Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/163 Thu, 17 Oct 2019 13:14:07 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Johnson Says City Council to Pass Streets Master Plan Bill This Month https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8845-speaker-johnson-city-council-to-pass-streets-master-plan-bill-bike-bus https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8845-speaker-johnson-city-council-to-pass-streets-master-plan-bill-bike-bus city council co jo keynote address

Speaker Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson is advancing his legislation to create a master plan for city streets, promising Thursday that the Council will vote on the bill this month.

Johnson, a Democrat from Manhattan, first proposed the idea of creating a five-year plan for the city’s streets, sidewalks, and pedestrian spaces in his State of the City speech in March, alongside a proposal for municipal control of the city’s subways and buses. The “master plan” would require the city’s Department of Transportation to implement a long-term strategy to improve surface transportation and street safety, which transit advocates say Mayor Bill de Blasio has not done sufficiently despite his administration’s Vision Zero program to eliminate traffic fatalities.

Speaking on Thursday at the Vision Zero Cities conference hosted by Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group, Johnson said his plan was moving ahead and that the Council would vote on it during October. “I don’t expect all New Yorkers to give up their cars and swear to never drive again. That is not a solution,” he said. “But here is one. My master plan legislative package. This month, this month -- this month -- the City Council will vote on my bill.”

The bill would mandate the installation of 50 miles of protected bike lanes and 30 miles of bus lanes each year, add Transit Signal Priority for buses to move more quickly to 1,000 intersections annually, and expand the city’s plaza program, quadruple shared streets by 2025 and redesign intersections to make them accessible to people with disabilities by 2030. The city’s Department of Transportation would design the full details of the plan and implement it, and it would be updated every five years.

The issues the bill would address have taken on a particular urgency this year amid jumps in cyclist and pedestrian deaths from last year at this time, though overall traffic fatalities have dropped drastically since the mayor announced Vision Zero in 2014. While de Blasio has moved to increase bike and bus lanes and recently offered new plans to both protect bike-riders and speed the city’s buses, many advocates, Johnson, and others still say the mayor is not moving aggressively enough.

The full Council has two Stated Meetings, where legislation is passed, scheduled this month. It’s unlikely that a vote on Johnson’s bill will happen at the October 17 meeting, where the Council is expected to approve the borough-based jails plan to facilitate the closure of Rikers Island.

The streets master plan would likely be on the agenda for the October 30 meeting. It would first have to be approved by the Committee on Transportation, chaired by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez.

“I am confident that Speaker Corey Johnson’s Master Plan bill will take to us a safer tomorrow, for all New Yorkers,” Rodriguez said in a statement, noting that the majority of the 24 cyclist deaths this year were in areas without a protected bike lane. “I thank all of the advocates for the work they are doing each and everyday to increase the awareness of these crashes across the 5 boroughs. I will continue working with the advocates, my colleagues and Speaker Corey Johnson to ensure we don’t see another life lost on the road.”

Johnson’s push for his master plan has been in contrast to de Blasio’s more measured attitude towards reducing private vehicle usage or promoting mass transit. Johnson has sought to break the city’s “car culture” with street redesigns, new traffic calming measures, reducing congestion, and improving access to mass transit. A likely 2021 mayoral candidate, Johnson has said he does not envision ending car usage in New York City, but that his master plan bill is part of a vision to prioritize mass transit users, bike-riders, and pedestrians over those in cars, while making other modes of transportation as attractive as possible to encourage less car traffic.

When Johnson’s bill was examined at a hearing of the Council’s transportation committee in June, DOT officials said it would require a massive infusion of funds and new personnel for the agency. But the administration has signalled that it shares Johnson’s goals.

“We are continuing to work with the Council on this legislation,” said Seth Stein, a spokesperson for the mayor, in a statement. “We agree with the values underpinning this bill, that we must continue to aggressively pursue street redesigns under Vision Zero to save lives across the city.”

A spokesperson for Speaker Johnson said there have been no changes to the master plan bill so far.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Johnson Says City Council to Pass Streets Master Plan Bill This Month Fri, 11 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
As City Council Vote Nears, Leading Mayoral Contenders Clarify Positions on Jails Plan They May Have to Implement https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8839-city-council-vote-positions-rikers-jails-plan-stringer-johnson-adams-diaz https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8839-city-council-vote-positions-rikers-jails-plan-stringer-johnson-adams-diaz De Blasio close Rikers

De Blasio, Johnson, Ayala & others at Rikers announcement (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The plan to close the Rikers Island jails and replace them with four borough-based facilities has sped through the city’s land use process and is awaiting approval from the New York City Council, prompting both support and rebukes from criminal justice reform activists and those who prefer to keep most city detainees on the island. If it passes at the scheduled October 17 vote, full implementation of the plan will fall in the hands of a future mayor, perhaps two, and the four high-profile elected officials expected to be running for the position in 2021, when Mayor Bill de Blasio is term-limited, aren’t all on the same page.

The city’s Rikers closure plan was set in motion in 2017 and aims to create smaller and safer jail facilities closer to courthouses in every borough except Staten Island. It includes three larger jails where existing facilities exist, plus a new jail in the Bronx. It’s dependent on reducing the city jail population below 5,000 detainees by 2026, a target the city is on track to exceed, the de Blasio administration has said given criminal justice reforms passed in Albany last year and city arrest trends.

As of July, there were about 7,400 detainees across the city jail system, many of them pre-trial and held in the problem-ridden Rikers jail complex, down 2,000 from when the closure plan was announced. Last month, the City Planning Commission approved the combined land use application for the four facilities, which are expected to cost about $9 billion together. The application was then sent to the City Council, which held a public hearing on the plan and is expected to hold the vote next week.

So far, four leading Democratic candidates have either declared or are expected to run for mayor in 2021 – City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. All four are facing term limits and cannot run for reelection. While Stringer was the first of the four to call for closure of the Rikers jails, Johnson has the most on the line as City Council Speaker – where he continued the legacy of his predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, helped craft the current plan and move it to the verge of passage – and all four have supported the general concept of closing the island jails.

Whomever becomes the next mayor, implementation of the jails plan is likely to become a defining first-term issue.

