Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/110 Tue, 23 Jul 2019 22:44:39 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Campaigning for Congress, Torres Touts City Funding Secured for Development Outside Council District https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8672-campaigning-for-congress-torres-touts-city-funding-secured-for-development-outside-council-district https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8672-campaigning-for-congress-torres-touts-city-funding-secured-for-development-outside-council-district 1 cm r torres lib

Council Member Ritchie Torres (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)


Bronx City Council Member Ritchie Torres is touting $3 million in city funding he secured for a residential complex that falls outside the Council district he represents, but within the Congressional district where he’s seeking votes.

The money will go to Concourse Village, Inc., a nearly 1,900-unit housing cooperative located in the south Bronx, over a mile away from the border of Torres’ district. The second-term Democratic Council member is running for Congress in the primary that will be held in June of next year.

Torres sent a campaign text message announcing the “great news,” using the funding allocation he secured as a member of the City Council to advance his congressional campaign, apparently targeting voters in Concourse Village.

"This is Council Member Ritchie Torres, running to be your next Congressman,” read a text message shared with Gotham Gazette. “GREAT NEWS: In the latest NYC budget, I secured $3 MILLION for Concourse Village.” The message went on to tell the recipient not to hesitate to reach out to Torres, providing a phone number, and concluded, “You can always count on me to fight for the Bronx. - Ritchie".

The youngest member of the City Council and the first openly gay elected official from the Bronx, Torres officially announced his candidacy for Congress on Monday, though he has been exploring a run for months. He joins several other Democrats vying for the seat opened by incumbent Representative José E. Serrano, who announced in March he would not seek reelection because of health concerns related to Parkinson’s disease. Representing the district in Congress since 1990, Serrano’s current term will end at the end of next year. Torres, who has been representing the 15th Council District since 2014, is not eligible to run for reelection in 2021 because of two-term limits. (Serrano’s Congressional district also happens to be the 15th.)

Others in the race include City Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr. and Assemblymember Michael Blake.

Taking advantage of the authority and influence of elected office to secure popular measures that can later be used as campaign fodder is commonplace in New York, where local politics is often a stepping stone to higher office. But the grey area around promoting public interest and political aspirations becomes less ambiguous when the sway of an elected office goes to benefit another district entirely, with electoral goals at play.

"How do you rationalize using campaign funds to communicate with people outside your district to tell them that you got them money blatantly for the purpose of trying to curry political favor?" said Blake, whose district includes Concourse Village.

Torres says the budget allocation for what he calls the largest concentration of cooperative housing in the South Bronx is consistent with his focus on affordable housing, especially for African-Americans. So is the political campaigning that followed.

“I have been an advocate for affordable housing not only in my district but throughout the city,” Torres told Gotham Gazette. Concourse Village “has an outsized presence in the housing stock of the South Bronx, which is keeping with my record and reputation for advocating for affordable housing.”

“I think of cooperative housing like Concourse Village as the bedrock of the African-American middle class, you know, whether it’s Co-op City in the East Bronx or Concourse Village in the South Bronx,” Torres, who is black and Latino, said. Black voters in the 15th Congressional District are expected to be an important part of the primary vote. Blake is African-American and Torres is African-American and Latino.

Concourse Village, Inc. is subsidized under the Mitchell-Lama housing program, which offers income-restricted rentals and below-market value buy-in for co-ops, a boon for affordable housing.

The neighborhoods comprising the South Bronx are home to some of the worst poverty in the country and also have some of the highest rates of rent burden in the city. In the community district that includes Concourse Village, more than half of households are rent burdened, meaning they spend more than 35 percent of income on rent, according to the Department of City Planning.

Torres, who grew up in NYCHA public housing and chaired the Committee on Public Housing during his first term, has made the living conditions of the city’s most underserved residents a signature priority.

He notes the $3 million allocation did not come from the capital funding dedicated to his Council district, but from the city-wide pool controlled by Speaker Corey Johnson. Torres told Gotham Gazette, “if it had come from the Council District 15 pot then there is cause for controversy, but there is nothing unusual about funding for Concourse Village from a city-wide pot.”

“And since I had a role in securing the funds, it’s natural for me to take credit,” he added.

Each fiscal year the City Council is given a capital budget from which Council members may apply to allocate funds, according to Jonathan Rosenberg of the Independent Budget Office. Individual members can apply for district-specific projects, and borough delegations can sponsor projects that span multiple districts. The Council speaker ultimately decides how that money is disbursed and can also allocate it to city-wide projects.

In recent years, speakers have designated an equal amount of capital funding, $5 million, to each of the 51 Council members with the remainder of the now $655 million capital budget going to a city fund. City-wide allocations are controlled by the speaker and might go toward large or expansive projects like street reconstruction, according to Rosenberg, and members are able to put in requests.

“This money was funded by the City Council Speaker at the request of Council Member Torres,” said a Council spokesperson. The spokesperson said it’s not unprecedented for members to seek funding for a project outside their district, adding that the money is from the city capital funding, not the money set aside for Torres’ Council District 15.

Torres has also secured funding for cooperative housing in his district using the money designated specifically for that purpose by the Council leadership. This year, he put roughly $1 million of the $5 million towards renovationing a Mitchell-Lama co-op, known as Dennis Lane Apartments, in the heart of District 15.

Concourse Village is located south of Torres’ district off of Morris Ave. within the borders of Council District 16, represented by Vanessa Gibson. Gibson, a Democrat, is not listed among the sponsors of the $3 million Concourse Village, Inc. allocation, despite the project falling into her district. “I actually was not even made aware of this allocation until the day of adoption,” she said in a phone interview.

“I did not have the opportunity to work with the speaker nor Ritchie on this. It was something that Ritchie had done on his own, but I am grateful for the attention Concourse Village is getting in the budget,” she said.

“I get the strategic way that Ritchie is obviously looking at the future. This was a development that came up among the priorities within the district, and I truly believe that that was the logic behind it,” she added.

But Blake called foul on that strategic approach. “It is difficult to say that you want to be a fresh voice in Congress when you are directly trying to communicate to people that you want to pay for their vote," he said.

“I’m proud of the role that I played in securing the funds. Concourse Village is one of the most important housing developments in the Bronx and in the city,” Torres said. “And it’s been a stabilizing force for communities of color, for middle-class communities of color. That’s why I felt so strongly about it.”

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

Read more by this writer.

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Campaigning for Congress, Torres Touts City Funding Secured for Development Outside Council District Mon, 15 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Struggling with Overcrowded Schools and Large Class Sizes, City Advances $8.8 Billion Plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8673-struggling-with-school-overcrowding-and-large-class-sizes-city-advances-8-8-billion-plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8673-struggling-with-school-overcrowding-and-large-class-sizes-city-advances-8-8-billion-plan 2 cm r espinal ground

Mayor de Blasio & others break ground for a new East New York school (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Some days, it can be hard for Arthur Goldstein to walk down the hallway of Francis Lewis High School in Queens, where he teaches English as a second language. Goldstein’s school is one of 25 overcrowded schools in the 26th school district, and has a utilization rate of 207 percent, according to a 2018 Department of Education report.

“There are some days when I think I’m going to go to this office and I turn around and walk to another office because it’s just too much work to get through walking down the hall that way,” Goldstein said. “I don’t know if you can even imagine that, but that’s happened to me more than once.”

Francis Lewis High School has a capacity of about 2,400 but enrolls closer to 4,600, Goldstien said. Those students are some of about 520,000 students — nearly half the city’s school population — in the city who attend an overcrowded, also known as over-utilized, school, according to a Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) report released July 9. Those students attend roughly 618 schools, with the worst overcrowding in Brooklyn, Queens, and the central Bronx. Overall, there are roughly 1.1 million students in 1,840 schools in 32 school districts across the five boroughs, according to the Department of Education.

While the CBC report said crowding may lessen as enrollment citywide declines and, overall, the number of crowded school buildings has declined by 31 since 2015, others have expressed concern that the problem will get worse because the current need is already greater than the 83,000 seats the Department of Education has identified to be built to reduce crowding. In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio added 57,000 seats to the 2015-2019 capital plan to meet the 83,000 need seat estimate. 

