Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/63 Fri, 20 Sep 2019 08:03:11 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Latest Mayor’s Management Report Gives Snapshot of Government Services, City Trends https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8805-de-blasio-mayors-report-snapshot-government-services https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8805-de-blasio-mayors-report-snapshot-government-services update emergency management

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio released the latest Mayor’s Management Report, an exhaustive document  of data behind city government -- the metrics the city uses, at least in theory, to determine whether government services are being delivered effectively and that the public can use to hold city government accountable. The report is broken down by agency, with each listing a set of broad goals, the progress toward which is illustrated by indicators.

The dense report covers data for fiscal year (FY) 2019, which began July 1, 2018 and ended June 30, 2019, and includes comparative data from fiscal years going back to FY15, the first full fiscal year of de Blasio’s mayoralty. Forty-five municipal agencies contribute to the report, which is aggregated under the Mayor’s Office of Operations.

Captured in its numbers are the contours of various aspects of life in the biggest city in the United States. Gotham Gazette went through many of the indicators -- ranging from the headline-grabbing to the obscure -- that illustrate, in part, how city government is doing.

Outlined below are metrics in key categories like education, children’s services, housing and homelessness, policing, jails, transportation, and sanitation. (There are dozens more areas of the report that are not included here -- to learn more about the city’s performance according to the mayor’s office, find the report here or visit specific sections using this navigation page.)

Education
In FY19, approximately 1,126,500 students were enrolled in the public school system from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade (not including charter school students). This is roughly 4,000 more students than in FY15, but about 9,000 fewer than in the previous fiscal year.

Average class sizes for kindergarten through eighth grade have stayed roughly the same over the last five years.

Based on state test scores, students in grades three through eight are doing far better in math and English language arts than they were in FY15. Last year, 45.6 percent of students met or exceeded math standards, up roughly 10 percent; for English language standards, that number was 47.4 percent -- up 17 points since FY15. But, the tests have changed significantly over the last few years, making FY19 to FY15 comparisons limited in value.

Teachers on average are slightly less experienced than they were five years ago. In FY19, 67.3 percent of teachers had five or more years of teaching experience, compared with 71.2 percent of teachers in FY15. But principals are becoming more experienced: 68.8 percent had four or more years of experience as principals in FY19, while five years ago 60 percent did.

The Mayor’s Management Report does not include metrics on school diversity or racial, ethnic, or economic segregation in city schools.

Child Welfare
The Administration for Children’s Services reports families entering child welfare prevention services has decreased over the last five years from roughly 11,000 to 9,960. Children entering foster care has also fallen, from 4,233 in FY15 to 3,729 in FY19.

Of those entering foster care 28.9% are placed in homes in their community, down from 36-37 percent the previous four years; 93.8 percent are placed in the same home as siblings when applicable, up from 88.9 percent in FY15. The greater increase is the number of children entering foster care who are placed with relatives, which went from 29.5 percent in FY15 to 40.4 percent in FY19.

Housing and Homelessness
Of the roughly 60,000 people in homeless shelters across the city, the average number of single adults in shelters daily has risen every year over the last five years, from roughly 11,000 in FY15 to 16,000 in FY19. The daily average in the most recent year of reporting is more than 1,000 greater than it was the year before. The average number of families without children living in shelters every day has also risen year after year -- from 2,110 to 2,510. The averages for families with children is far greater -- 12,415 in FY19 -- but has stayed relatively constant over the last five years.

Under the mayor’s Housing New York plan to create or preserve 300,000 affordable housing units over 12 years, the process to construct new or preserve existing “affordable” (meaning rent-regulated in some way) apartments began on just over 25,000 units, meeting the administration’s stated goal for FY19. Another 18,200 units were completed under Housing New York and another initiative started under Bloomberg called the New Housing Marketplace Plan.

Under Housing NY in FY19, the city began financing 2,682 affordable units geared specifically toward homeless individuals and families. Another 1,968 will serve senior households.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), reports 173,000 apartments in public housing developments, down 3,000 from FY18 and 5,000 from FY15. The occupancy rate for NYCHA housing is 98.9 percent. About 2,450 homeless individuals who applied for public housing either in NYCHA or through Section 8 vouchers were placed. That number has fallen every year since FY16 from a high of 2,868.

Policing
The New York Police Department (NYPD) reported a roughly 10 percent decrease in major felony crimes over the four years: 93,631 in FY19, down from 103,872 in FY15. Major felony crimes include murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, and grand larceny. Notably, despite this overall drop, reports of forcible rape have increased relatively steadily (with a small drop between FY16 and FY17); 304 more cases were reported in FY19 than in FY15, an increase of about 29 percent.

Narcotics arrests have dropped precipitously. In fiscal year 2015, the first full fiscal year de Blasio held office, 61,007 narcotics arrests were made. In FY19, only 25,098 narcotics arrests were made, indicative of the city’s changing marijuana enforcement. Last year marked the most significant year-to-year drop, about 42 percent down from 43,574 arrests in FY18.

The number of non-violent “quality-of-life” summonses has also fallen to less than half of what it was in FY15. According to the report, the summonses are issued for “offenses that have a negative impact on City residents, including unreasonable noise, aggressive panhandling, window washing, and urinating in public.” The greatest drop -- almost 40 percent -- took place between FY17 to FY18. They were down another 24 percent in FY19, to 128,265 summonses. This trend was in large part spurred by the Criminal Justice Reform Act.

The report does not reveal much about “customer service” for people interacting with police. The police department reported 275,981 completed requests for interpretation, roughly the same as in FY15 (but a five percent drop from FY18). Yet, the report does not indicate how many interpretation requests were made, so it is difficult to assess the department’s overall performance. For the first time since FY10, the police department also did not report a CORE (Customers Observing and Reporting Experiences) facility ratings, which measures physical conditions and the quality of service in walk-in facilities.

There were 844 more complaints against uniformed police officers to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an oversight body tasked with investigating and prosecuting certain types of officer misconduct, in FY19 than the previous fiscal year -- a nearly 20 percent increase. FY15 had over a thousand fewer complaints than in FY19, a change of almost 26 percent over five years.

The time it takes the CCRB to complete a full investigation also increased, which the report says is consistent with the heightened number of complaints and the increased use of body-worn camera footage in investigations. “The amount of time it takes to obtain footage has also significantly contributed to the increase, as does instances where false negatives or false positives necessitate multiple follow-up requests,” the report also notes.

The police department reports paying $178 million in settlements or verdicts in state and federal court in FY19. The reported payout in FY15 was higher: $202,600,000.

Jails
The number of people in Department of Correction custody has declined steadily during de Blasio’s mayoralty, from average daily populations of 10,240 in FY15 to 7,938 in FY19. While the jail population has decreased, violent incidents among detainees and guards as a proportion of the total detainee population have risen dramatically. In FY19, there were about 70 violent detainee-to-detainee incidents per 1,000 people in custody, compared with just 38 in FY15 and 56 in FY18. Assaults on staff increased from roughly 9 to 13 per 1,000 detainees over the same five-year period.

Department of Correction staff is far more regularly using force against people in their custody than they were in FY15. In FY19, there were 6,670 incidents of force by custodial staff, an increase of 51 percent over de Blasio’s mayoralty. Use of force against adolescents has risen too: of the 6,670 incident of force, 571 were against adolescents, compared with 378 in FY15.

The number of people in custody with mental health diagnoses has risen from 41 percent to 45 percent over five years. The number of inmates with “serious mental health diagnosis” has gone up from 11.1 percent in FY15 to 16.8 percent in FY19.

Transportation
There were nine more traffic fatalities in FY19 than the year before, but 31 fewer than in FY15. There were over 223,000 crashes in FY19 (422 involved Department of Transportation vehicles).

Fatalities among cyclists and pedestrians between FY15 and 19 have dropped overall from 159 to 137, but between FY18 and 19 they rose by nine. The city installed 67.5 miles of bike lane in FY19. That is significant growth from FY15 when roughly 51 miles were installed, but a drop from FY17 when nearly 83 miles were built.

Annual CitiBike memberships have more than doubled over five years to a high of 154,830 in FY19. And while bike ridership overall has picked up over five years, the number of adults who ride regularly fell by about 6,000 between FY18 and FY19.

The number of accessible medallion taxis has nearly quintupled in the last five years, coming to over 2,700 accessible cabs in FY19. There are only 579 accessible for-hire vehicles, such as through Uber or Lyft app-based services, and this is the first year the data from the Taxi and Limousine Commission has been included it in the Mayor’s Management Report.

Yellow and green cab safety and emissions inspections have dropped, with only about 32,000 taking place in FY19, compared to 48,000 the year before and 52,000 in FY15. The percentage of inspections completed on schedule also dropped dramatically to 55 percent in FY19 from the mid-nineties in all other years. At the same time the failure rate rose almost seven percentage points last year to 33.6 percent, while the re-inspection rate dropped a point to 6.1 percent.

It seems much of that effort has been transferred to safety and emissions inspections for the app-based for-hire vehicles. In FY19, 84,000 FHVs were inspected, compared to 47,000 in FY15, of which 96.8 percent were completed on schedule. About 29 percent fail the initial inspection, and only 8.4 percent are re-inspected.

The average time it takes the Department of Transportation to fix a pothole was 3.2 days in FY19, down from 5.6 in FY15. The average time it takes DOT to respond to “high priority” traffic signal defects that have made the roads unsafe is 21 minutes faster than the previous fiscal year.

Sanitation
The Department of Sanitation reportedly disposes of 3,248,100 tons of refuse annually, a two percent increase from FY15. The department handled 868,000 tons of recycling in FY19 at a rate of 2,783 tons per day.

The Mayor’s Management Report did not provide data on the costs per ton for refuse and recycling collection and disposal, though those prices in almost every case have risen every fiscal year for at least the last five. Collecting recycling alone costs $706 per ton, up from $645 in FY15. (The city does, however, earn $12 per ton in revenue for paper recycling.)