Most of the four leading likely candidates for mayor insist that a borough-based jails plan must be accompanied by broader criminal justice reforms and community investments that would continue to reduce the number of people incarcerated in city facilities. The size of the four jails is also at the top of the list as negotiations continue between the de Blasio administration and City Council members, particularly Johnson and the four members who represent the districts that will be home to the facilities.

“We have an opportunity to close Rikers Island, which will help change our city for the better,” Johnson said, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “This whole process started with activists who were directly harmed by Rikers raising this as a necessary step to transform our criminal justice system. This isn’t about just closing jails. I want investments in our City that will help end the pipeline to prison that’s done so much damage to our communities.” Johnson and former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who led a commission empaneled by Mark-Viverito that pushed de Blasio into support for closing Rikers, co-authored an op-ed earlier this year explaining why the city must seize this moment for closing the island jails.

Adams made a series of recommendations to the proposal when it was going through the land-use process, and while he is supportive of the general plan, he continues to hope the Council will heed some of his words.

“Beyond siting the [Brooklyn] facility and determining height and capacity, we also need to focus on how we disrupt the pipeline to our criminal justice system, and reduce recidivism rates,” he said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, echoing Johnson. “For example, a significant percentage of Riker’s inmates are dyslexic. That’s why my recommendation outlines steps we can take to improve educational opportunities and provide wraparound services that must be part of a long-term approach to improving our criminal justice system.”

Stringer continues to support closing the Rikers jails, but is also calling for additional community investments in the final deal. “Rikers Island is a symbol of injustice, and we can’t just close it, we have to shut it down forever by ensuring we never repeat the mistakes of the past,” he said in a statement. “Before moving forward with any vote to close Rikers Island, the City must commit to developing and funding a plan to bolster the supports that will actually enable communities to thrive. This is what communities have been calling for and the administration has so far failed to deliver. Without that commitment, thousands of New Yorkers will continue to rotate through the revolving doors of incarceration, homelessness, and hospitalization — regardless of where jails are sited. This is a generational opportunity, and we must seize it together.”

Asked to clarify if that meant Stringer actually supports building borough-based jails, spokesperson Tyrone Stevens said, “We think there is a need for new, modern borough-based facilities that come with an airtight commitment to invest more in communities. We also think the proposed facilities can be smaller in scale and hope the final plan reflects these important priorities.”

Diaz Jr. is the only candidate that is outright opposed to the current plan, but his objection is based on the choice of site in Mott Haven in the Bronx. That is also the only entirely new facility while the others are being built to replace existing ones.

Diaz Jr. proposed an alternate site next to the Bronx Hall of Justice, which the city rejected based on its size and other logistics. In his testimony before the New York City Council at a hearing on September 5, he called the proposal “wrongheaded” and pushed the Council to correct what he sees as the administration’s mistake. “Instead of reaching out to the community and engaging on this site selection, the administration has decided to impose a monolithic, oppressive structure adjacent to a community of reclaimed apartments, homes and schools, in the name of political expediency,” he said.

He added, “It is now up to the City Council and its members to listen to the people of this borough and adjust this proposal accordingly. Any failure to do otherwise will deleteriously alter the face of this borough for decades to come.” John DeSio, a spokesperson for the borough president, said in an email on Wednesday that Diaz Jr.’s position has not changed. Asked if Diaz Jr. believes the plan shouldn’t go forward if the Bronx site is not changed, DeSio did not provide a response, and it’s unclear if Diaz Jr. would support the current plan or a no vote on the entire proposal. (He told the Queens Daily Eagle in June that if he is elected mayor, he would reexamine the chosen sites.)

City Council Member Diana Ayala, who represents East Harlem and the part of the Bronx where the new jail is sited, had agreed to the location when de Blasio and the Council announced the locations last year. When asked about her support, Diaz Jr. has said he believes she’s mistaken and noted that she’s not from the Bronx.

Johnson, Adams, Stringer, and Diaz Jr. find themselves in somewhat tricky positions. The borough-based jails plan has proven more politically complicated than de Blasio and others may have expected. While the city’s efforts have been broadly praised by activists from the #CLOSErikers campaign who have long criticized the inhumane conditions at Rikers and helped push the issue to the forefront, there has been strident local criticism of some of the new facilities that the city proposed and a larger contingent of activists who are opposed entirely to any new jails being built.

The aptly named No New Jails NYC campaign had the support of Tiffany Caban, the upstart public defender who nearly claimed the Democratic nomination for Queens District Attorney earlier this year but lost to Queens Borough President Melinda Katz in a recount. Just last week, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive heavyweight, also weighed in, saying the city should not construct any new jails, particularly if there are no legal assurances that Rikers will in fact be shut down. The latter point appears to have resonated, with the mayor saying on Monday he thinks such language makes sense and NY1 reporting on Wednesday that the Council and administration are crafting an agreement to ensure no jails can be active on Rikers by 2026. The city map change application will be voted through the Council on Thursday of this week and head for approval to the City Planning Commission. Jennifer Fermino, a spokesperson for the City Council speaker, noted that the proposal had been in the works for a long time and was not prompted by Ocasio-Cortez's comments. 

“Rikers Island is synonymous with mass incarceration, pain and suffering," Johnson said in a statement on Wednesday. "This land use action shows our commitment to closing all of the jails associated with Rikers. The jails will be required to close by 2026. Advocates raised the need for a guarantee, and we agreed with them completely. I am proud of the Council for this historic step, and our commitment to improving the lives of all New Yorkers.”

The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice & Incarceration, former by Mark-Viverito and led by Lippman, was the architect of the Rikers closure plan and has sought to push back against No New Jails, which offered its own alternative proposal last week that would house 3,000 detainees in existing borough facilities. The Lippman Commission called the proposal “morally indefensible” and illegal, releasing a point-by-point rebuttal to the idea.

It’s unlikely at this point that the Council will reject the plan outright but there are possible tweaks that could be made to the final proposal. The three main sticking points, as the various stakeholders have indicated and as the mayoral candidates themselves seem to point out, are the size and number of beds at some of the facilities, the legal promise that Rikers will close, and whether the city will make broader community investments in criminal justice reform and social services.

