enrollment.

Legislators all seemed to agree with the mayor that the governor’s Medicaid proposal would either bankrupt localities or severely curtail services and lead to New Yorkers losing their healthcare.

The mayor did have some praise for the governor’s budget proposal, welcoming legislation on legalizing e-bikes and e-scooters, and recreational adult-use of marijuana, though he called for a dual licensing structure that would give the city some control over the system and for a greater degree of “economic justice,” which has been the source of some challenges in negotiations among Cuomo and the Legislature.

The hearing was, of course, also an opportunity for the mayor to ask the Legislature to fund various initiatives and to pursue non-budgetary policy goals. Hat in hand, he quickly ran through a list of requests.

He asked for more funding to fight homelessness and called for the passage of the Home Stability Support bill that would increase the value of rental vouchers for low-income residents and would keep about 25,000 people in their homes, he said. He pushed for more transparency in the MTA’s $51.5 billion 2020-2024 capital plan, which calls for a $3 billion contribution from the city that de Blasio has yet to agree to. He pointed out that $2.5 billion already sent to the MTA from the city under the previous capital plan had yet to be spent and that the agency has completed only 30% – 380 out of nearly 1,300 – of the projects approved in 2015.

As he continues to try to restore and rehabilitate the crumbling housing stock of the New York City Housing Authority, he asked the state to pitch in another $2 billion.

The mayor also raised several proposals that he unveiled in his State of the City speech last week. He called for authorization to levy a storefront vacancy tax and pushed the Legislature to start considering the preliminary recommendations of a city commission on property tax reform (the mayor praised those recommendations and said that after more public dialogue a final set will be available soon). He also pushed for the passage of new renter-friendly legislation including universal renter protection for the 2.5 million New Yorkers who live in non-regulated apartments and measures to regulate security deposits.

De Blasio also repeatedly aired his concerns about reforming the state’s bail reform law that went into effect this year. The mayor has said the law should give judges more discretion to assess the potential dangerousness of a defendant before deciding whether to set bail. He ascribed a recent uptick in crime last month in part to the effects of the bail reforms, though such a direct relationship isn’t matched by evidence. While that concern was shared by some legislators, Senator Robert Jackson, a Manhattan Democrat, implored the mayor to be more patient, noting that it has been less than a month-and-a-half since the reforms became effective. “Give it a chance to work. That’s what I’m asking,” Jackson said. De Blasio said that the good effects of the law would remain under his proposal for change, though critics say adding judicial discretion would lead to many more defendants, mostly people of color, being locked up pre-trial.

The mayor did have to defend his administration on certain fronts. Senators Jackson and Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, pushed him to explain the city’s apparent failure to provide sufficient services for students with special needs.

Senator Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat, tried to dissuade him from pursuing a vacancy tax that she said would be burdensome on small businesses that are already struggling with the city’s regulatory framework. “Instead of looking for a culprit, perhaps we should have a more holistic approach,” she said.

The mayor emphasized though that his approach is not meant to be punitive. He reiterated the many proposals in his State of the City aimed at helping small businesses, including committing a $500 million investment in local businesses from the city pension fund, continuing to reduce fines, and providing low-interest loans and free legal assistance.

Assemblymember Robert Carroll, a Brooklyn Democrat, urged de Blasio to significantly expand screenings and programming for dyslexic youth, saying that such efforts would have a major impact on student reading and overall progress. De Blasio said he would look more closely at the issue.

Some of the lawmakers were dubious of the recent property tax commission’s preliminary recommendations, which are meant to reduce various inequities in the current system.

Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, a Staten Island Republican, urged the mayor to impose a 2% property tax cap, which is in place everywhere outside the city, while the commission completes its work. Senator James Gaughran also asked the mayor to consider keeping within the cap as a means to control Medicaid spending similar to other localities. As he has done each year, de Blasio said that such a cap is not in the city’s plans or interests.