The report does not include data on street and sidewalk cleanliness for the first time in at least the last five fiscal years, while quality-of-life issues are a stated priority of de Blasio’s Deputy Mayor of Operations, Laura Anglin.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

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Latest Mayor’s Management Report Gives Snapshot of Government Services, City Trends Thu, 19 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The City's Fight Against Homelessness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8798-max-murphy-podcast-new-york-city-homelessness-de-blasio-banks https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8798-max-murphy-podcast-new-york-city-homelessness-de-blasio-banks bellevue intake wbai600

Steve Banks, right, with the Mayor and First Lady (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


September 18, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The City's Fight Against Homelessness

dss commissioner banks wbai 150Steve Banks, Commissioner of the Department of Social Services and Mayor de Blasio's homelessness czar, joined the show to discuss the city's fight against homelessness, the progress he believes the city has made over the past five-plus years since de Blasio took office and named him to head the Human Resources Administration (HRA), and more.

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The City's Fight Against Homelessness Wed, 18 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
7 Years After Sandy - Part II: The City’s Limited Resiliency Efforts Since https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8780-7-years-after-sandy-city-resiliency-efforts-since https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8780-7-years-after-sandy-city-resiliency-efforts-since coneyisland wetlands rendering

Rendering of Coney Island wetlands project (photo: mayor's office, Oct. 2013)


This is part two of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Find part one -- Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed -- here. Find part three -- Is the City's Emergency Responsiveness Ready for Whatever Comes Our Way? -- hereThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy killed 43 people and caused nearly $20 billion in damages and lost productivity in New York City. While the city has not seen a storm of that scale in the nearly seven years since, climate change, sea level rise, and the dangers posed by major weather events have continued to accelerate. In the aftermath of Sandy, the city began to implement a number of programs to make the city more resilient, or prepared for another Sandy-caliber disaster.

But elected officials, advocacy groups, and other experts say a Sandy-caliber storm would be nearly if not just as devastating today as it was in 2012. The city and its partners at other levels of government have been far too slow to act, and have not moved with requisite boldness in considering how to truly prepare the five boroughs, with their 520 miles of coastline, for the present and the future, they say. Projects are behind schedule or on too-long timelines, federal money isn’t being spent quickly enough by the city, there’s no real plan guiding it all.

In other words, New York City is nowhere near as resilient as it needs to be, and it’s not clear when the city might meet even a low bar for preparedness.

As the seventh anniversary of Sandy’s landfall in New York City nears, another round of evaluations, oversight hearings, and other discussions is kicking off. To many, what’s been accomplished in terms of resiliency efforts is astonishingly limited given that it’s been seven years and the lessons that were supposed to have been learned in the storm’s aftermath. Some are calling on the city to drastically speed up its implementation of resiliency projects to protect the city’s residents and their property, while a new proposal would mandate the city produce a five-borough resiliency plan.

Beyond the emergency response, the biggest questions from seven years ago remain the same today: what is actually being done to prepare New York City for the next big storm and the climate future, and what else should be done as quickly as possible?

Where Things Stand
In June 2013, the year after the storm hit, the city introduced the New York City Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR), a $19.5 billion program to reinforce disaster protocols and prevent damage from future climate events. The initiative sought to “ensure that New York City is ready to withstand and emerge stronger from the impacts of climate change,” according to Jainey Bavishi, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency under Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office in January 2014.

The city is especially concerned with climate change, including sea-level rise, hurricanes, extreme precipitation, heat waves, and rising temperatures, according to a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency.

“Global warming is an emergency, and adapting quickly is an existential necessity,” Bavishi said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We’re investing $20 billion across all five boroughs to help ensure that New York City is ready to withstand and emerge stronger from the impacts of climate change.”

Many of the city’s goals are included in the OneNYC plan, a comprehensive compilation of initiatives that include strategies to improve resiliency and address climate change. By the 2050s, OneNYC estimates that the nearly 1 million residents who will live in the expanded coastal floodplain will be particularly vulnerable to coastal flooding, with sea levels expected to rise by up to 30 inches, not including the effects of major weather events. High tides will cause flooding twice a day in some areas, and permanent inundation in others, according to those projections.

Despite agreement on the urgency of the threat, the city has not executed as much as talked about its plans for resiliency, said Eric Goldstein, New York Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The SIRR, first released post-Sandy by the Bloomberg administration in its final year, and subsequently backed by the de Blasio administration, includes more than 250 separate projects and major coastal flood protection initiatives. Its focus is five especially vulnerable areas: the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, the east and south shores of Staten Island, South Queens, South Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan.

A good deal of work is in motion, with dozens of projects completed and others moving ahead, but at an overall pace that is surprisingly slow to many. The city has spent less than 54 percent of the $15 billion that has been funded from the city’s $20 billion SIRR, according to a May report from city Comptroller Scott Stringer.

“If another Sandy-caliber storm struck today, all roads lead to New York being completely shut down,” said Brooklyn City Council Member Justin Brannan, chair of the new Council Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts, at City & State NY’s “Protecting New York Summit” on July 31. “My fear is that if Sandy were to happen tomorrow we’d see the same effect we saw almost seven years ago. That’s what a lot of my constituents feel as well.”

Brannan has been surveying coastal areas of the city, including those in his southern Brooklyn district, and plans to hold multiple oversight hearings this fall, he told the Max & Murphy podcast earlier in July. Brannan also discussed the fact that he and City Council Member Costa Constantinides, chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection, recently introduced a bill to mandate the mayoral administration create a five-borough resiliency plan, with certain specific guidelines.

“You’d think that, after the Rockaways, Broad Channel, and Southern Brooklyn went under water in Sandy, we’d be in better shape,” Brannan and Constantinids wrote in a recent joint op-ed discussing their bill and plans to assess post-Sandy efforts. “The 500,000 New Yorkers who live along our shores have little more than some sandbags despite scientific models showing that sea levels will rise a foot over the next 30 years.”

The city’s current efforts to become more resilient -- often called too piecemeal by Brannan, Constantinides, and others -- can be broken down into improved infrastructure, coastal defenses, and community preparedness.

On the coasts, the city has reconstructed boardwalks, built dunes across beaches on Staten Island and the Rockaways, and coordinated to place 4.2 million cubic yards of new sand on city beaches, according to a spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. The city has intermittently installed flood protection measures at 40 sites, including those most impacted by Sandy, according to the spokesperson. However, these efforts are largely temporary -- they are designed to mitigate flooding until permanent measures are designed and implemented.

In lower Manhattan, the city has advanced the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project, an approximately $500 million investment in flood-risk-reduction projects in the Two Bridges neighborhood, The Battery, and Battery Park City. The plan is expected to cover 70 percent of the lower Manhattan shoreline, according to the city’s OneNYC Plan.

For the remaining 30 percent of lower Manhattan’s shoreline, which includes the seaport and the financial district, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency told Gotham Gazette that a two-year master planning process is expected to be completed in 2021.

In terms of creating more resilient infrastructure, the city has focused efforts on upgrading building and zoning codes and investing $1 billion to improve the steam, electric, and natural gas distribution infrastructure of Con Edison facilities. In the aftermath of Sandy, Con Ed agreed to compile a report assessing the effect of the city’s changing climate on its electrical grid. The first chapter of the report (on heat and humidity) was due in 2014. Five years later, the chapter has not yet been delivered, with a new deadline set for the end of this year. And at a hearing last week discussing Con Ed’s response to summer electrical blackouts, Speaker of the City Council called Con Ed’s public response “inadequate and laughable.”

The city has also been working with federal partners, specifically emergency management (FEMA), to create a future flood risk map that can be to be incorporated into building and zoning codes. 

The city has also discussed plans to extend the shoreline of the Financial District and South Street Seaport somewhere between 50 and 500 feet into the East River. Due to the current proximity of businesses to the shore, implementing land-based adaptation measures would be difficult, Bavishi said at the Protecting New York Summit, on a panel alongside Brannan.

“Any land-based protection feature would have to go deep into the neighborhood,” Bavishi said. Instead, the city is planning to build into the water. 

The city will not be able to complete all of its projects without funding and relies on the federal system to receive support for many of its projects, Bavishi said at the summit.

“Funding is a challenge. We have a federal system that funds these kinds of projects in a very reactive way when we inherently want to take proactive action to address these challenges we know are coming,” Bavishi said.

“Our actions will protect Lower Manhattan into the next century. We need the federal government to stand behind cities like New York to meet this crisis head on,” de Blasio said in a March press release.

However, as the city moves ahead with efforts to fortify parts of Manhattan, many have been critical of its work to prevent flooding in the other boroughs, arguing that their risk remains as high as when Sandy hit in 2012.

“My goal with the new [resiliency and waterfronts] committee is to work with the city to make sure folks in the outer boroughs see what the city is working on in their area,” Brannan said at the City & State event. “That the city is focused on them as well, not just lower Manhattan.”

“New Yorkers deserve a mapped-out resiliency plan that protects every community — instead of a single neighborhood,” Constantinides said in a June press release announcing the five-borough resiliency plan legislation he and Brannan were introducing and referencing what some see as the over-focus on lower Manhattan.

However, city administration officials maintain that they are working equally hard to bring resiliency to the other boroughs in addition to Manhattan. Officials point to efforts to bring dunes to the Rockaways and the importation of sand to the city’s beaches. But Brannan and others pan the sand measures as something that might have made sense in 2013 or 2014, but not seven years after Sandy, when stronger and more permanent resiliency measures should either be in place or close to it.

For many of its resiliency projects, the city is working in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To date, the partnership has resulted in the construction of around five miles of new dunes across the Rockaway Peninsula.

What More Can Be Done
The city is currently working with the Army Corps of Engineers on $1 billion worth of resiliency projects, including the beginning of the construction of the Staten Island Levee in 2020, a measure expected to mitigate flood risks along 5.3 miles of Staten Island’s east shore.

