Gotham Gazette Mon, 28 Sep 2020 15:21:50 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Business Association Calls on Mayor to Launch 'Open Stores' Program to Help City's Struggling Retail Sector business calls progs

Mayor de Blasio at a press conference (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Though New York City has begun a slow march towards economic recovery, many small businesses, including retailers deemed non-essential, are still struggling to stay afloat as sales have decreased and customers are reluctant to return. While a great deal of focus has been on the city’s extensive restaurant industry, other small businesses are seeking a lifeline from city government. In a letter sent on Wednesday to Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council, the New York City Business Improvement District Association proposed a relatively simple solution to the problem that would give retailers access to public space mirroring the city’s outdoor dining program.

The BID Association represents 76 BIDs, which are made up of commercial tenants and property owners who work to improve the business environment in designated neighborhoods across the city. According to the BID Association website, through member fees BIDs provide more than $120 million in services such as sanitation, maintenance, marketing, and beautification each year for more than 85,000 businesses.

Modelling its plan after the city’s Open Restaurants program, the BID Association is calling on the city to allow storefront retailers to use sidewalk space to sell their goods and to participate in the Open Streets program under the same rules as restaurants that have been allowed to set up dining space on roadways near their establishments. The letter calls on the mayor to sign an emergency executive order that would suspend certain rules and fees, and allow stores to display signage and merchandise and sell items within three feet of the storefront, including on streets that currently allow no sidewalk displays.

“The launch of such a program will allow the City’s countless struggling storefront retail and other businesses to reach customers using outdoor space in a safe way moving forward,” the letter reads. “If the City does not act quickly, we risk additional permanent closures of small businesses, particularly in the outer boroughs, including significant percentages of MWBE and immigrant-owned businesses. We have only a few more weeks before winter hits to roll-out and ramp up this program in time for the holiday shopping season, so there is no time to spare.”

After months of a painful economic lockdown, retail sales across the country have recovered somewhat and have seen increases in the last two months. According to Census data released September 16, advance monthly retail sales increased in August by $537.5 billion or 0.6% after increasing by 0.9% in July. Overall, sales from June through August were actually up 2.4% over the same period in 2019.

But in New York City, where the cost of doing business is already substantial in the best of times, the resumption of in-store retail after months of pick-up or online-only shopping hasn’t been enough to stave off ruin. Jennifer Tausig, co-chair of the BID Association and executive director of the Jerome Gun Hill BID in the Bronx, said people still don’t feel safe coming into stores despite the many restrictions that retailers have to abide by including social distancing and limited capacity.

An Open Stores program could help drive up foot traffic and increase sales, she said, particularly as retailers plan for the upcoming holiday season. Other cities like Boston and San Francisco have implemented similar programs. “We've seen the success of open dining. That's been a real lifeline for restaurants. It’s not enough to keep them going long term, but it has been a lifeline for the summer for sure. We're really asking that our small businesses have the same opportunity,” Tausig said.

Tausig said the BID Association has been pushing for this plan for months and while city agencies have been receptive, there has been no word from the mayor. She said the administration hasn’t been paying enough attention to the plight of storefront retailers, even as the mayor has taken steps to limit enforcement on street vendors. “We're having a hard time drawing people into the store, and yet there's lots of other people outside selling goods, whether legally or illegally, and we’re just feeling a little bit left out of the party,” she said.

Mayor de Blasio's office did not respond to a request for comment on the BID Association's ask. A spokesperson for City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, "Open Streets and Open Restaurants have been major successes in terms of the city's response to the pandemic, and the Council is open to helping retail businesses in similar fashion where possible. We will review this proposal as part of our continued efforts to aid our city's economic recovery."

On Thursday, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Queens State Senator Jessica Ramos wrote to de Blasio asking him to extend the city's Open Streets program "year-round for pedestrians, cyclists, and restaurants and expand the program to allow the City’s small business and retail community to offer more goods and services outside."

What worries Tausig is that businesses are seeing their rent bills build up as their sales plummeted. Though Governor Andrew Cuomo has extended a commercial eviction moratorium, businesses will still eventually have to contend with months of back rent. “I think there is a real concern for a lot of small businesses that without some sort of plan, some sort of lifeline, that once that moratorium is lifted, that's going to be a wrap for them.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated with the response from the City Council, the lack of response from the de Blasio administration, and the letter by Stringer and Ramos.

Business Association Calls on Mayor to Launch 'Open Stores' Program to Help City's Struggling Retail Sector Thu, 24 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City's Supervised Release Program Has Positive Impacts Without Increases in Missed Court Appearances or Rearrest Rates, Report Finds 3 report positive impacts

Mayor de Blasio makes an announcement (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Defendants in New York City's pretrial supervised release program are no more likely to miss court than people who have bail set and are not rearrested at a higher rate, according to a city-commissioned study by MDRC's Center for Criminal Justice Research being released Thursday.

The research, contracted by the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) and the Mayor's Office of Economic Opportunity with funding from the Manhattan District Attorney, comes at a time when some city officials, including Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, have blamed a months-long spike in gun violence in large part on recent changes to the state bail law that increased reliance on alternatives to incarceration, like supervised release.

“You hear terms such as supervised release right now, that is a fallacy. There is no supervision. There is just release, and you are seeing the repercussions of that across the city,” Shea said in June.

MOCJ officials say the new findings vindicate the program. "I think being able to show that the program is just as effective as bail in ensuring return to court and also ensuring that folks are not being rearrested at a higher rate is really exciting," said Miriam Popper, the executive director of MOCJ's Office of Pretrial Justice Initiatives, by phone.

According to Popper, before supervised release, judges for the most part had two options at arraignment: they could set bail, a monetary condition for returning to court, or they could release the defendant on their own recognizance. "This evaluation has showed that adding a third option of support and supervision in the community was able to meet the goals of the New York State bail statute...just as effectively as a monetary condition," she said, "which as we know can often lead to an unequal system for those without financial resources and those with."

But while supervised release successfully diverted some candidates from having bail set without meaningfully impacting court appearances, the data shows it also led judges to assign supervision to defendants who would otherwise have been released on their own recognizance, a trend known as "net-widening" and viewed unfavorably by criminal justice reformers. The city and the nonprofit providers of supervised release programming say they are working to prevent net-widening from further ensnaring people in the criminal legal system, but defense attorneys are concerned by the findings.