The new plan also includes $180 million for the removal of Transportable Classroom Units — known as TCUs or trailers — where some students at crowded buildings may be receiving instruction. In 2018, it was estimated that about 8,000 students learned in trailers, and then-schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said the DOE had removed 159 out of 354 total trailers and had plans to remove 75 more. In 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s capital plan projected that all TCUs would be able to be removed, and he promised that would be completed by 2012.

Former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had in 2014 urged de Blasio to prioritize the removal of trailers and set aside some of the $800 million the city received from the Smart Schools Act, which allocated funds for districts to upgrade technology, increase pre-kindergarten capacity, and get rid of trailers.

Chalkbeat reported at the time that lawmakers had doubts that removing trailers was a priority of the de Blasio administration, as a DOE official said at a hearing earlier that year that trailers could be used to expand capacity for pre-K, de Blasio’s top campaign promise and mayoral priority. De Blaiso said at a press conference at the time that he will keep prioritizing the issue in his capital plan, as in 2014 his administration allocated $405 million toward removing TCUs.

“I don’t want kids in trailers,” de Blaiso said at the press conference. “I want to move aggressively to get them out of trailers. We know that will take some time, but we’re committed to it. We’re also committed to putting in new facilities in most overcrowded areas.”

Now, several years later, advocacy groups like Class Size Matters and City Council Members like Daniel Dromm say the new city capital plan — which includes nearly $8.8 billion for school capacity projects to be started over the next five years — does not have an updated estimate of the need for seats since the 2015-2019 capital plan as residential development, rezoning projects, and other trends will change the need in certain sub-districts.

“It’s very suspicious,” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “They claim to be building all the seats that are necessary, but that’s based upon an estimate that is many years old.”

Overcrowding occurs in pockets around the city with crowded buildings in each district of each borough, but CBC research associate Riley Edwards, who wrote the new school capacity report, said there are enough seats currently for all New York City students, and the key to thinking about alleviating school overcrowding is more aggressively pursuing strategies other than school construction.

Edwards said most districts actually have an excess of seats, and the severe overcrowding occurs in sub-districts, with nine of 32 districts — five in Queens, two in Brooklyn, one in the Bronx, and one on Staten Island — packed with more students than their target capacity.

Other myths about school overcrowding, as detailed in a 2016 CBC report also authored by Edwards, are that middle and high school students face the worst crowding problems — it’s actually elementary school students — and that plans to build new schools will solve the problem. The new report says the DOE needs to focus on other strategies it already uses, such as rezoning, changing admissions policies, repurposing seats, and programming.

“It does take a long time for the city to site and build a new school,” Edwards said. “There’s only so much available land in the city and a limited amount appropriate for school buildings.”

According to the Independent Budget Office, Queens’ District 26 ranked as the third-most crowded school district with a utilization rate of 109 percent for the 2017-2018 school year, behind District 25 in Queens, and District 20 in Brooklyn, which both had over 121 percent. However, Dromm said district- or borough-wide numbers do not reflect the “tremendous” overcrowding that occurs at the sub-district level in individual schools.

According to Class Size Matters, the average class size for K-12 schools in New York City during the 2018-2019 school year was 26, almost no change from 2014-2015 when the last capital plan was proposed. The average class size in the United States is 21, according to the Office for Economic Cooperation and Development. Haimson said over 330,000 students in the city were in classes of 30 or more.

While some research shows that reducing class sizes may have small benefits at best, Haimson said ultimately larger class sizes are detrimental for students.

“There’s a huge amount of rigorous research that shows the larger the class, the less learning goes on,” Haimson said. “There are also a lot of other negative effects of large class sizes. Kids become less engaged, they’re more likely to get held back, they’re more likely to get referred to special education, and they’re more likely to have disciplinary problems.”

Dromm, now the Council’s finance chair and previously its education committee chair, said during the 25 years he was teaching at P.S.199 in Queens’ District 24 he saw the crowding getting worse each year.

“I remember a day when the janitors came into the school, and they opened the maintenance closet right outside the staff room,” Dromm said. “They took out the pitchfork, they took out the rake, they took out the shovel, and they threw up a coat of paint. They turned that into the speech classroom. That’s how bad some of the situations are in some of the schools.”

To address the issue, the city Department of Education’s new $17 billion five-year capital plan for 2020-2024 proposes funding to create 57,000 new school seats across all school districts, with about half expected to be completed no later than the start of the 2025-2026 school year, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. The IBO predicts that all of the seats would be completed by 2028.

The plan sets aside $8.8 billion for capacity issues, including $7.9 billion for 57,000 new school seats in 88 new buildings and $150 million for class size reduction programs, which the DOE described as “increasing the number of school options available to students.” The DOE plan outlines the Class Size Reduction Program as building additions or new school buildings near buildings that have a high rate of overutilization, use trailers, are geographically isolated, or has a recognized seat-need that has not been funded.

In December testimony regarding the new capital plan, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) said the additional seats are “good news” for crowded schools, but added that the publicly available data regarding trailers is incomplete, which makes it "impossible" to evaluate the removal projects.

“We commend the work that went in to developing this new five-year capital plan, and we support efforts to mitigate these three issues and the many others included within the report," the UFT testimony reads. "However, we want to stress the narrative and appendices in the report fail to clearly tell the story. While they inform many important programs, the information and data provided are insufficient to track the projects’ goals, and project- and program-level spending.”

“We’ll continue to build on these investments and work with school communities to meet their needs,” Isabelle Boundy, an assistant press secretary at the Department of Education, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

“We’re committed to reducing class size and alleviating overcrowding and have already implemented many of the recommendations in the report," Boundy said of the new Citizens Budget Commission study. "We’ll continue to build on these cost-effective investments such as rezoning, re-purposing seats through grade truncations and other significant changes to school utilization, setting high school seat targets aligned to space and demand, helping principals program their instructional space more efficiently, and creating capacity through room conversion projects.”

In 2003, following a lawsuit that claimed the state’s school funding system underfunded the city’s public schools, a New York Supreme Court concluded that for New York City students to receive their constitutional right to a sound basic education, more equitable funding was needed to reduce class sizes. At the time, the average class size for grades 4 through 8 was 25, and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity — the nonprofit advocacy organization that filed the lawsuit — said class sizes needed to be just slightly lower, around 24. 

Four years later, the state passed a law called Contracts for Excellence that partly required districts to put funds toward reducing class size and required New York City to reduce class sizes across all grades to specific goals — such as reducing 4 through 8 class sizes to 23 by 2011 — over the next five years.

Since 2007, about 93,000 school seats have been built, according to CBC, but Class Size Matters says class sizes have gone up and are “still significantly larger” than in 2003. Kindergarten class sizes have risen from an average of 21 in 2007 to 24 in 2019, though the Contracts for Excellence target was around 20.

Class Size Matters joined a group of parents and other advocacy groups in April 2018 in filing a lawsuit against city schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, the DOE, and state education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to demand the city reduce class sizes. The court ruled in 2018 it was up to the commissioner to decide, and she said in 2017 the class size requirements in the Contracts for Excellence law had expired years ago, though Class Size Matters charges that the law is still in full effect. The plaintiffs are now appealing the decision and arguments are expected later this summer.

Meanwhile, the city continues to build new school seats to try to relieve crowding issues, but does not have to follow the guidelines for class size in the Contracts for Excellence law.

At a City Council hearing in December, Dromm said while the investment in 57,000 new seats included in the new capital plan will bring the total number of seats constructed since the start of the last five-year plan to a “historic” 83,000 seats, he said the DOE did not include a new, recalculated number of seats needed in 2024.

He said the 83,000 seats fulfills a commitment the mayor made in 2017 to fully fund the identified seat need by 2025, but there is disagreement over whether that number will remain years later by the end of the new five-year plan in 2024. Shino Tanikawa, the co-chair of the city’s Education Council Consortium, a body of elected parent leaders, said even though the mayor added more seats to the plan, the city is “always behind” the need.

In 2015, the city rejected a recommendation from the Blue Book Working Group — which was formed to make the DOE’s Enrollment, Capacity, and Utilization report, commonly known as the Blue Book, more accurate — to include the class size standards set in the Contracts for Excellence law in the Blue Book calculations for capacity and utilization. Though, the DOE did remove trailers from capacity calculations, decreasing the capacity of those schools.

Tanikawa, who was a member of the group, said the DOE should use aspirational class sizes to calculate, but instead the report is calculated using class sizes that are too large. For grades 9 through 12, the Blue Book uses a target class size of 30, despite the 2007 goal of an average class size of 25 for those grade-levels, according to the city’s Planning to Learn report from 2018. The Blue Book uses a higher target class size than the goals set in 2007 for all grades except for Kindergarten through 3.