A package of investments and other reforms would drive down the city’s incarcerated population further than current projections, which could require fewer beds and lead to lower building heights for some of the facilities.

The mayor said in his weekly appearance on NY1’s Inside City Hall on Monday that the Council and administration would work to add the guarantee to the proposal. “I think I have to make clear, once we build these borough-based jails and they’re going to be able to handle all of the inmates in New York City, there’s no reason to have Rikers and there’s much better ways to use that land,” de Blasio said. “Everything there should be taken down and utilized in a whole different fashion. So we’re working on a way to make that real, real clear, but I also think that the facts will speak for themselves. The new jails will be enough to take care of everyone.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note - this article has been updated.

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As City Council Vote Nears, Leading Mayoral Contenders Clarify Positions on Jails Plan They May Have to Implement Wed, 09 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Food Policy Agenda on Menu at City Council Hearing https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8797-food-policy-agenda-on-menu-at-city-council-hearing https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8797-food-policy-agenda-on-menu-at-city-council-hearing corey johnson delivers

Speaker Johnson at food policy speech (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The City Council is set to consider a number of bills related to food policy at a hearing Wednesday, including a proposal to codify an Office of Food Policy, a month after Council Speaker Corey Johnson unveiled an expansive food equity plan with the creation of the office at its center.

The Council’s Committees on General Welfare, Economic Development, and Education will meet at City Hall Wednesday afternoon to examine a package of 14 bills and two resolutions dealing with nutritional access and public education, urban agriculture, and food waste.

Together the bills touch on many of the planks in Johnson’s nascent food platform, which includes expanding existing food programs and tying economic opportunity to farming and nutrition, all under a comprehensive citywide plan coordinated by a newly empowered Office of Food Policy.

Representatives of the Speaker say Johnson will not be attending the hearing, which is expected to be led by Council Members Stephen Levin, Paul Vallone, and Mark Treyger, who chair the three committees. Other members who are either lead sponsors of the legislation at hand or are members of the committees or otherwise interested will also participate.

A number of prominent stakeholders, like Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Andrea Strong of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance, plan to testify. A representative of the office of Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services is also expected to speak.

“Food is a human right. Yet in our city — one of the richest in the world — more than 1 million New Yorkers are food insecure and there is inequitable access to fresh and healthy food in many neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The Council is working to address these gaps with new legislation and budget proposals.”

On August 1, Johnson released a report entitled “Growing Food Equity in New York City,” which outlined the Council’s agenda to combat inequities in accessing nutritional food and ensure the city has a comprehensive food policy responsive to the needs of different demographics like students, seniors, low-income residents, and non-white New Yorkers. Wednesday’s joint hearing will be the first time the bills are discussed in a formal legislative setting.

Johnson is the co-sponsor of two of the bills being considered, including the proposal to establish an Office of Food Policy and one to increase reporting on the city’s food system, whose main sponsors are Ben Kallos and Paul Vallone, respectively. Council Members Kallos, representing the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and Diana Ayala, representing East Harlem and the South Bronx, are co-sponsors of every piece of legislation under review by the committees.

“A lot of these bills are bills on issues we have been working on for quite some time,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette in an interview. “In terms of the overall package, it’s amazing to work with a Speaker who is really empowering so many members -- taking such a large package that is going to do so very much, and sharing it with many members and bringing them into the fight against food insecurity and hunger.”

Under the legislation, the Office of Food Policy would be responsible for developing and coordinating initiatives in four categories: 1. promoting access to healthy food for all city residents; 2. developing support programs to make nutritional food more affordable; 3. expanding reporting in the annual Food System Metrics Report published by the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability; and 4. collaborating with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to update food standards for meals purchased, prepared, or served by city agencies. The director of the office would be appointed by the mayor or the head of a mayoral agency.

There is currently an Office of the Director of Food Policy under the mayor, but the position is vacant. It was previously held by Barbara Turk, who has been serving in another role -- senior advisor at the city’s Administration for Children’s Services -- since April, according to her LinkedIn account.

“We’re hoping to have a director, make sure that that director position is filled, and ensure that they have a directive that spans multiple agencies and that they can hold the agencies accountable,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette.

“We believe that the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy should continue to remain an important asset in the City’s food policy efforts and look forward to discussing these proposals with the Council,” a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, Avery Cohen, wrote in an email. The mayor’s office did not respond to emails asking when the next director of food policy would be appointed or for information about the hiring process.

The bills being heard Wednesday include measures that would fall under the food policy director’s purview, whether that office is codified into law or not.

One bill, sponsored by Bronx Council Member Vanessa Gibson, would require the office to consult with city agencies, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders in the food system to develop a ten-year plan focused on food equity and insecurity. The plan would set goals to increase access to nutritional foods through existing and newly-developed programs, reduce food waste, and develop the economic conditions surrounding urban agriculture. The Office of Food Policy would be required to report on the progress made toward those goals.

Other bills in the package would establish new governmental bodies to deal with other elements of Johnson’s food platform. One measure sponsored by Bronx Council Member Andrew Cohen would create an advisory board to assess and make recommendations regarding the city’s food procurement policy and to evaluate contract bids. Another, sponsored by Council Member Rafael Espinal of Brooklyn, would create an Office of Urban Agriculture and an accompanying advisory board to develop and report on a plan to protect and expand urban agriculture.

Under the package, community gardens would be partially protected from opposing land-use interests. The city’s reporting and assessment of the community garden system would be centralized and farmer’s markets would be allowed to operate on their premises, making them more economically viable and increasing access to community-produced healthy food.

The package also includes a focus on improving public engagement with the city’s existing food access programs like Health Bucks -- coupons for low-income New Yorkers to use at farmer’s markets -- farm-to-city projects, nutrition programs in schools, and summer meals.

Another theme is reducing food waste in New York. Johnson’s report cites a National Resources Defense Council analysis claiming the average New York City household wastes 8.7 pounds of food per week, of which six pounds are edible at the time of disposal.

One bill sponsored by Council Member Carlina Rivera of Manhattan would require any city agency with food procurement contracts to come up with a plan to limit the amount of food that doesn’t make it to the plate. Under the bill, each agency would be responsible for designating a coordinator to report on its food waste reduction plan and its implementation.

