Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/63 Tue, 20 Apr 2021 06:59:22 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) What's Your UPK? Leading Democratic Mayoral Candidates' One Big Idea https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10397-whats-your-upk-mayor-candidates-big-ideas https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10397-whats-your-upk-mayor-candidates-big-ideas pre k mayoral candidate big

Mayor de Blasio pushes pre-K (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)


Just three months into his first term in 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio was successful in convincing the state Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo to approve funding for universal pre-kindergarten, still his signature accomplishment after more than seven years in office. It was his boldest policy proposal as a mayoral candidate, one that he talked about incessantly throughout his 2013 campaign and that continues to be hailed as a success, and one he has expanded on by launching free public preschool for three-year-olds.

As the 2021 mayoral race to replace de Blasio progresses, with the June primary just two months away (early voting starts June 12, primary day is June 22), the Democratic candidates are offering extensive platforms of their own as they try to portray themselves as the most qualified and visionary to bring the city back from the brink of the pandemic and usher in a prosperous future. Some of the leading candidates — there’s a top tier of eight — have advanced big, transformative ideas akin to de Blasio’s “UPK” that they are trying to hammer home as defining proposals, while others are pitching their candidacies on more complex multi-pronged plans for the city’s recovery.

Of course, there are many differences between New York City in 2021 and 2013, when the city was in the early years of an economic boom that would last until the coronavirus hit last year. De Blasio won eight years ago on a platform of addressing inequality, with universal pre-kindergarten as his central policy promise, while also stressing police reform and more.

New Yorkers are looking to de Blasio’s successor to fix the city’s multifaceted crises, exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic and for which there is no panacea.

“Things were pretty well, were kind of in an equilibrium and kind of balanced and things seemed okay in 2013, which enabled de Blasio to project Universal pre-K as his signature idea of how to make things better,” said Bruce Gyory, a veteran Democratic strategist with the firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, in a phone interview.  This year, however, “In some sense, there's a higher standard for being able to, in effect, make the case for a signature idea.”

Still, owning a signature policy idea that appeals to a large swath of voters and opinion-makers can be beneficial in any electoral race, just ask de Blasio — or the current frontrunner in the race to replace him: Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur who came to prominence running for president on Universal Basic Income (UBI). Yang, riding high off the name recognition and goodwill from that campaign, has been leading mayoral polls in the early months of his bid, while offering a significantly adjusted cash relief plan.

Here’s a look at how the top Democratic mayoral candidates are pitching a signature:

Andrew Yang: Cash Grants for the Poorest New Yorkers
Yang is the early frontrunner, jumping into the race with announcing a mayoral race version of a cash relief plan modelled off the Universal Basic Income (UBI) proposal he ran for president on. His plan for the city would give 500,000 of the poorest New Yorkers an average of $2,000 every year, at a cost of about $1 billion, which Yang has said he would seek to grow through a combination of government and private funds. He hasn’t fully explained how he would pay for the initial $1 billion, though he has pointed to some of the big buckets he says the money would come from, including government efficiencies, and any mayor may be able to figure out how to carve $1 billion out of a $90-plus billion budget for a signature program, especially if it helps create its own savings, as Yang says his grant program would.

Among the other ways Yang proposes raising the money is through eliminating tax breaks for property-tax exempt landlords like Madison Square Garden and Columbia University.

Basic income is by far Yang’s most popular idea, though not an original one, and one that even other mayoral candidates have embraced in some form. Through the program, Yang aims to end poverty in the city, a laudable but arduous goal in a city where about 19% of residents lived at or below the federal poverty line even before the pandemic.

While Yang is clearly still known based on UBI, the mantle for which he says he picked up from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., among others (Martin Luther King III is a co-chair of Yang’s campaign), he has not made his municipal cash grant plan quite the same focus as he made UBI during his presidential bid. That could change as the race heats up and he starts airing television and other ads. Yang talks about the plan regularly, but has often been much more focused on his broader push for the city’s economic recovery.

Eric Adams: The People’s Plan
Adams’ chief proposal is a three-part “People’s Plan” that directly takes aim at the inefficiencies in city government that he says cause socio-economic and racial disparities. 

At the core of the plan is his proposed MyCity centralized digital portal that would allow New Yorkers to easily access all city services, automatic cash benefits, and free or discounted childcare.

The portal would help with everything from obtaining food stamps and renewing business permits to creating bank accounts and resolving building code violations. 

Adams’ People’s Plan also includes a commitment to universal childcare. Among the measures he has proposed is reducing the costs for childcare programs by setting aside space in city-owned buildings, offering density bonuses to residential developers who guarantee permanently free or low rent to childcare providers, and tax breaks for office building owners to create such space free of charge.

The third aspect of his plan is NYC Advanced Income Deployment (AID), which would increase the amount of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and provide it to needy families in advanced monthly payments. According to his campaign, the credit would increase from about $250 annually to $3,000 annually for a family with two children earning $30,000 a year.

“To reverse inequality and help New Yorkers who are struggling, Eric will launch his People’s Plan to provide cash, benefits, and childcare through one platform, automatically delivering assistance when it is most needed,” said Evan Thies, a campaign spokesperson, in a statement. “This revolutionary approach will lift up working people and people of color to get through this crisis and ensure they have the resources they need after to thrive.”

While Adams regularly talks about these ideas, he has not been beating the drum about them in the way that would make even those following the mayoral race closely able to quickly identify them as his signature ideas.

Scott Stringer: Universal Affordable Housing
At an April 8 forum hosted by The Nation, when asked about his signature initiative, Stringer talked about ending the city’s hoomelessness crisis by addressing the shortage of low-income housing. “I want to make sure that we're finally going to do something that Michael Bloomberg couldn't do, or Bill de Blasio wouldn't do, and that is to build real low-income housing,” he said. “I didn't say affordable housing, I said low-income housing.”

Stringer has been focused on affordable housing as comptroller, repeatedly critiquing de Blasio’s housing plans and approach to homelessness, while offering his own extensive housing platform from the comptroller’s office that became the basis of his campaign plan.

In a statement through a spokesperson on Friday, Stringer added, “My big idea is that New York should be an affordable city for everyone to live in, and my plan is Universal Affordable Housing: require any new building that gets built with more than 10 apartments — anywhere in the city — to make 25% of those apartments actually affordable to middle- and low-income families. It would fundamentally change the paradigm of how we build housing in this city and create affordable housing and greater diversity in every neighborhood.”

Stringer proposed his plan early last year, releasing it officially from the office of comptroller but clearly aimed at the mayoral campaign. His plan would require that all the units built under the Universal Affordable Housing mandate would have to be at an average of 60% of Area Median Income, which is about $58,000 annually for two adults making minimum wage with a child. He would also end the $1.6 billion annual 421-a tax break for developers, he has said, which is supposed to spur affordable housing set-asides in wealthier areas but has been roundly criticized as inefficient. A change would need state approval.

Stringer also pledged to use city capital funding to finance the production of housing for extremely and very low-income households and said he would create a non-profit land bank to build 100% permanently affordable housing on about 1,000 vacant lots owned by the city (a number the de Blasio administration has repeatedly disputed in terms of how many lots are actually available and buildable for housing).

"I've fought for tenants and truly affordable housing from days as a housing activist organizing Mitchell-Lama tenants to my days in the State Assembly and to my time as Borough President and Comptroller,” Stringer added. “Real affordable housing has always been my fight, and I know that we can only address homelessness in this city by creating deeply affordable homes. As mayor, that’s what I’ll do.”

While Stringer has regularly raised his housing plan at events and candidate forums, he has thus far not made a concerted effort to be known by it.

Ray McGuire: The Comeback Plan
Former Citigroup executive Ray McGuire’s major proposal is his economic “Comeback Plan” to fuel the city’s recovery by creating 500,000 jobs.

The three-part plan, which McGuire talks about fairly incessantly, includes small business stimulus, easing the cost of doing business in the city, and an infrastructure plan. McGuire regularly says his “Go big, go small, go forward” plan will foster “the most inclusive comeback” the city has ever seen.

The plan includes a Comeback Job Accelerator to subsidize 50% of wages for 50,000 small business workers for one year. It would target businesses that lost more than 40% of total revenue in 2020, prioritizing the hardest hit communities. McGuire says he could pay for it through city government efficiencies and federal aid that is flowing to the city in the American Rescue Plan recently passed by President Joe Biden and the Congress.

McGuire’s plan also entails allowing businesses to retain the sales tax they collect for a year, automatically renewing permits and licenses without fees for a year, financial incentives for property owners who forgive or reduce rents for small businesses, reducing utility bills for small businesses, and creating a Red Tape Commission to ease regulations, among other measures.

It also includes a Comeback Bank Initiative to extend capital to community banks and expand lending to small businesses. McGuire says he will also create a $50 million fund for advances or low-interest loans through the initiative to help small Minority- and Women-Owned Businesses get city contracts.

McGuire also wants to reduce the cost of the city’s capital infrastructure program while accelerating its pace and the amount of funds spent every year.

Among the eight leading Democratic mayoral candidates, McGuire may be the closest to actively establishing his candidacy around his ‘big idea’ first and foremost, including through the campaign literature he has already been mailing to voters around the city. In doing so, McGuire is trying to best capitalize on his big business background given his decades on Wall Street, where he rose to one of the top executives in the banking industry.

Maya Wiley: Universal Care Economy
Former counsel to the mayor Maya Wiley has proposed a plan for Universal Community Care that would cost $300 million to provide $5,000 annually to 100,000 informal caregivers in the care economy. The funds would come partly from the federal government and partly from freezing cadet classes at the NYPD and the Department of Correction for two years. That would reduce the NYPD’s headcount by 2,250 officers and DOC headcount by 750 officers, according to her campaign.

The caregiving industry is one of the fastest growing sectors of employment in New York City and is largely made up of women of color, who Wiley has been concertedly courting in her bid for mayor. “One of the things we know about this pandemic is that it has decimated work, in particular work for women and work for women of color in the care economy,” Wiley said at the forum hosted by The Nation, touting her care economy plan as her signature initiative when asked.

Besides direct cash relief, Wiley has also proposed building Community Care Centers in the highest-need neighborhoods to provide services to 300,000 people in the first year and growing to 1 million young, old, and other higher-needs people once fully built out. The program would be overseen by a newly-created deputy mayor, she has said.

Wiley’s plan also includes stronger wage and pay enforcement for care workers by expanding the Paid Care Division of the Department of Consumer Affairs and expanding who qualifies as a care worker, a portable benefits program for domestic workers, among other steps.

“This really is a game-changer in terms of how we think about care as well as the caring economy,” Wiley said at the forum.

Dianne Morales: Defund the NYPD
Former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales’ call to defund the NYPD by $3 billion and to reallocate those funds into communities is central to her campaign, and among her ardent left-wing followers and many others following the race, she has become well-known for that plan. It builds on efforts by criminal justice reformers who escalated the call for reducing police spending after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota last year, which prompted months of sustained outrage and protest in the streets of New York City, where protesters connected it to local examples of police brutality.

Morales has not been specific about how she would reallocate funds but has outlined various uses for the $3 billion. She wants to create a new Community First Responders Department, distinct from the police, to respond to people experiencing mental health crises or homelessness, for instance. She also wants to remove the NYPD entirely from non-criminal law enforcement purposes such as school safety, traffic enforcement, homeless outreach, or drug intervention.

She has also called for an elected Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which investigates certain types of police misconduct.

Among the other uses Morales proposed for the funds are free legal services for immigrants, investments in violence interruption programs and funding harm reduction and safe consumption programs. Along with McGuire’s focus on his economic recovery plan, Morales may be among the candidates most closely identifiable by her signature proposal at this point.

Kathryn Garcia: A True Green Future
At the April 8 The Nation forum, former city sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia emphasized that the next mayor needs to be able to pursue multiple major policies at the same time. But, she added, “I believe that the thing that I want to leave this city is a really true green future.”

That entails, she said, 150 million more square feet of green infrastructure, eliminating peaker plants, turning Rikers Island into a renewable energy hub, a Green New Deal for NYCHA, and a fully-electrified school bus fleet, to name a few things. “Because all of these environmental programs mean not only are we protecting our planet, but we're healthier today. Our air is cleaner today. Our streets are cooler today,” Garcia said. 

Her climate plan is lengthy and intersects with plans for housing, transportation, and education.

To pursue the goal of an economy fully reliant on renewable energy, among the measures she would pursue are tripling the availability of public car chargers for electric vehicles, incentivizing people to install car chargers at home, maximizing offshore wind generation, incentivizing investments in solar power, and converting food waste into energy. 

Garcia aims to make the city greener by replacing 500 blacktop schoolyards with green spaces, renovating 100 parks in communities hit hardest by COVID-19, launching a “Green Boulevard” program across the city, greening school roofs, implementing a “Natural Roofs” program combining green roofs with solar panels, and planting 1 million trees over eight years focusing on neighborhoods with high asthma rates such as the South Bronx and East New York.