“To many of the advocates on the working group that was the most important recommendation we made,” Tanikawa said. “And that was the one that was rejected.”

The 83,000-seat estimate came from a DOE analysis in November 2017 and was released in the February 2018 version of the 2015-2019 five-year plan. Class Size Matters estimates that the need is at least 100,000 seats based on the number of schools that are currently overcrowded, the likelihood of enrollment growth in parts of the city, and the need for class size reduction.

“I believe that they’re right,” Dromm told Gotham Gazette of Class Size Matters’ estimate. “Seat need is probably closer to 100,000, and the administration’s plan does not really reflect that. They claim that they put 57,000 seats into the budget this year, but still it doesn’t really reflect the need we feel is out there.”

The DOE predicts a decline of 4 percent enrollment, down to about 881,000 students, across public schools (the projection excludes enrollment in non-DOE spaces, charter schools, and District 75) by 2022-2023, though Dromm said residential construction, rezoning efforts, and overall city population growth are not adequately addressed in the plan. Haimson said demographic trends are difficult to predict and that there may be less overcrowding due to population shifts in certain areas over time, but the city’s population is growing fast.

Enrollment has declined over the past decade across the United States due to falling birth rates, but CBC has also reported that enrollment may increase in already crowded districts. 

The city’s population is expected to grow from 8.6 million in 2019 to 9 million in 2040, with the Bronx and Brooklyn expected to grow at the largest percentages, according to the city’s population projections.

“More and more families are choosing to stay in the city when they have children,” Haimson said. “And the mayor’s continuing to encourage development at any cost.”

When the city has undergone large-scale neighborhood rezonings, such as the ones for the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx and East New York in Brooklyn, the School Construction Authority works closely with the Department of City Planning to identify the projected school seat need for those areas, according to SCA President Lorraine Grillo’s comments at a Council hearing in December. Rezoning deals between the city and local Council members often include school seat considerations, sometimes including the construction of at least one new school, like in East New York.

The new five-year plan allocates funding for 6,000 seats within six rezoning areas projected to move ahead during that time: the Hudson Square rezoning and Hudson Yards in Manhattan; Crotona Park East/West Farms rezoning in the Bronx; Pacific Park, Greenpoint Landing, Domino Redevelopment and Albee Square in Brooklyn; and Halletts Point rezoning in Queens.

According to the city’s Rezoning Commitments Tracker, the construction for a 1,000-seat school in East New York (the first neighborhood rezoning passed under de Blasio) has begun, and commitments were made in the Jerome Avenue neighborhood plan for new elementary schools in Districts 9 and 10. Commitments for at least one new school were included in four out of the city’s five large-scale neighborhood rezoning plans, with the others slated to be completed by 2023.

Council Member Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx, who chairs the Council’s capital budget subcommittee and negotiated the Jerome Avenue rezoning, said at the December Council hearing she was “pleased” about the Jerome Avenue commitments but added that the city is frequently rezoning smaller areas, and every new construction will bring families with school-age children. Griillo said the SCA is informed of smaller rezonings and uses them to inform future projections.

“(There are) the larger neighborhoods that we have rezoned from East Harlem, East New York, Far Rockaway, Jerome in the Bronx, and Inwood, but on a monthly basis on a much smaller scale we pass out smaller rezonings every single month,” Gibson said at the hearing. “We are creating an incredible amount of housing.”

The recent CBC report said there are significant shortcomings in the school construction the DOE and SCA do undertake. Not all new school capacity is created to address overcrowding, according to the report, and not all new seats are built in districts with overcrowding.

While the DOE also projects by 2022-2023 an enrollment decrease of 7 percent in elementary schools, where CBC says nearly two-thirds of the seat need is, the mayor’s initiatives like universal pre-kindergarten have added additional pressure to already overcrowded schools, though some programs are located at separate sites not run by the DOE, Edwards said.

A majority of the 93,000 seats built since 2007 have been for elementary school students, but more than 3,700 of those seats were built in districts with a “relatively low utilization,” according to the report.

Dromm said the DOE has allocated seats for districts they say have not received seats “in a while” though the need is greater in other districts. He said for District 24, the DOE has recognized that around 4,000 seats are needed to address crowding issues there, but those seats were not funded in the new five-year plan and were distributed to other areas.

At a Council hearing in December, Grillo said more seats were added in District 24 than any other district in the city, so the funding for those seats were reallocated to districts that had not yet received additional seats. (A DOE spokesperson told Gotham Gazette that the 2020-2024 capital plan includes funding for about 1,500 seats in District 24 and overall aims to create seats in districts experiencing the most critical and projected overcrowding.)

“But District 24 remains one of the top districts for seat need,” Dromm said in December. “They’re still not addressing the areas where the seat need is the greatest, and that’s concerning to me.”

Additionally, the CBC report said the city has allocated too many seats for high schools, whose overcrowding problems could be solved by utilizing the surplus of high school seats and changing high school admissions practices.

Edwards said the city actually has more seats than students — the shortage of seats in crowded high schools, according to the CBC report, is about 32,000 whereas there’s about 65,000 unused seats at high schools — and there are ways the city can maximize that space.

However, the IBO said in testimony to the Council in 2015 that using the unused seats to alleviate overcrowding is difficult because changing admissions policies can be a contentious topic, the extra seats span across boroughs so the potential for change is limited to a few areas of the city, and DOE policies like universal pre-K will continue to put capacity pressure on buildings.

In the CBC report, Edwards outlined four ways the DOE can address overcrowding that are less expensive and more efficient than school construction, which takes an average of 41 months from the start of design to the end of construction. The DOE already uses these alternative strategies to reduce overcrowding — rezoning, repurposing seats, changing admission policies, and programming — but the report said they are “underutilized” while school construction is the main method.

According to an April 2019 DOE report on space overutilization in schools, the decline in overcrowded buildings from 646 in 2015 to 615 in 2018 was due to a combination of new capacity, resiting, facility upgrades, and new facilities.

According to CBC, in 2017, 42 high schools implemented “split-session” scheduling, which allows more than the traditional eight periods to be scheduled throughout the day; 43 schools were impacted by the rezoning of school districts; and 21 schools repurposed seats through re-siting to underutilized or new buildings. Some other schools received renovations or new facilities.

The CBC report says the DOE could rezone elementary schools or allow zones to overlap or be grouped together to use more seats at under-utilized schools. The report says the majority of the school district rezonings enacted between 2014 and 2017 were to accommodate the opening of a new school and implementing them more often to adjust incoming enrollment would be more effective.

According to the report, the city could also more frequently repurpose seats by truncating some schools and expanding others to relieve crowding. Another way to repurpose seats that has “substantial potential” to address the issue is converting administrative and non-school space to instructional rooms, CBC says.

While the report specifically says that buildings with multiple schools should share administrative offices to save space, some overcrowded schools have had to convert spaces like closets to create more room.

Enforcing enrollment capacity standards at high schools would reduce overcrowding at schools, like Francis Lewis in Queens, because there are enough seats citywide for high school students and those admissions are done on a citywide basis, the report said.

Tanikawa said because of the way the city funds schools — through the Fair Student Funding Act that allocates a fixed amount per student and adds funds if the school also serves students who are poor, struggling academically, have disabilities, or are learning English — there is an incentive for principals to take more students than a building is designed to hold.

“They don’t do it to be evil,” Tanikawa said. “They want to provide a robust, comprehensive education program and in order to do that principals are forced to take more students than they really should.”

Goldstein said it is “insane” that there is no limit to the number of students, which he said would be the best way to reduce overcrowding at Francis Lewis. Instead, the DOE plans to build an annex by 2021 which will add about 10 to 15 classrooms and replace the trailers the school currently uses.

Goldstein is his high school’s United Federation of Teachers chapter leader, and he said though the UFT has guidelines for class size, there is no upper enrollment limit for neighborhood schools like Francis Lewis.

He said he taught in a trailer for 12 years and taught in a half-sized classroom last year, which posed challenges ranging from preventing students from cheating to just getting around the room. Goldstein said he hopes they can eventually get rid of the trailers, but he fears that even with extra classrooms from the annex will not be enough.