Supervised release, a program first piloted in New York City in Queens in 2009 and expanded citywide in 2016, allows a defendant to remain in the community while they await trial under the condition that they follow a personalized plan of check-ins with a case manager and other service providers. Participants are often connected with services like employment training and housing support. The program has been lauded by community-based organizations as an effective and more just approach to treating those presumed innocent and ensuring defendants return to court, while also strengthening community ties.

Enrollment in supervised release increased the percentage of cases that were dismissed by roughly 10 points, while reducing the percentage of guilty rulings by 11 points, the study found. The analysis lends credence to the theory that the threat of being incarcerated with or without bail incentivizes defendants to plead guilty in order to be released.

The study also found that the program's impact did not vary across different racial, ethnic, or age groups, but "had stronger effects" on bail rulings and pretrial detention for felonies than misdemeanors, and for cases in Manhattan versus the Bronx, Brooklyn, or Queens.

Over the course of the study period from May 2017 to January 2019, defense attorneys sought supervised release for only a small portion of the roughly 287,000 defendants who were arraigned after a custodial arrest (this does not include people who received desk appearance tickets to be arraigned at a later date).

Seventy-two percent of arraignments (over 200,000) included charges that would've made the defendant eligible for supervised release, but only about one in ten of the eligible defendants were screened during the 20-month period, the study shows.

"The main explanation for this pattern is that defense attorneys opted to have their clients screened for SR only when they believed them to be at risk of having bail set, otherwise preferring to preserve their chances for being released on their own recognizance (ROR)," the report states.

When defense attorneys did offer the option of supervised release at trial, judges in 58 percent of cases assigned it. Those that weren't assigned to supervised release were just as likely to have bail set as be ROR'd -- roughly 20% each.

Despite what the report identifies as the "gatekeeper" role of defenders to prevent net-widening, MDRC's modeling found that about 44 percent of people on supervised release would have otherwise been ROR'd. About the same percentage, 45 percent, would have received bail.

Reforms passed in 2019 and 2020 eliminating bail for most non-violent felonies moved that gatekeeper role from defense attorneys to judges, who now exercise greater discretion in setting pretrial conditions, according to Popper.

"What that means now is that it requires more training on our part, a really close eye on what the outcomes are and what is happening," she told Gotham Gazette.

Aubrey Fox is the executive director of Criminal Justice Agency (CJA), the nonprofit that first piloted the supervised release program in Queens and interviews every defendant as part of an assessment to determine the likelihood they will return to court. He said CJA's recommendation following the assessment, while non-binding on judges, can help ensure the program captures the right participants because guidelines call for individuals who are not eligible for bail and get recommended for ROR to receive it.

The MDRC report's authors point out that with the relatively small number of participants during the study period, few defendants were caught in this process.

But defense attorneys say it's more serious. "Our perspective on that and what we've seen is that judges and prosecutors don't in any way recognize that there is a harm to unnecessarily placing our clients on supervised release," said Libby Fischer, the managing attorney of the criminal defense practice at the Harlem-based Neighborhood Defender Service, in an interview.

"There are entire categories of cases where the DA's office asks for supervised release even though the cases are misdemeanors, even though the clients have no record," Fischer said. "And since the judges can't see or don't see the negative consequences of putting large swaths of communities of color under court surveillance, they set supervised release when it's asked for."

"If the request had been for bail, in old times, they would've understood the negative consequences and ROR'd the client," Fischer added.

The study also found that supervised release increased the average total time before trial by about two months (from 86 to 143 days) and doubled the amount of time spent in the community from 64 to 128 days. The percent of defendants who received desk warrants (which the report considers a good proxy for missed court appearances) increased from 24 to 34 percent, a finding the study called statistically insignificant because of other factors that created uncertainty that these outcomes "aren't just the result of chance," explained Melanie Skemer, the study's lead author.

"In a lot of alternative-to-detention programs, what ends up happening is they have the so-called 'supervision effect,' which means that people fail at a higher rate because they are being watched more closely," Fox said.

"The really remarkable thing about supervised release is that -- I think mostly because of the skill of the social workers who work on the projects and the kind of ethos of the program -- the program managed to avoid that pitfall of well-intended but creating unintended consequences of penalizing people more," he said.

Popper said supervised release employs a "graduated response" model that aims to provide a "light touch" whenever possible. "If someone comes into the program who is lower risk and might have otherwise been released on their own recognizance, unless otherwise assigned by the judge, they would be put on a low level of supervision," Popper said.

"While the type of people who are put into the program is really up to the judges at this point, there is a lot we can do within the program, such as these policies, to ensure that being in supervised release does not lead to deeper entrenchment in the system," she said.

"Proportionally, the estimated increase in time at risk is far greater than the estimated increase in bench warrants,” the report states. “Hence, when accounting for the time at risk of pretrial failure and the increased number of opportunities to miss court appearances, enrollment in SR does not appear to have increased failures to appear to court appreciably, if at all."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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City's Supervised Release Program Has Positive Impacts Without Increases in Missed Court Appearances or Rearrest Rates, Report Finds Wed, 23 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
'The City Needs a Crisis Manager': Kathryn Garcia Plots a Run for Mayor nycemer ma c

Kathryn Garcia (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Earlier this month, Kathryn Garcia, a top official in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, resigned after more than six years as commissioner of the Department of Sanitation. In her time serving under the mayor, Garcia has worn many hats beyond that of keeping the city clear of trash and snow. De Blasio entrusted her with leading the city’s effort to abate lead exposure among young children, named her the interim chair and CEO of the struggling New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) for part of 2019, and then appointed her the city’s emergency “food czar” this year to ensure that hungry New Yorkers were fed during the coronavirus pandemic, all while she continued to lead the sanitation department.

In her at times terse resignation letter to the mayor, Garcia cited recent budget cuts to her department and the threat of major layoffs as the main reasons she could not continue to serve the administration. “This budget crisis is incredibly severe, but I am disappointed to see so much of the work we have done over the last six years being walked back,” she wrote. “If, as is often said, budgets are a statement of values, my values require me to resign in the face of these cuts, which will harm New Yorkers.”