“The recommendations sound great but I don’t know how workable they are,” said Senator John Liu, a Queens Democrat. Assemblymember Tremaine Wright, a Brooklyn Democrat, expressed similar reservations, specifically citing concerns about the bills that many homeowners of color in neighborhoods that have rapidly gentrified may have to pay under a new system.

Emphasizing that the commission’s proposals are only preliminary, de Blasio said he would take their feedback into consideration as the process moves ahead, adding, “We’re trying to come up with something that will address the reality of the whole city.”

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

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with comment from State Division of Budget director Robert Mujica. 

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In Albany, De Blasio Enlists Legislators' Help to Fight Cuomo Budget Proposals Mon, 10 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
City to Codify Office of Food Policy and Require 10-Year Food Plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9127-city-council-to-codify-office-of-food-policy-and-require-10-year-food-plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9127-city-council-to-codify-office-of-food-policy-and-require-10-year-food-plan corey jphnson participate

Council Speaker Johnson at a food pantry (photo: John McCarten/CityCouncil)


The City Council is expected to pass a package of food policy legislation on Tuesday, central components of an agenda laid out by Speaker Corey Johnson last August to strengthen relevant governance and food policy planning, while combating inequality and waste in the food supply chain.

One bill, sponsored by Council Member Vanessa Gibson, would require the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy to develop a ten-year plan to address food access and build a sustainable and economically viable agricultural landscape serving New York City. The second bill, carried by Council Member Ben Kallos and co-sponsored by Johnson, would codify the Office of Food Policy in the City Charter as a permanent office responsible for coordinating food-related initiatives across multiple city agencies, with an emphasis on promoting nutrition in communities with limited access to healthy food because of “economic, racial, or environmental factors.”

Both bills passed out of the Committee on Economic Development on Monday and will be up for a vote by the full City Council on Tuesday, where they are expected to pass.

“Food is a human right, and in one of the richest cities in the world, it is completely unacceptable that one million New Yorkers are food insecure and that many communities have inequitable access to healthy food,” a Council spokesperson for Johnson said in a statement. “The Council’s food equity legislative package is part of Speaker Johnson’s vision to promote food justice in this City, and we are thankful to all the Council Members and staff for working hard on these bills as we move closer to ending the food equity gap.”

Johnson’s platform, first proposed in a report entitled, “Growing Food Equity in New York City,” takes aim at rampant food insecurity, including in low-income communities and communities of color, and the structural inequities that contribute to that problem and others, including inconsistencies in access to healthy food. It comprises a number of provisions, many of which were contained in a package of fourteen bills and two resolutions heard in Council committees last September, including several being voted on Tuesday (several other pieces of the package were passed through the Council’s general welfare committee on Monday).

In addition to the food policy office and ten-year plan bills, Johnson’s full agenda includes legislation to enhance food metric reporting, expand public assistance like food pantries and SNAP benefits, targeted support for seniors and students, farm-to-city programs, and food procurement reforms.

The number of New Yorkers living with food insecurity -- defined as lacking adequate access to affordable and nutritious food -- between 2015 and 2017 was 1.09 million, according to a report by Hunger Free America and cited in the Council’s report. While constituting a 22 percent drop in food insecurity from the 2012-2014 period, the figure also represents a 22 percent rise since the pre-recession period from 2005 to 2007, according to the Hunger Free America report. The number of children who experienced food insecurity between 2015 and 2017, 324,432, improved at a slower rate (16 percent) than the overall population from the previous three-year period.

A particular emphasis is on food justice and ameliorating the disparate access to healthy foods in predominantly low-income neighborhoods. The expected passage of the bills comes shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled as constitutional the Trump administration’s public charge rule, making it harder for immigrants to obtain a green card when they receive public benefits like food stamps.

“The City of New York is responsible for feeding a large portion of our population, whether it’s 1.1 million public school students who are entitled to free breakfast and free lunch, or it’s people in our senior centers...or people in our shelter system who we’re feeding, or just the countless New Yorkers who rely on food assistance in the form of SNAP,” Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, told Gotham Gazette.