She aims to get the city to zero waste by restoring and expanding curbside organics recycling and making it mandatory, opening compost facilities citywide, developing a waste reduction program, and ensuring that the city procurement for construction and equipment requires recycled and post-consumer materials.

Garcia would take a district-level approach to climate resiliency, ensuring closer coordination with communities on the ground. She would also redesign workforce programs to focus on “green collar” jobs.

“As we begin the road to recovery, we face overlapping crises and a loss of trust in government services. Kathryn knows that these challenges will not be solved by one big policy idea or catchy hashtag,” said Lindsey Green, a campaign spokesperson, in a statement on Friday. “Throughout all of Kathryn's proposals she has laid out how she will cut through red tape to make New York CIty more liveable and more equitable. Among her most ambitious proposals is her Reopen to Stay Open plan that will dramatically reimagine our public spaces by removing permitting barriers, help bring back hundreds of thousands of jobs lost to the pandemic while creating over 10,000 new jobs in green infrastructure, and make it easier than ever to open a small business with a single small business permit. Her plan also includes a jobs pipeline from CUNY and trade schools directly to city government and partnerships with the private sector to create 10,000 paid internships for high school students and zero interest microloans to boost thousands of small businesses as they recover.”

Shaun Donovan: 15-Minute Neighborhoods
Donovan, the former federal housing secretary and budget director under President Barack Obama, talked about his “15-minute neighborhoods” plan, when he was asked about his signature issue at The Nation forum.

As Donovan has explained, every person should have equitable access to good public schools, fresh food, rapid transportation, green space, health care, and economic opportunity within 15 minutes of their home. It’s the type of access that already exists in wealthier, whiter communities and is missing in low-income communities of color, he has said.

Citing his decades of government experience, Donovan said at the forum, “I have seen over and over again, the deep injustice of being able to predict a child's life chances, even life expectancy, by their zip code. It's the single greatest predictor in our city, in our country of their life chances and that has to end. And it will only end until we reorient the way we plan our city around 15-minute neighborhoods.”

Donovan, also former housing commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has made the 15-minute neighborhoods idea central to his pitch to voters in a number of settings, though he’s also tried to frame his candidacy as “the man with a plan” for just about everything.

In a lengthy statement to Gotham Gazette through a spokesperson on Friday, Donovan boasted of having proposed more than 200 policy plans so far but insisted that 15-minute neighborhoods “will be the most transformative for our city” and serves as “an intersectional framework” for his other policies.

"During my time as President Obama's Housing Secretary and Budget Director, he would often tell us to never let an opportunity go to waste. At this moment, we have an opportunity as we rebuild following this crisis to completely reimagine New York City as a place that truly works for everyone,” Donovan said, in part. “A city where all New Yorkers have easy access to the resources they need to live healthy lives, and that actively works to address long standing gaps in opportunity, wealth, and treatment. A city where the zip code you're born in can no longer determine your chances for success or your life expectancy, and where the benefits of living in New York normally reserved for a few of our residents are available to all.”

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

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What's Your UPK? Leading Democratic Mayoral Candidates' One Big Idea Mon, 19 Apr 2021 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Doubles Down on Dubious Courts Excuse for Gun Violence Spike https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10370-de-blasio-courts-excuse-gun-violence-spike https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10370-de-blasio-courts-excuse-gun-violence-spike holds media avail

Mayor de Blasio & police leaders (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio renewed unproven claims this week that a slowdown in court proceedings has contributed to an increase in shootings and murders in New York City. In multiple appearances since Monday when pressed on the ongoing gun violence surge, the mayor said the state court system was "overwhelmed" and "not functioning" and that cases have gone unadjudicated, removing essential deterrents and punishments for crimes and exposing the public to dangerous individuals.

The statements echo dubious assertions made by de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea last summer amidst protests against racist policing, a spike in gun violence, and the city's nascent pandemic reopening. Those statements were refuted at the time by state court administrators, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. Court officials -- who say courtrooms are now open after operating virtually for much of the last year -- are again calling de Blasio's accusations baseless.

"I can tell you that there are people out right now who would normally be going through a trial process and if that trial meant that they had to have a consequence they would be receiving that consequence," the mayor said in an interview Monday on NY1 with Inside City Hall anchor Errol Louis. "If there is no pathway to a consequence, I think it is one of the factors that's contributed to why we're having this uptick in violence."

The mayor's remarks were called "uninformed," "gratuitous," and "unjustified" by Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration, the state agency operating New York's court system. Chalfen defended the system's progress during the pandemic, saying, "While there is clearly a decline in activity - 'closed' or no activity couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

Gun violence and murder have been a second plague of the coronavirus pandemic since last spring. Shootings were on the rise at the beginning of 2020, and after leveling-off briefly in March as the city went into a lockdown, rose sharply in May, reaching a height of 74 shootings in one week in early July, according to the NYPD's crime tracker, CompStat. By the end of the year, the police department recorded 1,531 shootings and 462 murders, increases of 97% and 45%, respectively, compared to 2019.

Shooting incidents so far in 2021 have been up year-over-year, with 77 taking place in February 2021 compared with 44 in February 2020 (a 75% increase). March numbers are difficult to compare given it was the month last year that Governor Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio declared states of emergency in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The mayor has said factors like mass unemployment and the closure of much of public life, including elements of the justice system, have created "a perfect storm" for crime. Shea has gone further, blaming statewide bail reforms and a reduction in the city's jail population, policies de Blasio has supported and he has not blamed for the increase in gun violence. There is limited evidence that bail reform or pandemic-related releases of incarcerated individuals have contributed to the increase in shootings and murders.

One area of agreement between de Blasio and his police commissioner is that a slowdown in court activity has delayed proceedings for many people accused of serious crimes and that this has meant more violent people on city streets.

"Our court system is not functioning right now and that is making it bad for everyone. And we need to bring our courts back," de Blasio told reporters at a press briefing Monday morning, when asked about what the city is doing to stop gun violence, saying the state must make changes to get court workers vaccinated more quickly and open in-person proceedings up more fully. "The central problem right now is that there's not a functioning justice system that allows everything else to work and we need to bring that back."

"The Mayor should remember that the way shifting blame works is to be cognizant as to how another branch of government is actually functioning before doing so," Chalfen of the Office of Court Administration wrote by email.

Court activity has slowed during the pandemic but whether it has meaningfully contributed to gun violence is highly questionable.

Bill Neidhardt, a spokesperson for de Blasio, told Gotham Gazette the mayor's court-closure assertions are based on figures showing the number of individuals in jail on gun charges in the first three months of 2021 is double 2020 rates — but it’s unclear how that would then contribute to an increase in gun violence outside the jails and neither the mayor nor Neidhardt has explained. According to Neidhardt, the number of indictments for "serious crime" that have been open for more than a year was around 5,200, more than double the 2,000 from the same time last year. "Courts have all but stopped sentencing people for low-level city sentences—only one so far in 2021," he wrote in an email, though gun crimes are almost always felonies, not “low-level.”

In February, the daily number of people in jail with violent felony charges rose by over 700 to roughly 3,500, according to data from the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice website.

According to de Blasio, gun arrests are currently the highest they have been in 25 years. "[Police] are out there doing the work, and every time there's an arrest, it makes an impact. Now, we need a court system that does something about those arrests," he said at a Wednesday press briefing. The mayor did not provide data when asked by reporters for statistics to support his claims. Before the pandemic outbreak in New York, the city jails held about 5,200 detainees, a number that quickly dropped to about 3,900 given releases based on covid concerns. That census then gradually increased to about 4,800 by the end of the year, and was around 5,400 recently.

"This tired trope of his has never been true and gets further from reality on a daily basis," said Alice Fontier, managing director of Neighborhood Defender Service in Harlem, in response to the mayor's comments. "People are being arrested and bail is being set, if there is a lack of functionality in the Courts, it is to the detriment of the people who require speedy access to justice."

"There is no meaningful connection between the functionality of the Courts and crime rates," she wrote in an email. Fontier believes the courts are functioning: "My office represents only 11% of the people in Manhattan, and we alone have 73 cases scheduled today. Trials, although limited, have restarted. Attorneys and advocates have been working in the Courts every day throughout this pandemic, and continue to do so," Fontier said.

According to data provided by OCA, case filings in criminal proceedings in January and February 2021 dropped 38% statewide from the year prior and civil filings fell 45%. In New York City, the slowdown was greater for felony cases -- which include almost all gun charges -- than for misdemeanors, with felony filings dropping 38% compared with a misdemeanor dropoff of 17%.

Bail is still set for nearly all gun charges, those crimes were not part of the bail reforms in 2019 that limited the types of charges under which defendants could be released on bail. A new option to post partially-secured bail, which was expedited by more recent changes to the bail law that went into effect this year, could make it easier for defendants to be released even when bail is set for gun charges.

In the first quarter of 2021, the backlog of unadjudicated felony cases with indictments in New York City was just under 11,000, according to OCA, compared with 9,030 the year prior. (The first-quarter backlog of misdemeanors is roughly 24,800 versus 20,260 last year.) The backlog could mean low-level gun offenses, like possession, with limited evidence don't come with pre-trial jail time, but not for serious cases, like shooting and murder. There were an additional 15,730 felony charges that did not have indictments during the first quarter of 2021 because of a decrease in the number of grand juries. Defendants in those cases faced a truncated preliminary hearing with a judge where bail was likely set, which for many who are unable to pay leads to jail time.

Last spring through July 2020, grand juries had been suspended by executive order to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus in person. The suspension was a focal point for de Blasio during his "perfect storm" proclamations last summer, even though it likely contributed to more accused individuals sitting in jail pre-trial, according to defense attorneys and court experts. According to OCA, there were approximately 17 sitting grand juries in New York City on Tuesday.

But grand jury sittings are still not up to pre-pandemic levels, which could hamper longer-term investigations that require indictments before an arrest, like the kinds used to take down gangs and organized crime. Because those grand jury proceedings are secret, there is no public information on how many of these cases have no indictment.

In-person jury trials resumed in late March and 130 have either been scheduled or taken place, Chalfen wrote. New York City Criminal Court also arraigns between 175 and 250 defendants a day virtually in remote hearings. Of those, between 3 and 12 are on illegal gun possession charges, roughly three-quarters of which have bail set. Non-jury criminal and civil proceedings have continued remotely for much of the pandemic.

"The reality is that everyone in the judiciary, judges, non-judicial staff and court officers have really stepped up this past year and that is why uninformed gratuitous remarks like the Mayors are unjustified," he wrote.

De Blasio took issue with Chalfen's statements to press at a briefing Wednesday morning. "Public relations people will offer their quotes and that's normal, but let's be honest: there's been very few trials for the last year," the mayor told reporters.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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De Blasio Doubles Down on Dubious Courts Excuse for Gun Violence Spike Wed, 14 Apr 2021 04:00:00 +0000
'This is Going to Change Everything': How the American Rescue Plan Will Impact New York City https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10279-federal-stimulus-american-rescue-plan-impact-new-york-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10279-federal-stimulus-american-rescue-plan-impact-new-york-city law am res

Mayor de Blasio & Senator Schumer (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


With the passage of the American Rescue Plan -- a $1.9 trillion federal relief package in response to the fallout from COVID-19 -- Washington lawmakers are infusing state and local economies with billions of dollars intended to support everything from emergency pandemic responses to poverty reduction. New York is slated to receive an estimated $100 billion for government budgets, vaccination efforts and other services, schools, businesses, individuals and families, and more — an influx of funds that experts in a number of sectors say will be transformative, especially if used strategically.

"Help is on the way," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York's senior senator and a Brooklynite, in a speech from the U.S. Capitol on March 10 after Congress passed the legislation and sent it to President Joe Biden for his signature. "This is one of the most consequential pieces of legislation we have passed in decades."

Two days later, Mayor Bill de Blasio called it "the single biggest shot in the arm for the American people since the New Deal." "This is going to change everything. This is going to make recovery possible. This is the bottom line," de Blasio said in a press briefing the morning after Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law.

Among other sectors, the massive aid program is a needed boon for the New York City and State governments, which face billions in revenue shortfalls, due in part to contractions in signature industries like real estate, dining, tourism, and the arts. Unemployment skyrocketed last year amid widespread shutdowns, and while it has come down some, it is still exceptionally high, at about 8.8% statewide in January, though that likely does not account for the full shrinking of the workforce. Along with job losses, many thousands of New Yorkers face the threat of eviction, a hanging blade held up by temporary state and federal moratoriums.

Experts say the federal aid, large as it is, will need to be used flexibly and smartly to provide immediate aid to individuals, spur economic growth, and shore up New York's fiscal future. But the sheer size and scale of the American Rescue Plan is undoubtedly set to give a significant boost to New Yorkers and New York City.