But Garcia’s decision was also spurred by the fact that she is considering a run for mayor in the election set to take place next year, potentially joining a crowded field of Democrats who have declared or are exploring a bid to replace de Blasio when he is term-limited out of office. In a recent interview on the Max & Murphy podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits, Garcia explained her decision to step down, why she is considering a run for mayor and how she would approach the mayoralty, as well as her work covering the various responsibilities she was given by de Blasio.

If she declares, Garcia could be one of three women, all first-time candidates for elected office, who were formerly part of the de Blasio administration – Retired Army Brigadier General Loree Sutton, who was commissioner of the Department of Veteran Services, has already jumped into the race, while Maya Wiley, former Counsel to the Mayor who later headed the Civilian Complaint Review Board, is considering doing so. Besides them, Comptroller Scott Stringer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams have already declared their campaigns, while City Council Speaker Corey Johnson continues to explore a run. Former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales left her job to run for mayor and has been actively campaigning for some time. Former top Bloomberg and Obama administration official Shaun Donovan is strongly considering jumping into the race and has been raising significant sums of money to do so. And other Democrats, like finance executive Ray McGuire are reportedly considering bids.

Garcia said her decision to explore a mayoral campaign was driven by the pandemic. “I am not sure that I would have gotten in if I didn't think the city needed a crisis manager at this point who would be really focused on core services for city residents,” she said, citing her own managerial experience in government.

Though she did not criticize the mayor by name, she drew a clear contrast in how she would handle the job of running the city. “I am incredibly good at creating very effective teams that really maximize a lot of people's talents,” she said. “There is not infighting on things that I work on. And the second thing is, I'm extremely clear about my expectations and I'm extremely clear about the fact that I expect accountability. You need to produce.”

De Blasio is known for being a micromanager and for overriding the advice of his own commissioners while relying on his own, often flawed, instincts. “I'm open to hearing other ideas. I'm not dictatorial. I do want to hear from people,” Garcia said. “I don't assume I'm necessarily the smartest person in the room on every topic. But after we have the airing of what you think might be a good way to go, we make a decision, we move on and we execute.”

As sanitation commissioner, Garcia has already led a uniformed agency and she said she’d bring the same perspective to bear over the NYPD, should she become mayor. De Blasio has, more often than not, had a soft touch with the department, often defending it against instances of egregious behavior while insisting that he is working to reform its practices. “I'm a tough but fair manager,” Garcia said, when asked how she would handle the police department. “You'll know what I expect of you and we will be ruthlessly transparent about that. I will stand up for you when I need to, but I won't if something really depraved happens.”

Since she’s an unknown political entity, the hosts -- Ben Max and Jarrett Murphy -- asked Garcia if there is a Democrat she most closely identifies with or would model. She would be an Ed Koch-like mayor, she said, describing her politics as “progressive and practical.” She would be a tough manager, she said, who constantly wants to know how she’s doing. She said it is essential that the mayor knows how city agencies are performing every day, in a data-driven way.

What all the candidates in the mayoral race have to contend with is the fallout of the pandemic. The economy has been devastated and the city faces a massive budget crunch, exacerbating the pressure to provide basic city services. Unemployment is at a high, though jobs have begun to slowly return as the city and state have reopened.

“We need to get people back employed across the city and then start to really think about building economic mobility,” Garcia said, acknowledging the challenges ahead. “And there are things that I think we can do more effectively but also in partnership with our broader commercial and business community.”

Garcia blamed the mayor for some of the many woes currently facing the city, particularly on quality of life issues. “I know that the city is confronted with a very severe fiscal crisis and I'm sure difficult choices had to be made,” she said of major budget cuts to the sanitation and parks departments. “I would just have made different choices. You cannot have the city come back to where it needs to come back to if you can't go to a park because it's dirty're seeing litter baskets overflowing on street corners.”

In her responsibilities as sanitation commissioner, Garcia came face to face with the many issues that she said plague the city’s bureaucracy, whether it’s the lengthy procurement procedure (“the bane of my existence”) or the slow-moving land use process. “It just takes us too long. It takes us too long to buy anything. It takes us too long to build anything or even get approval for doing that,” she said.

“We aren't as transparent as we should be about our key performance metrics. The mayor should know at the end of the day, did we have a good day? Did we have a bad day? And that shouldn't be driven by what's in the news, necessarily. That should be driven by what are the numbers.” She also said she would “restructure, and consolidate and streamline” certain bureaucracies but would not name any particular agencies or offices.

Even tackling issues like redesigning commercial and residential waste disposal helped expose flaws in how the city handles problems. “What do we want from the public realm and how can we achieve that?” she said. “There's an enormous amount of competition for street space, parking spaces, restaurant space now, bike lanes, bus lanes, but I think if we start to reimagine it, we can achieve a lot of these varying goals. And we should also just be experimenting like crazy, rather than lots of studies. Let’s do something, try it, if it doesn't work, let's move on.”

Having served as interim chair and CEO of NYCHA, and then as vice chair of the NYCHA Board of Directors, Garcia offered specific criticisms of the city’s management of public housing. Though under de Blasio NYCHA’s operating expenses have been brought under control, the agency needs as much as $40 billion to bring all its developments to a state of good repair. The city, under current NYCHA Chair and CEO Greg Russ (and a federal monitor), has begun to implement a plan to raise those funds through a combination of programs including transferring several developments to private management under the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program and through an infill development program which would build mixed-income housing on unused NYCHA land.

Garcia said Russ’ plan has been “actually very creative” but said she wouldn’t have necessarily taken the same approach. “My feeling when I was at NYCHA was, there had been so much under-investment. So it didn't necessarily have to go in this way but there’s so much underinvestment, there's so much need, that whatever is the quickest way to get dollars that fix bathrooms and fix kitchens and make sure the heat’s working, I am supportive of.”

She said the infill program “would not be my first priority. My first priority would be to do the traditional RAD program as well as the plan that Greg Russ has come up with to use these vouchers and finance off of them. But I certainly would not turn away an opportunity that would generate money for NYCHA residents. Anything we can do to be creative, to generate money for them I think is very important.”