“It will be good,” Goldstein said. “Will it be perfect? No it won’t be perfect.”

***
bySamantha Handler, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

This story has been updated with additional comment from the DOE, elements of the UFT testimony, and a couple of other notes.

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Struggling with Overcrowded Schools and Large Class Sizes, City Advances $8.8 Billion Plan Mon, 15 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Mayor Must Stop Leaving Summer Camp Providers and Parents Scrambling https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8661-the-mayor-must-stop-leaving-summer-camp-providers-and-parents-scrambling https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8661-the-mayor-must-stop-leaving-summer-camp-providers-and-parents-scrambling summer camp rally

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


Yasmin Schwartz is the Assistant Division Director for Middle School Programs at Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation (CHLDC), a settlement house in Brooklyn. Starting this week, CHLDC expected to run a School’s Out NYC (SONYC) summer camp five days per week for more than 100 middle school students.

Summer camp activities require careful planning and program directors must hire and vet staff through both New York City and State background checks, register students, and secure appropriate space for programs. However, Yasmin and her team were only able to officially start these lengthy processes on June 21, after the city finally agreed to fund summer camps and the Department of Youth & Community Development was able to announce contracts.

This year, like most, Mayor Bill de Blasio refused to provide funding in his budget plans for summer camp for 34,000 middle school students and summer camp providers had to endure a “budget dance” and wait for the City Council to step in and restore the money at the last minute. Enough is enough – the mayor must permanently fund summer camp for our middle school students, ensuring an end to the uncertainty and more stability for adults and children alike.

Summer camp programs provide safe recreation and education for New York City youth. Research shows that these programs help close the achievement gap, prevent summer learning loss, and keep children safe while parents work. Summer camp provides benefits for thousands of children, but access to programs is particularly important for low-income families, who may be unable to afford the cost of other summer programs.

On top of providing continued learning and stability for working families, summer camp also offers nutritious and reliable meals. In fact, 64 percent of parents of children in summer camps rely on these programs for free, healthy meals for their children.

When the mayor eliminates funding for summer camp, he isn’t just hurting children and their families, he’s doing a disservice to program directors and staff at settlement houses and other community-based organizations across New York City.

Due to Mayor de Blasio eliminating this funding from his budget, program directors like Yasmin are left waiting for budget negotiations to conclude before planning their programs. Summer camp providers must then scramble to organize their programs for middle-schoolers. For Yasmin and her team, last-minute decisions and reduced funding means late planning, fewer summer camp slots, reduced paid staff, and starting programs a week later than CHLDC typically starts camp.

This year, CHLDC was prepared to offer 414 middle school youth spots in its SONYC summer camp programs, but now can only offer 150. Yasmin and her team also had to cut their staff from 40 to 12 and notify some parents in their community that they don’t have room for their children to attend summer camp with CHLDC this summer.

These challenges don’t just impact summer camp, they put unnecessary strain on staff and community relationships that inform year-round programming. Not to mention, in the lead up to the launch of summer camp, program directors, staff, and families had to once again head to City Hall to protest and convince the mayor to do the right thing and fund summer camp programs for middle school students. Without the City Council restoration, summer camp programs for middle-schoolers may not have received funding at all.

It is time for the mayor to make 2019 the last year without baselined funding for summer camp.

***
Susan Stamler is the executive director of United Neighborhood Houses, a policy and social change organization representing 42 neighborhood settlement houses. On Twitter @UNHNY.

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The Mayor Must Stop Leaving Summer Camp Providers and Parents Scrambling Tue, 09 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Paying New York City’s Debt to Taxi Drivers https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8652-paying-new-york-city-s-debt-to-taxi-drivers https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8652-paying-new-york-city-s-debt-to-taxi-drivers car service taxi

(photo: @NYTWA)


When financial bubbles burst, it’s almost always regular people whose lives are ruined. The fraudsters and scammers often avoid serious consequences. So it was with America’s mortgage crisis in 2008. And so it has been with New York City’s own home-grown mortgage meltdown: the collapse of yellow taxi medallion values since 2014, which has had a devastating impact on the lives of thousands of yellow taxi drivers.

New York City only allows a fixed number of the iconic yellow taxis on its streets--creating over the decades a consistent, recession-proof source of income for drivers. The medallion that taxis are required to affix to their hoods was an asset that commanded a steady, solid price. For countless immigrants, owning a medallion meant that the grueling work of a taxi driver could offer a path to the middle class.

Then in the early 2000s medallion prices began rising from their historically stable value of about $200,000, to a dizzying peak of over $1 million by 2014.

The medallion bubble was pumped up in part by the same forces that caused the housing mortgage crisis. Industry lenders and brokers exploited vulnerable borrowers. And thousands of owner-drivers ended up with monthly mortgage payments of as much as $4,500, an oppressive sum for workers whose earnings from fares and tips, after expenses, may only amount to $5,000 per month.

Then, in 2014, the bottom fell out. The value of medallions plummeted in the past five years, losing 80 percent off their peak. Drivers and their families who invested their life savings to purchase this asset now face financial ruin. For some the pressure has been unbearable. At least three yellow taxi drivers burdened by debt have taken their own lives.

There is no shortage of parties to blame for this debacle: overly aggressive lenders, lax financial regulators, shady loan brokers.

And then there’s New York City government -- which directly contributed to this crisis.

In 2004 the City began auctioning off new medallions to plug budget gaps. This gave the very people overseeing the industry an interest in pumping up valuations. And that’s exactly what they did.

Ads run by the City called the investments “better than the stock market,” implying medallion values would continue to rise. The City agency that regulates the taxi industry failed to act in the midst of glaring signs of financially questionable transactions and price collusion among major players. 

And the City didn’t just pump up the bubble, it also inadvertently expedited its bursting, by failing to manage the explosive growth of Uber and Lyft, which flooded the streets with upwards of 80,000 new vehicles, and used their rich valuations to undercut the regulated taxi fares.

Along the way, the City made hundreds of millions of dollars in sales at medallion auctions, including a round as late as 2014 when it set the minimum medallion bid price at a staggering $850,000, despite the fact that it was already clear by then that these assets were poised to decline.

The City profited handsomely from the medallion bubble. Now we owe a moral debt to the thousands of New Yorkers whose lives have been ruined.

The City needs to consider dramatic plans for securing loan forgiveness for owner-drivers, so that medallion mortgage payments are capped at reasonable levels -- and no driver is ever again forced to live on $500 per month after expenses.

We need to create a retirement fund for drivers as well, so those struggling with medallion payments no longer need to keep driving into their 60s, 70s, and even 80s just to make payments. The hard-working drivers who have kept our city moving for decades deserve to be able to retire with dignity.

And we should do something impactful now that would help bring immediate relief: hire an attorney for each and every one of the driver-owners with underwater mortgages.

At present the vast majority of drivers going through foreclosure proceedings are doing so without representation by an attorney, putting them at a severe disadvantage. Likewise, most have no attorney to support them in the complicated process of mortgage renegotiation. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance has provided legal support to hundreds -- but there are thousands more still in need of help. We need a robust investment by the City to close this gap. Any cost for a legal assistance program will be miniscule relative to the $850 million windfall the City reaped from the sale of medallions during the bubble years.

Lenders will have to be pressured to sit down in good faith with drivers and their representatives. The City should not be afraid to publicly call out any banks, credit unions, and hedge funds that refuse to adjust loan terms. As was the case in the housing mortgage scandal, lenders are not immune to public shaming. Statements from federal and state regulators voicing support for renegotiation of the loans would also be extremely helpful.

One thing is clear: the City helped create the medallion crisis, and we have an obligation to help fix it.

We cannot undo the damage done to thousands of lives -- some of which have already been lost -- by this scandal. But we as a city can at least do everything in our power to ensure that, for once, regular people are not abandoned while the wealthy and powerful skate away unscathed.

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City Council Member Mark Levine represents parts of Manhattan and Bhairavi Desai is the President of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. On Twitter @MarkLevineNYC & @NYTWA.

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Paying New York City’s Debt to Taxi Drivers Mon, 01 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Charter Revision Commission Approves 17 Proposals for November Ballot https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8595-charter-revision-commission-approves-17-proposals-for-november-ballot https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8595-charter-revision-commission-approves-17-proposals-for-november-ballot build lc charter2019nyc

(photo: @Charter2019NYC)


After a nine months-long process of public hearings, private meetings, and spirited discussion, the 2019 Charter Revision Commission approved 17 proposals for the November ballot on Wednesday evening.