 The question is exactly how massive of an impact the package will have and whether its potential can be maximized to induce a strong, sustained, and equitable recovery — including in conjunction with upcoming New York State and City budgets, due April 1 and July 1, respectively, and policy-making. The federal stimulus is forecasted to drastically reduce unemployment and poverty; prevent evictions, foreclosures, small business closures, private and public sector layoffs; shore up colleges and universities; keep the subways running; and more.

"It basically fills any gap for the next two years that the city or state were concerned about in terms of both covid-related expenses and gaps in revenues and extra supplies for everything from education, broadband, small business, Broadway," said Kathryn Wylde, who heads the Partnership for New York City, a group representing big businesses. "So it's a very rich plan."

At Stake for New York City and State
The American Rescue Plan, the sixth stimulus package enacted since the coronavirus seized the nation in March 2020, sends $23.8 billion directly to state and local governments in New York, with roughly $12.6 billion going to the state (below the $15 billion Governor Andrew Cuomo has sought) and $6.1 billion to New York City, which de Blasio has celebrated.

There is also over $7 billion for transit in New York, including $6.5 billion to the MTA, and $2.7 billion in Medicaid increases. Grants for restaurant relief total $28.6 billion on top of $15 billion to other ailing small businesses, and $1.25 billion for independent performing arts venues. Schools K-12 will receive $9 billion statewide, with another $2.6 to higher education.

"It is the investment our economy needs right now. It also puts us on stable ground to avoid harmful cuts," said State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli in a statement after the package had passed the House of Representatives on March 10. "The state and city must now use this aid as a bridge to put their finances on sustainable fiscal paths, to be prepared once this emergency federal relief ends."

The package also includes poverty reduction mechanisms that advocates lauded as the most robust in generations for individuals and families. The centerpieces are enhanced unemployment benefits, direct checks to individuals and families, child tax credits, rental and mortgage relief, and nutrition assistance -- totalling over $50 billion for New Yorkers.

“The American Rescue Plan will bring critical relief for millions of New Yorkers who have struggled throughout the pandemic," said Emily Miles, chief program and policy officer at FPWA, an anti-poverty group. "The tax credit expansions alone will bring thousands of New Yorkers above the federal poverty threshold by allowing them to hold on to their hard-earned dollars, and should be made permanent."

A recent Urban Institute report found the annual U.S. poverty rate in 2021 would be lowered by more than a third by the provisions, from 13.7% projected in December to 8.7%. The analysis found the package would reduce racial disparities in the poverty rate by cutting poverty among Black people by 42% and among Hispanic people by 39%, along with a 34% reduction for white people. In New York City, where the poverty rate was roughly 20% before the pandemic hit, the American Rescue Plan is expected to alter the picture significantly, at least temporarily.

"It is a decisive and transformative intervention on behalf of all Americans that will address the particular challenges confronting Black America, which the data has revealed have been disproportionately and adversely impacted by both the public health aspect of the crisis and the economic aspect of the crisis," said U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who represents New York's 8th Congressional District of Brooklyn and Queens and Chairs the House Democratic Caucus, in a Tuesday press call.

"Keeping families out of poverty means keeping them out of stress and it improves their social determinants for health and the other things that mean a lot for the wellbeing of families and children," said Mary Jane Dessables, director of information at the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies.

Alleviating financial stress for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers will translate to local spending and will have "a synergistic effect," on the economy, Dessables said. "If you can have your basics paid for you can go on to do the other higher order things of life. You can focus more on education, you can focus more on playing with your kids when you're not having to manage three part-time jobs to make ends meet. It's really a domino effect in many different ways."

The aid will help tens of thousands of tenants pay back rent and rescue the budgets of many small businesses -- including their payrolls. The help for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), a massive employer and artery for the regional economy, will avoid services cuts and layoffs, creating additional knock-on effects for the larger economy, especially as more people return to commuting into Manhattan and around the five boroughs. For millions more statewide, the stimulus checks will provide disposable income for people earning up to $75,000 annually at the same time many businesses will be reopening.

Doug Turetsky, chief of staff at the city's Independent Budget Office (IBO), believes the American Rescue Plan, with its direct aid to New York City government, will help the city's overall budget outlook, "as well as shoring up sagging [sales] tax revenues by getting more money into the hands of low- and middle-income residents."

"The bill also provides substantial help to the MTA, a critical part of ensuring the city’s rebound," he wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette, when asked what was at stake for New York.

Wylde said public spending "will significantly accelerate the economic activity and support small businesses, performing arts -- those areas."

"It definitely fills a gap," she said. But there are questions of whether the huge surge of cash will spur an economic boom, or even trigger inflation, "and that's just hard to know."

"It certainly should substantially reduce the threat of eviction protections disappearing and of back rent, and it should affect the food crisis in a substantial way," Wylde added. "So a lot of the covid-related crises for small business and low-wage workers will be mitigated by the plan."

In terms of inflation, "there might be very short-term price blips here and there," said New School economist James Parrott, in an interview, "but nobody that I respect as an economist thinks that this is going to lead to sustained inflation." The Federal Reserve released projections Wednesday that the national economy would grow at a rate of 6.5% this year, up more than two points from forecasts in December. The Fed predicts the inflation rate will hit 2.4% by the end of the year, up from an 1.8% projection in December, and will drop back down to 2% by the end of 2022.

Democrats in Congress are now pushing to make permanent some of the temporary poverty-reduction measures, like the child tax credit, nutrition and work benefits. New York's short-term position, even before the latest federal stimulus, has been better than forecasted and experts have been more concerned with how the stimulus will be used to protect against budget shortfalls two years out and beyond.

The IBO previously estimated the city will be going into next fiscal year with a $3.6 billion surplus and $500 million the following year, based on economic and revenue forecasts and the mayor's preliminary budget. The projections did not account for new stimulus money, including the $6.1 billion the city government is receiving directly, or a recent increase in FEMA reimbursements totalling roughly $1 billion that the mayor announced was quickly allowing him to reinstate planned budget cuts.

"Whether crunch turns to crisis really depends on the degree to which the pandemic fosters structural changes in the local economy," wrote Turetsky.

The pandemic has altered the trajectory of the city's economy with some industries suffering while others thrive, though the long-term trends are not yet clear. With the expansion of telework and the shuttering of so much of the hospitality industry, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics modelling shows nationwide demand for hotels and restaurants could decrease between 7 and 12% from 2019 to 2029, with an up to 10% decrease for construction, retail, and transportation. Conversely, the crisis will likely continue to spur growth in health care and information technology sectors.

"We need to recognize which jobs have been permanently lost, identify those workers, start retraining those workers for jobs that will exist when the economy reopens," said Parrott. "This is a scale of emergency labor market repair that New York City hasn't faced since 1945."

In New York City, there were 635,000 fewer salaried positions in January 2021 compared to January 2020, with an additional 80,000 to 100,000 independent contractor jobs lost, according to Parrott.

He argued the city should be using a portion of federal funds to provide wage subsidies to get New Yorkers back to work while also supporting business. Officials should also be looking at job creation programs, especially in growing industries like public health. "That should be obligatory for the city, I don't think that's on the table right now -- needs to be," Parrott said.

De Blasio has centered job creation in the public health sector as part of his "Recovery for All" agenda announced in his State of the City address in January, though it is unclear how new stimulus funds will be leveraged for the effort. The agenda includes hiring for the mass vaccination rollout to help restore 400,000 jobs by the end of the year; creating a Pandemic Response Lab and Institute along with 25,000 new lab and office jobs; 4,000 jobs for a Public Health Corp, modeled on the community outreach of the city's test and trace program; and creating a health-care career hub at Medgar Evers College, a historically Black college, in Brooklyn.

The new federal package broadens eligibility for the Payroll Protection Program, which provides loans that can turn into grants to businesses to maintain their labor force.

Wylde, of the Partnership for New York City, said the city should use federal funds to leverage private investment in order to spread relief out over the next four or more years.

"For example, if you take the proposals for hotel conversion to supportive housing, that would be a combination of public and private money, not just 100% federal dollars," she said in an interview.

Wylde is concerned about tax increases included in current state budget proposals because the federal package contains a "maintenance of effort" provision where states and localities must keep taxes steady -- an instrument aimed at Republican-led states to keep them from using federal money to fund tax reductions. "They are increasing the taxes without knowing the [economic] impact," she said of New York state legislators pushing for those revenues. The state's next fiscal year begins April 1 and tax increases on the wealthy and corporations are among the proposals being negotiated between Cuomo and his fellow Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature.

While much remains uncertain about how federal money will be distributed now and in the so-called out-years, the bill will help plug the state's projected four-year $39 billion budget gap, which appears to be far larger than reality at this point, and stave off cuts at the city and state levels.

"The stimulus bill will also help alleviate one immediate threat to the city’s finances—with the state getting more than $12 billion it is less likely Albany will push its own fiscal problems down to City Hall, something it has done repeatedly," said Turetsky of the IBO. The final word on that issue will come once a new state budget is adopted.

Anti-Poverty Measures
The billions in anti-poverty measures have been lauded as historic, but community advocates say it still leaves holes in the social safety net.

The American Rescue Plan extends unemployment insurance enhancements under the March 2020 CARES Act through September of this year and provides tax relief for workers making less than $150,000 a year. Individuals making up to $75,000 a year will receive stimulus checks of the full $1,400 -- an amount designed to add to the $600 approved in December in the last covid relief deal under President Donald Trump to make a total of $2,000. Over $1 billion has been allocated to emergency rental assistance and about half that for mortgage relief. More than $1 billion will go to enhanced nutrition assistance and food stamps statewide.

Schumer, estimates the added unemployment benefits will total $21.7 billion in New York. Stimulus checks will reach a total of 9 million households statewide, totalling over $22 billion, according to Schumer. Homeless New Yorkers, who number close to 80,000 across the five boroughs, are also eligible to receive checks, though getting them can be difficult without a tax filing and permanent address.

In New York City, the IBO estimates 3.1 million taxpayers will receive a full check and another 78,000 will get partial payments, based on its analysis of 2019 tax filings, which does not account for income lost during the height of the pandemic.

Low-income families can receive up to $300 per month in additional Child Tax Credit, amounting to over $7 billion statewide, according to Schumer's office.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer estimates 76% of children under 18 live in households that would benefit from the expanded Child Tax Credit citywide, based on Census Bureau data from 2019. The neighborhoods with the most children in eligible households are in Brooklyn (Borough Park and East New York), The Bronx (Belmont, Fordham, and Highbridge), and Queens (Jamaica).

"These bold tax policy initiatives will have a transformative impact on the country’s ability to eradicate poverty, as they dramatically lift household incomes and reduce child poverty, and they must be made permanent," said Jennifer March, executive director of Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, in a statement Thursday.

But most of the benefits leave out undocumented immigrants and do not go far enough to protect renters from eviction, advocates say.

"Undocumented immigrants and workers were still excluded from receiving payments even though we know that these are the folks in dire need and also who have put their bodies on the line for the last year working in essential jobs," said Anu Joshi, vice president of policy at the New York Immigration Coalition.

A major victory for immigration advocates was the inclusion of children in mixed-status families -- those with Social Security numbers but with undocumented parents -- to be eligible for direct stimulus payments. The extension of unemployment and gig economy benefits will also have an impact on New York's immigrant communities but the package did not include people who filed taxes with what is known as an Individual Tax ID Number, used in lieu of a Social Security number, which leaves out undocumented immigrants.

The New York Immigration Coalition and others are pushing the State Legislature and Governor Cuomo to include a fund for excluded workers, like undocumented immigrants and the recently incarcerated, in the state budget due April 1. The Legislature's one-house budget bills include $2.1 billion for the fund, which was not part of Cuomo's executive budget plan, but a new report from the Fiscal Policy Institute estimates the state would need $3.5 billion to equal the minimum benefits other workers have gotten.

And even for those who will be receiving aid, advocates want this effort at relief and poverty-reduction to be an initial move followed by others. ”Inching families above the federal poverty threshold--$26,500 annually for a family of four—is an important first step, but still leaves too many unable to afford their basic needs,” said Miles of FPWA. “FPWA encourages members of Congress to build upon the stimulus bill’s provisions, and bring their boldest anti-poverty ideas to the table as they begin to draft the next budget.”

There is also the connected matter of growing "rent debt," which groups like the Association for Neighborhood Housing Development (ANHD) say foreshadows an impending eviction crisis even with direct federal aid to struggling households. ANHD says relief provided so far has been "insufficient" to address the debt accumulating under the yearlong eviction moratorium.

"The expectation that the covid crisis will end, people will get jobs again and now be able to pay that rent back is ludicrous," said Lucy Block, a policy analyst at ANHD and author of a recent report on pandemic rent debt, in an interview. "If you don't get that relief, they are out on the street. What else can you do if you owe your landlord $14,000?"