[Listen to the full conversation: Max & Murphy Podcast: Kathryn Garcia on Trash, Food & Possibly Running for Mayor]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

'The City Needs a Crisis Manager': Kathryn Garcia Plots a Run for Mayor Tue, 22 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Despite Requests, No Sign of De Blasio Plan for Managing Billions in City Borrowing He's Seeking requests despite mayor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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

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

Despite Requests, No Sign of De Blasio Plan for Managing Billions in City Borrowing He's Seeking Wed, 16 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Kathryn Garcia on Trash, Food, & Possibly Running for Mayor dos kg 600

Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, middle (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

September 16, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Kathryn Garcia on Trash, Food & Possibly Running for Mayor

Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who has been tasked with several other key roles by Mayor Bill de Blasio, is stepping down from her post as she considers jumping into the 2021 Democratic primary for Mayor. She joined the show to discuss her tenure at the Department of Sanitation, her work as interim NYCHA CEO and the "COVID-19 food czar," her approach to management and politics, and what she's thinking about in ehr exploration of a mayoral run.

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 248: Kathryn Garcia Considers A Run For Mayor

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Kathryn Garcia on Trash, Food, & Possibly Running for Mayor Wed, 16 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
As City Reopens, De Blasio’s ‘Better Buses’ Plan Stuck in Traffic 1 as grows

Mayor de Blasio on the bus (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Early in June, when New York City was just entering phase one of its economic “reopening” and the city still had daily triple-digit coronavirus death counts, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an ambitious plan, the Better Bus Restart Initiative, to add 20 more miles of bus lanes and five new busways by October, in addition to making the 14th Street busway permanent. While this plan, offered during a unique opportunity to rethink city street use, did not go as far as many public officials and advocates would have liked, it was a significant move by a mayor who has paid limited attention to the city’s buses, ridden by about 388,000 people, mostly low-income people of color, each weekday before the pandemic hit.

Now, just over three months later, only four of the nine announced bus projects -- five busways and four extended bus lanes -- have been completed. The Jay Street busway opened behind schedule earlier this week in Downtown Brooklyn, and several others delayed, most notably the Main Street Flushing busway that de Blasio said launch in June. Busways offer city buses near-exclusive use of their routes, with limited additional vehicular traffic allowed, and thus faster mass transit speed for riders.

The Department of Transportation estimates that “more than 45,000 daily bus riders on seven routes” are benefiting from faster service as a result of the completed projects, and described the previous situation on Jay Street as “a bottleneck for buses.”

A DOT spokesperson says it is “still planning to complete implementation this summer and fall” on the Better Buses program. The Jay Street busway was originally planned to start in August. We are working closely with community advisory boards on the remaining bus projects,” said a DOT spokesperson.

The three other completed bus projects in the Better Buses program are bus lanes on East 14th Street, 149th Street, and Malcolm X Boulevard. DOT says that they've completed 4.4 miles of the planned 20 miles of new bus lanes under this initiative so far. On the horizon, a bus lane on the E.L. Grant Highway is currently under construction in the Bronx.

Along with Main Street Flushing, two of the other announced busways are also already behind schedule. Busways on Jamaica Avenue in Queens and 5th Avenue in Manhattan were expected to be operational by July, per de Blasio’s initial announcement, which he said on June 8 was not getting sufficient press attention. The final remaining busway, on 181st Street in Manhattan, was announced to start in October.

On the Main Street busway specificially, DOT is taking more time to continue community outreach, according to a spokesperson, who noted the department recently gave a presentation to the project’s Community Advisory Board. It has also scheduled two information sessions, via Zoom, for local residents, on September 10 in English and Chinese and September 14 in English, Korean, and Spanish.

The DOT spokesperson also noted the other infrastructural improvements the department has made in recent months, including activating Transit Signal Priority at 285 intersections, installing Real Time Passenger Information at Bus Time Signs at 40 stops, adding bus lane cameras to several new routes, and constructing bike lanes to accompany the Jay Street busway.

This hasn’t satisfied many transportation advocates.

“It’s become clear that we’re headed towards a crisis,” according to a spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit advocacy group. The group has begun calling the looming crisis “Carmageddon.” According to Transportation Alternative’s recent report by that name, in August, bridge and tunnel car crossings were less than 20% off pre-pandemic levels, while bus ridership was still down 35% and subway and rail ridership down nearly 75% from pre-pandemic levels. Road traffic overall was only off 9% from 2019 levels, despite many New Yorkers continuing to work from home.

The report surmises, “As more commuters opt to drive, and little accommodation is made for the safety and efficiency of those who do not, New York could soon see a gridlocked, exhaust-choked, and crash-laden ‘Carmageddon.’”

“The City must act quickly to avoid this impending catastrophe,” a Transportation Alternatives spokesperson said. “The only way to stem car traffic and its repercussions is to invest in a citywide network of bus and bike lanes, and more forward quickly with congestion pricing. The future of our streets is at stake.”

Earlier this month, Transportation Alternatives’ executive director, Danny Harris, was one of 12 members of Mayor de Blasio’s Surface Transportation Advisory Council, convened in June to advise the mayor on the city’s transportation needs during its recovery from the pandemic shutdown, who criticized the mayor’s handling of transit amid the city’s reopening process and his failure to more fully consider and move on the advisory council’s recommendations. They cited problems including rising traffic fatalities and rising car ownership rates that the mayor is not, in their opinion, properly addressing.

The open letter was signed by leaders from Transportation Alternatives, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, AAA of New York State, the Community Service Society of New York, Via, Riders Alliance, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the NYC BID Association, the Brown Bike Girl, and the Regional Plan Association, as well as Sam Schwartz, a former city traffic commissioner, and Quemel Arroyo, a disability transit advocate.

These members of the mayor’s Surface Transportation Advisory Council simultaneously released its numerous suggestions, highlighting several in the 12 members’ letter, with public transportation as top priority. The council members called for at least 40 miles of emergency bus lanes to be implemented this summer. They also want to see a connected bike network, expanded sidewalks, and repurposed street and parking spaces for restaurants, retails, cultural institutions, and open space.

Additionally, they declared these “improvements must prioritize communities of color, neighborhoods without adequate transportation and public space infrastructure, and streets most impacted by traffic crashes and pollution.”

“It is not enough to tell New Yorkers not to buy a car. We need the City to actively promote and restore public confidence in alternative modes of transportation, including taxis, for-hire vehicles, and pooled rides,” the letter reads.

If traffic congestion surges further, the group advocates a “contingency plan for vehicular restriction into the Manhattan Central Business District,” including HOV2+ restriction during peak periods and continued work towards congestion pricing

According to the letter, “Recovering from COVID-19 requires us to reimagine our city, especially our streets, for the better. Without your decisive and immediate action, we may lose New York City’s future to growing congestion, pollution, inequality, and traffic violence.”