As a whole, the new food plan would require coordination among a myriad of city agencies, like the Human Resources Administration, Department of City Planning, and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, among others. Many of the bills in the package are intended to facilitate or mandate that coordination. Two resolutions call on the state to expand supplemental nutrition assistance benefits, one of which will require action by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

“A lot of our food programs are spread across multiple agencies and we need somebody focused on them, all working together comprehensively to ensure folks don’t have to deal with hunger or food insecurity,” said Kallos.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Food Policy Agenda on Menu at City Council Hearing Tue, 17 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
New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum - Part I: 'Bad Choices at Every Step' https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8785-new-york-s-election-administration-accountability-vacuum-bad-choices https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8785-new-york-s-election-administration-accountability-vacuum-bad-choices joint comm hearing regarding issues

NYC BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


After each election cycle, New York elected officials, government insiders, and interested members of the press and public gather at City Hall and in other hearing rooms for a bit of political theater. The protagonist is the electorate, or the democratic process, itself; the one cast as villain is Michael Ryan, the executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, who is there to respond to questions about how voting went that year.

“Mr. Ryan, do you apologize to the public for what happened on Election Day?” asked City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in the opening question of an oversight hearing following the calamitous midterm elections this past November.

Ryan has been responsible for election administration in the city since August 2013, when he was selected to replace former executive director George Gonzalez. Gonzalez had been fired three years earlier after a botched general election in 2010 and the position had been left vacant. In the six years since Ryan’s appointment, elections have been plagued by poorly trained staff and failing machinery. Confusing ballot design and limited translation services have added to the frustration many voters experience trying to access the polls.

Responding to Johnson, Ryan went along with the apology, a tack he often takes when he’s not defending his agency’s work. "Yes we do,” he said. “We want what you all want and what the voters want: an ease of experience."

While he occasionally testifies at the City Council or the State Legislature, mostly acting as a punching bag for venting politicos, Ryan gets his authority through an irregular -- explicitly partisan -- process in New York State, which allows his agency to avoid a high degree of public accountability. The structure has been criticized for creating a system of election administration that is resistant to modernization and favors the type of political patronage characteristic of machine party politics. Experts say the patronage causes extensive inefficiency throughout what should be a coherent 21st century election system.

“The problem is operational. The BOE’s technical capacity and its inefficiency does have consequences for the integrity, fairness, and the equity of the election process,” said Ester Fuchs, director of the Urban and Social Policy Program at Columbia University, in an interview.

As executive director, Ryan really only answers to the ten commissioners of the New York City Board of Elections. They hired him, and only they can fire him. Amid the 2018 Election Day snafus, Johnson called for Ryan’s resignation, but he still has the job.

A Creature of State Law
The New York City Board of Elections is governed by state law, which gives power to the City Council to appoint commissioners, but the Council must make the appointments from lists selected by political party leaders at the county level. A balance of five Democratic and five Republican commissioners is supposed to add checks within the system, but critics say it serves more to protect incumbents from challengers.

Ryan and the agency he manages are still the subject of scrutiny by the City Council at oversight hearings, but are ultimately controlled by the Democratic and Republican party organizations in each county (borough). Though the city BOE receives most of its funding from city government, its policies are largely based on state law, state Board of Elections guidance, and its own commissioners’ decisions. It generally has not responded to the law-making power of the City Council, nor the directives of the Mayor.

The State Board of Elections, which also has a bipartisan structure, functions as an elections and campaign finance oversight body, unlike the city board. The state BOE sets certain rules and regulations that local boards, including New York City’s, must follow.

Good government advocates say the structures of the city and state boards of election make major-party collusion possible, transparency elusive, and efficiency second to party loyalty.

“Every step along the way the board makes bad choices and they are never held accountable for it,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of good government group Common Cause New York, in testimony at the City Council oversight hearing on last year’s elections. She was talking about the board’s decisions around ballot design and staff training, which advocates have sought to influence and improve upon for years without success.

Running Elections, Poorly
The city Board of Elections is responsible for carrying out all the administrative functions of running elections across the five boroughs. In reality, it is a decentralized operation in which the executives of the city board oversee five borough boards with few direct management controls.

“Each one of the borough boards operates a little fiefdom and they do what they do,” Lerner said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. Local patronage dictates hiring practices all the way down to the part-time poll workers, often chosen by party district leaders, who do not have to pass a civil service exam like other professionals in city government.

The board is responsible for arranging the sites where elections are held, ensuring proper equipment and staffing are present, registering voters, certifying the contents of the ballot, and securing, validating, and counting them after an election. This requires an immense amount of recruitment and training, machine testing, and government contracting, much of which must be done according to guidelines outlined in state law and regulations.

Voters in the November elections -- which included congressional, state legislative, and statewide races -- turned out in modern record numbers across the five boroughs, overwhelming poll sites and ballot scanners, and causing lines out into the rain. Ryan admitted at the hearing that the board was unprepared for the number of voters, despite the high turnout in the primaries that preceded the general election and the overall atmosphere of heightened political engagement in the Trump era.

Turnout in 2018 was still lower than in a presidential year. There were similar problems in 2016 and many are worried about the upcoming 2020 elections, for which turnout is expected to be enormous. New reforms like early voting and electronic poll books offer the potential to ease the burden on the board and those administering elections, but could also lead to new hurdles.

Other problems, like the way the 2018 ballots were designed and how well each poll site was staffed, also contributed to the debacle.

The unusual two-page, perforated ballot used to accommodate three additional ballot questions where confusing to voters and jammed scanners frequently, especially after getting damp from the rain. The average time a scanner broke down was roughly 53 minutes while poll site coordinators waited for a limited number of available technicians per borough. At some poll sites, all scanners were down at once.

Critics including Johnson, Lerner, and others at the Council hearing, wondered why the BOE had not taken greater steps to test scanners and train staff in handling the new ballot format, and why they would not allow translators of certain languages at the polls.

Reformers in and out of city government have for decades been pushing for changes to address election administration failures, which make voting difficult, discourage turnout, and can even disenfranchise voters.