ANHD released an analysis Wednesday showing that 222,135 tenants across the state have active court cases -- cases that were paused at the beginning of the outbreak and ones filed since. Since March 2020, landlords have been pursuing eviction proceedings 3.6 times faster in the zip codes with the highest covid death rates, predominantly communities color, compared with neighborhoods with the lowest covid death rates. The state eviction moratorium is due to end May 1; the federal one ends at the end of March.

Based on a November survey, the consulting firm STOUT estimated New York State's rent shortfall would be between $1.3 and 2.2 billion by January 2021. New York City renters are likely facing more than $2 billion in rent debt, according to the Community Housing Improvement Program, an association of rent stabilized property owners. Nationwide, the burden has been disproportionately felt by Black communities, with 38% of Black households struggling to pay their rent or mortgage between November and February, compared with 19% of white households.

The federal stimulus package passed last December included $1.3 billion for rental assistance for New Yorkers, which has yet to be distributed, and the new package includes roughly $1 billion more. Tens of thousands of tenants have been filing for hardship protections.

"ANHD believes it is really important that state legislators get the details right,” said ANHD spokesperson Melanie Breault, in an email to Gotham Gazette, “and make sure the households that are most economically impacted, most impacted from COVID, and are having evictions filed against them most often are prioritized.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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'This is Going to Change Everything': How the American Rescue Plan Will Impact New York City Sat, 20 Mar 2021 04:00:00 +0000
Schumer Says Big Infrastructure Package is on Deck; What's on New York City's List? https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10254-schumer-biden-infrastructure-package-new-york-city-de-blasio https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10254-schumer-biden-infrastructure-package-new-york-city-de-blasio rep clark us

Senator Chuck Schumer at City Hall (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


As Mayor Bill de Blasio celebrated the passage of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which will deliver $6 billion in direct aid to New York City government and many additional billions to New Yorkers, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer had more good tidings to offer as he promised that a massive infrastructure program is next on the agenda. 

Biden has proposed a $2 trillion “Build Back Better” plan to invest in infrastructure and combat climate change. It’s reminiscent of FDR’s New Deal, investing in major public works projects and programs to create millions of well-paying jobs. That type of two-pronged approach has been proven to work and it will undoubtedly be invaluable to New York City, which has immense long-standing infrastructure needs and where unemployment remains high, at 11%, in the wake of the pandemic. 

In his own preliminary budget plan outlined earlier this year, de Blasio proposed a $118.8 billion ten-year capital strategy, increasing planned spending from last year on infrastructure like schools, housing, roads, and more. Last week, the city announced that it would resume spending on $17 billion worth of projects that had been put on pause when the pandemic hit last year.

“We’ve got to get back to work building more school capacity in the communities that need it most. We’ve got to get back to work building and preserving affordable housing,” de Blasio said at the announcement, as he outlined other areas of investment. “Coastal resiliency, fighting climate change, protecting our communities. We're getting back to work on that. Improving our city streets, creating safety, Vision Zero, deepening our efforts there. And, of course, one of the places we've come to love even more during the pandemic, our parks, continuing our investments in our parks. So, that $17 billion is going to make a huge impact and help New York City come back strong.”

Schumer also looked to the future, on Thursday. “If we get a massive infrastructure bill, it can help build our mass transit, build out our mass transit, build out our highways,” Schumer said while making an appearance during de Blasio’s daily news briefing. He said the federal government would also give approval and funding for the Gateway program, featuring new tunnels between New York and New Jersey and which had been held up by the Trump administration. “Gateway is going to be coming soon too, and that'll create jobs that make sure that you can get under the tunnels from New Jersey to Manhattan, which helps our economy, our New York economy, our New York/New Jersey economy grow,” he said.

Asked about the city’s infrastructure priorities in light of Schumer’s comments at the mayor’s briefing, representatives for de Blasio told Gotham Gazette, “Broadly, we’re looking for federal investments in transportation, NYCHA, affordable housing, green projects, resiliency, broadband, and state of good repair programs,” and said the city has “already begun discussions with the federal government on multiple infrastructure fronts.”

They declined to provide a specific list of projects.

As Schumer’s comments indicate, infrastructure needs in New York City extend beyond what city government has control over, such as through the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), a state-run authority that is partially funded by the city and where the mayor has some say about decisions.

It’s all welcome news to elected officials and urban experts who have spent months extolling the virtues of public works programs to revive New York City’s economy, though of course it has to come to fruition before anyone will celebrate.

There are several major infrastructure projects in New York that have been proposed and delayed, or even abandoned, that could benefit from federal funding such as Phase II of the Second Avenue Subway, the proposed Utica Avenue subway extension in Brooklyn, the Red Hook subway extension, a Triboro line using some existing rail lines to connect Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, among others. 

The Regional Plan Association, an urban policy think tank, recommended in a January report that the federal government should fund capital programs that have been laid out by local and state agencies in the tri-state area. Specifically, it pointed to the MTA, New Jersey Transit (NJT), the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (PANYNJ), the City of New York, and the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). If all those plans are funded, RPA estimated that they would create about 263,000 jobs annually. 

The latest stimulus package is delivering billions in aid for mass transit that will help New York – $6.5 billion for the MTA, $1.7 billion for Amtrak, and $418 million directly for New York airports  – but those funds are for operating expenses and agencies have deep capital needs. The MTA’s $54 billion capital plan for 2020-2024, for instance, is far from funded and is being reevaluated. As the RPA pointed out, about $37 billion worth of projects in that plan are “ready-to-go” and could be initiated if the federal government steps in with aid. (And separate from aid, the MTA needs the federal government’s approval to implement congestion pricing, a key planned source of dedicated capital funds revenue. The Biden administration, including former New York City transportation commissioner and MTA Board member Polly Trottenberg, appears receptive.)

The New York City Housing Authority is perhaps the worst off in terms of long-term disinvestment and crumbling, aging infrastructure. The authority’s capital needs have ballooned over the years, and its own estimate is that it would cost nearly $40 billion to bring NYCHA developments into a good state of repair. Those costs could increase to $68.5 billion by 2028 under the worst case scenario, according to NYCHA. At the federal level, several lawmakers have backed a Green New Deal for Public Housing – introduced by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York – which would invest $180 billion over ten years into repairing public housing developments and retrofitting them with green infrastructure. 

New York City is also particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, with its waterfront communities at risk of being inundated by rising sea levels, its wastewater and sewage system unable to handle major storms and its energy infrastructure prone to failing during periods of peak demand. 

“Few other cities would benefit more from a public works-style program to get the economy going and confront the climate crisis,” wrote Jonathan Bowles and Laird Gallagher of the Center for an Urban Future, in a February op-ed in Gotham Gazette. They argued that New York City officials should already be identifying shovel-ready projects to launch as a federal infrastructure program is on the horizon. CUF has compiled a list of potential projects, soliciting opinions from experts in coastal resilience, environmental justice, urban agriculture, renewable energy, and more. They include projects to retrofit infrastructure too make it sustainable and resilient, new renewable energy projects, urban forest expansion, consolidated organic waste collection, solar and battery storage, floating farms, raising streets in low-lying neighborhoods, and many others.   

“For the city to make the most of Biden's "Build Back Better" infrastructure agenda, policymakers must act now to lay out federal funding plans for projects that can break ground this year and get New Yorkers working again,” they wrote. “With citywide unemployment still lingering above 10%, and sea levels and temperatures continuing to rise, we cannot afford to wait.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Schumer Says Big Infrastructure Package is on Deck; What's on New York City's List? Fri, 12 Mar 2021 05:00:00 +0000
After Overstating Budget Deficits, Cuomo and De Blasio Get Big Federal Bailout https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10229-new-york-city-state-budget-federal-bailout-cuomo-de-blasio-biden-stimulus https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10229-new-york-city-state-budget-federal-bailout-cuomo-de-blasio-biden-stimulus 4 amazon gov corp

Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have spent many months warning New Yorkers about cratering tax revenues because of the coronavirus pandemic, outlining yawning budget gaps that could force them to make drastic spending cuts to state and city services and lay off thousands of government workers. But while the fiscal future remains uncertain, their worst predictions did not come to pass — revenues were higher than expected and significant federal aid has flowed to New York, even as major direct funding to shore up state and local government budgets was elusive. And now that is set to change thanks to parts of an immense $1.9 trillion federal package that appears imminent.

Despite shifting evidence to the contrary even before the aid now moving through Congress, the governor and mayor have nonetheless presented doomsday scenario narratives and budgets for the next fiscal year as they have sought to draw the maximum amount of federal aid possible. Throughout the past months, since shortly after the state went into lockdown last spring, both Democratic leaders, especially Cuomo, have often exaggerated the budget deficits, underplaying the billions of dollars in federal aid that was already coming into the state and giving limited acknowledgement to the relative bright spots in revenue.

By all early indicators during the pandemic, New York State and City were bound to suffer. As the early epicenter of the outbreak, strict restrictions eventually went into place. Businesses closed, some for good, and unemployment skyrocketed (and remains high). It was the end of a honeymoon for the state’s and city’s economies, which had seen an unprecedented nearly decade-long streak of continuous growth.

But the state’s and city’s finances differ in one crucial way. The state is heavily dependent on personal income taxes for revenue, which seemed as if they would plummet as more than a million people lost their jobs, and the city largely relies on property taxes, which were expected to be relatively stable. The inverse occurred. As white-collar workers mostly remained employed and many upper-income earners actually saw their income increase, personal income tax collections were higher than most predictions, even surpassing the previous fiscal year, while in the city, property taxes are anticipated to fall by $2.5 billion in the next fiscal year, the largest drop in decades.

Currently, Congress is on the verge of finalizing passage of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which includes $350 billion for state and local governments. After initial passage in the House of Representatives, then modifications and passage in the Senate, the package now goes back to the House for final approval.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York celebrated the Act’s imminent passage on Sunday, outlining what he said is $100 billion in benefits it will deliver to New York, including $23.8 billion in fiscal relief funds for the state, localities, and the MTA. Of that, $12.5 billion in direct relief will go to the state government while another $6 billion will be sent to New York City alone. “The deal we reached with the help of a new president, and a new Democratic Senate marks real relief to the tune of $100 billion for workers, families, healthcare, small businesses, including our hard-hit industries like restaurants, and New York — the things we need to support in order to weather this crisis and then work to recover,” Schumer said in a statement. Much of the aid to New York will go do individuals, businesses, nonprofits, and other entities, while government entities are receiving roughly one-quarter of the sum.

Though it behooves both the state and city to extract as much as they can out of the federal government – after all, New York is a ‘donor state’ that sends more tax money to Washington, D.C. every year than it receives back in funding – fiscal experts warn that federal aid is being employed as a handy excuse for the state and city to avoid serious structural budgetary measures. Federal funding is also a bandaid on a wound that will take years to heal, they point out, and administrations at both levels still need to better prepare for an uncertain future that may include large budget deficits and no additional federal money to plug them.

The governor repeatedly made dire threats about cuts to services, particularly in aid to localities for health care and education, if the state’s $15 billion initial projected budget gap for the current 2021 fiscal year alone was not filled by federal aid. He withheld a chunk of funding and took other emergency fiscal measures given expanded powers he was granted by the Legislature, and even cautioned that the state could see a $60 billion gap over four fiscal years.

But, as revenues came in higher than expected and the state took other measures, including borrowing billions and reducing spending, that budget gap slowly whittled down. Cuomo’s $193 billion executive budget proposal in January estimated the gap at $4.7 billion for fiscal year 2021 and $10.2 billion for fiscal year 2022, which begins April 1 of this year, gaps later amended to $3.1 billion and $9.5 billion, respectively. Meaning the two-year budget gap sum dipped below the initial current-fiscal year estimated gap of $15 billion.

The governor’s office and the state Legislature even reached a new consensus on revenue forecasts for the 2022 fiscal year, projecting it would be nearly $2.5 billion higher than what the executive budget proposal expected.

Still, Cuomo has continued aggressively making a $15 billion demand from the federal government in direct aid for the state government. That amount would now be sufficient for covering the current fiscal year gap -- including repayment of the short-term debt it took on -- as well as the projected gap for next fiscal year, which begins April 1, though that number is expected to be significantly lower given all that has transpired, including ongoing covid vaccination and the likely impact of so much federal relief and stimulus across the state. Cuomo has even threatened to sue the federal government if it doesn’t deliver the total amount, though that appears to be off the table even as aid looks like it will come in below the $15 billion at about $12.5 billion.

Cuomo presented two scenarios in his executive budget. One where the state receives $6 billion in federal aid, necessitating major cuts, certain tax increases and potential borrowing in the billions. The second scenario would see the state receive the full $15 billion. “Revenues coming in higher than expectations is good news, but we're still contending with devastating revenue losses -- $17.5 billion over just two years -- caused entirely by the pandemic that we need the federal government to offset so we can continue to fund baseline services over two years,” said Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the State Division of Budget, in a statement. “These new revenues will be used to reduce revenue shortfalls and replace federal funding, which is a non-recurring resource."