On September 2, when the open letter was publicized, de Blasio was asked if he had done enough on transportation and to respond to the critiques from his own appointees. He responded, “If folks are disgruntled and they don’t want to acknowledge what’s really happening, well, I can't do much about that. I can only tell you what’s happening.” He then cited the Open Streets initiative, the 14th Street busway, expanded bike lanes, the Citi Bike program, the NYC Ferry, and expanded Select Bus Service, saying “that sounds like a lot to me.” He did not answer whether or not he would implement the group’s call for 40 miles of emergency bus lanes or other suggestions.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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As City Reopens, De Blasio’s ‘Better Buses’ Plan Stuck in Traffic Thu, 10 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Is It Really Layoffs or Loans? De Blasio's Other Options to Find $1 Billion presents fiscal yr

Mayor de Blasio at a budget presentation (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio finds himself in a tricky fiscal situation as the city needs to find $1 billion by the end of the month to balance its budget. Federal aid is nowhere in sight, Albany has so far refused to allow the city to borrow the funds, and state budget cuts are also on the horizon. At the end of his rope, the mayor says he may have to lay off 22,000 municipal workers. But that nuclear option may not be necessary, and there are ways de Blasio could achieve the $1 billion goal that was baked into the city’s new budget without firing thousands of employees during a pandemic-caused recession.

[Read: Where De Blasio's Push to Borrow Billions Stands]

The $88.2 billion fiscal year 2021 New York City budget, passed July 1, was meant to be balanced on a guarantee that the administration could negotiate with labor unions to find $1 billion in recurring savings or resort to layoffs. One-time cuts will not be sufficient as that budget hole is expected to carry forward into the next fiscal year, when the total budget gap will grow to about $4.2 billion. Without those savings, the city will have to implement layoffs, preparations for which have already been made.

The mayor announced on August 31 that layoff notices would be delayed, and that he and union leaders were working to convince the state Legislature and Governor Cuomo to approve legislation allowing the city the ability to borrow $5 billion to balance the current year’s and next year’s budgets. City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Council Speaker Corey Johnson have also come around to the idea of borrowing, but only with controls on spending, lending important voices to de Blasio’s push. Without that borrowing authority, the layoff process will resume, de Blasio said.

However, a variety of fiscal watchdogs say the mayor has alternative paths he could take to get to $1 billion, without risking people’s livelihoods or adding to the city’s already significant debt obligations by borrowing against the future.

Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit group, released a report on September 2 that identified more than a dozen viable measures that could substitute for layoffs and borrowing and altogether save more than $1 billion. “The Mayor presents New Yorkers with a false choice: either borrow to fund operations or lay off 22,000 municipal employees,” said CBC President Andrew Rein in a statement. “Neither currently is necessary and both have far reaching negative impacts.”

As CBC also noted, the adopted budget eliminates funds set aside in the city’s labor reserves for future wage increases. “Eliminating the funds essentially means the City’s starting position for negotiations will be a two-year wage freeze,” the CBC report reads, adding that a wage freeze is an “appropriate” step to take, though de Blasio has thus far downplayed the idea. 

Among CBC’s recommendations is a reduction of the city’s headcount – which stands at more than 325,000 full-time and full time-equivalent employees – through attrition. CBC estimated that about 23,000 employees, roughly 7.1%, retire or resign to take other jobs every year. Those employees are also paid more than the most junior workers who would be the first to be let go if layoffs are executed. However, attrition does give the administration less control over which workers leave city employment. CBC also notes that the city could provide early retirement incentives (ERI), though the savings from those are not as high as attrition or layoffs. In 2010, the report points out,14,371 state and local employees agreed to an ERI program, resulting in a net benefit of $681 million over two years.

The best method for finding new and recurring savings would be to make changes to health insurance costs, CBC recommends, particularly by requiring municipal workers to contribute to health care premiums, which could save between $531 million and $1.1 billion annually depending on the level of contribution required. Employees currently pay nothing into those premiums. “The generosity of this benefit also exceeds that of other state and local governments,” the report notes. It also calls for premium sharing for pre-Medicare retirees, and eliminating a reimbursement for certain Medicare benefits which could save $400 million each year, among other reforms.

CBC recommends several changes to union work rules to create more productivity savings, including extending a civilian overtime cap to skilled trades and uniformed workers and standardizing work hours.

The Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan city agency, does not make judgements on the administration’s proposed plans but it has recently highlighted a series of its prior reports from December 2018 that cover a myriad of savings options the city could employ. Though, many of those numbers are estimates based on the costs of specific programs that are likely affected by the larger budget crisis.

IBO makes many of the same recommendations as CBC on cutting wage and benefits costs, particularly for health care. It estimated that the city could save $590 million from requiring health insurance contributions by current employees and retirees.

Among other steps, the city could cut down on subsidies, including by diverting paratransit trips to taxis, eliminating $70 million in annual city funding for nonpublic schools, and by ending the Department of Education’s role as a sponsor for the Fashion Institute of Technology, a SUNY community college, which costs $58 million each year.

Certain programs could be eliminated or amended, such as assessing only half of school buildings every year rather than all of them, which would save $7 million and still meet state requirements, saving $29 million each year by using open source software instead of licensed software, and raising $17 million annually by requiring landlords to get operating permits for rental buildings similar to restaurant permits.

IBO also offers that the city could also change staffing and work rules. Consolidating building, fire, environmental protection, and housing inspections would save $25 million each year. Eliminating paid union release time (where the city pays union workers for their time spent on union activity) would save $30 million in the first year. The administration could also increase the workweek for about 76,200 nonmanagerial, nonschool based, full-time civilian employees from 35 or 37.5 hours to 40 hours a week, and thereby reduce the city’s overall headcount since it would need 12.5% fewer workers to cover the same number of hours. That change could lead to $234 million in savings in the first year, growing to $767 million over three years, though it would require collective bargaining.

There are reimbursements the city could demand from the state for temporarily housing technical parole violators in city jails and for holding pretrial detainees in local jails for more than one year.

James Parrott, an economist at The New School's Center for New York City Affairs, said in a phone interview that an early retirement package may be the “single most essential thing” that the mayor could provide to avoid layoffs or loans, though it may not bring in the entire $1 billion. “The mayor and the unions really need to double down on that,” Parrott said.