Election after election, they seek improvements like more interpreters at poll sites, better voter outreach, professional staffing, and a less paper-based system while maintaining security. But advocates often face resistance or inaction and have virtually no recourse to the commissioners or the party leaders who pick them. The line of accountability is blurred, with only a distant state law to ultimately point to.

“Mr. Speaker, we have to work to re-earn your trust and I appreciate that,” Ryan said, addressing Johnson at the oversight hearing in November. As is typical at these hearings, no elections commissioners spoke that day. Ryan took the punches, even as he discussed what was beyond his authority.

The Two-Party Split
Many of the board’s problems can be traced to its bipartisan structure -- the two-party split that is built into its operations. The partisan balance is the result of reforms made over a century ago to create a system of checks and balances within the election process, but experts say it no longer works.

“This is a vestige of the most well-regarded thinking about preventing fraud in the late 19th century. There was no such thing as a nonpartisan approach back then,” Lerner told Gotham Gazette.

Controlling election administration had a great deal to do with controlling the outcomes. Following intense public debate around the turn of the last century, the state passed reforms based on the idea that the two major parties “would watch each other and make the election system honest,” according to Gerald Benjamin, director of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.

Each county has a bipartisan board of elections with commissioners representing the two major political parties, as mandated in the state constitution. According to state election law, each county board must have an equal number of commissioners -- one, or in some cases two -- from each of the two parties earning the highest votes; New York City’s five counties fall into one citywide board with 10 commissioners -- one Republican and one Democrat chosen from the party leaders in each of the five boroughs.

“The partisan dimension is what keeps it equal,” Brooklyn Democratic Party leader Frank Seddio said in an interview. “For every Democratic worker in the Board of Elections there is a Republican worker in the Board of Elections, which balances the actions of the board, so to speak.”

It has also had the effect of entrenching the established party organizations, and creates the prospect of them “collaborating to the disadvantage of insurgencies in either of the parties,” according to Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz.

Changing the bipartisan structure in the state constitution is an arduous process that would require the Legislature to pass an amendment in two consecutive sessions and for voters to approve it. Many legislators also hold leadership positions in the county party organizations that select elections commissioners under the current system.

“Corruption is a lesser problem than collusion. The majority of the Board of Elections is needed to act. Since there are two commissioners, that means they both have to agree,” Benjamin said, referring to a typical county board, which has two commissioners (as is the case for each borough in New York City). Benjamin was an elected member of the Ulster County Legislature during the 1980s and early ‘90s, and said he received selections from county party leaders from which to appoint elections commissioners.

“Any one commissioner can block an action. If somebody complains about something or there’s an appeal to the board, they can get together and say, ‘You back me on this one, I’ll back you on that one.’ That kind of thing happens all the time,” he said.

"The idea that the Democrat and the Republican would collude against the voter has never occurred to anybody," Lerner said, "but that’s what we’re seeing."

This is part one of a two-part series. Part two -- Partisanship, Patronage & Potential Fixes -- will be published soon.

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

Read more by this writer.

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New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum - Part I: 'Bad Choices at Every Step' Mon, 09 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
NYPD Continues Move Away from Criminal Penalties for Low-Level Offenses, But Racial Disparities Remain https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8768-nypd-fewer-criminal-penalties-for-low-level-offenses-racial-differences-remain https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8768-nypd-fewer-criminal-penalties-for-low-level-offenses-racial-differences-remain maydbd coord off

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


The New York City Council’s effort to reduce the criminalization of low-level, non-violent offenses through legislation passed in 2016 has continued to further achieve its aims for the third year in a row, as the NYPD makes fewer arrests and hands out fewer criminal summonses, opting instead for civil fines. But there remain concerns about racial disparities in law enforcement, as an overwhelming number of citations are handed out to black and Latino New Yorkers.

In 2016, the Council under former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act, creating civil penalties for low-level offenses that include public urination, open container of alcohol, breaking park rules, littering, and excessive noise. The legislation, signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio after some negotiation by the administration, allowed police officers to instead of issuing criminal summonses give civil fines, which involve a citation and court date but do not lead to jail.

Instead of involvement with the criminal justice system, many thousands of New Yorkers -- often poor, young, black, and/or Latino -- would instead be sent to a civil process through the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, preventing the detrimental effects of even one short trip to jail, the stain of a criminal violation on their permanent records, or arrest warrants in case of absences from court. The Council also worked with district attorneys to clear 644,000 outstanding warrants for those low-level offenses.

After the first report from the NYPD on the implementation of the CJRA, the Council touted a 90% drop in criminal summonses, and the numbers have continued to fall. In 2018, the department issued 89,908 criminal summonses, down from 424,883 in 2013. Through June 30 of this year, there were 44,382 criminal summonses issued, a pace just below last year’s.

The first CJRA report covered the third quarter of 2017, and showed 28,557 criminal summonses issued. In the second quarter of 2019, the number was down to 22,328, a reduction of 6,229. Even compared to the same period last year, there were 1,481 fewer criminal summonses issued.

The CJRA’s effects quickly became clear. In the third quarter of 2017, the NYPD gave out 2,607 criminal summonses for open container of alcohol violations, which dropped to 696 in the second quarter of 2019; public urination summonses fell from 327 to 174; littering summonses fell from 180 to 57.

Even as the city has moved from criminal to civil penalties, civil summonses have also been dropping overall. The NYPD issued only 14,908 civil summonses in the first half of 2019, down from 26,782 in the same period last year. 

Arrests have fallen from 388,368 in 2013 to 246,781 last year.

“The City Council is very proud that the Criminal Justice Reform Act has resulted in significant reductions in the number of criminal summonses given out in New York City for minor offenses that are better dealt with in civil court,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in a statement. “These summonses don’t belong in criminal court because we’ve seen that they have no impact on crime rates. Unfortunately, there are significant racial disparities with respect to who gets a criminal summons in lieu of a civil summons, resulting in continued concern regarding consistent enforcement. Clearly, we need to address these racial disparities.”

As Johnson noted, enforcement remains uneven. Excluding businesses, 13,702 criminal summonses in the second quarter of 2019 were given to individuals, of whom 1,236 were white; 91% of criminal summonses were given to people of color. For comparison, out of 8,690 civil summonses given out in that same period, 15.3% were issued to whites; nearly 32% to black New Yorkers; 39.2% to Hispanics; and 7.6% to Asians and Pacific Islanders.