The city has a tremendous amount of sway over food policy and can have meaningful impact by utilizing it, according to Nevin Cohen, research director at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute. “Agencies procure food for various purposes, they control land that food can be grown on, they provide resources for business like food manufacturing business. So food spans the gamut of city agencies and having an office that can coordinate food related policies is really essential,” Cohen said in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

The two bills passed by the economic development committee are a package that work in tandem, one establishing the food policy office in the City Charter and one requiring it to develop a ten-year plan. The bills are written to go into effect simultaneously.

Under Gibson’s bill, the Office of Food Policy would be required to draft a comprehensive ten-year plan -- coordinating among myriad agencies, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders -- that would bring the city’s approaches to governing food production, sale, and supplemental assistance under one umbrella. The plan would be required to make recommendations on “reducing hunger, improving nutrition, increasing access to healthy food, reducing food waste, developing and improving food and farm economies, and increasing urban agriculture and sustainability.”

“There has been no shortage of food policy ideas and strategic documents and recommendations from different parts of city government, but there hasn’t yet been a cohesive food plan for the city of New York,” Cohen said. “That’s been a major gap that this bill will fill.”

The ten-year plan would include strategies for successful implementation with benchmarks and the Office of Food Policy would be required to give progress reports to the mayor and Council speaker.

“I believe this legislation will have a tremendous impact on thousands of families that deserve access to healthier high quality food options. However, we must continue to work together as legislators with community advocates and stakeholders to ensure we establish concrete goals to reduce hunger,” wrote Gibson, a Bronx Democrat, in an email. The Hunger Free America report called the Bronx the “hungriest borough,” with one in four residents experiencing food insecurity.

Kallos’ bill, in codifying the Office of Food Policy, outlines the powers and duties of the director in the City Charter. Currently, the role of Director of Food Policy is housed within the mayor’s office and exists at the mayor’s discretion. After former Director of Food Policy Barbara Turk stepped down in March 2019, the position went vacant for six months until a new director, Kate MacKenzie, was appointed by Mayor de Blasio this past October. Under the legislation, the office could be established either directly within the mayor’s office or in another mayoral department, with the director appointed either by the mayor or the department head.

Supporters say codifying the office will bring a degree of accountability over the city’s food policy efforts, which are currently controlled largely through executive action. The bill establishes four official responsibilities of the office: make recommendations to the mayor; coordinate interagency initiatives; conduct outreach to key stakeholders; and promote efforts designed to increase equitable access to nutritious food.

“I think the fact that [the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy] was vacant for so long explains why it needs to be codified in the law: so that it is something that we can hold accountable. I am very glad Mayor de Blasio appointed a director, one who has been empowered to do so much, but the mayor could have just as easily eliminated the position,” Kallos said.

The mayor’s office says it supports the bills.

“The Administration strongly supports these bills and the broader food equity vision outlined by the Speaker. I look forward to working with the Council and advocates in creating and formalizing a robust food policy plan for the City of New York,” MacKenzie wrote in an email.

Kallos believes codifying the office’s general responsibilities will also give it leverage in negotiating among city agencies, which often operate as independent fiefdoms.

“When I was chair of Governmental Operations I had oversight over half a dozen agencies and it is incredibly difficult to force agencies to work together. By giving the food policy director this power in the Charter, it means there is something they can point to when they are trying to force people to the table who otherwise might not want to work together,” he said.

To some extent, codifying the office is a statement about how much city resources should be expended on comprehensive food policy.

“I think a really important need is for the city to adequately fund the Office of Food Policy. Since its inception the office has really had only one or two staff people, and for a city the size of New York that’s just not enough,” Cohen said.

Kallos’ bill does not appropriate city funds for the office or say how many staff members it must have, but Cohen believes the legislation can still be a boon.