Parrott did propose a few other ideas, though the mayor does not have unilateral power to implement them. Chiefly, he said the city and state should reconsider large property tax exemptions that have been provided to developments like Hudson Yards. The Hudson Yards exemptions, in particular, he said, are “really hard to defend” given the city’s fiscal crunch and the fact that it serves the types of industries that have been relatively unscathed during the pandemic compared to the larger economy.

“Those were not necessary when it was developed. They're certainly not necessary now,” he said of the tax exemptions. “There's nothing to prevent the city from trying to get the Hudson Yards developers to agree to that. They can't dictate it. They'd have to get their acceptance of that. But I think they need to start turning up the pressure on that.

Parrott questioned whether long-standing properties like Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, and Citi Field should continue to get similar property tax breaks. “All of those entities are owned by billionaire owners who should be contributing to the city's plight at this time,” he  said.

He did defend the mayor when it came to the city’s massively increased budget and headcount, which he said have not grown beyond what should be expected or necessary when the economy grew at such a substantial pace at the same time. “More economic activity in New York City means greater need for public services,” he said.

Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the think tank the Manhattan Institute, has said the city needs to both institute a wage freeze as well as cancel $1.5 billion in back pay for teachers which it is expected to pay out in October.

“No public sector employee should expect a private sector tax base that has now lost more than 900,000 jobs in New York City to support wage increases for the public sector workforce,” she said at a virtual discussion hosted by the Manhattan Institute in May. At the time, she called on the administration to enact furloughs to preempt more harmful layoffs come Fall. She also called for a pay cap, including for nonunion workers, such as top city agency staff who make well into the six figures. “Forcing public servants to live temporarily within a salary that is comfortable even for New York City — especially since many households have more than one earner — isn’t just symbolic,” she wrote in the New York Post on July 5. “It would save $200 million a year, ­according to an analysis of raw data provided by SeeThroughNY. That’s a whole fifth of the $1 billion in draconian cuts the mayor warns he will have to make.”

Some elected officials have also floated ideas that could cut city spending without terminating workers or affecting services. For instance, City Council Member Ben Kallos, who chairs the contracts committee, proposed in June that the city could save $15 billion by eliminating tax exemptions for real estate developers and by eliminating waste in city contracts, according to a Daily News report.

Prior to the passage of the new city budget, the City Council had called on the mayor to institute between 5-7% in cuts at all city agencies. To balance the budget, the administration found only about $2.8 billion in cuts through a Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG) and citywide savings, which the Council found insufficient.

At the time, Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Daniel Dromm and Vanessa Gibson, chairs of the Committee on Finance and Subcommittee on Capital Budget, respectively, warned the mayor in a May 30 letter that without savings, the city would have to rely on incurring costly debt. “[W]e must search agency budgets for more savings to ensure that we have done everything we can to balance the budget without resorting to borrowing that will have significant long-term implications for New York City’s future,” they wrote.

Comptroller Scott Stringer similarly noted that most of those savings were one-time reductions instead of recurring savings that could help offset budget gaps in the future. In his May 21 testimony to the City Council on the mayor’s executive budget, he had called for a 4% reduction in agency spending that would save almost $1 billion a year. “Not only do these one-time cuts leave our City’s youth high and dry this summer – they also don’t translate into longer-term savings,” he said at the time. “In fact, recurring savings are only a small fraction of agency budgets — because the Mayor simply didn’t ask most agencies for recurring savings at all.  Too much agency spending is simply on auto-pilot.  But it’s no longer possible to do business as usual.”

Stringer has also proposed cuts in other places, including spending on outside consultants, street homeless outreach, and the ThriveNYC mental health initiative, according to a City & State report.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, in June, proposed a recovery plan for the city that dealt with varying levels of budget deficits while also addressing a growing call for diverting funds from the NYPD’s $6 billion annual operating budget. Among the proposals he put forward included civilianizing over-staffed NYPD units, cuts to overtime, and forensic audits of the department’s notoriously opaque spending. Adams also recommended eliminating political appointees who serve in advisory or administrative roles, expanding the role of franchises that can build infrastructure and receive multi-year service contracts in exchange, among a series of other suggestions.

And in order to bring in new revenue, a discussion mostly happening at the state level around added taxes on the highest earners or certain financial transactions, Adams is working with State Senator Andrew Gounardes on a set of proposals for new data sales taxes on multi-billion-dollar tech companies that sell private data.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Is It Really Layoffs or Loans? De Blasio's Other Options to Find $1 Billion Tue, 08 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Jury Still Out in Several Investigations of NYPD's Protest Policing bomb threat bk

NYPD officers; the department remains under multiple investigations (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

The New York City Department of Investigation (DOI) and Law Department have missed the August 31 benchmark set by Mayor Bill de Blasio to submit a final report in their joint investigation into the NYPD's response to summer protests that broke out in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Officers' frequently violent engagement with demonstrators marching against police racism and brutality led to hundreds of allegations of police misconduct and excessive force, and numerous city and state investigations, none of which have made final determinations.

In the days after Floyd's killing on May 25, peaceful marchers were corralled, beaten with batons, and arrested by NYPD officers; pepper spray was commonly used, even on nonviolent crowds; officers drove their vehicles into protesters and used helicopters to whip-up debris around them; many officers covered their badge numbers; and many didn't wear masks, against city and state guidelines, in the midst of the first widespread public gatherings of the pandemic.

The demonstrations were accompanied by destruction on the part of some protesters and others who appeared to take advantage of the moment of chaos, with police cars smashed and burned and sprees of looting. Meanwhile, persistent questions were raised about the degree of systemic police aggression. De Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea frequently discussed violence perpetrated upon NYPD officers while also offering unproven allegations of the dangerous presence of "outside agitators" and plots to harm police. They largely dismissed clear evidence of repeated incidents of unprovoked use of force by police, though in a few instances both condemned specific officers’ actions.