Fiscal watchdogs say the governor’s misleading representation of the budget figures could be detrimental in several ways. In fact, the updated financial plan from his own state Division of Budget noted that assuming the state were to receive $6 billion in federal aid and takes the budget steps outlined, it will actually end the year with a $1.6 billion surplus, and a $676 million surplus in the next fiscal year.

“He has consistently distorted, inflated and twisted numbers,” said E.J. McMahon, founder and senior fellow at the Empire Center for Public Policy, a think tank. “He has totally obfuscated the true nature of the situation.”

McMahon noted that the governor’s rhetoric could backfire in two ways. “He's been inflating the number under the assumption that it impresses someone in Washington. I think we're well past the time where far from impressing anybody, it's annoying people in Washington, including Democrats,” he said. But more ironically, he said, the progressive left has also used the $15 billion figure and its resulting and potential cuts to services as a rhetorical cudgel against the governor and to push for the Invest in Our New York Act. The package of legislation would raise as much as $50 billion in revenue each year by establishing new and increased taxes on the ultrawealthy, corporations, Wall Street, inheritances and gifts, according to its proponents.

“That number is so preposterous, it normally would actually undermine your credibility right from the start,” McMahon said of the $50 billion projected revenue from the Invest in Our New York Act. “But [Cuomo] has thrown around like helium balloons the number $60 billion early on as the size of our deficit, which it never was...He's grossly exaggerated it and in some ways that exaggeration is feeding advocates of policies he claims to oppose.”

The main challenge, McMahon said, is the “immense structural problem” that will resurface after federal aid is expended. He said the state should have already been restraining spending last year rather than starting off on the wrong foot, when Cuomo and the state Legislature adopted a budget that was $10 billion higher than projected revenues, agreed upon in the depths of the spring covid outbreak, April 1, 2020, and amid many more unknowns than knowns.

It’s analogous to the Great Recession of 2008-09, when the state did not do enough to reduce expenditures even as it got by with federal aid, McMahon said. “Generally, what happened was Cuomo inherited a $10 billion budget gap when he took office a decade ago because the federal stimulus had gone away,” he said. “And they then had to deal with the shortfall that the recession had created, which they had not dealt with. They're now setting themselves up for the same situation.”

But the governor’s push for $15 billion also allows him a convenient alibi, McMahon said. “Ask for too much under the assumption that you’ll get more than you would have otherwise. And then because they won't meet your price, you could then blame them,” he said.

On Sunday, in a conference call with the press, Cuomo celebrated the federal help apparently on the way, but said tax increases on the wealthy would still be on the table despite the massive federal aid package. “The $12.5 billion is very, very helpful. But as you know, because I've said it 150 times, we needed $15 billion, in my opinion. So we do have a gap there and tax increases are on the table,” he said, continuing to avoid acknowledging the more positive reality of the state’s fiscal picture.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli last week urged the governor and Legislature to take steps in the budget to address long-term structural problems rather than pursuing short-sighted solutions such as deferring costs to future years and suspending statutory debt limits. “There are signs our economy is rebounding,” the comptroller said, pointing to robust growth expected for employment and wages in the next fiscal year, “and the federal government will soon provide aid to suffering New Yorkers and devastated communities. But this recovery is fragile, and I urge state leaders to consider the long-term impact of this year’s actions to avoid tougher choices later.”

While New York City also benefited from higher personal income taxes, its budget is heavily dependent on property tax revenue, which is expected to fall by $2.5 billion in the next fiscal year, beginning July 1, because of plummeting values of office buildings and hotels which have largely been empty since the pandemic hit.

That projected drop has raised the specter of budget gaps of more than $4 billion over the next three fiscal years that could be hard to cover without significant cuts.

Unlike the state, New York City is required by law to balance its budget with the revenues it expects to raise – the city cannot borrow for operational expenses like the state. The mayor’s $92.3 billion preliminary budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1 manages to close a $5.5 billion gap with $2.7 billion in surplus from the current year, drawing $1.15 billion from reserves, and finding $1 billion in unspecified labor savings, among other measures. What it crucially does not include is any estimate of federal aid, which is all but assured and will likely mean that the mayor will have significantly more on hand to spend. There is, however, a risk of nearly $2.4 billion in cuts, reductions in expected aid, and cost shifts from the state.

When the city budget picture looked most dire, de Blasio had sought authority from Albany to borrow for operating expenses and threatened tens of thousands of city government employee layoffs. Neither turned out to be needed despite the mayor’s many please for the former and threats of the latter, even before the billions now apparently headed to the city’s coffers, in part because of the steps the mayor did take and the higher-than-expected revenues, as well as billions that flowed to the city from Washington to cover liberally-defined covid-related spending.

On Monday, de Blasio applauded the federal stimulus package. “Now we can finally start to imagine what a full recovery looks like because we have the missing piece,” he said. “Now, we have the one thing that was held back from us for months and months and months when it was needed most...So, this now supercharges our recovery. This is the thing we needed. So, that's tremendously good news. And we'll be talking about it more in the days ahead as we wait, of course, for it to be 100% signed, sealed, and delivered with the president's signature.”

The next phases of the discussion will likely be complicated and contentious, as the city and state decide exactly how to allocate the funding headed their way, budget for the here and now as well as the future, and try to advance policy goals that will also be the subject of debate.

“The real imperative is to use federal money wisely because we're not out of the woods and we've got a long-run problem,” said Andrew Rein, president of Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit fiscal watchdog group. He said the state and city should spend those funds on direct relief and costs stemming from the pandemic, while also using it to bridge gaps across future years and restructuring their finances. Otherwise, “we have the budget problem that is staring us in the face today, just another year or two down the road,” he said.

“Stabilizing the finances allows us to take care of New Yorkers over time and doesn’t just kick a bunch of problems down the road,” he added.

CBC has for years been calling on the mayor to identify deeper efficiencies and recurring savings at city agencies to restrain spending. But while the mayor has made some attempts at savings programs, even instituting a Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG) last year and for the coming fiscal year, they have been criticized as insufficient by watchdogs like CBC, the City Council, and City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

In his analysis of the preliminary budget, Stringer pushed the mayor to strategically use federal funds to “jumpstart” the city’s economy and provide immediate aid to the neediest residents. Among his proposals were canceling rent, providing relief to undocumented immigrants, bailing out taxi drivers who are deep in debt, funding an emergency food program, and others. “The challenges of the pandemic and the economic crisis aren’t yet behind us. From a slowed economic recovery to a rocky vaccine rollout, our city still has a difficult road ahead,” he said in a statement. “We need to strategically use our long-awaited federal stimulus funds to rebuild and recover, and the most vulnerable New Yorkers that have been hit hardest must be centered in our recovery.”

At a Council hearing on the preliminary budget last week, Speaker Corey Johnson sounded a note of optimism. “This budget isn’t nearly as grim as I thought it would be. After the CARES Act, the second stimulus package, and now with the Biden Administration in the White House and the Democrats in control of the Senate—it looks like we’ll be getting the help we need,” he said.

But he also raised the concern that the city may not be responsible with federal aid. “I’m also concerned that this budget is going to take advantage of new federal money to just do the bare minimum,” he said, as he pushed the administration to find more savings while ensuring there aren’t cuts to essential city services. De Blasio and the Council must come to an agreement on the city budget by that July 1 start to the new fiscal year, and hearings on de Blasio’s initial spending plan are ongoing.

In essence, the fiscal crisis also presents an opportunity, said Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “We should be using this time to think about making ourselves more competitive, not just sort of saying, ‘Oh, yay, we got bailed out by the federal government and we'll just push these problems off for another year,” she said. She said the state and city should look for ways to reduce certain taxes – a temporary sales tax holiday, for instance – and to restore Midtown Manhattan as the core of the city’s businesses, or otherwise risk remote workers moving permanently to other states and jurisdictions.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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After Overstating Budget Deficits, Cuomo and De Blasio Get Big Federal Bailout Mon, 08 Mar 2021 05:00:00 +0000
'Wholly Unacceptable': City Council 'Deeply Concerned and Frustrated' with De Blasio Delay on Cuomo-Ordered Police Reform Plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10232-unacceptable-city-council-frustrated-de-blasio-delay-cuomo-police-reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10232-unacceptable-city-council-frustrated-de-blasio-delay-cuomo-police-reform 2 2years

Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Shea (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Update, March 5, 2021: Shortly after the publication of this story and after having declined to comment for the story over multiple days, the de Blasio administration on Friday released the first of a three-part draft plan with 36 proposals. "The plan will now move through a public comment period where it will undergo further revision based on the feedback of the public and through a process with the council," according to the official press release. The 36 proposals are broken down into five categories: "Transparency and Accountability to the People of New York City;" "Community Representation and Partnership;" "Recognition and Continual Examination of Historical and Modern-Day Racialized Policing in New York City;" "The Decriminalization of Poverty;" and "A Diverse, Resilient, and Supportive NYPD." They include efforts already underway, like improving accountability in police discipline and partnering with gun-violence interrupter groups, and new proposals like consolidating NYPD oversight under an expanded Civilian Complaint Review Board.

Update, March 8, 2021: In a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette Monday, Speaker Corey Johnson said the City Council would continue to push its police reform proposals as lawmakers review the de Blasio administration's draft plan. "The Council will continue to work on passing our package of bills that will move our city forward as we reimagine public safety. We will review the administration's draft plan, but we hope and expect the administration to work with us as we finalize our legislation," Johnson wrote.

Facing a looming state deadline, Mayor Bill de Blasio is under pressure from both Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York City Council to pass a broad public safety reform package or jeopardize the NYPD's bottom line.

With less than a month left, the de Blasio administration has yet to produce a full-fledged police reform agenda in line with a gubernatorial order, leaving a narrowing window to secure state funding, which the city is at risk of losing if it doesn't pass a package that satisfies the state's requirements by April 1. The order, dubbed the "New York State Reform and Reinvention Collaborative," requires the city to issue a prospective reform plan, solicit extensive feedback during a public comment period, and get City Council approval by the April start of the state fiscal year.

The city had already missed a January start for public comment suggested in state guidance. The mayor has repeatedly stressed past and ongoing police reform efforts, like a recently-adopted "disciplinary matrix," and reassured reporters multiple times that the city would meet the state deadline.

In January, de Blasio administration officials said a final report would be issued in February and would be ready for Council approval "on or before April 1." The Mayor's Office has disclosed little about the timeline in over a month since. De Blasio is now facing renewed pressure from the governor, who made veiled references to the city's position in recent remarks where he again raised the specter of funding cuts, calling public safety "a foundation" to reopening the economy.

"Cities are doing fantastic work and creative work, but not all of them are doing it. If they don't do it and we get to the budget then there are going to be significant sanctions on the city," Cuomo said during a press briefing at the State Capitol Wednesday.

"Please, you have 29 days, I know it's a hard topic, I know people would rather stay away from it, but public safety is one of the top priorities for any mayor," he said. In fiscal year 2020, the state contributed $82 million to the NYPD's $6 billion budget. Cuomo has not said exactly how much is on the line.

The Mayor's Office did not respond to requests for comment on the status of the collaborative on Wednesday and Thursday.

As the city fails to produce a report, leaders in the City Council are positioning the body to usurp the mayor's roll by passing its own policing and criminal justice package, leveraging the additional pressure from Cuomo's executive order.

"The Council has introduced and heard a package of bills that would reimagine public safety in New York City, as mandated by the Governor," said Speaker Corey Johnson in a statement to Gotham Gazette Thursday. "We urge the de Blasio administration to work with us on passing these important bills into law by the April 1 deadline."

The Council's package, introduced at the end of January, includes 11 bills and 1 resolution ranging from changing the NYPD's role in schools, mental health, and traffic calls, to making the police commissioner a Council-confirmed position and ending qualified immunity for police officers. The resolution calls on the State Legislature and governor to give the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) final say in disciplinary matters it adjudicates, which would establish a disciplinary authority independent of the NYPD.

"New Yorkers continue to see examples of substantiated misconduct that ultimately resulted in little to no penalty from the NYPD," said CCRB chair Frederick Davie in testimony before the City Council in February. The CCRB supported the resolution as "a concrete step in increasing accountability and public trust," Davie said.

De Blasio's reform collaborative is being led by First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan with input from the Law Department, NYPD, and Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. Last fall during a series of NYPD "listening sessions" with the public, Jennifer Jones Austin of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Wes Moore of Robin Hood, and Arva Rice of the New York Urban League, joined the collaborative as civil society partners. It is not clear if anything was produced from the 9 listening sessions or any other meetings that were held.

In October, the Mayor's Office said the city would be starting its next phase of "intensive community engagement" to develop new reforms on top of several enacted by the city since the George Floyd protests last summer, when Cuomo's executive order went into effect.