In Southeast Queens, the city and the Corps are working on a plan to create a tapered groin field and “reinforced dune on Rockaway Beach combined with a system of berms, floodwalls, and nature-based features to increase resiliency for bayside communities,” according to the OneNYC Plan. The city also says it will soon begin building the Red Hook Integrated Flood Protection System, which is expected to reduce flooding in the area by installing “tiger dams” along the shoreline -- a system of plastic balloons that inflate with water and fill up to create a flood barrier as water moves inland.

In their 2013 “Sandy Success Stories” report, the Environmental Defense Fund found that wetland restoration was key in preventing serious flood damage during Superstorm Sandy. It appeared to work well in Marine Park and Dreier Offerman Park in Brooklyn, for example. However, few if any of the city’s plans include wetland restoration, and the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency did not include it alongside a litany of other projects they would be undertaking.

Among the wetland restoration recommendations in the Sandy Success Stories study are systems to choose plans for their tolerance to flooding and salt inundation, in conjunction with a slope of 1:3. 

“A moderately steep slope seems to provide the most benefits in terms of supporting plant life and habitat, preventing erosion, attenuating wave action, and ensuring survival in the face of sea level rise. At the same time, this slope is shallow enough to minimize the reflection of wave energy that erodes the wetland area,” the recommendation reads.

Council Members Brannan and Constantinides are trying to look at both immediate needs and long-term planning.

“In the short term, we have to promote more green infrastructure,” the two Council members wrote in their recent op-ed. “Bioswales, which are sidewalk gardens, absorb up to 75 percent of stormwater. The Climate Mobilization Act paved the way for green roofs atop newly constructed buildings, which can retain 95 percent of rainwater dropped in summer months. And we have to make serious investments in infrastructure that might not always seem exciting, such as sewers.”

The two plan to hold a joint October City Council oversight hearing on issues faced by coastal areas of the city, post-Sandy recovery, resiliency measures, and the resiliency plan bill they are cosponsoring.

“That is a big part of this committee I’m chairing, the Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts, where we’re going to take a really close look into what has been done and what has not been done to help make the city of New York more resilient,” Brannan said on Max & Murphy. “When we’re dealing with this thing that is literally a race against the clock, we can’t tie our own hands and sort of hold ourselves hostage to this bureaucracy of how things were done in the past.”

In his May report, Comptroller Stringer called for the city to “develop a citywide comprehensive coastal resiliency plan” while also accelerating the pace of investments into resiliency projects, and expanding a homeowner buyout program in targeted vulnerable neighborhoods, among other measures to protect the city, especially its coastal communities, from the effects of major weather events and climate change.

The citywide plan, Stringer says, “should blend data about sea level rise and other vulnerabilities from the latest science, information about the state of good repair of waterfront assets, and a deep level of community engagement and dialogue” and should be developed by the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency and other agencies, including the proposed Mayor’s Office of the Waterfront. In June of last year, Council Member Deborah Rose of Staten Island introduced a bill to create such an office, with Rose calling the waterfront “in many ways our sixth borough.”

That proposal could come up again as the Council examines post-Sandy efforts next month.

“[Constantinides] and I are looking at doing an oversight hearing in October,” Brannan said, “to really dig into the seventh anniversary of superstorm Sandy and where we’re at, what we’ve done and what we haven’t done.”

This is part two of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Find part one -- Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed -- here. Find part three -- Is the City's Emergency Responsiveness Ready for Whatever Comes Our Way? -- hereThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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7 Years After Sandy - Part II: The City’s Limited Resiliency Efforts Since Tue, 17 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
7 Years After Sandy - Part I: Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8778-7-years-after-sandy-part-i-pieces-in-place-that-worked-rebuilding-efforts-that-failed https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8778-7-years-after-sandy-part-i-pieces-in-place-that-worked-rebuilding-efforts-that-failed aerial view bridge

Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo: mayor's office)


This is part one of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Part two -- on the city’s stalled and advancing resiliency measures -- can be found hereThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

When Hurricane Sandy hit in October of 2012, the city was hardly prepared for the disaster. Dozens of lives were lost, thousands of homes destroyed. It’s been well-documented and widely-acknowledged that the rebuilding process has been rife with mismanagement, and new resiliency measures have been slow to materialize as New York anticipates the next big storm.

Yet certain aspects of infrastructure in place when Sandy hit worked well -- and even helped mitigate some of the superstorm’s effects. 

In the days prior to the storm surge, short-range weather forecasts saw it coming, allowing the city to make some adjustments and preparations. Schools closed, shelters opened, and the city’s residents had some limited time to prepare themselves as best possible for the incoming barrage. Those emergency preparations, occurring from roughly 48 hours before the storm hit, “went as good as can be expected considering the region was not at all prepared for a storm surge of this magnitude,” said Eric Goldstein, the New York City Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an interview with Gotham Gazette just ahead of the seventh anniversary of Sandy.

One complicating factor was that too many residents in vulnerable areas did not heed the city's evacuation order, seemingly jaded by warnings of severe storms that did not materialize.

But even after the storm hit, some frontline areas – those especially vulnerable to residual flooding – mitigated disaster through a variety of protocols, according to “Sandy Success Stories,” a 2013 study by the Environmental Defense Fund that includes key lessons from 2012 and for the future.

Those measures included creation of buffers designed for durability and flood endurance, targeted placement of landscaping and structures, incorporation of durable building materials and waterproof finish, and elevation of sites and equipment. Elevated mechanical and electrical equipment (above a building’s bottom floors) protected it from flood and salt damage, allowing certain important operations to resume more quickly after the storm.

For example: At 200 Water Street in lower Manhattan and the Solar One building on East 23rd Street, elevation of mechanical and electrical equipment ensured it was protected from damages. At beaches where a landscaped dune system existed, including the Beachfront Bungalow Neighborhood in the Far Rockaways, the storm was less devastating.

The study also showed that waterfront parks with plans in place to control flooding and attenuate waves were more resilient when the storm hit. At both Bronx River Park and the Brooklyn Bridge Park, both waterfront, topographic design that took into account flood-protection helped contain flooding. At Bronx River Park, a space was created that could detain water without damage, and at Brooklyn Bridge Park, multiple berms protected the park from flooding. 

Additionally, adherence or adjustment to building codes often proved a recipe for safety during Sandy, according to Thaddeus Pawlowski, director of Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

“With two houses right next to each other, the house where you step in right off the street would have gotten knocked off its foundation, and the house next door that’s elevated would have been totally fine,” Pawloski said.

Since Sandy, these building codes have been strengthened with an eye toward future storms and floods, with new waterfront buildings held to higher standards amid a changing climate and its realized and expected impacts. The capability of waterfront infrastructure to withstand flooding will be important regardless of massive storms like Sandy, Goldstein said. With sea levels rising due to climate change, shoreline areas are at risk of flooding following routine rain storms and high tide, he said.

While those waterfront areas that escaped flooding during Sandy were for the most part designed to do so, it was not really with disaster preparation at the forefront, according to Sandy Success Stories. Rather, efforts toward sustainability proved to serve a dual purpose, functioning as emblems of resiliency.

“Many of these actions grew out of the pursuit of social, economic and environmental sustainability – rather than from fear of storm surge – suggesting a strong tie between the current sustainability agenda and physical resiliency,” the study reads.

While many resiliency projects are neighborhood specific, the study showed citywide wetland restoration to have the potential to mitigate flooding. In parks and beaches along the coastline, plants that have a high tolerance for flooding and salt inundation can serve to absorb flood water at a significantly higher pace than freshwater plants, thus serving as an additional mitigating factor to decrease flooding. On beaches especially, dunes proved to be effective flood barriers. While the city has embraced dune construction as a mode of its resiliency projects, it has not shown as much interest in wetland restoration, a major flaw in its post-Sandy response.

Though many of the city’s resiliency projects are neighborhood or borough specific, some citywide initiatives -- like dune construction -- can be undertaken to improve resiliency, while others have been aimed at fixing the devastation Sandy left behind. [Part two of this series will look at the city's limited resiliency efforts since Sandy hit seven years ago.]

Build It Back
In the aftermath of Sandy, the city sought to help rebuild homes of residents that were destroyed in the storm; thus began the Build It Back program, designed under Mayor Michael Bloomberg to reconstruct or fix damaged homes or reimburse residents for their worth, primarily through federal funding. However, it wasn’t until nearly two years after Sandy hit that the program began to reimburse for destroyed homes, and an additional year until homes began to be rebuilt.

“While we still have a lot of work to do, we are seeing real progress under Build It Back, and more families hurt by Sandy are moving home every week,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a 2017 press release, though he has regularly acknowledged that the program has had significant flaws, and has said that the city would do things totally differently if presented with a similar situation in the future. De Blasio inherited the program from the Bloomberg administration when he took office in January 2014, a little more than a year after Sandy hit. Neither administration managed it well.

According to the city, the Build It Back program has now served 100 percent of applicants, and 99 percent of homes in general, with construction, reimbursement checks, property acquisition or completed construction, according to a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. But while the city claims to have served 100 percent of applicants, many residents who would have qualified for the program left the area to avoid long wait times to rebuild their homes, Goldstein said. Others simply didn’t stick with the program.

One year after the storm hit, 20,275 households had registered for Build it Back, according to a joint study by the city and the Center for Urban Research at the City of New York Graduate Center. Of those registered, 26 percent hadn’t submitted an application for Build It Back, and an additional 26 percent completed an application but did not pick a program option, effectively withdrawing them from Build It Back. Four years after the storm hit, only 8,040 applicants - less than 40 percent of those initially registered - remained in the Build it Back program. 