According to the latest available U.S. Census data, New York City’s nearly 8.4 million residents are 32.1% white; 29.1% Hispanic or Latino, 24.3% black, and 14% Asian.

Officers continue to use an exception that allows them to give out a criminal summons instead of a civil fine, vaguely citing “law enforcement reason” as a criteria. That criteria -- which an NYPD spokesperson declined to define for Gotham Gazette -- was used in 1,769 of the 22,328 criminal summonses in the second quarter of 2019, about 8% of the time, and up from 672 times in the third quarter of 2017.

There are other exceptions that allow for arrests as well, including having an open warrant or two felony arrests in the previous two years, for having ignored three or more civil summons in the previous eight years, or if an individual is on parole or probation.

An NYPD spokesperson did not address the increase in the use of the catch-all exception or the racial disparities in enforcement, but instead touted the department’s overall success in reducing crime and enforcement. Sergeant Jessica McRorie, a spokesperson for the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, cited a five-year record that shows street-stops down more than 90%, arrests down by 37.3%, summonses down nearly 79%, and marijuana misdemeanor violation arrests down by 71%, while major felony crime fell by 14.2%.

“The NYPD has shown that we can drive crime down significantly with a far less-intrusive enforcement approach,” McRorie said in a statement. “By building stronger relationships with the community through Neighborhood Policing and a singular focus on violent crimes and those who commit them through precision policing, we have continued to drive crime down to record lows.”

Advocates have for years pointed to racial disparities in policing, particularly when it comes to the low-level offenses that are targeted by the so-called broken windows policing method preferred by Mayor de Blasio and his two most-recent predecessors, which focuses on low-level crime and disorder in the theory that it helps prevent more serious crime.

“In most of these categories, there should be no police involved,” said Bob Gangi, a veteran advocate who ran a longshot mayoral campaign in 2017 on a platform of police accountability and reform. His organization, the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), regularly releases court monitoring reports that show how New Yorkers of color are overwhelmingly caught up in the criminal justice system for offenses that white New Yorkers are rarely punished for.

“Someone carrying an open alcohol container, who is not drinking, who is not disruptive, who is not in any way causing a threat to public safety or public civility, that shouldn’t be a matter for the police,” Gangi said in a phone interview. “And it’s similar with virtually all the other offenses.”

The police’s involvement in enforcement of these acts, he said, “in effect begins the process of criminalizing people for what are essentially innocuous activities” and the numbers show a “stark racial bias” in that enforcement. He pointed to one major problem with the CJRA itself that leads to this imbalance: that officers continue to have discretion in choosing a civil fine over a criminal summons. “So we have not eliminated the fundamental problem, which is racist policing,” he said. “We've tweaked it, we've modified it to a certain extent, but we have not eliminated it.” 

There are other takeaways from the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings report on the Criminal Justice Reform Act’s implementation. Nearly 20% of the total civil summonses were dismissed for being defective, which often means the ticket was improperly filled out by an officer, missing the date or time of the offense, for example. And a small percentage of people, just under 13%, opted to perform community service instead of paying a fine based on a civil summons.

Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the Council’s public safety committee, called the latest data a “mixed bag” of results. “Certainly it shows that the department is continuing to recognize that incarceration is not the answer in all cases to reduce crime,” he said. “We still see crime rates going down at historic levels.”

He continued, “It shows the fact that there are those who will cry that when reforms take place, that the world is going to come to an end, but it's not, right?” As he alluded, when the CJRA was first introduced, it was met with opposition from the NYPD, and even Mayor Bill de Blasio, and it took months of cajoling and compromise to get them to agree to passable legislation. In part, then-Commissioner Bill Bratton insisted that the City Council leave the criminal penalties on the books, adding corresponding civil penalties as a preferred alternative, but not removing the possibility of arrest or criminal summons.

“In terms of correcting the [racial] disparities, there's a lot more work that needs to be done,” Richards added. “Certainly...this is a step in the right direction. But the only way to ensure we are building trust with communities and the police department is to ensure that we recognize that these disparities still exist.” Though he commended Police Commissioner James O’Neill for the department’s community outreach efforts, he called for more diversity within the department and its leadership.   

“This city still has a long way to go when it comes to addressing racial division,” he said. “The new Jim Crow is incarceration and I think it's incumbent upon the police commissioner and the mayor to really sit in a room and get serious about this stuff.”

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

Read more by this writer.

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NYPD Continues Move Away from Criminal Penalties for Low-Level Offenses, But Racial Disparities Remain Tue, 03 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Small Business ‘Crisis’ That Isn’t https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8748-the-small-business-crisis-that-isn-t https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8748-the-small-business-crisis-that-isn-t city council mmv sbs bishop

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


When shops and restaurants that you love and depend on close it can be heartbreaking; I know from personal experience. My Upper West Side neighborhood has been seen as the epicenter of what some call a “small business crisis” in New York City, and we have certainly seen our share of lost community icons and long-shuttered storefronts, but a new report shows there is no citywide crisis and lawmakers should be very careful as they consider remedies to what problems do exist.

Earlier this month the New York City Department of City Planning issued a comprehensive, well-designed study of vacancies on commercial business strips in 24 neighborhoods across the city. It shows that retail storefront vacancies are not unusually high in most neighborhoods (the industry standard is 5-10%) and, where they do exist, are due to a number of causes, which differ from place to place and storefront to storefront.

Just last month, a package of bills was adopted by the City Council that will provide even more information about retail vacancies by requiring that landlords report periodically to the Department of Finance on the number and status of their retail spaces.

Yet elected officials continue to refer to a “crisis” of retail vacancies. Just a few days after the City Planning report was released, Council Speaker Corey Johnson bemoaned the “blight” of retail vacancies “all across the city.” 

Examples of long-standing merchants priced out by rising rents are more compelling news stories than data that shows the localized nature of the problem. So, despite the fact there is no citywide crisis and the Council’s new legislation will provide additional data on vacant storefronts, support is strong for a proposal to require sweeping protections for retail tenants to help assure lease renewals, including mandatory 10-year terms and arbitration when landlord and tenant cannot agree on rent increases. The number of Council sponsors of the “Small Business Justice and Stability Act” (SBJSA) has grown to 30 (of 51 members) since a hearing was held on it this past December.