After two days of unrest in New York City, Governor Andrew Cuomo asked Attorney General Letitia James to investigate the NYPD's response. The same day, de Blasio said the city would conduct its own "independent review" of police-civilian interactions and the next day, May 31, he announced Department of Investigation Commissioner Margaret Garnett and Corporation Counsel Jim Johnson would lead the investigation. The NYPD is conducting its own misconduct investigations through its Internal Affairs Bureau, as well as a broader analysis by the department's operations unit and top leadership, including Shea and Chief of Department Terence Monahan. Separately, complaints from the public have initiated hundreds of investigations by the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

"The whole idea of having an independent review is to look at all the video and determine discipline for anyone who needs it, actions that should be taken additionally towards those who incited violence amongst the protesters, and any changes we need in our approach to policing," de Blasio told reporters when he announced the investigation.

"The first results will come back in June and we'll take action immediately on the initial findings," the mayor said.

On June 20, he signed an executive order outlining the scope of the investigation, in which he directed the two entities to assess the NYPD's "planning and response to the protests" and make factual findings about the events. The order also directs the Corporation Counsel to conduct a separate review of "the factors that may have impacted the events at protests" during the period under review from the first demonstrations on May 28 to the date of the order. (Members of the Office of the Inspector General of the NYPD, which is housed within DOI, are part of the team conducting the investigation, according to a DOI spokesperson.)

The order calls for a status report and for the agencies to "make best efforts to produce a final report on August 31, 2020."

But protests continued for weeks and in a June 24 letter to the mayor and other elected officials Garnett said the timeline was too short to analyze a period over 20 days long. Other investigations, either by the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau or by District Attorneys, also hampered the review, she wrote. "If there is to be individual accountability for officers involved in specific incidents, the disciplinary process and criminal investigations must be given precedence," Garnett wrote.

On September 1, DOI spokesperson Diane Struzzi told Gotham Gazette the investigation was still in progress.

"As we indicated in our June statement, the investigation is active and ongoing and DOI would endeavor to meet an August 31, 2020 deadline requested by the Mayor's Executive Order, but that the timing of the report, or series of reports, would be determined by the fact-finding process and the status of parallel proceedings," she wrote. "That has not changed."

"As we indicated in our June statement, until the completion of this investigation, DOI will not comment publicly on the investigation’s status, or provide updates to City or elected officials on our findings, unless unforeseen circumstances arise that warrant a further update," Struzzi added.

"This is vital work. We are committed to getting it right," wrote a Law Department spokesperson in an email.

The mayor's office did not provide a comment on the missed deadline.

De Blasio and Shea have also said there needs to be discipline for officers who committed specific transgressions during the protests.

"I want to see real action quickly on individual cases of discipline that need to be addressed," de Blasio said on May 31, the same day he announced the Law Department-DOI review. "I want to see real action on any officer who should not be in the police force, real action on any officer who needs to be transferred from one command to another because of performance and approach. These can all happen immediately and they will."

The NYPD did not respond to Gotham Gazette inquiries about its internal review of misconduct during the protests. At least two officers have been suspended without pay and one supervisor transferred to another precinct, according to Shea in June. One of the suspended officers has also been criminally charged with assault after he shoved a demonstrator into the curb in a particularly high-profile incident, which was caught on video and went viral on social media. His supervisor, who was present at the scene of the crime, was transferred for failing to take action. Another officer, who was caught on film pulling the mask off a protester to pepper spray them at close range while their hands were up, was suspended without pay.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board, a city entity with board members appointed largely by the mayor and tasked with investigating certain allegations of police misconduct, received over 750 complaints stemming from 250 separate incidents during the protests, a spokesperson said. According to initial figures provided by the CCRB, roughly one-third of those complaints are for inappropriate use of force, and one in five are claims that officers abused their authority.

“I strongly believe what New Yorkers saw during the protests in support of Black lives warrants fact-based, independent, civilian-led investigations into allegations of individual misconduct," wrote CCRB Chair Fred Davie in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "The CCRB is undertaking these investigations, and will be making disciplinary recommendations in the near future.”

The CCRB has the power to make recommendations for discipline when it substantiates misconduct claims, but the police commissioner retains ultimate decision-making powers about punishment.

The CCRB spokesperson told Gotham Gazette that information on final determinations, if there are any, are not available at this time.

In addition to the incident where a protester was violently shoved by an officer, district attorneys have launched several criminal investigations into other police actions.

At the state level, Attorney General James is performing a parallel investigation into NYPD behavior during the protests at the request of Governor Cuomo. The directive, issued on May 30, after two nights of demonstrations, called for the attorney general to issue a public report within 30 days.

That investigation is still ongoing, according to a spokesperson for James. In June, she held multiple day-long hearings to solicit testimony from New Yorkers who protested, some of whom testified to police brutality, as well as Shea. The police commissioner testified that officers exercised "extreme discretion" when dealing with protesters and that many of the aggressive tactics witnessed were in response to dangerous situations created by protesters. He said he had not heard of "kettling" -- a strategic maneuver in which lines of officers cordon and charge a barricaded crowd -- which was common throughout the first week of protests.

On July 8, James held a press conference announcing a preliminary report, in which she made a series of recommendations for police reform. But James prompted confusion and criticism for not making any material determinations about the behavior of police during the protests.

"I don't know if we were tasked with the ability to judge the police," James told reporters. "We were tasked with the responsibility of looking at the interactions between police and protesters during a certain period of time."

"While OAG’s investigation into NYPD’s response to the protests remains ongoing, it is clear that real, meaningful reform cannot wait," reads a statement accompanying the report. The recommendations range from major changes to NYPD structure to more frequently sounded calls.

At the top of the list is the creation of a commission to oversee the police department with the power to hire and fire the commissioner. The preliminary report also suggests the CCRB and Office of Inspector General of the NYPD (which is within DOI) both be strengthened and certain public-response duties be moved away from the NYPD. James also wanted to see codified use of force standards "with real legal consequences for violations" (per legislation passed by the City Council and signed by the mayor, the city published a "disciplinary matrix" on Monday, with a mandatory range of punishments for certain officer misconduct).

James’ final report will include an assessment of police use of force and kettling tactics, arrest practices (including the use of "extremely tight zip-tie" handcuffs), and the treatment of members of the press, legal observers, and essential workers, according to a statement from her office.

In terms of passing judgement on the NYPD's actions, James demurred.

"Well I do know that the testimony of Police Commissioner Shea was at odds with the vast majority of the protesters who came before us," she told reporters at a July press briefing. "And so what we are trying to do is continue to examine the testimony."