“7 years later the fog of war clears a little,” Goldstein said. “But for many if not most of the residents they encountered interminable delays and bureaucracy. People who all of a sudden had no place to live and possessions waterlogged were faced with a lot of uncertainty that lasted months or even years.”

The Build It Back program also faced criticism from those who questioned whether homes destroyed by flooding should be rebuilt if they were to remain deep in flood zones, Goldstein said.

“You have to ask what is the strategy for long-term planning for houses that are located in areas subject to repeated flooding?” Goldstein said. “Dealing with the short-term need of property owners to get back into their homes to some extent sidestepped these longer-term questions of where it makes sense for New Yorkers to live in an era of rising seas and climate change.”

Though the city has developed some plans to curtail the effects of climate change on its many miles of coastlines -- including to extend lower Manhattan into the East River and to construct a 5.3 mile levee on Staten Island, from Fort Wadsworth to the East Shore -- there is no comprehensive citywide plan for dealing with the long-term impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable communities along the city’s coasts, Goldstein said.

Seven years after Sandy hit, two City Council Members recently introduced legislation that would force the city to create a five-borough resiliency plan.

“This is a long-term existential threat to the city and the nation and the planet. And unfortunately, in politics, oftentimes short-term issues take precedence over long-term matters even when those long-term matters are greatly important to the very future of the city,” Goldstein said. 

This is part one of a three-part series on 7 Years After Sandy. Read part two -- on the city’s stalled and advancing resiliency measures -- here.

This series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

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7 Years After Sandy - Part I: Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed Mon, 16 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
One Promising Reform with Rare Support from Both the City and Board of Elections, But Little Movement https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8791-promising-reform-board-of-elections-poll-workers https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8791-promising-reform-board-of-elections-poll-workers mayor bdb public

(photo: Edward Reed/Mayor's office)


While city officials and elections administrators clash over what changes the Board of Elections should make to improve operations and the voting experience, one widely-supported option the city could pursue sits on the back-burner.

A municipal poll workers program would allow the Board of Elections to hire Election Day poll workers from a pool of city employees, significantly reducing the hiring and training burdens for administrators and helping to ensure poll sites are more effectively staffed.

The proposal is an unusual point of agreement among the city Board of Elections, the City Council, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and good government advocates, who have all indicated varying levels of support for it, and it is one voting policy the city can enact without action in Albany. It would still require compromises, not only between the de Blasio administration and the BOE, but with the city’s politically active municipal labor unions as well.

The mayor and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who have been highly critical of the BOE’s performance, have both said that poll worker hiring and training is among the top priorities they would like to see the board take up. Michael Ryan, the board’s executive director, has repeatedly highlighted a municipal poll workers program as a powerful tool the BOE would like to have at its disposal to better run elections.

“I would like to take this opportunity to renew the Board’s request to enter into a partnership with New York City to develop a robust municipal-workers-as-poll-workers program,” Ryan told Johnson and other Council members at an oversight hearing following the general election last November. Johnson said he was “open to that” but emphasized alternatives he would like to see the board pursue to address training and staffing shortages.

Election Day is perennially plagued by mishaps like jammed ballot scanners and long lines of voters, created or compounded by overworked poll site staff who are not necessarily experienced in liaising with constituents or quickly moving voters through the process, or equipped to handle some of the more technical problems that can arise. Currently, the BOE struggles to recruit the roughly 36,000 temporary poll workers needed to staff a general election day. In part to help fill those positions, the board requires applicants to have few professional qualifications beyond a mandatory four-hour training.

The board currently finds candidates through referrals from local political party organizations, subway ads, a CUNY initiative to recruit students who typically have the day off, and other such avenues. Despite these sources, turnover is high.

Since 2016, the mayor and City Council have offered the BOE $20 million to improve its operations, including $10 million to expand poll worker training, recruitment strategies, and salaries, which the board has repeatedly turned down. Faced with resistance from Ryan, de Blasio has expressed some interest in working with the BOE on a municipal poll workers program, but is also frustrated with the lack of cooperation on his preferred approach.

When asked about the program at a press conference in April, the mayor told reporters, “Look, we’re happy to work with them on any approach that will improve things, but that’s exactly why we offered them the $20 million.”

Jose Bayona, a mayoral spokesperson, affirmed that sentiment in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We’re committed to having fully staffed polling locations, which is why we’ve offered the BOE $20 million for necessary reforms, including increased staffing. In the meantime, we are exploring whether there is a path forward for a municipal poll workers program in New York City,” he wrote in an email.

Johnson took a tone similar to de Blasio’s when Ryan raised the issue at the November oversight hearing -- frustrated by the BOE’s rejection of city funding, but willing to discuss alternatives. More recently a spokesperson for the Speaker expressed explicit support for a municipal poll workers program to Gotham Gazette, but is not aware of any specific proposals being discussed by the administration. The spokesperson added that it is clear to Johnson that the city needs a robust plan to ensure proper election administration, including staffing at poll sites.

Ryan was hired by the board’s commissioners who are chosen by county party officials and enjoys a high degree of insulation from the mayor’s or Council’s influence. Because they are limited in their ability to compel the board, which is an entity of state law, to take action, de Blasio and Johnson have sought to use the city budget to incentivize reforms. But they have clashed with Ryan over how to spend the money and the best approach to staffing poll sites.

Hovering in the background of this dispute is the possibility of finding common ground on a municipal poll workers program. That would require coordination among city agencies and negotiations with municipal unions, which have never been pursued under de Blasio, according to Bayona.

Under the supervision of poll site coordinators, poll workers are responsible for looking up names and addresses in the voter rolls, distributing ballots, and directing voters to ballot reading machines. They work long hours -- over 16 hours, from 5 a.m. to after 9 p.m. -- and are paid $250 for the day, plus $100 to attend the required four-hour training, according to a BOE spokesperson.

The long hours and low pay make it difficult for the board to recruit and retain poll workers in the leadup to an election. According to a New York Times report, 70 percent of potential poll workers recruited by the board drop out before Election Day. A municipal poll workers program would allow the BOE to supplement its hiring with vetted city employees who have experience providing government services.

"They’re dealing with the challenges of hiring 35,000 poll workers, which is essentially a temporary job that is a couple of days per year. So you’re not going to get the best and the brightest,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy analyst for the good government group Reinvent Albany. “If you tap the city’s employees...you’re going to get a much more qualified workforce that at least in theory is used to dealing with people, because they do so at their agencies every day.”

“A lot of the problems would be solved by having city employees work as poll workers, or at least some poll workers,” he added.

Because it is illegal for municipal employees to be paid twice for one day of work -- like being paid by the BOE at the same time that they are on the clock at their primary city job -- the path forward would require a change in the law or a provision in municipal employee contracts.

“So then the question is how to handle it. Is it appropriate to give an additional vacation or personal comp time day in order to balance that out,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of the government watchdog Common Cause New York, in an interview.

“That’s a collective bargaining question, which so far it is my understanding the city has not taken up with the unions,” she added.

There are roughly 332,000 full-time city employees, according to Citizens Budget Commission, most of which are represented by unions, such as District Council 37, United Federation of Teachers, and the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association.

The BOE has also been reticent to allow part-time poll workers to handle problems with ballot scanners -- which are prone to jamming and a major contributor to poll site chaos -- because of the technical expertise required to deal with the machines. Ryan says having an additional team of municipal employees dedicated specifically to clearing simple jams would go far. He has sought a model similar to Los Angeles County’s.

“One of the direct fixes that we can do is have steady staff at the poll sites who are there simply to clear what I am going to refer to as the ‘top-side’ ballot jams,” he told Johnson at the November hearing. “So if a ballot does jam it can be cleared quickly, as opposed to relying on a team of field technicians to have to be dispatched from one location to another.”

If the mayoral administration was interested in pursuing a municipal poll workers program through municipal employee contract negotiations, nothing in the law would prevent it from doing so.

“As a general matter, at present public servants are permitted to work as election day poll workers and translators; they do not require waivers of Chapter 68, the City’s conflicts of interest law, to do so,” wrote Chad Gholizadeh, assistant counsel at the Conflicts of Interest Board. COIB does not have any specific guidance related to poll workers in the rules it has promulgated.

One obstacle the city may face in creating a municipal employee poll worker program is the level of political activity by labor unions in New York. Unions often back candidates and encourage their members to participate in get-out-the-vote campaigns in the leadup to and on Election Day. Having city employees working for the BOE at the polls means they would not be available to do the type of electioneering their unions may endorse.

"We’d have any conversation with [the BOE] but again I find it a little contradictory that we had an approach that would start to address that issue while still allowing city workers to do the work that they are doing – there wasn’t even interest in engaging that seriously," de Blasio said at the April press conference.

Council Member Ben Kallos, who has sponsored legislation on BOE hiring practices, does not believe union political activity has been a consideration for DC37, the city’s largest municipal employee union. “They and their members are just so about the public service and I have never heard a concern that they would prefer to have their members out in the field. For them it’s just about what else can we do to help our city,” he told Gotham Gazette.

Kallos says for DC37 “the only question they had was a logistics question,” like whether the compensation is appropriate and how it would affect time off.

DC37 did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. Three other unions representing city employees contacted by Gotham Gazette would not weigh in on a municipal poll workers program.

“We have not seen any details and have taken no position,” wrote Dick Riley, a spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers, in an email, and the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association declined to comment.

Gregory Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, which represents employees of NYCHA, CUNY, and some city agencies, told Gotham Gazette the union would not take a position on a municipal poll workers program without seeing specific proposal details.

He did, however, offer the city some advice: “They need to find qualified people wherever they can.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

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One Promising Reform with Rare Support from Both the City and Board of Elections, But Little Movement Sun, 15 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Mayor's Missing Pen https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8784-the-mayors-missing-pen-de-blasio-city-council-veto https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8784-the-mayors-missing-pen-de-blasio-city-council-veto mayor bdb pieces

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Many New Yorkers are expressing frustration at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s lack of attention to his job as he travels around the country campaigning for president. But his laid-back attitude toward the mayoralty manifested itself long before he announced his presidential candidacy.