Concern about retail storefront vacancies and turnover in New York City is not new. It has been labeled as a “crisis” as far back as the 1970s and was a focus of intense scrutiny during the Koch administration in the mid-’80s when the mayor responded by forming a commission to study the topic. Then-Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger championed a rent arbitration proposal back then.

Several of my favorite restaurants, diners, and clothing stores on the three blocks of Amsterdam closest to my apartment have closed over the last ten years. There are many vacancies in my neighborhood for a number of reasons.

Some are due to the creation of new, unrented retail space on the ground floor of brand new high-end residential buildings that have sprouted up along the corridors; some are because proprietors decided to retire, or because a new enterprise misjudged how much business it would attract in the area, or because the landlord -- sometimes a residential rental or co-op building -- is holding out for a chain store type of tenant that can pay a high rent to help offset increasing costs like property taxes. This is all part of life in an upscale neighborhood like the Upper West Side. It may be unsettling and even sad, but it is not a crisis. 

Also, while some of us may miss our favorite places, the new stores and restaurants that replace them are serving the people that live here, albeit in different ways.

An example is a large new restaurant/juice bar that has opened around the corner from my apartment. A beloved diner used to be there, and when the lease was not renewed nine years ago, it remained vacant for more than two years. The two small stores next to it were also vacated, while the rental apartment building owner held out for a larger tenant to take over the entire space. A slick new place arrived that lasted five years but didn’t seem to me to have been able to generate enough business to sustain the large space. (There were protests when the spaces were combined and when the new restaurant opened.) After another six months, Tacombi, which has several other branches in the city, opened. With a menu of reasonably-priced Latin-American food and drinks it appears to be thriving and is filled with neighborhood families.

It is understandable that elected officials feel compelled to “do something” when their constituents feel impacted in such a direct and personal way, which explains why my City Council representative, Helen Rosenthal, along with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, are two of the most vocal advocates for the SBJSA. But as the City Planning report shows, there is simply no basis for citywide legislation. Time will tell, but I expect that the newly-mandated reports from landlords will bear out that conclusion. 

Moreover, the SBJSA will do nothing to bring back beloved stores that have already closed and could make it even harder to bring in new tenants since landlords, with less flexibility to respond to the market, will be more selective and want only those with a proven record of financial viability.

A more targeted approach would focus on strengthening retail storefront presence in those areas that City Planning calls “Underperforming Corridors” – in Coney Island, Brownsville, Richmond Hill, and Longwood -- which suffer from long-term historic disinvestment. Incentives and/or modest tenant protections would help these areas without interfering with business decisions in high-income areas that don’t need help. 

We are not suffering from a shortage of places to shop or eat on the Upper West Side. The market will work here: if stores remain vacant for too long, landlords will lower the rents. That appears to be starting to happen.

The Council should not forge ahead with sweeping legislation that will impose real burdens on landlords in the majority of neighborhoods. 

***
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 Small Business ‘Crisis’ That Isn’t Thu, 22 Aug 2019 02:07:54 +0000
Improving Opportunity Zones to Truly Benefit Needy Communities in New York City https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8733-improving-opportunity-zones-to-truly-benefit-new-york-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8733-improving-opportunity-zones-to-truly-benefit-new-york-city childrens museum cojo

Speaker Johnson, the author, at a construction site (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Opportunity Zones, which were part of the 2017 federal tax package, have the potential to improve low-income communities. But the way they are currently structured, they will only benefit neighborhoods already in the midst of building booms and gentrification.

Here is how they are supposed to work: Investors get tax breaks if they invest in businesses and property development in low-income communities. In New York City, investors are eligible to save on state and local taxes in addition to their federal taxes.

Unfortunately, in a city like New York that already has substantial incentive programs across the city and has enjoyed relative economic success in recent years, these new incentives could end up mostly going to projects that would have happened anyway. 

Opportunity Zone neighborhoods like Long Island City, Downtown Brooklyn, and Gowanus are communities where private investment has already poured in, and seems poised to continue doing so even without the extra tax incentive - and as a result, they are expected to attract the majority of any Opportunity Zone investment that does happen. Our city does have neighborhoods that would benefit from the additional investment right now, but these aren’t them.

Displacement is a concern, too. 

The expected concentration of investment in a small handful of already-affluent (and often rapidly-changing) communities, and in high-end real estate, could accelerate many of the elements of gentrification that we are already struggling to keep up with. 

Fiscally, the program could be a huge loser for New Yorkers. 

With investors looking for the optimal combinations of high-profit and low-risk investments, and no requirements that investments deliver any public benefit, capital is likely to flow toward large, low-risk companies and high-end residential, commercial, or hotel development. In other words, not the intended targets, and not the people or businesses who could use help from the government. 

New York City taxpayers will bear a huge chunk of the cost. The city’s loss of tax revenue shares from Opportunity Zone tax breaks at the federal, state, and local levels could amount to $715 million just over the next five years – and much more over the following decades as investors continue to cash in on tax-free capital gains.

In New York, officials must make sure these Opportunity Zones help the right targets in the most vulnerable communities.

First, lawmakers in Albany must add localized criteria to the incentives. In order to be eligible for state- or city-level Opportunity Zone breaks, I am proposing that a project must be receiving substantial state or city government discretionary assistance, such as direct subsidy, land acquisition, or subsidized loans. This would help because local government agencies consider public benefit as a factor in dispensing discretionary assistance, so this change would enshrine a requirement of at least some benefit for local communities.

Second, we need to right-size other, complementary subsidies for projects. State and city agencies should consider Opportunity Zone equity sources as part of their due diligence process and allocation calculations when disbursing subsidy. This could prevent the unnecessary over-subsidizing of projects receiving both government assistance and Opportunity Zone tax breaks.

Third, we need robust monitoring at all levels. Federally, and at the state level, administrators must mandate transparency, monitor compliance, and evaluate results to ensure that Opportunity Zone incentives are used appropriately, fairly, and to the benefit of the public.

In cities like New York, this program could be a windfall for wealthy investors to little community benefit. But with action from state legislators, there is still a chance to salvage at least some benefit for New Yorkers who actually need it.