Commission staff will draft ballot language for these proposals and the commission will take a final vote to approve the proposals on July 24. It will have one more meeting - on Tuesday, June 18 - to discuss adding other proposals to the list.

Potential changes to the city’s central governing laws and constitution -- the city Charter -- the proposals include items like ranked-choice voting, bolstering police oversight, and city budget reform. Most of the proposals chosen by the 15 commissioners were based off the preliminary staff report released in April, which narrowed considerations after a series of commission meetings. Following the report’s release, the commission held a final round of public hearings, one in each borough, as well as private deliberations before Wednesday night’s public vote by the commissioners at City Hall.

Commissioners further placed considerations into five ballot groupings: elections and redistricting, Civilian Complaint Review Board (the NYPD oversight body), governance, finance, and land use. There were 18 total proposals for consideration by the commission. One proposal failed to pass and two passed on the condition that revisions by commission staff be made, which will be verified by the commission soon.

The commission staff will now start to draft ballot language to be submitted to the City Clerk and then Board of Elections, with voters able to approve or disapprove of each grouping through “yes” or “no” votes on the November 5 ballot. But before the commission’s recommendations are finalized and ballot language fully drafted, the commission will have one more public meeting, on June 18, to make any other final decisions.

Here’s what was decided Wednesday night:

Elections and Redistricting
One of the commission’s top issues of interest since its formation was ranked-choice voting, which commissioners voted to approve at Wednesday’s meeting. This voting system is aimed to limit costly run-off elections, which typically see low voter turnout, while also ensuring that winners of crowded races have broader support.

Under the RCV system, voters rank up to five candidates (including write-ins) by order of preference. If a candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, they are the winner. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and the voters who chose that candidate first have their second choice receive their vote. The elimination process is repeated until one candidate reaches the majority threshold. The commission decided that RCV would be suggested to voters for primary and special elections, but not general elections.

Currently, there are only run-offs for citywide positions where one candidate does not hit 40% of the vote, otherwise in all other races whichever candidate receives the most votes wins. This system has led to expensive, low-turnout run-offs in the 2009 and 2013 Democratic primaries for Public Advocate, and it has led to winners of Borough President and CIty Council races who enter office having secured well below a majority of the vote.

Ahead of the commission’s meeting, 27 elected officials – including Comptroller Scott Stringer and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer – and 14 organizations released a statement urging the commission to put ranked-choice voting on the ballot.

"I urge the Charter Revision Commission to include ranked choice voting for all of our elections in its recommendations for the November ballot. Ranked choice voting has proven effective elsewhere and would make our city's elections more fair and representative of the true will of the people," Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer said in the statement. "Our current winner-takes-all system is flawed and in need of reforms. We should not allow candidates to win races with only a small plurality of the electorate, and we should do all that we can to avoid ridiculously expensive, low turnout run-offs. Allowing voters to rank their preferences on the ballot will ensure that the winner is actually a consensus choice."

Although most charter commissioners agreed to move ahead with ranked-choice voting, some felt that because the proposal would only apply to primary and special elections, it wouldn’t accomplish enough. Commissioner Stephen Faila proposed an amendment that would include general elections, but it didn’t pass.

There were also those in opposition to the underlying proposal, like commissioner Merryl Tisch, who called RVF a well-intentioned experiment, but said she could not support it because it could allow politicians to have unclear positions for the sake of garnering more votes.

“If we enacted such a system it could well give candidates an incentive not to take clear issue positions, preferring to play to the audience for being everyone’s second choice, by offending as few people as possible, to rack up second and third choice votes,” Tisch said.

The commission also approved to extend the time period from the announcement of a special election and when it is held. Currently, that time period is 45 days (or 60 days for a mayoral special election). The approved proposal changes that to 90 days.

The final approved elections and redistricting ballot proposal amends the timing for establishing Council district boundaries to ensure that there’s sufficient time after redistricting and before the start of the ballot petitioning period for the next election.

Civilian Complaint Review Board
The commission also approved proposals reforming the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which investigates the public’s complaints against New York City police officers.

One proposed change is to how CCRB members are appointed. Currently the mayor appoints all 13 members, but the proposal expands the board to 15 members. Under this expansion, one of the members would be appointed by the Public Advocate and the other would be jointly appointed by the Mayor and the City Council Speaker. The City Council would also be granted power to directly appoint people to the board, currently the Council can only designate members.  (The commission had decided not to move ahead with the idea of a popularly-elected CCRB, as was urged by some advocates.)

The commission also voted to recommend a requirement that the Police Commissioner provide an explanation in all cases where the commissioner intends to depart from the board’s disciplinary recommendations and that the CCRB be allowed to delegate its subpoena power to the CCRB Executive Director.

There was debate over another CCRB consideration, which would require that the CCRB budget be no less than 0.3% of the NYPD’s multi-billion-dollar budget. Commissioners decided to have staff rework some of the proposal’s language and discuss it further at the June 18 meeting.

The only proposal that did not pass was the one regarding false official statements in CCRB matters. It allows the CCRB to investigate and recommend discipline against a police officer at the subject of a CCRB complaint, if said officer makes a false material statement within the course of that investigation.

Finance
The commission approved proposing to voters the creation of a mandatory “Rainy Day Fund” for city budgeting, where the city government can put surplus revenues when the economy is booming and draw down savings when in a crisis or significant downturn.

The idea behind the fund, strongly recommended by entities like the nonprofit Citizens Budget Commission, is that in cases of major economic hardship, service cuts and tax increases are avoided. This proposal would be reliant on the expiration, repeal, or amendment of the State Financial Emergency Act, which, since the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, is a state law governing city budgeting practices.

Voters would approve the creation of a Rainy Day Fund with certain specific criteria, but it would only be created if state law was amended to allow it.

Charter Commissioner Stephen Fiala, who said this proposal was his top priority on the commission, said it is important because it protects lower- and middle-class people, as they are typically impacted the most by city service cuts and tax increases.

“If there was nothing else that we did, this is the most important thing we will have done. And it isn’t about numbers...,” said Fiala, who was appointed to the commission by Staten Island Borough President James Oddo. “This is really about the poorest of the poor and the middle class because they are the ones who have – from the time we started having recessions until now – they’re the ones who always suffer.”

“By putting a Rainy Day Fund on the ballot, the charter commission would provide New Yorkers with an important opportunity to strengthen one of the few flaws in the city’s budgeting processes and would create significant momentum for the changes needed in state law,” Andrew Rein, president of Citizens Budget Commission, wrote in a June 10 op-ed at Gotham Gazette.

The commission also approved the creation of a mechanism for the Council and the Mayor to jointly establish a structure for budget units of appropriation outside of the budgetary season and a requirement for budget modification timing that requires periodic financial plan updates for budget modifications. These modifications would be filed with the Council within 30 days of the plan update.

Governance
Voters will also see a proposal on the appointment of the city’s Corporation Counsel, or top lawyer, which provides for the counsel to be nominated by the mayor with City Council approval.

Another proposal would restructure the Conflicts of Interest Board. COIB members are currently appointed by the mayor with the advice and consent of the City Council. The restructure provides for two mayoral appointees, one Comptroller appointee, and one Public Advocate appointee.

The commission also approved a proposal to require the citywide director of the minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBE) program report directly to the mayor and that this director be supported by a mayoral office of MWBE.

Although the proposal passed, some commissioners noted that this still doesn’t accomplish enough, and a chief diversity officer for the city would be the ideal solution.

“Enshrining an office of minority- and women-owned businesses in the city’s charter is really only a small step forward that does not match the scale of the problem that we are facing,” Commissioner Allison Hirsh, appointed by Comptroller Scott Stringer, said. “While we must support every effort to improve diversity in our city, by merely enshrining an existing initiative into law, the office of M/WBEs is ultimately a little disappointing in terms of what we could have accomplished on this commission.” Stringer has made the push for a citywide chief diversity officer and a CDO at each city agency his top priority in charter revision, but the commission is not heading in that direction.

Land Use
The commission also voted on suggesting reforms to land use procedures, specifically by modestly increasing community involvement. One recommendation moving ahead is to provide more time and earlier opportunity for Community Boards and Borough Presidents to review and comment on applications before the start of the Uniform Land Use Procedure (ULURP), the process that determines if the city will allow a particular land use change.