One particularly illustrative and significant aspect of the job that he has neglected is his role in the legislative process. 

First, a quick refresher on how, pursuant to the City Charter, a bill becomes a law in New York City: 

-If passed by a majority of the City Council, it is sent to the mayor, who signs the bill into law.

-If the mayor takes no action within 30 days of receipt, the bill automatically becomes law without a mayoral signature (“lapses” into law).

-If during the requisite period the mayor vetoes a bill, the veto can be overridden by a vote of two-thirds of the Council and it then becomes law without further action by the mayor. (City Charter Section 37)

The potential of a mayoral veto, even if it can be overridden, creates a healthy tension that serves as a check on overreach by the Council.  By the same token, the potential of a veto override by the Council restrains the mayor from excessive use of the veto pen to block legislation that has widespread support. Thus, the process established in the City Charter creates a checks-and-balances relationship between the executive and legislative branches and requires a level of engagement by both branches in the adoption of new laws. 

But in his more than five-and-a-half years as mayor, de Blasio has not vetoed a single bill of the more than 1,000 adopted by the City Council during his time in office. He has not even publicly threatened to veto a bill as an expression of his dissatisfaction with any single one of the barrage of bills that have been introduced (and enacted) during that time.

In contrast, during his three terms in office, Michael Bloomberg vetoed and was overridden on 70 bills out of the total of 987 passed by the Council. 

When asked about not vetoing any bills the mayor’s response has been that his team negotiates and helps craft virtually all the adopted bills. There are some high-profile examples, especially related to the NYPD, e.g. the Criminal Justice Reform Act. He would probably also argue that the administration has been able to deter certain legislation, such as the bill to criminalize police chokeholds and the Small Business Jobs Act, though it's not clear if it's the administration or the Council speaker’s office that has been most responsible for sidetracking certain bills. But even in the Bloomberg years, when the mayor and Council speaker were clearly working hand in glove, there were still some vetoes.

Moreover, if de Blasio has played a key role in shaping so much legislation, it is difficult to explain why he has allowed the vast majority of bills passed during his terms to become law without his signature by letting the 30-day time period expire with no action on his part. Wouldn’t he want to associate himself with and take credit for all of the bills he helped shape by signing them into law?

The number of unsigned laws that have lapsed into law has grown from 5 out of 62 adopted in 2014 to a whopping 177 out of 223 passed in 2018.

Of the 156 bills passed by the Council so far in 2019 (as of August 23) the mayor signed only four! By comparison, Bloomberg signed all but 40 of the bills passed during his three terms. 

Meanwhile, it is important to ask: haven’t there been cases in which city commissioners hired by the mayor have been opposed to Council bills (whether or not they’ve been allowed to state their dissatisfaction publicly) that they feel are unduly intrusive, costly or burdensome?

For example, surely some of the 845 reports required of city government entities, many through Council legislation, are regarded as inappropriate or unnecessary by agency heads, yet there has been no pushback by the mayor against these requirements when new ones have been added during his tenure.

Not only is this laissez-faire approach bad for morale among agency leaders, but it encourages Council members to introduce legislation on anything and everything because, well, why not? From 2014-2017, during 40 months of legislative session, 1,540 bills were introduced in the City Council; it has taken only 16 months since the 2018 session began to hit the same number of new bills. This volume of legislation is unprecedented.

Is it the case that there is a much more pressing need for City Council legislation now than there has ever been before? Or has the hands-off approach to the legislative process by this mayor led to an aggressive and “anything goes” spirit among Council members?

Let us hope that after the mayor drops out of the presidential race he will give more time and attention to exerting a restraining influence on the proliferation of proposed bills and local laws.

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

 

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

 

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The Mayor's Missing Pen Wed, 11 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio, City Council Look to Move Ahead with Private Sector Retirement Savings Program https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8773-de-blasio-city-council-private-sector-retirement-savings-program https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8773-de-blasio-city-council-private-sector-retirement-savings-program retirement saving event

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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De Blasio, City Council Look to Move Ahead with Private Sector Retirement Savings Program Wed, 04 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York City is Waist-Deep in a School Desegregation Conversation - How Did We Get Here? https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8769-new-york-city-waist-deep-school-desegregation-conversation-how-did-we-get-here-de-blasio https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8769-new-york-city-waist-deep-school-desegregation-conversation-how-did-we-get-here-de-blasio maydbd district15

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Earlier this week, the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) released its second and final set of recommendations to integrate city schools, a significant development in the current chapter of the city’s response to deep racial and economic segregation in its school system, which is the largest in the country and home to 1.1 million students.

This chapter began in 2014, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education and Bill de Blasio’s first year as Mayor, when a report published by the UCLA Civil Rights Project showed that New York’s was one of the least integrated school systems in the country -- the worst state in terms of white-black segregation and among the bottom three for Latino-white segregation. Much of that segregation was due to the facts on the ground in the country’s largest city.

De Blasio and his administration have been forced to acknowledge that dismal reality in the years since, at first looking to largely sidestep the issue, then beginning with modest proposals to improve diversity in schools and ultimately creating the SDAG at the end of 2017. The administration’s focus on school segregation did not happen immediately following the March 2014 UCLA report, released just three months into de Blasio’s tenure as mayor, and not without pressure from grassroots advocates, students, families, and local elected officials at various stages during the last five years.

The SDAG’s two sets of recommendations, some of which are especially controversial, on top of de Blasio’s previous proposal to take aggressive measures to integrate the city’s eight prestigious specialized high schools, have set off something of a firestorm. They set the stage for challenging decisions that de Blasio will soon make about which recommendations to pursue, including, perhaps, a sweeping overhaul of the city’s “gifted and talented” programs and selective admissions to middle schools. Following will likely be years more of debate about how to desegregate city schools while also improving the quality of education hundreds of thousands of students receive.

Before the next chapter begins, how did we get here?

2012-2013
Some would say the recent history of New York City’s school desegregation debate begins, before the 2014 UCLA report, with a districting proposal that illustrated the complex factors the city would later need to address.

In the fall of 2012, the District 15 Community Education Council approved a school district rezoning proposed by the Department of Education (DOE) under Mayor Michael Bloomberg that would shrink the geographic districts of two popular but overcrowded schools in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and open a new school to serve some of the students who would be cut out. At the same time, the DOE was rebuilding a predominantly African-American 300-seat school in neighboring Community School District 13. For a period of time, both the District 13 and District 15 schools were housed in the same building.

“That sounded sensible, except what they were really saying was, ‘We’re gonna build a building with two doors; into one door will go 300 black kids, and to the other door will go 600 mostly white kids,” said Brad Lander, a City Council member representing parts of both school districts, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

“That was enough for people to wake up in this district and say, ‘That is insane. We will not allow that level of school segregation,’” recalled Lander, who succeeded then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio in the City Council.

After a prolonged battle with the Bloomberg administration, local elected officials, parents, and advocates, the DOE agreed to create a single 900-seat school -- P.S. 133 -- open to students from both districts with a model for inclusive admissions, becoming the first school with enrollment set-asides to increase diversity, according to Lander.

2014-2015
In 2014, six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in schools unconstitutional, the UCLA Civil Rights Project published its report, with research led by Dr. John Kucsera and Dr. Gary Orfield, which stated New York State had “the most segregated schools in the country,” largely due to inequality in the city’s school system.

The report found roughly 66 percent of black students and 57 percent of Latino students attended schools where less than 10 percent of students were white. Some of the worst segregation was in the Bronx, where not a single school’s student body was more than 10 percent white.

“For New York to have a favorable multiracial future both socially and economically, it is absolutely urgent that its leaders and citizens understand both the values of diversity and the harms of inequality,” the report reads.

When asked about the report and the city’s segregated schools, de Blasio initially and for years mostly had a three-pronged answer: one, that school segregation is the result of hundreds of years of history and broader “structural racism” in society; two, that his education programming was focused on improving all schools and thus helping foster integration and reduce the need for desegregation; and three, that if local communities wanted to pursue solutions to desegregate nearby schools, they had his blessing.

He also noted on multiple occasions that families make major decisions and investments based on schools, and indicated he needed to be cautious about more drastic measures that might alter school zoning, enrollment or admissions policies. And, the mayor repeatedly mentioned that in part because of housing segregation, there are many geographic areas of the city home to residents of limited diversity, making local school integration especially challenging without a choice he was not willing to pursue: the New York City equivalent of busing students to achieve integrated schools.  

“The reason we have segregation in our society is about structural racism, is about 400 years of American history and a lot of things that should have been done differently in American history,” de Blasio said later, in 2018. “It’s about economics first and foremost and the fact that economic opportunity is still not open and consistent across different racial groups and ethnic groups and that’s the first problem. That leads to housing segregation and that in turn leads to a situation where our classrooms are not diverse.”

In November 2014, prompted by the UCLA report and the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown decision, the City Council held its first public hearing on school segregation in decades, and led to the passage in 2015 of three pieces of legislation sponsored by Council Members Inez Barron, Brad Lander, and Ritchie Torres, known as the School Diversity Accountability Act.

The UCLA report and the anniversary year “presented an occasion to renew our city and our country’s commitment to desegregation,” Torres, who represents parts of the Bronx, said in an interview. “The fact is that we have the most segregated school system in the country. We have a school system more segregated than the vestiges of Jim Crow in the South.”

The package required the DOE to report annually on demographic data that could be used to evaluate segregation and diversity, and report on what steps the DOE is taking to address those issues. The City Council cannot mandate the DOE adopt specific policies, so Torres sponsored a resolution in the package calling on DOE to develop a plan to combat school segregation. 

“In some ways that call is what SDAG is now, many years later, answering,” said Lander.