“Local laws generally don’t have specific appropriations of funding attached to them, but my feeling is that by putting the office in the City Charter it adds significant importance to the office and it will enable advocates both inside and outside of city government to advocate for sufficient funding,” he said.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City to Codify Office of Food Policy and Require 10-Year Food Plan Mon, 10 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
In State of the City, De Blasio Outlines Agenda to 'Save Our City' from Unaffordability, Underperforming Schools, Unsafe Streets, Unlivable Climate https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9119-2020-state-of-the-city-de-blasio-agenda-to-save-our-city-affordability-schools-climate https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9119-2020-state-of-the-city-de-blasio-agenda-to-save-our-city-affordability-schools-climate seventh address

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio, now in his seventh year in office, unveiled his “blueprint to save our city” at his annual State of the City speech on Thursday.

Echoing a similar message from his State of the City speech last year, the mayor sought to highlight the anxiety and uncertainty among New Yorkers who feel the unending pressures of living here, whether it be the cost of doing business, providing a good life for children, worrying about the effects of climate change, or just simply paying the rent.

In a break from past speeches, de Blasio held court in a town hall-like format at the American Museum of Natural History’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, known for its iconic model of a blue whale suspended from the ceiling. De Blasio stood dead center surrounded by rows of white chairs, rather than speaking from a lectern, and though he did not field any audience questions, it was more of an interactive performance than prior speeches.

“I felt it was time for something different,” he said of the setup, which eschewed prepared remarks on a teleprompter but used a script projected on a screen as well as slides with bullet points and graphics. “It was time to be blunt. It was time for real talk.”

The mayor spoke of a sense of urgency he says he has for the remainder of his tenure, and of the fears of displacement that he encounters in New Yorkers across the city. “Every town hall meeting I go to, every conversation I have more and more turns to the same problem,” he said. “No one wants to leave but they are being forced out. Or if they haven’t been displaced yet, it’s a constant worry,” he said. “The challenge now is not crime, the challenge now is greed. Greed that is afflicting all of us.”

He pledged new ideas, tweaked existing plans, and additional resources to boost small business, create more affordable housing for lower-income New Yorkers, ensure higher quality schools and safer streets for kids, and limit city carbon emissions that hurt the environment and contribute to climate change.

“From making Pre-K universal, to creating the safest big city in America, we have accomplished so much together, but we need to go much farther," de Blasio said in a statement released just before he took the stage, where he was introduced by his wife, Chirlane McCray. "We must make New York City easier to afford, protect the mom-and-pop businesses that make New York, New York, and hand this city back to the people who make it so great.”

Seemingly taking stock of a storefront vacancy crisis, as small businesses close down in the city, de Blasio announced several measures that he said would aid about 28,000 businesses. He said the city would invest $500 million from the city’s $215.5 billion pension fund system into local businesses. He pledged to push for a Landlord Vacancy Tax before the state Legislature, to pressure landlords into renting their properties to small businesses rather than wait for tenants that can pay higher rents. And he announced that he would create a “Blue Ribbon Commercial Rent Control Commission,” tasked with crafting ways to shield businesses from exorbitant rent increases, with a deadline of delivering recommendations by the end of the year.

The mayor touted the success of his administration’s push to cut fines on small businesses, as much as 40% so far, he said, and promised to continue that effort to reach 50% by the end of his tenure. It will have put $26 million back into the pockets of business owners, he said. 

He also promised a slew of measures to assist small businesses, including expanding small business navigators that can help with permits and licenses and providing free legal services and low-interest loans to low-income business owners. 

The mayor has repeatedly touted the success of his housing plan – according to city data, the administration has created and preserved 147,933 units of rent-restricted housing through December 31, 2019 – but amid ongoing criticism that the housing is not affordable enough for low-income New Yorkers and after several resets and course corrections already, he announced yet another on Thursday. Calling it “Your Home NYC,” the mayor outlined several initiatives in the next phase of his housing program.