The commission will suggest to voters an extension of the ULURP pre-certification notice period and require project summaries be transmitted to affected Borough Presidents and Community Boards. There was an amendment that would extend this period from the originally proposed 30 additional days to 60 days, but commission members said this would extend an already lengthy process too much further.

“I think there are places and ways in which ULURP could use some fresh air on all sides, we all know that community boards are not all equal; they do not all use their time periods well, but to establish a pre-ULURP ULURP just seems to me to avoid the question of ‘what’s wrong with ULURP,’” said commission Chair Gail Benjamin, the former head of the City Council’s land use division and appointee to the commission of Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

Although the amendment failed, the underlying proposal passed. Commissioners also approved  to give community boards 90 days to review ULURP applications, rather than the current 60 days, before they issue a non-binding opinion.

June 18 meeting
Commissioners will meet again on June 18 to finalize two proposals (unless the two are finalized before the 18th) and any proposals not outlined at Wednesday’s meeting, which focused on moving ahead, or not, with the recommendations in the preliminary staff report.

A decision on two proposals is pending staff revisions: one on the guaranteed CCRB budget and one on independent or guaranteed budgets for Borough Presidents and the Public Advocate. The CCRB budget proposal requires that the CCRB budget be no less than 0.3% of the NYPD budget. The proposal for guaranteed budgets for Borough Presidents and the Public Advocate requires that these budgets be above their respective Fiscal Year 2019 budgets.

Commissioners voted Wednesday that there should be a guaranteed budget for each of the CCRB, Borough Presidents, and the Public Advocate, but on June 18 they will vote on details of those budget requirements. The commissioners may come to a consensus prior to the June 18 meeting and then a vote won’t be necessary.

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by Caitlyn Rosen, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Charter Revision Commission Approves 17 Proposals for November Ballot Thu, 13 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Rainy Day Fund New York Needs https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8587-the-rainy-day-fund-new-york-needs https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8587-the-rainy-day-fund-new-york-needs mayor bdb fiscal year budget

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


With so much attention focused on the mayor’s presidential campaign, rent regulation renewal, and the state of the transit system, most New Yorkers are unaware they will have the opportunity this fall to vote to dramatically change their city government.

The 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission is considering what amendments to the City Charter, which defines the structure and powers of city government, it will recommend to voters for a yes or no vote on the November ballot. Notable proposals include ranked-choice voting for local elections, enhancing community board review of land use proposals, and multiple changes to the city’s budget process.

One budget proposal the commission should approve and advance to voters in November is the creation of a Rainy Day Fund (RDF). An RDF is essentially a savings account that would allow city government to put away revenues received when the economy is growing and use them to stave off the most crushing service cuts and tax increases during an economic downturn or catastrophic emergency—the rainy days.

To weather the last two recessions, the city reduced police and ambulance staffing, cut library hours, suspended recycling, and increased personal income, sales, and property taxes. A well-structured RDF can ameliorate the need for this level of municipal pain, helping everyone from those who depend on city and social services to individuals and businesses feeling the strain of high taxes.

By and large, charter provisions and state laws enacted in response to the 1970s New York City fiscal crisis provide a strong budgeting and financial management framework that has served New York well—producing balanced budgets and prudent revenue estimates, while allowing the city to fund services New Yorkers desire.

Ironically, the city charter’s balanced budget requirement, among the most stringent in the nation, is what makes using an RDF impossible. Balancing the annual budget requires city services delivered in one year to be funded only with revenues generated that same year. Saving money in a strong economy to use later in a recession misaligns that timing, and violates the accounting rules relied on by the charter.

The solution is for the charter commission to leave the charter’s budgeting and financial management framework intact except to seize the opportunity to improve the charter by allowing an RDF, well structured to preserve both long- and short-term stability.

Absent an RDF, the city has devised legal work-arounds to provide some fiscal cushion. The city pre-pays expenses, freeing up money in the next year. The city has also used its Retiree Health Benefits Trust—money put aside to pay for municipal employees’ retirement health benefits—as a de facto RDF by paying for current bills with the trust’s assets rather than budget revenues.

These workarounds are problematic. Not enough money can be put aside; there are limits to what and how many expenses can be prepaid. In addition, there is no requirement to put money aside even in the best of times. Finally, using the RHBT as de facto RDF makes future taxpayers pay for current bills, which is hardly fair to the next generation.  

True, the city has set aside some funds. The current financial plan includes $1.25 billion annually for reserves, but this pales in comparison to the need. Citizens Budget Commission estimates the projected three-year revenue shortfall from a recession comparable to the past two would be $15 billion to $20 billion.

How would a well-designed RDF be structured? The first step is to determine the right size of the fund. Based on past revenue trends, CBC estimates that 17 percent of tax revenues would be a good target size to mitigate a recession or emergency’s most damaging impacts.

Second, regular deposits should be required during economic expansions. CBC recommends annual deposits of 75 percent of all tax revenues in excess of 3 percent growth; this would allow spending on services to grow in excess of long-term inflation and still generate substantial RDF resources. Had this been in place during the current record-long recovery, the city would now have nearly $9 billion in its RDF.

Finally, withdrawals should be limited to periods of recession or emergency. Economic triggers should be defined in law and RDF funds should not all be used in one year.  

By putting a Rainy Day Fund on the ballot, the charter commission would provide New Yorkers with an important opportunity to strengthen one of the few flaws in the city’s budgeting processes and would create significant momentum for the changes needed in state law.

Yes, some more political and proximate issues may be more galvanizing, and sadly, elected leaders and the public too often accept as inevitable the pain of hard choices during a recession. However, the annual impact of modest deposits in the good times will be significantly outweighed by preserving the services New Yorkers need during times of economic hardship.

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Andrew Rein is president of Citizens Budget Commission. On Twitter @cbcny.

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The Rainy Day Fund New York Needs Mon, 10 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Taxi Medallion Exposé Drives Home Key Budget Lesson https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8556-taxi-medallion-expose-brings-home-key-budget-lesson https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8556-taxi-medallion-expose-brings-home-key-budget-lesson medallions oped

(Photo: Ed Reed/City Council)


Last week, the New York Times published another blockbuster investigative series by reporter Brian Rosenthal, this time on the misleading and predatory practices which led to inflated prices of New York City yellow taxi medallions over the last decade.

The compelling stories of taxi drivers who thought they were buying into the American dream by purchasing taxi medallions, only to find their incomes drastically reduced by the competition of Uber and Lyft, has been a topic of public discussion for some time, but Rosenthal’s reporting provides new and detailed documentation of how lenders and brokers drove up the prices and encouraged purchases without concern as to whether the buyers had the wherewithal to repay their loans.

The story is reminiscent of the over-leveraged home buying encouraged and condoned by financial services firms and banks that contributed to the national housing bubble and the recession in 2008.   

In his second article on the taxi industry, Rosenthal focused on the regulatory agencies that seemingly should have known something was wrong when medallion prices skyrocketed but did nothing to intervene. Indeed, the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission even ran ads promoting medallion sales as a great investment. State and city officials are now investigating; legislators are looking at ways to aid struggling medallion owners.

The situation of many taxi drivers and their families (especially those who have died by suicide) is unspeakably sad and it is understandable that elected leaders want to help them. But the rise and fall of taxi medallion prices also contains a larger message and lesson for government about the dangers and unintended consequences of relying on one-time revenues to fund government expenses.

Fiscal watchdogs warn against reliance on “one-shots” because they artificially inflate the amount of revenue available and will have to be replaced by other resources over the long term. That is why organizations like Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) urge that one-time windfalls be used to pay down debt or bolster reserves, not to start new programs or pay for employee salaries and benefits.

CBC has repeatedly criticized the city for including large amounts of anticipated taxi medallion sales revenue in its financial plans since it began doing so in 2011:

“Balancing the budget with these one-shots does not address the structural problems– notably, escalating health insurance and debt service costs—but masks the problem temporarily and delays the discourse needed to adopt more enduring, if politically tougher, solutions. In addition, one-shots can be unreliable; if something does not work as anticipated, the savings will not materialize.”