“This is a step further in our efforts to ensure that our schools are as diverse as our city and people of all communities live, learn, work together,” de Blasio said in June 2015 when signing the legislative package.

In 2014 and 2015, grassroots advocates, parents, and educators in Community School Districts 1, 3, 13, and 15 became more active organizing around school-by-school, as well as district-level, integration plans. Some of the most vocal desegregation activists, like those in IntegrateNYC, a student-led advocacy group, formed during this period.

They “saw a historic opportunity to renew the campaign to desegregate our school system. It was driven not primarily by elected officials but by grassroots activists, especially students,” Torres recalled.

Activism, panel discussions, and other conversation around school desegregation continued.

In 2015, the DOE took its first steps toward establishing the Diversity in Admissions pilot program, a school-by-school approach modeled on the types of inclusive admissions policies P.S. 133 was employing. The city designated seven schools to participate in the program that year, according to Lander, “and since we have 1,700, that was pretty modest...It was the first official step of them doing anything [but] it was not yet a serious effort to confront segregation across the school system.”

“We were able to create admissions policies that promote diversity and respect the needs of the community. I’m hopeful that these changes will help serve as a model for schools across the City,” said then-Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in a press release, without explicitly mentioning the issue of segregation.

When Gotham Gazette asked the mayor in November 2015 why he wasn’t taking more aggressive measures to integrate city schools, de Blasio’s response made waves. “You have to also respect families who have made a decision to live in a certain area oftentimes because of a specific school,” de Blasio said.

By this point, the advocacy around the issue was well underway and gaining steam, and the DOE was submitting its first reports required under the School Diversity Accountability Act.

2016
In 2016, much of the public attention and advocacy was focused on district-level plans, where changes could be made on a small scale and tested, especially in areas that resemble a microcosm of the city’s school demographics.

Questions still hovered around whether de Blasio, who ran for mayor on a progressive platform focused on equity -- including bridging racial, educational, and socioeconomic gaps -- would make the issue a priority. (School segregation was not a high-profile issue during the 2013 election, and his campaign did not address it other than de Blasio calling for greater diversity at the city’s eight specialized high schools.)

A “controlled choice” admissions policy -- in which parent/student school choices are balanced with goals of socioeconomic integration -- was proposed in District 1 in the Lower East Side. (In October 2017, District 1 became the first district to push for and win a district-wide model for school integration.)

Asked about pursuing greater desegregation measures and specifically a broader controlled-choice admissions policy during a June 2016 appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio demurred.

“We believe there is a lot more to be done in terms of fully integrating our schools, but I do want to say, right now we are seeing some real success with models that are being used right now in our school system that are starting to be very, very effective in terms of bringing in a better mix of kids into some of our schools. I think the pre-K program has also been an example of an initiative that has had a really good impact in terms of diversity. So, we’re looking at a lot of options. I’m committed to it.”

Pushed a bit further, de Blasio said, “There’s different models that we have some real hope in. But let’s be clear...this is also the result of decades, in fact hundreds of years, of segregation in our nation. And a lot of that goes back to economics and housing. Our affordable housing plan, also, we believe, creates more diversity in neighborhoods, and that’s really, obviously, the root of the situation. If we can create more diversity through housing and development, that is another way to get at the schools issue.”

In September 2016, de Blasio was asked by a reporter about pushing more desegregation measures, and said, in part: “[W]e’ve already foreshadowed we’re going to have a bigger vision that we’ll put forward about how we can do diversification work for our schools – something we believe in. But we also want to be clear about the limits of it, and I’m going to be very explicit about this as we present that vision. The problem is not an education problem, the problem is an American history problem. It’s the problem of structural racism. It’s a problem of housing segregation.”

He continued: “Let’s not ask the schools to address all those problems simultaneously – that’s not viable. But there’s ways that we can do better through our schools. And, I certainly think if you talk to parents about pre-K and what it’s done for their kids, it’s been a success. So, we have to – the first mission is always to make the education system work for the kids to achieve onto itself equity and excellence. And it’s crucial distinction – if we want a more just city and a more just nation, then let’s get our school system to live up to a notion of equity and excellence. Separately, we have to do a lot in our society writ large to create more diversity and more opportunity across the board.”

2017-2018
One indication from de Blasio that he would pursue a broader integration plan came with the launch of Equity and Excellence for All in June 2017, which led to the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) that would explore solutions for city-wide desegregation, according to Council Member Lander.

The vision’s main focus, however, was expanding course options and resources in underserved (and heavily segregated) schools and districts. The program included initiatives like “Algebra for All” and “AP for All” and other planks of a platform de Blasio said would help improve learning opportunities for students wherever they may attend a city school.

The framework also provided for the DOE to support school districts in developing diversity plans to achieve greater integration, without ever making explicit mention of segregation, according to Lander. 

All the while, de Blasio maintained that through his universal pre-Kindergarten initiative, Renewal School turnaround program, and Equity and Excellence initiatives, he was ensuring there would be “no bad schools,” which would make racial segregation less of a concern and improve the chances of integrated schools.

During a June 2017 appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio defended himself against the notion that he was not being bold enough on school desegregation. He said, in part, “Here’s what troubles me when people put the question of diversification ahead of the question of immediate efforts, toward better schools and more equal schools. We’ve got kids right now -- a generation of children right now who need our help. By doing things like Pre-K for All, Advanced Placement courses in all high schools, including ones that never had any – getting kids on grade-level reading by third grade. These are things that got ignored for many, many years...And so, bluntly, inequality grew and grew and grew. I have the tools right now to start addressing this, with the geographical realities and demographic realities we face. That is how we address equity right now while building towards a more diverse and integrated society. But, we’ve got to help kids now.”

In Fall 2018, District 15 in Park Slope, where Lander, Council Member Carlos Menchaca, and Parents for Middle School Equity had been working to change screening policy in middle school admissions, became one of the first districts to be approved and receive funding for integration planning.

“We eliminated screening in the District 15 middle schools. In some ways that is the proposal SDAG is making, to take that to a broader level,” Lander told Gotham Gazette, referring to the recommendations released this week that call for sweeping changes to admissions processes and investments in new enrichment programming.

The SDAG, a group of civil rights activists, students, parents, educators, and other experts appointed by the mayor as he sought reelection, held its first meeting on December 11, 2017. The same month, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced she was stepping down from the post.

At the December 22, 2017 press conference announcing Fariña’s retirement, Gotham Gazette asked her if she regretted not taking on school desegregation more aggressively.

“No,” she said, “I think we’ve done some really good work. There’s always more than can be done on any initiative, but I’m going back to what I said before – you could mandate some things, but having a lot more conversations with people, which is what we’ve been doing...And I think convincing people to come to the table to want to do the right thing for the right reasons is a lot more important, and I think that’s what we’ve been doing.”

She continued; “I certainly feel that our new diversity committee that we just put in place – they just met, I think, last week – has gotten some great suggestions because this is not just us coming with ideas, but what does the community think?”

After a few other thoughts, she concluded: “So you can always do things better. I agree with the Mayor that in our Equity and Excellence the next chancellor should be thinking about going deeper and deeper, but I think we’re on the right path.”

2018
In March 2018, Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho very publicly announced he would not become the new Schools Chancellor a day after accepting the job. That week Mayor de Blasio hired Richard Carranza, a superintendent in Houston and San Francisco schools, to be the next schools chancellor.

“The equity agenda championed by our mayor is my equity agenda,” Carranza said at the City Hall press conference announcing he would be taking the position. Within a month, Carranza was discussing school desegregation explicitly, breaking from de Blasio’s and Fariña’s practice of avoiding the term in favor of the far less defined and loaded concept of “diversity.”

“Without that [shift] we would not be anywhere close to where we are. He has been much more enthusiastic about this issue than the mayor,” Lander said, responding to a recent New York Times article that describes Carranza in his second year as trying to “reset expectations” about the prospect of integration.

In June 2018, two months after Carranza started, he and the mayor announced a proposal to improve diversity at the city’s selective specialized high schools, where enrollment of black and Hispanic students has declined precipitously in the last four decades. The plan included scrapping over three years the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), which is seen as a critical factor in the predominant enrollment of white and Asian students.

The fate of the SHSAT for the three most prestigious of the eight specialized schools is controlled by the state, not the city, and many saw it as a way for de Blasio to take up the issue of school segregation without implicating his administration’s own responsibility in addressing it. That plan faced severe backlash from many parents and students who were eager to keep the rules the same, and was criticized for not having enough community input. It did not advance in Albany in 2018.

2019
A year later, the SHSAT is still the single admissions test for enrollment in eight of the city’s nine specialized high schools (the ninth is a performing arts school). In March, it was reported that only 7 out of 895 seats in Stuyvesant High School’s next freshman class would go to black students. Later that month, as he was considering a presidential run on a progressive platform, de Blasio used the word “segregation” to describe New York’s school system for the first time, according to Chalkbeat.

Discussing specialized high schools during an appearance on WNYC radio, de Blasio told host Brian Lehrer, “We’re saying we’re not going to live by this old system that has perpetuated massive segregation, not just segregation – massive segregation.”

Meanwhile, in February, the School Diversity Advisory Group released its first of two sets of recommendations for the city to improve school integration. The recommendations include adding metrics on diversity and integration to mandated reporting, creating a “General Assembly” of high school reps to assist in crafting a citywide agenda, and monitoring discrepancies in school discipline. Other suggestions dealt with improving culturally-relevant education and engaging communities through local partnerships.

“Although we applaud SDAG’s reference to more ambitious short, medium and long term integration goals by requiring district, borough and then city-wide integration plans, these will only be effective if the City develops powerful metrics for defining integration,” wrote the Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation, a coalition of recently-formed and longstanding civil rights groups, in a statement following the report.