De Blasio said the city would help keep another 78,000 New Yorkers in their affordable homes, after having already done this for 255,000 people. He said half of all new homes built with city financing would be set aside for families with an annual income of less than $50,000, and that half of those would go to families with an annual income of less than $30,000. He estimated that would create 2,000 additional new units for low-income residents than previously outlined in his 12-year, 300,000-unit plan, though not adding to the sum total.

Exerting leverage over homes financed with city money, the mayor said the city would offer renters the choice to either pay security deposits up front or allow monthly installments through a renter security insurance program, which he said will start with 60,000 homes. 

He also said he would push the state Legislature to expand tenant protections, including the security deposit measure, for the roughly 2.5 million New Yorkers that don’t live in rent-regulated apartments, building on the ground-breaking tenant-friendly legislative package approved last year in Albany.

De Blasio said his administration would further support Community Land Trusts to allow communities to invest in development and build wealth, and said he would push to legalize basement apartments to create 10,000 legal affordable housing units over ten years. He said the city would provide low-interest loans to homeowners choosing to convert their basements.

In a somewhat controversial move, the mayor’s new NYPD Commissioner, Dermot Shea, announced late last month that the department will deploy 300 Youth Coordination Officers across the city as a measure to prevent youth crime. De Blasio touted that initiative in his speech and said he would build on it with several youth safety measures including expanding opening hours at recreation centers and providing free membership to young people, reopening six closed community centers and building seven new ones. He also said the city would install new safe streets infrastructure around schools – 1,000 new stop lights, signs, and speed bumps in total.

He also announced the creation of a new 100-member NYPD Vision Zero unit to increase traffic enforcement and continue to reduce traffic-related fatalities amid an increase in pedestrian and cyclist deaths.

A signature early achievement of the mayor was his universal pre-kindergarten program, which he expanded on with a “3-K for All” plan to eventually provide early childhood education to all 3-year-olds. The mayor boasted of its success, as he noted that the 3-K program will roll out to another four school districts in September, which will mean coverage of half of all school districts. 

De Blasio committed, or rather predicted, that the city’s school graduation rate would reach 86% by 2026, up from 77.3%, surpassing the nation’s average five years after he leaves office. He said the Department of Education would increase its focus on performance metrics to identify trends and send resources where they are required, in part through enhancing the use of the new EduStat program that the DOE has modeled after the NYPD’s CompStat that uses data analysis and accountability through the chain of command. And he announced a goal of placing 1,000 new men of color in teaching positions by 2022.

The mayor also spoke of another early childhood care initiative which was first announced by First Lady McCray on Wednesday – a new $43 million program to provide home visiting services to all first-time parents by 2024. The program is expected to launch in Brooklyn this year and next, before moving to other boroughs. 

The speech contained an ambitious expansion of the de Blasio administration’s “Green New Deal” efforts, first launched by the mayor in April last year, to make the city carbon neutral.

The mayor unveiled several new plans. He said the city will create a new wind power hub at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park, for staging, installing and operating turbines. The hub will add 500 green jobs, the mayor said.

The city will also launch an initiative to increase the use of solar power, allowing homeowners to defray costs of installing solar panels by paying out of savings on their energy bills over the course of years. He said the city would help install panels on 50,000 homes, creating 5,000 green jobs.