“We have come so far to fundamentally reform policing in our city,” de Blasio said in an October 29 press release announcing the launch of the collaborative's next phase. “Still, there is clearly more work to be done to strengthen bonds between officers and the communities they serve. Together, we will rebuild a fairer city that addresses injustice and disparity in a lasting and meaningful way.”

According to Johnson, the Council has been kept in the dark about City Hall's progress on the reform collaborative.

"We have no idea when the administration's criminal justice reform plan is coming out and the Council is deeply concerned and frustrated with the lack of progress from the Administration on this issue," Johnson said in his statement to Thursday. "The Council is obligated to hold a hearing and vote on a plan that incorporates feedback from the public. The Administration’s delay here is wholly unacceptable."

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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'Wholly Unacceptable': City Council 'Deeply Concerned and Frustrated' with De Blasio Delay on Cuomo-Ordered Police Reform Plan Thu, 04 Mar 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Mayor's Fund Provides $62 Million in Relief to Immigrants, Food to Health Care Workers https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10224-mayors-fund-nyc-provides-62-million-immigrants-food-health-care-workers https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10224-mayors-fund-nyc-provides-62-million-immigrants-food-health-care-workers De Blasio relief fund

Mayor de Blasio announces Mayor's Fund fundraising (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


One year after the de Blasio administration established the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund to support some of the individuals and businesses most acutely impacted by the pandemic, the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City has spent approximately $62 million on programs ranging from one-time payments to undocumented immigrants to grants for survivors of domestic violence. Though a significant sum was raised and moved out the door to key causes, some signature programs, like the domestic violence survivor grants, had a much smaller reach than others, like purchasing food for hospital workers.

The city began raising private dollars for the covid emergency fund last March when hospitals were filling up, businesses were shuttering, and more than 1 million New Yorkers lost their jobs. The emergency relief effort, part of the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City, a charity run by the mayoral administration to support special programs, has raised a little over $63 million in sum. The emergency fund has allowed the city to disburse money outside the city budget, which has been deeply constrained by pandemic-related revenue losses, and with less red tape and fewer strings attached, a lifeline for what de Blasio has called an "endless need."

"It's the worst economic crisis in 90 years, since the Great Depression -- that's what we're dealing with right now -- and there just aren't enough resources to go around to help people," de Blasio said at a press briefing last July when he and First Lady Chirlane McCray, who de Blasio named to chair the Mayor’s Fund back in 2014, announced the fund had raised more than $50 million. "We've got to find more anywhere we can so that folks can get back on their feet."

At the time the city had raised $54.5 million from over 9,500 contributors, including over $5 million in in-kind donations. The money and other items of value, much of which came through large-scale public-private partnerships, was carved up to go to some of the most urgent cases -- "healthcare workers and essential staff; local small businesses; displaced hourly workers, including immigrant workers; and families, youth, and other vulnerable New Yorkers," according to a June 30 audit by the accounting firm RSM. At the end of the year, 299 donors had each given over $5,000.

By February, the emergency relief fund had raised a total of $63.6 million and had spent or committed $62.1 million, according to the mayor's office in an update provided to Gotham Gazette upon request.

While the Mayor's Fund, and by extension the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, falls under the New York State Charities Law and IRS regulations, it is almost entirely separate from the city budget and as such is not subject to oversight by the City Council. The fund must submit financial statements to the city comptroller but its spending falls outside New York's government procurement rules. That position makes it easier for the city to move the money quickly and with discretion, but it also limits accountability.

After several requests over the course of weeks, the mayor's office finally on Tuesday pointed Gotham Gazette a list of many donors to the emergency relief fund as highlighted by one major foundation funder of the immigrant-relief effort. The list includes those who had given at least $5,000, with many prominent individuals, foundations, and corporations included. The full list of donors to the Mayor’s Fund for the emergency relief effort has still not been provided.

The largest chunk of funding -- $21.1 million spent by early February for services in immigrant communities -- was supported mostly by an initial $20 million donation from Open Society Foundations. It was intended for one-time payments to up to 20,000 undocumented New Yorkers and their families who could not access federal stimulus money through the CARES Act, according to a press release last April. According to the fund website, the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs partnered with 34 community-based organizations to reach over 76,000 individuals without CARES aid or unemployment insurance.

A July 14 press release states additional funding came from SOMOS Community Care, Trinity Church Wall Street, Amalgamated Bank, and Robin Hood for a burial assistance program for immigrant families. In total, the fund raised $22.9 million for immigrant services, according to a mayoral spokesperson on February 3. 

Another large portion of the larger sum -- $19.8 million -- went to food services for frontline hospital workers and other essential personnel, the spokesperson said. The program, known as NYC Healthcare Heroes, came through partnerships with the Debra and Leon Black Family, Aramark, Robin Hood, and the American Red Cross, to provide 400,000 packages with meals and cleaning products, according to the July 14 release.

Another $400,000 went to New York City Health + Hospitals, the city's public hospital network, for PPE. It came from "Cedar Mills LLC in honor of Peg Broadbent, former CFO of Jefferies Group LLC who died due to complications from COVID-19," states the release, referring to the multinational investment bank Jefferies.

The COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund also contributed $7.4 million to Summer Bridge 2020, part of the city's Summer Youth Employment Program.

But other heralded programs received far less from the fund.

At the July announcement of the $54.5 million fundraising milestone, McCray highlighted the importance of one-time "micro grants" for individuals experiencing domestic violence, which is said to have spiked during the pandemic.

"Domestic violence is too often minimized or ignored, and the pandemic has brought new horrors for those who shelter in place with an abusive partner," McCray said. "Violence inside the home has a devastating and long-term effect on children and families for generations. These micro-grants will help mitigate some of the safety, economic and housing challenges exacerbated by COVID-19."

Calls to New York's domestic violence hotline from April to October increased 19% over the year before, according to McCray in an op-ed last fall.

By mid-February, the city had distributed grants to 377 clients of an average size of $1,200, according to the mayor's office, amounting to roughly $450,000 total. In a February 3 email, a City Hall spokesperson said $664,000 of the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund had gone to the program. No other funds were allocated in the city budget.

In order to be eligible to receive a grant under criteria designed by Sanctuary for Families (SFF), a domestic violence service provider, clients had to be engaged with their own service providers who were responsible for filing for the grants with SFF. Applicants had to demonstrate that the grant was for a one-time expense and that other public support couldn't cover it.

McCray also highlighted the Restaurant Revitalization Program, which provided short-term payroll aid for restaurants committed to paying minimum wage on top of tips. The program, created by NYC Opportunity and the Human Resources Administration in partnership with One Fair Wage, a national wage advocacy group, has reached 99 restaurants with grants up to $30,000, according to the program’s website. Of the over $2.3 million awarded, $1.4 million has come from the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Mayor's Fund Provides $62 Million in Relief to Immigrants, Food to Health Care Workers Tue, 02 Mar 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Amid Great Uncertainty, City Council Begins Examining De Blasio's $92.3 Billion Preliminary Budget https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10223-uncertainty-city-council-examines-de-blasio-92-3-billion-preliminary-budget-fy22 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10223-uncertainty-city-council-examines-de-blasio-92-3-billion-preliminary-budget-fy22 hearing gov joint

Budget Director Jacques Jiha (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


The New York City Council on Tuesday began its examination of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $92.3 billion preliminary budget for the 2022 fiscal year, which begins July 1. The hearing was the first of many that will take place over the next few weeks as the Council digs into the mayor’s final budget plan of his eight-year tenure and as key questions remain about the city’s fiscal future. 

The coronavirus pandemic stripped the city of billions in tax revenue, creating significant budget gaps for the next several fiscal years. The city’s fiscal picture has been fluid and uncertain, with billions of dollars of federal aid already flowing to the city and more expected, and a mix of lower-than-expected property tax revenue but higher-than-expected personal income tax revenue. Given the excellent overall economic pre-covid picture, the city had increased spending dramatically but did also have billions in reserves, however inefficient for the scale of the crisis that has unfolded.

The pandemic’s impact and the change of federal leadership in January forced the mayor to craft a cautious, worst-case scenario budget that didn’t take into account any additional federal stimulus funds that the city might receive under President Biden and a Democratic Congress, even though that is all but assured. De Blasio’s preliminary budget, released in January, predicts a big drop in tax revenues in the next fiscal year, draws deeply from the city’s reserves, relies on $1 billion in unspecified labor savings, and foresees recurring budget gaps of more than $4 billion in each of the next three fiscal years.

There also remains the risk of $2.4 billion in cuts and costs shifts across the current and next fiscal year potentially imposed by the state, which were not included in the mayor’s budget proposal but are among the points of contention as the state crafts its own crisis budget ahead of its April 1 deadline. As part of that picture, the mayor and others in the city are concerned that Governor Andrew Cuomo may further “supplant” federal funds meant for the city, meaning the state holds back hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the city based on federal funds of the same amount flowing to the five boroughs -- this already occurred to the tune of $700 million, de Blasio said during his testimony at the state Legislature last month, and the governor is threatening another $800 million. 

But, there has been some cause for optimism. The city expects to receive as much as $5.6 billion in federal aid through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act currently being negotiated in Congress. “This budget isn’t nearly as grim as I thought it would be,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in his opening remarks at Tuesday’s hearing. With Democratic control over the federal government, “It looks like we’ll be getting the help we need,” he said. 

Yet Johnson worried that the city is going to “just do the bare minimum” with federal funds, stressing the need to protect the social safety net and critical services for youth, seniors, and families. “I don’t want us to go back to normal. I want us to work toward a new, more equitable future,” he said. 

As Council Member Daniel Dromm, chair of the Council’s finance committee, noted in his remarks at Tuesday’s hearing, the mayor’s budget also does not include about $730.5 million for City Council discretionary funding and to restore one-time cuts and fund programs added last year at the Council’s behest. It also underfunds items like expected NYPD overtime, special education, and student transportation, he said. 

In his testimony, Jacques Jiha, director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, outlined the preliminary budget, which includes $885 million in new spending between the current and next fiscal year, $2 billion in savings across both years, and an increase in the ten-year capital strategy -- a separate budget plan that relies on bonding, though the debt service is paid for in the annual operating budget.

Jiha sounded a warning about the state cuts, which include $500 million slashed from the Health+Hospitals System across both fiscal years. “I want to emphasize that the state wants to cut resources in the midst of the pandemic from a hospital system that has led the fight to save lives and protect New Yorkers from COVID-19 since last Spring,” he said. 

But he too was positive that federal funds will bolster the city and that an aggressive vaccination program will help boost the economy and, in turn, city revenue. “[W]e firmly believe New York City will recover faster than many people expect as social distancing requirements ease, the stimulus impacts are felt, and consumers unleash pent up  demand,” he said. “As this happens, workers will return to their offices, Broadway shows will sell out again, tourism will flourish, and hotels will fill with guests. This is a resilient city, and we will be  back better and stronger than before.” 

Under questioning, Jiha could not provide specificity to the Council on several aspects of the preliminary budget proposal. For instance, since it did not weigh the amount of federal aid, he could not say where the city planned to spend potential dollars. “If there is no aid coming from the federal government, we'll continue to do what we've been doing, which is continual aggressive, savings programs,” he told Speaker Johnson. If aid does come through, which is more than likely, he said the administration would work with the Council on resource allocation. “At this point in time, we have not made any decision one way or another,” he said. 

Johnson said the budget proposal seems “short-sighted” as he noted that it pulls $1.15 billion from city reserves, relies on labor savings that have yet to be outlined, and expects large budget gaps while the future of the economy seems uncertain. It does not identify enough efficiencies or long-term costs savings, he said, though the mayor has promised more agency belt-tightening. “I don't want us to be in a situation in a year or two where social safety net programs and essential services like trash pickup are on the chopping block again,” he said. 

Jiha insisted that the administration is continually looking for savings but did not say how the labor savings would be achieved. Any savings program, he said, “should be implemented gradually. Otherwise, it could prove counterproductive.” He also said that if the city should have enough resources, after receiving federal aid, the administration would work to rebuild the depleted reserves. 

As part of the mayor’s budget savings plan, the administration has instituted a headcount reduction program that mandates three employees must leave through attrition before one hire is made, with exceptions for positions related to safety, public health, uniformed workers, teachers, and revenue-generating jobs. After growing the city workforce by more than 30,000 workers until last year, de Blasio has reduced headcount by about 7,000 since January 2020.

But when pressed by Dromm, Jiha could not provide a breakdown of how the administration would achieve the nearly 5,000 employee reduction under that plan. “[W]e want to have as much flexibility as possible when we are dealing with agencies,” Jiha said. “We are still in the midst of a pandemic so we must be very nimble if we have to give some agency some leeway in case there is an emergency.”