"Other protesters have come forward and submitted additional evidence,” she added, “and we are still in the process of examining all of the evidence before us.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Jury Still Out in Several Investigations of NYPD's Protest Policing Fri, 04 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Where De Blasio's Push to Borrow Billions Stands 1 billions push

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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

Where De Blasio's Push to Borrow Billions Stands Thu, 03 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
After Big Dip, City Jail Population Creeps Back Up de Blasio NYPD brass youth

Mayor de Blasio and top NYPD officials (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

In mid-April, Mayor Bill de Blasio took a victory lap as the city’s daily jail population fell below 4,000 for the first time in nearly 75 years. It was a marked drop of almost 1,500 since the city went into lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, and was a result of several factors, including measures the mayor took to release hundreds of detainees whose health was at risk. But the jail population has slowly begun to increase, reaching 4,160 on September 1, as the city heads down a path to normalcy and amid a large spike in gun violence, rollbacks to bail reform laws, and calls by the police commissioner, among others, that too many defendants and detainees were being released.

On March 13, when the city was still coming to grips with the rapidly escalating pandemic, the daily jail population stood at 5,432, according to Department of Correction data compiled by the Vera Institute for Justice. By April 29, it dropped to a low of 3,809 before slowly beginning to increase, crossing the 4,000 mark on August 7. The number of people admitted to jails has fluctuated in that time but was slightly higher in August compared to March.

The recent uptick in the total jail population, according to a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), has been “driven by more people coming in charged with robberies, guns, and a series of non violent felonies.” Even though arrests have generally dipped this year, by as much as 60,000 according to a New York Post report, the NYPD has recently begun making more gun-related arrests, the mayor and police commissioner have said. Gun arrests are still down about 5.7% through August, according to the Post, despite so many more cases.

Over the course of years the de Blasio administration has taken significant steps to reduce the number of people in city jails. At the start of de Blasio’s first term in 2014, the jail population was 11,289, according to MOCJ. Since then, through a series of administrative measures and legislative reforms at both the city and state levels, including a recent state law that significantly curbed the use of cash bail, there has been a steady decline in that number.

Spurred on by the City Council, the mayor in 2017 announced a plan to close the scandal-ridden Rikers Island jail complex by 2026 and replace it with four borough-based jails, predicated on reducing the population down to 5,000 at least. The new jails are set to be built to hold a total of 3,795 beds, with the intention that only 3,300 people would be detained in the four facilities on any given day.

When the pandemic hit and it became clear that Rikers was becoming a hotspot for infections, the mayor and Governor Andrew Cuomo separately announced plans to release detainees in the jail system; roughly 300 detainees who were serving short sentences were placed into supervised release to serve their remaining sentences at home, while another 500 or so who were being held on technical parole violations were also let out. About 600 pretrial detainees were released through collaboration between prosecutors and judges.

“We have reached a historic milestone, and done so in a way that is both humanitarian and just,” de Blasio said in a statement on April 12, when the jail population fell below 4,000. “This achievement is one part of the overall effort to create a system that is smaller, safer, and fairer for all,” he added.

Advocates for criminal justice reform say the city should not squander what headway it made and should pursue policies that emphasize decarceration, particularly as the pandemic progresses and the city could see a second wave of the coronavirus.

“What we're kind of seeing now is that there was a lot of pressure initially to keep people out of jail, obviously very dangerous congregate settings, and that’s changed...Just more people are being sent to jail now than there were before,” said Nick Malinowski, civil rights campaigns director of VOCAL-NY, an advocacy group and service provider.

As Malinowski pointed out, the court system has been partially stalled by the pandemic, which means that detainees have little recourse of being released even as arraignments continue. While the mayor has called for the courts to resume full operations, it’s because he believes it will help stem a recent uptick in gun violence. Along with NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, de Blasio has said that prosecutions of gun arrests cannot be completed because grand juries cannot be convened.

“The intention from the mayor's office and the police commissioner's office of sort of provoking the court to start stacking people in there for misdemeanors again was not to move cases for people who are incarcerated,” Malinowski said.

Public defenders have also said that the suspension of grand juries has simply meant that some individuals are being detained for longer. "To the extent that the court is not functioning to its full capacity, the result is more people being held in jail than previously would have been,” said Alice Fontier, managing director for Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, in an interview with Gotham Gazette in late July. To add to that, people continue to be sent back to jail for technical parole violations, as The City recently reported.

City Council Member Keith Powers, chair of the Council’s Criminal Justice Committee, said the state Legislature needs to approve a bill that would limit detention for those types of minor violations. “I have long advocated for the passage of the Less is More Act, which would help to reduce the jail population and reduce the detainment of people in on technical parole violations,” he said in a statement. “I urge Albany to pass that legislation as soon as possible before a potential second wave of COVID-19.” On September 21, Powers’ committee will hold an oversight hearing to examine how the Department of Correction has responded to the Covid-19 crisis.

What worries reform advocates is that the mayor and commissioner continue to question policies that would reduce the city’s reliance on incarceration as a public safety solution. Police Commissioner Shea, for instance, in a July 6 interview on NY1 blamed the rise in gun violence in part on the release of detainees from Rikers. “Look at the Rikers population of the last’s about half,” he said. “Where is that other half right now? We’ve transplanted general population to the streets of New York City and it’s extremely frustrating.”

Shea has questioned if the city jail population shouldn’t be closer to 10,000.

As Malinowski pointed out, “You have a police commissioner and the mayor relying on these old themes, tough-on-crime kind of rhetoric, despite it not being backed up by any kind of data or evidence.” He noted that they both expressed strong resistance when the state first passed the bail reform law, which was later watered down with a change that went into effect July 1. “We need a realignment of how the government responds to issues in the community...We need to create a politics of compassionate care, as opposed to this punitive sort of politics,” Malinowski added.

“New York is just not ready to decouple this notion that we need to have a very high jail population or always be sending people to jail in order to you know, quote-unquote, be safe,” said Marie Ndiaye, supervising attorney of the Decarceration Project at the Legal Aid Society.

Ndiaye said the city should still be releasing as many people as possible, considering the pandemic is far from over. “You can't go inside and eat in a restaurant but you can be held in a congregate setting that's a jail,” she said.

[Read: Little Support for De Blasio's Claim that Court Shutdown is Driving Gun Violence Surge]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

After Big Dip, City Jail Population Creeps Back Up Wed, 02 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000