The same concern holds true for one-shots at the state level. New York state government has received over $11 billion in one-time revenue from settlements of litigation with financial institutions over the past five years. This funding has been used for a variety of initiatives, from infusions into economic development schemes like the “Buffalo Billion” to front end development and construction costs of the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. Regardless of the merits of these projects, it would have been more prudent and appropriate to use these one-time revenues to reduce the state’s indebtedness and/or increase its rainy day reserves to be better prepared for the inevitable time when there is an economic downturn.

And Rosenthal’s investigation highlights another reason for avoiding reliance on one-shots: not only do they obscure the city’s true fiscal picture but they can create pressure on officials – albeit sometimes unintentional or even unconscious – to maximize resources to fill a budgetary need.

The city has repeatedly included as much as $1.5 billion in taxi medallion sales revenue in its four-year financial plans. This is a great deal of revenue and suggestions that it might be achieved through unfair means would probably not have been favorably received by budget directors happy to have this revenue in their projections to reduce out-year deficits. No one was motivated to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The state and city comptrollers have joined CBC in criticizing the city’s reliance on medallion sales receipts and the amount expected has been reduced and stretched out over longer lengths of time as the market changed and then tanked, and was completely removed from the mayor’s executive budget starting in fiscal year 2019 and since.

It would be a great irony if, instead of leading to more than a billion in revenue, the taxi medallion market’s problems lead to significant city spending to purchase owners’ loans or bail them out in some other way, as some legislators are contemplating. The lesson is that when a sudden and untested revenue source appears, don’t count on it because it may well be too good to be true.

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

 

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Taxi Medallion Exposé Drives Home Key Budget Lesson Tue, 28 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Must Fully Restore Article 6 Public Health Budget Cuts https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8547-new-york-city-must-fully-restore-article-6-public-health-budget-cuts https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8547-new-york-city-must-fully-restore-article-6-public-health-budget-cuts mathur inte selman

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


As health care providers and public health advocates, we believe that all New Yorkers deserve access to high-quality, comprehensive, compassionate health care. We believe that health care is a human right—not a luxury for the privileged. 

And yet, New York State has cut vital public health programs for our city—and only our city. Known as Article 6, these state funds help support critical services provided by local health departments, including immunizations; tuberculosis outreach, education and testing; and sexual and reproductive health. In New York’s most recent budget, New York City’s reimbursement for this program was cut by 16%, resulting in more than $62 million in lost funding to essential city public health programs.

The Mayor’s Executive Budget plan includes $59 million in funding to restore cuts to the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene administrative programs and organizations funded by the administration. However, it does not cover the millions in lost Article 6 matching funding for City Council discretionary-budget public health programs, such as those that support immigrant health, health education, health insurance access, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, child and maternal health, viral hepatitis, and more.

Currently, the City Council estimates cuts will result in no less than $3.4 million in lost funding across dozens of community-based organizations.

We are calling upon Mayor de Blasio and the City Council to stand up for our communities and say no to these cuts to our health care funding. We are calling for this funding to be fully restored in the city’s fiscal year 2020 budget, which is due by July 1, including full funding for Council-discretionary funded nonprofit providers.

Funding for City Council public health initiatives is a small fraction of the $90-plus billion city budget. We can't afford to not invest in public health.

Lack of access to quality health care can lead to devastating outcomes, from premature death to high prevalence of chronic diseases, especially in our most vulnerable communities. The leading causes of illness, disability, and death in New York City are largely preventable. Clinical encounters with medical staff are critical opportunities for health promotion and disease prevention and treatment, yet many New Yorkers face egregious barriers to accessing care.

New York City has a long way to go before all our communities are able to access the health care they need and deserve to lead healthy, autonomous lives. We are on the ground every day, from the Bronx to Staten Island, providing care to those who need it most. We still have so much work to do—and what we need is more support for our lifesaving work, not a budget cut that threatens our progress and our communities’ health and futures.

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By Anthony Feliciano, Executive Director of Commission on the Public’s Health System; Laura McQuade, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of New York City; Mark Harrington, Executive Director of Treatment Action Group; Jennifer March, Executive Director, Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York; and Charles King, CEO and co-founder, Housing Works.

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New York City Must Fully Restore Article 6 Public Health Budget Cuts Mon, 27 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio's Budget Savings Plan Contains Few Real Efficiencies, Experts Say https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8526-de-blasio-s-budget-savings-plan-contains-minimal-real-efficiencies-experts-say https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8526-de-blasio-s-budget-savings-plan-contains-minimal-real-efficiencies-experts-say Mayor de Blasio city budget executive plan

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


Mayor Bill de Blasio’s much-touted budget savings program is not what he has made it seem.

After rapidly growing the budget over his first five years in office and resisting calls to find significant efficiencies at city agencies, de Blasio this year instituted his first “program to eliminate the gap,” or PEG, to achieve hundreds of millions of dollars in “savings.” But though the mayor boasted at his executive budget presentation of $916 million in identified savings over the current and next fiscal years -- including $629 million in agency PEG savings -- his budget has little by way of true city agency cuts to existing spending.

The mayor’s spendthrift approach has led to a $20 billion increase in the city budget since he took power, while savings and rainy day funds, though solid, have remained below optimal levels, according to budget experts. Exceedingly good economic times have allowed the mayor to spend somewhat lavishly on programs and personnel without having to make many tough decisions about cuts.

The city is also maintaining about $5.72 billion in reserves each year, though the mayor has not added to them this year and the City Council is pushing for an additional $250 million infusion.

The mayor’s latest spending plan, a whopping $92.5 billion executive budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year, is no exception to his spending growth trend. And as de Blasio touts new savings, fiscal watchdogs are casting doubts and poking holes.

One in particular, Citizens Budget Commission, says city budget officials are misclassifying savings, passing off re-estimated spending and cost shifts as efficiencies at city agencies.

Instituting a targeted PEG for the first time this year, de Blasio required city agencies to make specific spending reductions through various means -- efficiencies, re-estimates of spending and revenue, and service reductions. The mandated PEG, with target amounts for each agency set by the mayor’s budget office, came after years of the administration relying on a Citywide Savings Plan, which had agencies offer voluntary savings, re-estimates, and revenue-raising ideas.

All told, the mayor’s executive budget estimated the $916 million in savings between fiscal years 2019 ($419 millions) and 2020 ($496 million). An analysis by Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit fiscal watchdog, of the overall savings plan shows that for 2020 the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget identified about 62.5% of the savings from what it classified as agency efficiencies.

Melanie Hartzog, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, in testimony before the City Council at a budget hearing last month, stressed the “high levels of efficiency savings” at city agencies that were found through the PEG. That included service reduction for the first time under de Blasio.

“In Fiscal Year 2020, the first full year impacted by the PEG, efficiencies account for two-thirds of the savings. To achieve these savings agencies streamlined and improved practices, yet maintained service levels,” she said.

But CBC’s analysis shows that the estimate of efficiencies in the executive budget savings plan may be overblown. Agency efficiencies in fiscal year 2020 only accounted for about 20.77% of the savings, while re-estimates and funding shifts accounted for the bulk, about 66.4%, according to the analysis, performed by CBC’s Riley Edwards.

City Council Member Daniel Dromm, chair of the finance committee, echoed CBC’s concerns about finding true efficiencies at last month’s budget hearing, saying the Council “is struggling to understand the purpose of the PEG.” He noted, as CBC pointed out, that the PEG and savings plan together did not find sufficient efficiencies or recurring savings at agencies. He noted that PEGs are supposed to force administrations to find “true efficiencies and recurring savings.”

Dromm pointed out that the mayor has typically relied on the voluntary CSP instead of a PEG, during a period of healthy growth and positive economic conditions.

“Since the implementation of that program, the Council has been urging the administration to search for savings more rigorously because the majority of the program consisted of accruals, re-estimates, and increased revenue projections that would have occurred even in the absence of a savings program,” Dromm added. “So, when the administration announced a mandatory PEG this year, the Council was hopeful that the mayor was finally getting serious about reining in inefficient spending. Unfortunately, the result of the PEG is just more of the same.”

CBC experts point out that certain categories of savings that OMB classifies as efficiencies aren’t truly that, including swaps where state or federal funds are used in place of city funds or the hiring freeze that OMB says saved about $116 million across fiscal years 2019 and 2020. According to OMB, the hiring freeze involves permanently taking down 1,600 positions in the executive budget (many are currently filled and will be eliminated when they become vacant without affecting agency performance) after 1,000 vacancies were already eliminated in November. The freeze reduced net planned headcount growth this year for the first time under de Blasio and is meant to create savings every year till 2023.