Using the authority afforded by his office, de Blasio signed three executive orders on the spot – to end the purchase of single-use plastic bottles by city agencies and restrict the sale of those bottles on city property by next year; to mandate that all city vehicles be electric by 2040; and to codify the city’s policy of divesting from fossil fuel infrastructure and ensuring no new fossil fuel infrastructure projects are approved in the city.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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In State of the City, De Blasio Outlines Agenda to 'Save Our City' from Unaffordability, Underperforming Schools, Unsafe Streets, Unlivable Climate Thu, 06 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
First Major Task for City's New Civic Engagement Commission at Risk https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9108-first-task-for-new-city-civic-engagement-commission-at-risk-budget-battle-de-blasio https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9108-first-task-for-new-city-civic-engagement-commission-at-risk-budget-battle-de-blasio 2 cm lander

Mayor de Blasio & First Lady McCray participate in participatory budgeting (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


The New York City Civic Engagement Commission, established through a charter amendment approved by voters in 2018, is tasked with crafting a new citywide participatory budgeting program modeled after the City Council’s efforts to engage New Yorkers in funding local projects. A plan is required to be in place by July 1, the start of the next city fiscal year.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $95.3 billion preliminary budget proposal for next fiscal year, released mid-January, allocates no funding to the program and the commission’s members worry that it is already falling behind.

The City Council has for years put aside millions of dollars for participatory budgeting, allowing district residents to decide how and where to spend pots of funding for specific community improvements. Last year, the program was implemented by 32 of 51 Council members in their districts – this year, it is 33 – and each dedicated roughly $1 million (sometimes up to $2 million) for various capital projects. Ideas are solicited from the public and can cover everything from bike lanes to public restrooms to park renovations and school equipment.

A 2018 Charter Revision Commission created by de Blasio proposed that a citywide version of the program should be put into place and overseen by the newly created 15-member Civic Engagement Commission (CEC) – eight of its members are appointed by the mayor, two by the City Council speaker, and one each by the five borough presidents.

The CEC has held several public meetings since being named but it has made little progress on the citywide participatory budgeting program except for creating an advisory committee. Members of that committee joined with a coalition of advocacy groups on Tuesday, signing a policy memo to the mayor calling on him to set aside at least $500 million for a citywide participatory budgeting program.

Among the groups were BetaNYC, Civic Hall, Girls for Gender Equity, IntegrateNYC, New York Civic Engagement Table, and the Participatory Budgeting Project, as well as Council Member Brad Lander, who first proposed the idea of a civic engagement commission in a bill before the City Council.

The memo carries a sense of urgency, warning the mayor that the CEC’s charter mandate is “at risk of failure” if he does not allocate the requisite funds. The coalition noted that the mayor, in his aborted presidential campaign, proposed putting $1.65 billion towards a national participatory budgeting program. “Now is the time for an equally bold Mayoral commitment, to ensure that citywide PB is a successful legacy program, not an unfulfilled promise,” the memo reads.

The advocates also pointed to other cities that currently have PB programs with a far smaller population. Paris, for instance, with a population of about 2.1 million, allocates a little more than $111 million annually to citywide, district, and school level projects, similar to Madrid. And Mexico City’s Citizen Participation law, the memo says, mandates 3.25% of the total city budget for PB in 2020, about $76 million, increasing by 0.25% each year until it comprises 4% of the city’s budget in 2024. “To reach the same 4% as Mexico City, New York would be allocating billions of dollars!” the memo reads.

The CEC members themselves acknowledged at a public meeting on January 29 that the commission could miss the deadline for launching the new citywide participatory budgeting program. “We're going to implement a citywide program by July 1st, we're sort of already behind schedule,” said Commissioner Annetta Seecharran, who is the executive director of Chhaya CDC.

While the city charter revision requires the commission and several tasks by it, including the participatory budgeting program, it does not mandate any funding from the city.

The demand for money toward the program comes at a tricky time for the city as it contends with potential budget cuts to Medicaid funding from the state, among other possible challenges. Last month, the mayor proposed a relatively conservative preliminary budget with few new initiatives, taking a wait-and-see approach as the state budget is negotiated ahead of its April 1 deadline. De Blasio, working with the City Council and other stakeholders, is likely to increase spending in his executive budget plan and the adopted budget. The city’s Office of Management and Budget often projects a lower revenue forecast to give city officials more flexibility over the budget season.

The mayor’s office is reviewing the advocates’ request, according to a spokesperson.