Asked about taking on segregated schools during a February 26 press conference on the “record high” number of city students taking Advanced Placement course, de Blasio said, “[T]here is a much bigger discussion that we will have in this city and we’ve put forward some pieces of it, and there is a lot more to come, on how to make sure our children learn with each other and how to have the most diverse classrooms that we can have. But that should not be mistaken for the primary way or the only way to ensure that kids get a great education. We have kids in every kind of community who are ready to achieve their potential. They need investment. They need high quality teachers. They need the best possible principals. This is the path forward, first and foremost, that’s what Equity and Excellences is all about.”

In June, de Blasio announced the city would be adopting 62 of the initial 67 recommendations. At the time, the report was criticized for not dealing with gifted and talented programs for elementary school children and selective admissions screenings for higher grades, which are seen as among the greatest barriers to integration.

“I wish the focus could largely be kept on reforming admissions. For me enrollment policy is, beyond housing, the root cause of a heavily segregated school system,” Council Member Torres told Gotham Gazette, saying the administration’s preoccupation with specialized high schools diverts attention and political capital from more fundamental issues. 

On Tuesday, SDAG released its second and final report, which among other things recommended the city eliminate its gifted and talented elementary school programs and admissions screenings for middle schools, while adding new enrichment programs to all schools that need them to serve all learners. The new recommendations fell short of proposing admissions policy for high schools be changed, even as they called for other selective admissions practices to be reformed, instead suggesting study down the line after other changes are adopted.

Now it is up to Carranza, and ultimately the mayor, to act on the group’s recommendations. At a press conference Tuesday, Carranza indicated he was eager to review the report, and de Blasio also said he would review it but made no commitment to acting on the recommendations. 

SDAG has left the ball in the mayor’s court.

“We have decided not to be very prescriptive in terms of the recommendations, in part in recognition that New York City is so large, districts differ greatly in terms of their demographics and their needs,” said Amy Hsin, a sociologist at Queens College and a member of the SDAG executive committee, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. 

“So we feel that the DOE needs to work with communities to co-develop an integration plan where communities are stakeholders,” she added. “That’s what we are trying to push the city to do in our reports.”

How de Blasio responds will pose a major test in the final years of his mayoralty, and may significantly shape public discourse during the upcoming race to replace him.

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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New York City is Waist-Deep in a School Desegregation Conversation - How Did We Get Here? Mon, 02 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The State’s $7 Billion MTA IOU Comes Due https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8766-the-state-s-7-billion-mta-iou-comes-due https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8766-the-state-s-7-billion-mta-iou-comes-due govcuomoprogre

(photo: the governor's office)


MTA officials acknowledged at their June 2019 board meetings that the agency is borrowing money to be repaid through a New York State law that promised to have the State of New York provide the MTA $7.3 billion once the authority had exhausted its own funds on spending for the current five-year capital program.

The 2016 state law was merely an “IOU," there had been no specific source of funds identified for how the state would pay the money, nor has there been any plan developed since enactment in the state budget that year.

The state's total commitment was $8.6 billion, including some new capital funds it added as part of the newer Subway Action Plan and other promises, which to date have provided about $1 billion in actual funds. It is the $7.3 billion IOU that is still outstanding. New York City was also required to provide $2.7 billion to the agency as part of a mutual obligation with the state. The city has provided about $800 million to date.

These commitments refer to the current 2015-2019 Capital Construction Program, not the 2020-2024 Program to be released in a few weeks by the MTA. That new program, not yet adopted, will have its main funding coming from the congestion pricing system passed earlier this year, with revenue from the tolls scheduled to begin in 2021.

The elements of the 2015-2019 MTA Capital Program were patched together in the 2016-2017 state budget (a year late), my final year in the State Assembly while I was still chair of the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions. The full 2016 package that became the Capital Program was about $30 billion; some $3 billion has been added since I retired. The MTA Capital Program Review Board adopted the plan in 2016 shortly after the budget was enacted.

The question of the state’s outstanding commitment to the MTA capital program, written into the law as the last dollars to be spent in the overall plan, has been the source of limited scrutiny, but is now in the spotlight as the IOU comes due and the next capital program is designed.

At the June 26 public meeting of the MTA Board Finance Committee, finance chair Larry Schwartz and board member Veronica Vanterpool expressed concerns about an agenda item authorizing the MTA to borrow an extra $2 billion to fund the capital program.

Per the minutes of that MTA Finance Committee meeting (page 12):

"Ms. Vanterpool voiced her reservations about increasing the amount, noting that there is that $7.3 billion commitment from the State that has not been received, as well as the commitment from the City. Mr. Foran [the MTA's Chief Financial Officer]... noted that the commitment from the State is predicated on MTA to spend MTA dollars first and that MTA is already beginning to commit against the State's portion (about $2 billion commitment, with some expenditures already incurred) and the State has agreed to that.”

The discussion continued (page 13), "Mr. McCoy [MTA Finance Director] commented that regarding the State funding, the $1.2 billion in BANs [bond anticipation notes] were issued in two components; $1 billion for MTA funded projects, and $200 million is designated for the projects under the State Commitment. Mr. McCoy stated that it was clearly communicated with the State that, when the notes are due, the State will need to provide the funding."

The MTA Board proceeded to add the $2 billion in new borrowing at its main June 26 board meeting two days after this finance committee discussion. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, in an August 7 report on New York City's financial condition, stated (on page 34), "According to the MTA, it has committed all of its capital resources and has begun to commit up to $3 billion against the State's obligation. Consequently, the MTA will require funding from the State beginning next State fiscal year (2020-21) to cover the cash cost of these capital commitments"

Where Will The Money Come From?
The question now is: How will the state meet this new commitment in the coming budget?

The state has the option of itself providing the MTA the money directly, or creating a stream of funding for the MTA to enable the agency to secure the borrowing of the funds, or some combination thereof. But there are serious challenges, the first of which is that 2020 is an election year for the state Legislature.

To enable the MTA to borrow $7.3 billion, a revenue source, i.e. another tax, would need to provide the authority about another $400 million a year. Does the Legislature want to do another tax increase in an election year? Maybe 2021, not 2020. Seven of the eight new Democratic State Senators that won the Democratic party the majority come from the New York City suburbs. Four of these seven suburban races were super-close, with the Democrats winning by just 2-3 percentage points, or even less.

Several other races were won by less than ten points. Many of these newly-minted legislators could be uncomfortable voting for another tax increase for the unpopular MTA, after voting this year for congestion pricing, a real estate transfer tax surcharge, and internet sales taxes. They are already likely to face Republican attacks in the election for these votes.

The state's ability to borrow the funds directly (the MTA does not need all $7.3 billion next year, but over several years) is also severely constrained by limits on the state government established by the Debt Reform Act of 2000. This law limits state-supported debt to 4% of the state's total personal income from the preceding calendar year. The following chart from a July 2 state comptroller report on the 2019-2020 budget shows how the state's capacity to borrow is dwindling.

divisionbudget chart

Next year the state's ability to borrow funds in support of the entire state budget and the entire capital program will be limited to about $1.36 billion and by 2023-24 will be nonexistent. Borrowing for the MTA would be competing with roads and bridges, water and sewer, the state and city public university systems, mental hygiene, and the environment. Little could be anticipated from this source given the constraints.

Another possibility would be for the state to provide the MTA money from the financial industry settlement windfall. Some $2.6 billion is available in 2020-21 from this source, but, once again, the MTA would be competing with upstate economic development commitments, Javits Center and transportation commitments, and general budget relief. But Governor Cuomo and the Legislature could make several hundred million dollars available from this source -- once again, very limited, given the competition for other funds.

Of course, the Legislature could do a tax/fee hike in 2021, even something as simple as extending the for-hire vehicle surcharge on Uber and Lyft to trips with outer borough destinations or adding to the Manhattan business district price. But it is a tax increase of sorts.

Late in the 2015 legislative session, as we struggled to deal with funding the 2015-2019 MTA Capital Program, I worked with MTA senior officials to introduce legislation to provide the MTA a new source of money without a tax increase. The bill provided for a staggered diversion of existing personal income tax revenue from the MTA region over a four-year period to enable the MTA to borrow what was viewed then as $6-7 billion, providing about $400 million a year in revenue to which the agency would be entitled at the end of four years.

Growth in the state's personal income tax revenue would now bring in about $500 million a year under the formula in the bill (A. 8227-a from the 2015-2016 session), so the percentage amount in the old bill could be shaved.

The critical concept of the bill was that it statutorily entitled the MTA to the revenue, enabling it to borrow the money itself and not be a debt of the state subject to the Debt Reform Act and the limits on the state’s capacity to borrow. As written, it would start in the first year with a small three-tenths of one-percent diversion of PIT revenue in the region to the MTA , reaching 1.2% in the fourth year. Each year's revenue piece was separated in a schedule pursuant to law, so if a recession hit, the state could suspend the following year's diversion and preserve revenue in the general fund.

The governor and the Legislature should continue to examine this concept, which was believed to be workable by MTA officials at the time, though viewed by senior Assembly Ways and Means staff as just not needed. But the $7 billion IOU has come due.

***
Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

 

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

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The State’s $7 Billion MTA IOU Comes Due Thu, 29 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The City’s Pouring Money Into Trash Basket Pickup, and Complaints of Overflowing Bins are Dropping https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8762-the-city-s-pouring-money-into-trash-basket-pickup-and-complaints-of-overflowing-bins-are-dropping https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8762-the-city-s-pouring-money-into-trash-basket-pickup-and-complaints-of-overflowing-bins-are-dropping single wire litter basket

(photos: Department of Sanitation)


In the public conversation surrounding quality of life in New York City, litter baskets -- the mostly green, metal-wire trash cans standing guard on street corners throughout the five boroughs -- have taken on a unique focus. They seem to exist at the nexus between public and private life, providing relief for the refuse-laden pedestrian, and serving as a symbol of the urban order embodied in mundane municipal service delivery.