“Because we’re dealing with positions that are already vacant, we consider that a re-estimate rather than an efficiency,” said CBC’s Edwards, in a phone interview.

CBC director of city studies Ana Champeny said this savings plan has largely been a “continuation” of past years’ plans. “There was a change in their approach in setting the targets for the agencies but they still haven’t delivered substantially more efficiency savings,” she said. According to CBC, these could be achieved through redesigning programs and shrinking or eliminating inefficient ones, as the mayor did by eliminating Extended Time Learning at Renewal and RISE schools; by using technology to improve operations; sharing resources across agencies; finding alternative service providers within or outside the public sector; and strengthening centralized management of cross-agency operations.

Champeny said the city should not stop looking for savings through re-estimates or funding shifts, which are “routine budget management that you would expect every administration to be doing. Our criticism is that there should be more PEG savings, more efficiency savings in addition to this routine budget and fiscal management.”

Ideally, efficiency savings in one year would equal about one percent of the city-funded budget, she said. “That’s about $700 million in one year, not across two years,” she said.

Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank, concurred. “I think the PEG is pretty superficial in the context of this larger budget,” she said, noting that the executive budget increases overall agency spending by about $1.4 billion compared to the mayor’s initial proposal released in January, allowed by higher revenues than earlier projections. Those higher revenues “are giving them some room to increase spending while sticking to this narrative of savings,” she said. “Overall, agency spending is not shrinking by any means. It would be hard to call this an austerity program.”

“It would be good if agency spending pretty much kept pace with inflation, going up 1.5-2% a year,” she said.

Budget watchdogs have also repeatedly urged the administration to find long-term recurring savings rather than temporary ones. Gelinas pointed out that hiring freezes, in particular, “don’t last forever” as a source of savings.

“It’s kind of superficial because the mayor has increased hiring by so much already that it’s kinda time for a pause,” she said. “Hiring freezes are not very good management. This is the same problem at the MTA. If you need a new person to do something, you should hire that person. If there’s something that the government is doing that it shouldn’t be doing anymore, repurpose that person. But just a sort of general hiring freeze oftentimes means positions that should be filled aren’t being filled. So it’s kind of the opposite of efficient.” 

De Blasio has overseen a large increase in the city workforce, from about 297,000 employees when he took office to roughly 332,000 now. Still, he has budgeted for many more positions at various agencies that have gone unfilled each year, with many of those now “frozen” and the act of keeping them empty being counted toward savings.

OMB spokesperson Michael Greenberg said in a statement Tuesday, “Our aggressive approach helped us meet ongoing, fundamental needs, and balance the budget. We will continue to find ways to save money for New Yorkers in future financial plans.”

In a Thursday statement, after this article was published, Greenberg pushed back against the criticism from Gelinas and CBC. "The 2,600 positions we have permanently eliminated since November will lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in savings, much of it recurring annually, and agencies will provide the same level of service with fewer employees. Despite what others might say, this is the actual definition of 'efficiency savings,'" he said. 

Short of creating more efficiencies, the city risks major service reductions should an economic downturn set in. Even without a downturn, the city faces a budget gap of $3.5 billion in 2021 and $3 billion annually in the years after, according to its own documents. While those numbers are manageable and fairly typical, they become much more concerning if there is a recession.

“A recession could easily double or triple these out-year budget gaps that we already need to fill,” Champeny said. “Right now you have the ability to take the time and do a careful analysis of where you can make efficiency changes or improve your processes whereas if you’re cutting during a recession, you’re sometimes looking for quick savings and you’re not as precise and you’re going to have more negative impacts in services reduction.”

Gelinas added, “The city always depends on revenues coming in higher than expected and then because it says it conservatively budgeted, it has these extra revenues. So these budget deficits basically disappear. But that only happens if the city’s economy is doing well. If we do fall into a recession...then suddenly these are real deficits so you’d need a lot more than a billion dollars in savings in two years. So that’s when you really start to see layoffs and service cuts.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with additional details about the administration's partial hiring freeze. 

Note - This article has been updated with additional comment from OMB spokesperson Michael Greenberg. 

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De Blasio's Budget Savings Plan Contains Few Real Efficiencies, Experts Say Tue, 14 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Threat of the Trump Budget to New York City’s Social Safety Net is Very Real https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8501-the-threat-of-the-trump-budget-to-new-york-city-s-social-safety-net-is-very-real https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8501-the-threat-of-the-trump-budget-to-new-york-city-s-social-safety-net-is-very-real children

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Last month, President Trump offered a cynical vision of the future with the release of his fiscal year 2020 budget. If enacted, it would deepen poverty and widen economic and racial disparities by denying millions health care and food, ramping up anti-immigrant enforcement, sabotaging the census, and disinvesting in housing and education. Meanwhile, the proposal prioritizes guns over butter by bloating the military budget and increases tax cuts to high-income taxpayers and heirs to very large estates.

FPWA analyzed the president’s budget by showing both the present danger to New York City and putting the proposal in context with historical funding trends, as illustrated in FPWA’s recently-launched Federal Funds Tracker.

According to our analysis, the proposal would collectively cut federal revenue to a handful of key human service agencies by nearly a half billion dollars (16 percent of their federal revenue) by ending or devastating programs that support the needs of communities, children and older adults, and those who are unable to afford a basic standard of living.

Although the president’s budget is non-binding, it is still of great concern because it is a statement of priorities from the country’s top officeholder, and unless an agreement is made before the coming fiscal year (which begins October 1), Trump’s deep cuts could become reality.

Moreover, a pattern has emerged in which the Trump administration turns to administrative action when its proposals fail to get through Congress, such as the proposed rule that would slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) by making it even harder for unemployed and underemployed workers to access food assistance, including 50,000 New York City residents.

We evaluate the impact of the proposal on the nearly 40 federal grants that support the four New York City agencies featured in the FPWA Federal Funds Tracker – the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), Department for the Aging (DFTA), and Department of Social Services (DSS) – and in turn, the nonprofit human service providers who rely on these grants.

These four agencies’ federal grants represented 38 percent ($2.9 billion) of the City’s total federal grants in FY 2018.

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FPWA analysis of FFIS and NYC CAFR and OMB data, and Congressional Budget Justifications

Trump’s FY 2020 vision extends the economic pain that has endured throughout this decade into the next. Our analysis reveals that, adjusting for inflation, all federal grants to the City fell by nearly $2 billion since FY 2010, including hundreds of millions in support for human services.

In large part, disinvestment over the last decade is due to the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which set caps on defense and nondefense discretionary funding through 2021 and further reduced funding over time through across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.

This disinvestment has real life consequences. Federal grants are often passed through from City agencies to nonprofit human-service providers to support the needs of their communities and attract and retain qualified staff.

For example, the Chinese-American Planning Council, Inc. relies on federal support to serve more than 60,000 individuals and families across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. CPC’s federal support would be cut by 44 percent ($2.5 million) under Trump’s budget, driven in part by the proposal to eliminate the Community Services Block Grants.

CSBG – which has already fell by 14 percent since FY 2010 – supports a wide range of community-based activities to reduce poverty, such as CPC’s LEAD program at the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies. The LEAD program helped a struggling high school student assimilate into a new school, improve her language skills, and ultimately go on to be a successful student.

When the federal government abdicates its responsibility, New York City’s commitment to caring for people who are struggling to afford basic needs means that it is often left to fill the gaps. Indeed, since FY 2010, the City has invested an additional $2.2 billion (nominally) to support these agencies. In other words, the money that New York City spends on human services in the absence of sufficient federal support could be spent on other investments equally important to the City’s quality of life, such as transportation, safety, education, cultural institutions, and the environment.

Americans have already endured nearly a decade of federal austerity. Congress – which has begun work on FY 2020 spending bills – should chart a new vision for the new decade by reaching an agreement that not only reverses course on the planned sequestration cuts but also meaningfully increases support for the woefully underfunded programs that serve low-to middle-income families, and that, when properly funded, strengthen the economy and improve the quality of life for all New Yorkers.


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Derek Thomas is Senior Fiscal Policy Analyst and Gaurav Gupta-Casale is Fiscal Policy Associate at FPWA. On Twitter @FPWA.

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

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The Threat of the Trump Budget to New York City’s Social Safety Net is Very Real Wed, 08 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000