“The Mayor has long-hailed participatory budgeting as an important avenue for civic engagement that enhances democracy in New York City,” said Jose Bayona, a mayoral spokesperson. “This Administration is committed to extending access to participatory budgeting citywide through the work of the Civic Engagement Commission and in partnership with advocates, volunteers, elected officials and community members.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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First Major Task for City's New Civic Engagement Commission at Risk Tue, 04 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
The Mayor’s Savings Mirage https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9104-the-mayor-de-blasio-savings-mirage-city-budget https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9104-the-mayor-de-blasio-savings-mirage-city-budget fiscal city hall

Mayor de Blasio presents a budget (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


On January 20, Mayor de Blasio presented his $95.3 billion preliminary budget for the 2021 fiscal year that begins on July 1 as well as updated data on the budget for the current fiscal year. He noted that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and city agencies had found enough cost savings to completely offset the “new needs” spending included in the preliminary plan. The mayor praised this as an especially significant accomplishment since so much work has gone into finding savings in the administration’s prior budgets and the low-hanging fruit had already been picked.

Really? To channel former President Clinton, whether you think the savings plan is a success depends on what the meaning of “savings” is.

There is no question that Budget Director Melanie Hartzog and her staff take the effort to find efficiencies and improve government operations seriously. OMB’s city-wide savings unit provided a detailed description of the planned savings by agency. But even a casual review of the report reveals that most of the claimed $713 million “savings” over two years is in fact lower than projected interest on city debt and increases in revenue, not lasting cost savings achieved by cutting agency expenses. 

Debt service reductions are the largest “savings” in the current fiscal year ($129 million) and were also the largest element in the savings plan totaling $474 million that was presented this past November. It is good news that the cost of borrowing continues to be lower than anticipated, but that is mostly a product of economic and market conditions, rather than an accomplishment of city administration. It would be more appropriate to apply savings in interest costs to paying down the city’s heavy outstanding debt than to use it to increase operating spending.

Another large category of claimed savings is actually new revenue. Most if it comes from collecting more reimbursements from the state and federal governments – called “reimbursement re-estimates.” This is money that is supposed to have paid for services already being delivered and should be used to offset those costs, not fund new programs. The plan also includes millions of dollars in higher fees and collections such as ambulance charges, elevator inspection fees, summons collections, as well as revenue from litigation settlements. If more money can be obtained by better enforcement of fines, fees, and penalties, that’s great (not everyone would agree), but that is not savings. Nor is moving costs from the expense to the capital budget, which is also included in the savings plan. 

Some initiatives in the savings plan can truly be characterized as improvements in agency operations that optimize efficiency. But the number of these efficiencies to be achieved and their total dollar value are very small relative to the total value of the overall plan. Many of the initiatives are in the Department of Education, where reductions in the costly absent teacher reserve will save $39 million in unnecessary salaries, and there will be cost reductions in food service contracting and professional development.

Other promising efforts include trying to save on city phone service (to be overseen by DoITT), merging two divisions of the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, and installing new upgraded software at CUNY. But the largest efficiency measure in the plan, $55 million in recurring procurement savings, is likely a placeholder to build up the savings total, not a real expectation of savings, since specifics of the reforms and how they will be implemented is not explained. 

There is nothing wrong with saving city dollars through lower debt service, collecting more fines and fees, and getting the federal and state governments to provide more reimbursements. All of these things should be done; indeed they should be regular, ongoing efforts of city government that reduce the costs of current services.

The problem is in treating them as offsets to more spending, when most cannot be expected to recur, while the new spending will continue into the future and be incorporated into future years’ budgets. Meanwhile, the City Council will surely want to add more “new needs” to the budget for next year -- the mayor may also have some of his own -- and it appears that additional expenses due to cost-shifts from the state may well have to be absorbed. More real, significant, and sustained savings in city government are needed.

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Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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

 

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The Mayor’s Savings Mirage Mon, 03 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000