Throughout the rest of the hearing, Council members sought answers on a broad array of issues. Council Member Helen Rosenthal, chair of the subcommittee on the capital budget, called for more transparency on which capital projects would resume this month, as announced by the mayor on Monday – Jiha promised to provide a list to the Council. Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the contracts committee, pushed back against cuts to an indirect cost initiative for nonprofit human service providers and critiqued the use of outside consultants. Jiha said the administration would work to restore funds for those indirect costs if the city’s budget picture improves. He also said the administration is reviewing different agencies to assess where consultants are necessary, conceding that they can at times cost the city more money than a full-time employee.  

Dromm pushed for a more realistic estimation of special education funding. Council Member Diana Ayala questioned the status of a pilot program to fund mental health crisis response teams. Council Member Margaret Chin called for more senior center funding. Council Members Peter Koo and Vanessa Gibson advocated for restoring previous cuts made to the Departments of Parks and Recreation and Sanitation. Council Member Darma Diaz sought more details on funds allocated to domestic violence services. Council Member Keith Powers asked for financial assistance for cultural institutions. Jiha agreed with the members’ concerns, saying the administration would provide answers or funding where possible depending on how the city’s budget prospects evolve.

Cautious optimism was the refrain of the day. Comptroller Scott Stringer, in his own testimony, said, “2021 began on a much more hopeful note than how we ended 2020, with a new president taking office, and vaccines for COVID-19 finally available. But the challenges of the past year aren’t behind us. Not by a long shot.” 

He pointed to the $2.5 billion expected drop in property tax revenue next fiscal year, the mass closure of small businesses, high unemployment, and the city’s rocky vaccine rollout. “Just because we’ve closed the FY22 gap doesn’t mean we don’t have work to do to get our own fiscal house in order for the future,” he said, citing what he considers wasteful spending on homelessness, incarceration, and mental health programs without positive outcomes.  

He urged the administration to use federal funds wisely. “Stimulus money is temporary. It will give us some help this year and next, maybe even a little the year after that. But after that, it is gone,” he said. “We need to strategically use these federal funds to relieve the suffering of New Yorkers, to jump-start our economic recovery and to lay the groundwork for a new, fairer economy.”

As is the case each year, the administration tends to be more conservative in its revenue forecasts. Ronnie Lowenstein, director of the Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan city agency that is not under the mayor’s control, estimated to the Council that the city will end the current fiscal year with a $3.6 billion surplus, $258 million more than the administration’s expectations.

Lowenstein pointed to the positive developments at the federal level, including the next stimulus package and additional FEMA reimbursements announced by the Biden administration. But she also raised concerns about the unspecified labor savings, the status of federal funding for the MTA, cuts from Albany and the progression of the pandemic. “With these and a number of other critical variables, the city’s economic and fiscal future remains precarious,” she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Amid Great Uncertainty, City Council Begins Examining De Blasio's $92.3 Billion Preliminary Budget Tue, 02 Mar 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Unable to Move De Blasio, Carranza Leaves a Still Deeply Divided School System https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/10213-unable-move-de-blasio-carranza-leaves-divided-segregated-nyc-school-system https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/10213-unable-move-de-blasio-carranza-leaves-divided-segregated-nyc-school-system holds ava photo

Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


In July 2018, a few months after New York City welcomed a new schools chancellor, The Atlantic asked, “Can Richard Carranza Integrate the Most Segregated School System in the Country?”

Now we have our answer. On Friday, Carranza announced his resignation, attributing it to the emotional toll the pandemic had taken on him. But many observers believe — and The New York Times reported — that Carranza decided to leave at least partly because it had become clear that Mayor de Blasio did not share his commitment to ending segregation in the nation’s largest school system.

So with 10 months left in office, de Blasio, who ran for mayor decrying New York’s “tale of two cities,” leaves New York public schools with two systems, divided by race, class, and resources. The question is whether the battles of the last seven years — and Carranza’s tenure — will lay the groundwork for the next mayor to end that split. 

Integration advocates say Carranza’s three years have not been devoid of accomplishment. They cite his overseeing integration plans in Manhattan’’s District 3 and Brooklyn’s District 15, laying the groundwork for similar efforts in other districts, instituting an at least temporary end to screened admission to middle schools, and launching an ambitious program of anti-bias training for teachers. 

Above all they commend the outgoing chancellor’s unabashed advocacy for integration. 

Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education, praised Carranza as a strong leader “who’s very clear on what his agenda is and…who didn’t have any problem speaking out when white parents came after him” and when the New York Post went after him. “He has never backed down,” she said.

“Carranza used the bully pulpit to elevate the issue in a way no previous chancellor had,” Richard Kahlenberg, director of K–12 equity at the Century Foundation and a member of the executive committee for the mayor’s School Diversity Advisory Group, said by email.

But the last three years brought resistance from a supposedly progressive mayor who lacked either the conviction or the backbone to fight for true equity. “No chancellor has ever highlighted racial justice the way that Chancellor Carranza did. The big disappointment was he was dealing with an obstructionist mayor,” said Matt Gonzales, director of the Integration and Innovation Initiative at NYU Metro Center.

The angry town hall meetings and the attacks on Carranza in The Post and elsewhere also highlighted once again how strong the resistance to equity can be and made clear that many white and Asian parents believe the system, unfair though it may be, is good for their children and should remain.

“Those citizens with the most political power in the city are often defenders of the status quo, because they perceive the status quo to directly benefit their children. For many people, the practical considerations outweigh the philosophical agreement with school diversity,” Stefan Lallinger, a fellow at the Century Foundation, wrote by email last year.

School integration never appeared at the top of de Blasio’s agenda. He boasts of being a public-school parent but both his children went to academically selective elite public schools for middle school and high school (as did mine). In an early stint on a local school board in Brooklyn, de Blasio helped devise a choice system for middle schools that hardened racial and economic divisions in the area’s middle schools — a program that, owing to community action, has since been dismantled. 

Tellingly his campaign rhetoric on divides in the city did not focus on K-12 education. But school integration  became a kind of elephant in the room when, a few months after de Blasio’s inauguration, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA released a report finding that New York State had the most segregated schools in the country, owing largely to educational segregation in New York City, and that the system was becoming increasingly divided. 

Students began speaking out loudly and eloquently about the effect segregated schools had on their education and organizing around the issue. Some politicians echoed their calls, and the City Council passed a few measures aimed at the problem while a few members made the issue a priority. 

There was “a hope, if not an expectation” that de Blasio and his first schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, would take on segregation, recalls David Bloomfield, a professor of education law at City University. But he says, “The best Carmen could come up with” was a suggestion that students have pen pals of different backgrounds and de Blasio would not even say “segregation.” Instead the mayor focused on universal pre-K and 3K, along with expanding access to advanced placement and computer sciences courses — all of which, de Blasio said, would expand opportunity for all children. 

Then, in 2018, after his first choice for next schools chancellor suddenly bailed out, de Blasio appointed Carranza, the Houston school superintendent and a grandchild of Mexican immigrants. Carranza was quick to call out city schools for being deeply divided and zeroed in on schools that use grades, test scores, and other measures to admit some children — and not others — as a key driver of that segregation. “Why are we screening kids in a public-school system? That is, to me, antithetical to what I think we all want for our kids,” he said. 

The move to get rid of screens was a constant of the next three years but repeatedly fell far short of Carranza’s goal. 

The first round involved the test that serves as the sole basis for admission to the city’s eight academically elite Specialized High Schools. By the time Carranza arrived, de Blasio was already planning to call for junking the test in favor of a system where top students from every city middle school would be chosen. Because of a state law passed in 1971, the change required state approval — at least for the three largest and most prestigious of the schools.

It immediately ran into a buzz saw, particularly in the Asian community where many families see a high score on the admissions test as a ticket to success. De Blasio had not consulted with Asian leaders and parents beforehand, fueling sentiment that his policy was targeting Asians. Carranza reinforced that when he said, “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools.”

Few if any prominent politicians backed the mayor’s specialized high school admissions plan. By September 2019, de Blasio was acknowledging he had failed and that he might be open to keeping the test after all.

Lallinger of the Century Foundation said the problem with the proposal was not its substance. “The failure to enact it was entirely a political failure. There was no meaningful stakeholder engagement before it was announced, and no opportunities to tweak it to address the concerns of some constituencies before it was presented as an alternative to the status quo,” he wrote in an email last summer. The retreat on specialized schools was the first of many. 

In 2019, the School Diversity Advisory Group, which the mayor named in 2017 in response to significant pressure to desegregate the city’s schools, released two sets of integration proposals. The first report, issued in February, had 67 recommendations, such as setting goals for diversity and devising a more culturally responsive curriculum. The administration embraced 62 of them. 

The group’s far more sweeping report landed that summer. It looked at the system of choosing students for coveted schools and essentially called for blowing it up. Middle schools, it said, should no longer use admissions criteria such as grades, attendance, and standardized test scores. High schools should abandon lateness, attendance, and geography as criteria for admitting students and instead adopt admissions policies that would create diversity. 

Perhaps most controversially the report called for a complete rethinking of the elementary school gifted and talented program, including elimination of the test that determines which children will gain the coveted seats.  

The reaction was harsh and immediate. Critics charged that the proposals, if accepted, would spark middle class flight from the city. National figures weighed in with Fox television host Tucker Carlson accusing Carranza of “leading the charge” to sow “racial division in America’s largest city.” 

Few New Yorkers who have seen de Blasio’s handling of tough issues, such as police reform, were surprised at what happened next. The mayor — who was running for president at the time — barely acknowledged the recommendations, didn’t meet with the group that he had appointed, and downplayed the importance of integrating schools. “All the theory about how we create a utopian world, you know how we get everything to be perfectly balanced at all, that’s not what parents are talking to me about,” he said at a press conference that September. He pledged a review of the group’s recommendations, but there’s no evidence that happened. De Blasio’s February 2020 State of the City speech did not mention school integration.

The genie, though, would not go back in the bottle. 

Angry over calls to eliminate tests as an admissions criteria, a proposed integration plan in Queens, and a community school board member in Brooklyn who referred to Asians as “yellow,” activists, many of them Asian, vented their ire at Carranza. They demonstrated at his town halls, holding signs demanding he be fired, and charged that they had been barred from a March meeting at Brooklyn’s James Madison High School. De Blasio defended Carranza against charges of racism but remained largely silent on the issues. 

“De Blasio allowed the equity agenda to be demonized” and be tied to Carranza, said Gonzales, who served on the School Diversity Advisory Group. “He was a brown man who spoke about racial justice and that’s what happens.”

For his part, Carranza, in announcing his resignation, seemed to acknowledge he could have done better at reaching out to various groups in the city.

On the other side, frustrated that sweeping change seemed stalled, students staged walkouts at individual schools during the first half of the school year and planned to up the ante with a citywide school walkout. 

Then the pandemic hit. The shift to remote learning threw the screening metrics into disarray, as state standardized tests used for high school and middle school admissions were canceled, and the city scrapped traditional grades for grades K-8. The specialized high school test and elementary school gifted test seemed in jeopardy as some educators and politicians questioned the validity of tests when so many students’ lives were disrupted. They expressed concern about the safety of in-person testing and grumbled about spending money on them at a time when the city faced massive budget cuts. 

Carranza clearly hoped to seize the moment. In April, he told the Association of Latino Superintendents and Supervisors he was “not allowing” people to talk about returning to normal because that normal was rife with inequities. “We see this as an opportunity to finally push and move and be very strategic in a very aggressive way what we know is the equity agenda for our kids,” Carranza said. “Never waste a crisis.”

Soon after came another crisis: George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis. The ensuing focus on racial injustice in America reinforced arguments that screened schools were inherently unfair and even racist. Teens Take Charge stepped up its assault on screens and released city data showing that some selective high schools with large numbers  of Black and Latino applicants tended to admit more of their White and Asian applicants than their Black and Latino ones. 

To the frustration of many parents, the administration repeatedly delayed deciding how it would handle admissions for next school year. But when it finally began announcing its admission policies in December, some screens, including controversial ones, remained. 

At least for this year, middle schools cannot use criteria such as grades and attendance to select students but will choose them by lottery. High schools can no longer give preference to students from their Community School District, ending the policy that made schools in Manhattan’s affluent District 2 disproportionately white and privileged. High schools can, however, continue to choose students using test scores, interviews, and portfolios, and many of them are doing that. 

Some critics worry the confusion about new criteria and some of the changes could make the system even more unfair. 

“We are frustrated that the DOE has missed an opportunity for truly transformative change by failing to remove all academic screening for high schools, even as a temporary measure. The lack of valid metrics during the pandemic, when already-existing inequities were magnified, highlights the baselessness of screening policies in general,” Parents for Responsible, Equitable, Safe Schools said in a statement. 

The city also decided to keep the Specialized High School test, citing the state law.

The biggest furor came over the gifted and talented test, which had been given one-on-one by proctors to children who would enter kindergarten through third grade the following September. Many consider this the most egregious of New York’s screens, a belief bolstered by the fact that no other school system selects children for gifted programs this way. Experts argue that testing children as young as four — before most have had many influences beyond their family — tells you more about the child’s home than the child. In New York, it tells you about race: three quarters of kindergarteners in the city’s gifted programs in 2017-18 were white or Asian, even though white and Asian students accounted for only about a third of city kindergarten students. 