Where baskets are placed, how often they are serviced, and how the city enforces the laws around their use all impact the cleanliness of streets and the perception that city government can, or can’t, handle the demands of the people it serves. In today's world, when litter baskets overflow and the dirty laundry is aired on social media, a sense of disorder and uncleanliness can spread, a feeling that local government is not effectively serving the density of residents, commuters, and tourists that fuel the city.

Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia famously said that trash collection is not a partisan issue; it’s a measure of basic government service that simply must be done, a reason to have city government and pay taxes. Like plowing snow, New Yorkers expect trash collection to be done effectively and failures have become the subject of renewed focus by the de Blasio administration and its critics.

In New York City, there are roughly 8.4 million residents, tens of thousands of street corners, and approximately 23,000 public litter baskets, according to DSNY. In 2018, 65 million tourists also visited the city.

“We take quality of life very seriously, particularly around cleaning issues, and we consistently put more resources into additional services, whether that is for highway sweeping or for additional litter basket collection,” the city’s Sanitation Commissioner, Katheryn Garcia, told Gotham Gazette in a recent interview.

“But it is always a partnership that we need to have with the public. We need to make sure people are following the rules. Otherwise, it becomes an insurmountable amount of trash and litter,” she added, referring to rules around corner litter baskets and issues with illegal dumping and other violations.

Street corner litter baskets are intended to be used by pedestrians for garbage on their person, like empty food wrappers or a crumpled newspaper, but they are frequently the sites of overflowing refuse that render them useless. In part, officials blame the improper dumping of bulk commercial or household waste, and say the persistent misuse puts a strain on the city’s sanitation infrastructure, leading bins to fill up and spill out into the streets.

In the last two years, the Department of Sanitation (DSNY), which oversees litter basket services, has undertaken a range of initiatives to help improve litter basket conditions in partnership with the City Council. The measures include increasing funding for basket services, enhanced enforcement tools, and establishing partnerships with other agencies and the private sector.

By at least one measure, these efforts appear to be working.

In 2015, complaints of overflowing litter baskets to the city’s non-emergency helpline, 311, reached their highest point in five years -- DSNY opened 1,563 such cases that year, according to data available on the city’s Open Data Portal.

Since then, litter basket complaints to 311 have declined each year, falling to 946 in 2018. In the first eight months of 2019, only 461 complaints have been made.

In Fiscal Year 2019, which ended June 30 of this year, the city allocated $3.5 million for supplemental basket services, according to DSNY, on top of its roughly $1.7 billion expense budget for the agency, which includes funding for a variety of services from trash to snow removal. The money was for additional pick-ups to try to combat the scourge of full and unusable street corner bins, according to City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management.

This year, the City Council secured an additional $5.1 million, bringing the total allocations for supplemental basket services in the new Fiscal 2020 budget that took effect July 1 to $8.6 million, according to DSNY. The department received the new allocations on August 12 and is currently devising a plan for how it will be spent -- whether it will fund more staffing or trucks, or better pick-up route design.

“We are currently evaluating our operation plan on supplemental litter basket service that will be provided by this new funding. We plan to unveil plan details soon,” DSNY spokesperson Dina Montes told Gotham Gazette in an email.

“By early fall,” she clarified in an interview, indicating that this is an estimate.

The extra pick-ups in 2018 and 2019 have been well-received by a number of Council members Gotham Gazette spoke to. “For the most part, I’ve seen an improvement with the extra pick-ups,” said Council Member Steve Matteo, who represents central Staten Island and has been a vocal advocate for better litter services to improve street cleanliness.

“There is nothing worse than seeing a garbage can that is overflowing, that has bags around it. It just brings more litter, so the extra pick-up has been great,” he added in an interview. Since the additional funding allocations in 2018, basket pick-ups increased from two to four times per week in Staten Island Community Board 1, and in Community Boards 2 and 3, weekly pick-ups increased to three, Matteo said.

DSNY says it has adopted similar increases throughout the city, especially in high traffic areas.

According to a May press release from the City Council citing DSNY budget testimony, street cleanliness increased from 95 to 96 percent in Fiscal Year 2019 based on measurements of street trash by field agents of the mayor’s office. Other studies are less favorable, like the Citizens Budget Commission's Resident Feedback Survey, which showed only 47.3 percent of respondents rated their neighborhood cleanliness as either “excellent” or “good.”

“You don’t need a litter basket collection multiple times a day if you’re out on Staten Island. Are you going to need it in the middle of Midtown? Yeah,” Garcia said.

“I’m very glad that the Department of Sanitation was able to receive additional funding from this year’s budget,” said Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents parts of Lower Manhattan, in a statement. “I hope to see more of these services targeted to underserved, high-need neighborhoods like SoHo, Chinatown and the Lower East Side, where illegal dumping and commercial trash -- especially with the unprecedented rise of Amazon deliveries -- continue to be issues that small businesses and residents struggle with."

Despite the positive reception, many feel there is still work to be done.

“I am glad the Department of Sanitation is exploring new tactics to make our streets cleaner – residents have even noticed a difference on 86th Street. Despite these efforts, however, I continue to hear from constituents across my district, particularly on the Upper East Side, regarding issues with trash,” said Council Member Keith Powers, representing a large swath of the east side of Manhattan, in a statement.

The drop in 311 complaints has also accompanied an effort by DSNY and the City Council to crack down on illegal dumping and drop-offs. Illegal dumping is when commercial or household waste is left by a vehicle, and drop-offs refer to bulk debris disposal that exceed the basket’s capacity for personal trash.

In 2018, Matteo was the main sponsor of a number of bills in a package that became law and allowed DSNY enforcement officials to use identifying information found in unlawfully dumped piles, such as an envelope or magazine with a name or address, to pursue offenders. Previously, DSNY agents had to witness an illegal dumping take place in order to issue a violation.

“We could tell that, obviously, a vehicle was used because there was a huge amount of garbage and there was no way somebody could carry it. We are talking about construction debris, sometimes it’s appliances, and then there is also bags of trash,” said Montes of DSNY.

Prior to the new legislation, which went into effect in the fall of 2018, “we couldn’t actually use any material that was found in the trash to actually investigate,” she said.

The city has also begun using surveillance cameras to monitor sites with frequent dumping and clamp down on the illegal activity. Earlier this year, DSNY partnered with Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon, the Parks Department, and a local business improvement district (BID) to investigate chronic illegal dumpers. (Business improvement districts are areas where local industry contribute to the management and funding of public space maintenance.)

“Our collective efforts to combat illegal dumping continue to yield positive results in holding bad actors accountable and improving quality of life on Staten Island,” McMahon said in a July press release. According to Montes, DSNY has issued five summonses to illegal dumpers that were caught on camera since 2018.

In 2018, the City Council also increased the penalties for dumping and littering in an effort to discourage the behavior, which are relatively lax compared to nearby jurisdictions, officials say. “You live in Suffolk County, the fines are like 10 times what the fines are in New York City,” Garcia told Gotham Gazette.

Last summer, new legislation imposed higher fines for littering small amounts of trash from vehicles -- going from $100 to $200 -- and for illegal dumping of garbage and debris from $1,500 to $4,000 (a 167 percent increase), according to Montes.

Since the new penalties went into effect last November, DSNY has issued 111 summonses for littering from a motor vehicle.

Despite the increased penalties and enforcement tools, DSNY still faces an uphill battle, especially in transportation hubs, locations with high food tourism and nightlife, and areas surrounding construction sites.

“In terms of general trash and litter problems, the downtown area is always one of the worst and requires the most oversight,” said Scott Sieber, a spokesperson for Queens Council Member Peter Koo, referring to the high-activity area of Downtown Flushing.

Because litter baskets are for pedestrian use in high-traffic, often commercial, corridors, DSNY usually does not place them in areas that are primarily residential, Montes told Gotham Gazette. This has placed a strain on gentrifying neighborhoods that have seen a shift from residential to multi-purpose use.

“In my district in Bushwick, we were having severe litter problems, mostly because nightlife was picking-up in and around the neighborhood, and we haven’t necessarily built out the infrastructure for trash collection that was matching that,” Reynoso said.

One of the obstacles to litter basket collection is knowing where the litter baskets are. Litter baskets can be placed by the city, by BIDs, and by nonprofit and private entities after receiving permission from DSNY. Baskets are frequently moved due to damage or vandalism, nearby construction, or regular illegal use. DSNY uses field staff to track basket placement and gauge their effectiveness. “Our cleaning office will also add baskets to areas that have become more commercial,” said Montes.

DSNY has also identified the design of litter baskets, which haven’t changed since the 1930s, as a contributor to trash spilling into the streets. In August 2018, the de Blasio administration launched a competition to redesign street corner bins, soliciting participants from the private sector, with the goal of creating bins that are more accessible, easy-to-service, and better equipped to handle spillage. The city is testing prototypes from two finalists with plans to announce a winner in the fall.

trash baskets

As city neighborhoods continue to shift, packaging from online commerce proliferates, and concern for the environment becomes more urgent, elected officials are looking for ways to reduce -- not just collect -- the amount of trash the city produces.

“Although we have seen improvements in [litter basket pick-up], my ultimate goal is to continue to work on legislation that will ultimately reduce the city’s waste as a whole,” wrote Manhattan Council Member Carlina Rivera, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

“What we’re hoping is to start lowering the amount of trash the city of New York is sending to landfills and we need to start moving away from needing litter baskets at every single corner,” Reynoso told Gotham Gazette. (Reynoso was a vocal proponent of the increased funding for litter baskets this year, and helped put pressure on de Blasio to include it in the enacted budget.)

“While we were putting out the litter baskets because we want to keep the streets clean, we as a city do need to start working on reduction and reuse,” he said. “More litter baskets reinforces the idea that you can continue to have contents on your person and get rid of them, eventually, in a corner.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

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The City’s Pouring Money Into Trash Basket Pickup, and Complaints of Overflowing Bins are Dropping Tue, 27 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000