Success on the test puts students on track for future academic success. Children in the gifted program are likely to land in a selective middle school, which is then a path to passing the Specialized High School test. 

The normally toothless Panel for Educational Policy barred the city from issuing a contract for the gifted and talented test this year, but de Blasio remained adamant about finding a way to screen children. The administration decreed that, to qualify for the program, little children would have to get recommendations from their preschool programs or be interviewed.

Even supporters of screened programs balked, the absurdity of the plan seemingly evident to everyone but the mayor, who also said he would be offering a longer-term reform plan for gifted and talented later this calendar year. 

“They’ve chosen the system that has been proven to be the least effective for identifying gifted students who are of color, or low-income, or English learners…Subjective evaluations have always benefited the wealthy and middle class,” Alina Adams, an education writer and school choice advocate, told the Post.

M. Rene Islas, former executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children, which advocates for gifted programs, said he was unaware of any evidence that young children could be identified as gifted in a remote interview and that allowing evaluators to Zoom into children’s homes could introduce a whole new set of biases. “I’m really worried about that,” he said, according to Chalkbeat. “I don’t think that’s going to help with equity.”

Although Carranza and de Blasio have downplayed policy differences, the mayor’s stubborn endorsement of the gifted and talented admissions was probably too much for the chancellor. The Times reported that Carranza had drafted a resignation letter after a heated conversation with de Blasio over the future of gifted and talented classes. 

There are many possible reasons as to why Carranza resigned. “Maybe we should just take him at his word that he was simply exhausted and vulnerable,” Bloomfield said. With the de Blasio administration going into its final months many officials are leaving — in fact a number at the education department already have. Others look to the atmosphere in the mayor’s office and what many see as his propensity for micro-managing.

With Carranza out the door, de Blasio’s legacy on school integration will remain one of weakness, at best, and opposition at worst. He will be seen as someone who either did not believe in equity or was too timid to take on the powerful forces supporting the status quo.

When de Blasio was elected, advocates had “thought we had someone who would be a champion,” Ansari said. Instead the mayor did not back Carranza up when he was under attack and flouted the wishes of the Panel for Educational Policy when it blocked the gifted and talented test. “The mayor’s not all in on democracy, let alone equity,” she said.

Nyah Berg of New York Appleseed, which advocates for school integration, also blames de Blasio for stalling the drive for a more equitable school system. “So much could have been done and done sooner if it were not for the lame duck de Blasio administration obstructing progress for integration at every turn. It will be hard to judge Carranza’s leadership as he was never allowed to truly lead and was micromanaged by a mayor who has shown no moral courage, leadership or intent to uphold his promise in addressing his ‘Tale of Two Cities,’” she said by email.

In resigning Carranza said that, while “it’s never been my style to look at the coulda shoulda  woulda,” he would have done more to engage with communities. Gonzales hopes that incoming chancellor Meisha Ross Porter’s long experience in New York City schools and status as a lifelong New Yorker will help her do that and “move things forward” during the next ten months — or beyond if the next mayor lets her stay on.

As Porter works to fully reopen the city’s schools, integration advocates will be looking to shape the debate about education in the mayoral campaign and elect someone who will take on what de Blasio didn’t. 

They will also be examining the structure of mayoral control of city schools. Ansari said that issue has been “simmering” for a while but that the chancellor's resignation was “an aha moment for me”: “We could have had big change,” she said, but the mayor blocked it.

While mayoral candidates have been asked to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on mayoral control, Gonzales said the discussion must go beyond that to creating “a vision for actual democratic governance of schools in New York City.”

Whoever becomes mayor in January, the debate about how — and maybe even whether — to achieve equity in city schools will continue. Along with coming back from the pandemic, “the number one education issue” for whoever takes office in January 2022 will be “to fulfil the promise that de Blasio broke and that’s mainly increasing diversity and desegregating schools,” Bloomfield said.

Kahlenberg agrees: “The next mayor will not be able to ignore segregation, as so many had in the past. Richard Carranza is a big reason for that.”

The question though is what, if anything, will the next mayor want to do about it? And will he or she — and their schools chancellor — succeed?

As the last years have shown, it will not be easy.

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Gail Robinson is a former editor of Gotham Gazette who writes on education and other policy issues and teaches at Baruch College. On Twitter @GailNRobinson.

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

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Unable to Move De Blasio, Carranza Leaves a Still Deeply Divided School System Mon, 01 Mar 2021 05:00:00 +0000
City Releases First 10-Year Food Plan Under New Law https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10181-new-york-city-releases-first-10-year-food-plan-hunger https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/10181-new-york-city-releases-first-10-year-food-plan-hunger de Blasio food plan

Mayor de Blasio at a food pantry, pre-pandemic (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


The New York City Mayor’s Office of Food Policy is announcing the city’s first-ever 10-year food plan, called Food Forward NYC, to better address food insecurity, improve a number of food- and nutrition-related processes, and meet the requirements of legislation passed by the City Council early last year.

The policy, previewed by Gotham Gazette before its public release on Monday, is intended to tackle hunger, food waste, malnutrition-related ailments, and food industry instability through five core goals, which all have underlying plans that require the cooperation of multiple city agencies and other entities. For example, the plan includes developing a “Food Community Hiring Initiative” to easily identify entry-level jobs in the food industry and creating a commercial kitchen for providers of the city’s Department for the Aging by partnering the program with Citymeals on Wheels.

“It should go without saying that in a truly great city, no one should ever go hungry,” writes Mayor Bill de Blasio, in part, in an opening letter of the Food Forward report. “But beyond tackling hunger, we are also committed to ensuring that all New Yorkers have the information, tools, and access to eat healthy food and learn about nutrition; to lift up food workers and reduce food waste; and to back local businesses and urban farming, among a host of other responsibilities.”

The five overarching goals of the plan are: “All New Yorkers have multiple ways to access healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food; New York City’s food economy drives economic opportunity and provides good jobs; The supply chains that feed New York City are modern, efficient, and resilient; New York City’s food is produced, distributed, and disposed of sustainably; Support the systems and knowledge to implement the 10-year food policy plan.”

According to the plan, 1.6 million New York City residents are food insecure — meaning that they do not have stable access to quality, nutritious food.

This number has only increased during the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen widespread loss of jobs and work, but there was a severe crisis even before the outbreak. Previously, 1.2 million New Yorkers were food insecure, according to data from Feeding America.

Malnutrition from a lack of nutritious food, which can be a result of food insecurity, leads to health issues such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, and therefore other challenges, shorter life expectancy, and more vulnerability to diseases like COVID-19.

“Communities of color in all five boroughs have less access to affordable, healthy food than white communities and they are disproportionately impacted by diet-related health diseases,” the food plan reads, in part. “While many food businesses are owned by people of color and workers in the sector are substantially people of color, low business margins and low wages often result in limited economic mobility. Furthermore, many distribution hubs and waste facilities are located in communities of color, therefore placing additional disproportionate environmental and health burdens on them. At the same time, many of the biggest innovations in food policy in New York City, from local farms to cooperative ownership models, have emerged from communities of color. NYC’s food policy can support these successes and turn the food system into a source of health, wealth, and sustainability.”

According to the plan, two out of every three food businesses in the city have fewer than ten workers and almost half of New York City’s food originates from locations outside the city before ending up in the boroughs’ grocery stores, restaurants and schools.

The food industry is a key part of the city’s economy and one whose workers have been hurt by the pandemic. Even before covid, restaurant and grocery store workers were already making yearly salaries far below the average New York yearly income, according to the new food plan, and while many food workers have been classified as “essential” during the pandemic, helping some to keep their jobs, they have been unable to work from home and therefore at significantly higher risk of covid. At the same time, many food businesses, like restaurants, have closed during the pandemic, costing many jobs.

“At this moment in 2021, the city is in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in extraordinary levels of food insecurity,” Director of the Mayor’s Office of Food Planning Kate Mackenzie writes, in part, in her opening letter of the new policy. “Yet, through these harrowing months, we have deepened our understanding of how essential our food workers are to our food system. From the farm workers who grow our food, to the drivers and store clerks who ensure our grocery stores and bodegas remain stocked, the delivery workers who bring food to our homes, the cafeteria workers who keep our students fed, the volunteers distributing food at pantries – we see you and we thank you.”

For goal one of Food Forward NYC, the plan is to “expand food benefits to reach more New Yorkers in more places,” “distribute food more equitably,” and “reconfigure how the city sources food,” each of which come with their own sub-initiatives.

The city plans to expand to more low-income neighborhoods the “Get the Good Stuff” program, which allows Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients to earn an extra dollar in reward points for every dollar they spend on fruits and vegetables at participating grocery stores.

Food Forward NYC also plans to allow adult members of children’s families to permanently get free grab-and-go meals at public schools, during summer months even after the pandemic ends. Before COVID-19, only children were eligible for this program, and parents weren’t allowed to take food even when they came with their children. The program was expanded to adults accompanying children and then all New Yorkers at the height of the pandemic in the spring of 2020.

Other strategies to achieve the first goal are to work with the state and federal governments to get “Medicare/Medicaid coverage for medically tailored meals.” to make the city’s outdoor dining program permanent, and to improve access to cold storage in underserved areas, among other things.

“For all New Yorkers to get the food they need and want, they need multiple ways to access healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food that meets them where they are,” the plan explains. “The plan embraces that food intersects with New Yorkers’ health and the broader economy in multiple ways, and not simply with regard to hunger; that food is important as an expression of cultural identity and as a way to connect with family and friends; and that food can bring tremendous joy.”

The second Food Forward NYC goal focuses more on how the food industry relates to the economy.

Initiatives within it include enforcing already created fair-scheduling laws in the fast-food industry to make sure that workers have some control over their work schedules and get paid overtime when necessary, expanding and creating new childcare centers that have weekend and overnight hours to accommodate food service workers, pushing the state for a NYC Small Business Recovery Tax Credit for small businesses and restaurants, and developing customized workforce training programs in manufacturing and industry technologies. The city proposal for a tax credit would apply to “businesses with gross revenue below $1 million,” which would “be eligible for a tax credit equal to 6% of their calendar year 2021 rent, up to maximum credit of $10,000.”

The city will also “create financing and technical assistance plans to support worker-owned cooperatives,” by adjusting current programs to better suit the needs of food businesses and by working with community organizations and business improvement districts.

“The restaurant industry is also vital to the city as a major draw for residents, workers, and visitors, underpinning many other industries such as office employment in the central business districts and serving as a draw for tourists,” the plan says. “Indeed, the restaurant industry is key to making New York City the compelling place that it is. Its economic contribution is also large. In 2019, the industry made nearly $27 billion in taxable sales.”

Food Forward’s third main goal focuses on the way that food comes into New York City and where it originates — which more often than not is far from the five boroughs.

Initiatives in this category include modernizing the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center by implementing resiliency measures to protect the building from rising sea levels and flooding, increasing the amount of food the city buys from the New York region instead of outside sources, and removing barriers to urban farming that currently exist in the forms of laws and regulations, such as “reviewing regulations related to land use and exploring different nonprofit and for-profit operating models and mechanisms to distribute micro-grants more efficiently.”

Under the fourth goal of the plan, the emphasis is on making sure that food is distributed fairly throughout the city and that food waste is handled sustainably and resourcefully.

The city is aiming to collect 90% of organic waste by 2030 and to “mandate the source separation and recycling of organic waste within all city institutions and schools by the year 2025 and in all residential buildings by 2029”; to figure out how to make cold storage more efficient and sustainable at a lower cost; and to include local seafood and seaweed in the New York State Grown & Certified program, which “is a program that makes it easy for consumers to identify local, safely-handled, and environmentally responsible agricultural products.”

The final component of Food Forward NYC is about ensuring different stakeholders in the food and public policy worlds will work together effectively to make the ambitious new plan a reality.

“New York City’s food system is highly distributed and fragmented, made up of many small parts that interact with each other in complicated ways,” the plan reads. “In fact, the system is so complex that even people who  have spent years working in one sector of the food system often have little to no knowledge of how the rest of it works. It is not surprising that it can be extremely hard for anyone who plays a role, from policymakers to food workers to advocates to food consumers, to understand what levers to push for systemic change. This complexity also makes meaningful community engagement and decision making around food very challenging.”

Strategies to meet the goal of “strengthening community engagement and cross-sector coordination around the development and implementation of food policy” include partnering with the non-governmental sector to increase community participation in food policy decision-making, working with the private and civic sectors on food education campaigns about sustainability and nutrition, and establishing a Public Housing Food Leadership Innovation Lab to work on projects regarding food access, food production, food waste management, and community building in NYCHA. The plan indicates intention to finally begin recycling at public housing developments.

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City Releases First 10-Year Food Plan Under New Law Sun, 21 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000