***
Corey Johnson is the Speaker of the New York City Council. On Twitter @NYCSpeakerCoJo.

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

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Improving Opportunity Zones to Truly Benefit Needy Communities in New York City Tue, 13 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
An Old, Unfair System: New York City's Property Tax Conundrum - Part III - The City's Bottom Line https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8716-old-unfair-system-new-york-city-property-tax-conundrum-part-iii-revenue-city-budget https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8716-old-unfair-system-new-york-city-property-tax-conundrum-part-iii-revenue-city-budget gov and may deb pro

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor Bill de Blasio


This is the third and final part of a three-part series on New York City's antiquated and unfair property tax system, its complications and inequities, the underway task of reforming it, and prospects for the future.

Read part one - Taking on the Difficult Task - here.

Read part two - Deep and Complex Inequities - here.

**********

When Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced the creation of an advisory commission to come up with reforms to the city’s antiquated property tax system (much of which is controlled by state law), they said their focus would be on fairness while maintaining the city’s largest revenue stream.

The revenue from New York City property taxes was a whopping $27.8 billion last year, roughly a third of the city budget, and it helps fund everything from basic government administration and social services to the mayor’s signature initiatives like universal pre-kindergarten, including the salaries and benefits of hundreds of thousands of municipal workers.

Property owners see their taxes rise every year, squeezing nearly everyone -- though not evenly or fairly. Elected officials across the board have expressed interest in changing the system. But to make a more rational property tax system and still fund extensive city services at or near their current levels, officials will have to navigate the murky waters between the public interest and that of each individual taxpayer.

How skillfully that is done will dictate the political consequences that follow, and whether promised soon-to-be-proposed reforms to the property tax system actually have a chance to pass through the New York City Council and State Legislature.

‘A Substantial Constraint’
“One of the hard things about the whole property tax system: changing things is always going to impact someone else. If you move things for one tax class -- because we’re trying to stay revenue neutral -- it inevitably means changes for a different tax class,” Marcy Miranda, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, told Gotham Gazette.

Some experts have asked why, if the commission’s purpose is to create a more fair and equitable system, is it constrained by the mandate to leave the city’s revenue untouched?

“It is definitely a substantial constraint. And I think that is being driven more by city fiscal concerns than it is by questions of how to structure the tax and what is the best tax,” Ana Champeny of Citizens Budget Commission told Gotham Gazette.

Roughly two-thirds of the city’s revenue comes from taxes, a little under half of which is property taxes. During a panel discussion about economic growth in New York City in May, former Commissioner of City Planning Carl Weisbrod said the city’s vast provision of social services and recent changes in federal tax policy mean, “increasingly, we are dependent on our own ability to generate revenue.”

Mark Shaw, co-chair of the city’s property tax commission, the initial recommendations from which are expected soon, views the revenue mandate as a gesture to those anxious about the prospect of reforming a system so integral to private and public life in New York.

“The veil of revenue neutrality over the debates for the commission is actually a way of making it clear to any of the interested parties of the public that this is not a back door way of trying to increase property taxes,” Shaw told Gotham Gazette.

But the mayor’s executive order establishing the commission, which reflected an agreement with the City Council, does not mention revenue neutrality, exactly. It only says the commission’s recommendations “shall not result in a reduction of revenue.”

The Frozen Tax Rate
State law sets the property tax classes, along with the assessment standards and growth caps, but the city -- the City Council with the mayor’s approval -- controls the tax rate. Since fiscal year 2009, the mayor (Bloomberg, then de Blasio) and City Council have agreed to keep the overall tax rate frozen. Because of very strong growth in the city’s real estate market, however, property taxes have continued to rise and generate more and more revenue.

This has allowed the city budget to grow significantly over the past two decades. Spending under Mayor Michael Bloomberg reportedly rose 31.6 percent above inflation during his three terms in office. Since de Blasio took office, the city budget has grown by more than $20 billion overall, up to the $92.8 billion expense budget for the current fiscal year. 

“If the tax commission came up with reforms that adjusted the assessed values, the Council and the mayor could set a tax rate that didn’t have a revenue implication for the city, but it might raise the rate,” said Champeny of CBC.

Given how sensitive the subject of taxation is in New York City, raising the tax rate could come with political fallout. “Obviously that would be pretty unpopular if someone were to come in and make that change,” said Miranda from the mayor’s office.

The rates the city sets on the assessed value of the property in each class, known as the “class shares,” are supposed to adjust each year to reflect changes in the market but growth caps set by the state limit how much a class share can increase, according to Champeny. The city has the discretion to redistribute any increases above the cap to other tax classes.

In most years recently, the City Council has requested lawmakers in Albany lower the cap for homeowners, shifting increases onto commercial and utility properties. “The class shares protect [homeowners] slightly but also there’s been sort of this political choice by elected officials in the Council and the state Legislature -- and the mayor to some extent because they don’t oppose it -- to make sure that the levy growth does not fall too much on Class 1,” Champeny said, referring to one- to three-family homes.

“Each annual adjustment doesn’t necessarily shift a lot, but over ten, twenty years, it does accumulate,” she added.

Balancing the Equation
The purpose of the Advisory Commission on Property Tax Reform is to weigh all of these factors -- equity, rationality, what the state controls and what the city can do, the unintended consequences for owners and renters, transparency in the system -- and come up with recommendations for improvement. The result could be the kind of fundamental, planned restructuring of New York taxation that some had hoped would happen following the Hellerstein case in 1975; or piece-meal, band-aide solutions like the ones New York ended up with in the years after.

“We're going to...go at the heart of the property tax problem and have a commission, working closely with the Council, to try and reform fundamentally the property tax to be more fair for everyone,” Mayor de Blasio said in April 2018 when he released the executive budget that year. 

In 1975, Judge Solomon Wachtler, writing the majority opinion, was concerned with the “remarkable powers of endurance” of the practices that prompted the Hellerstein case. Their survival depended largely on the machinations of politicians and officials servicing particular constituencies, factors “none of which are particularly commendable,” he noted in his decision. Over the years, those factors have multiplied and become more interconnected. Any changes of substance now will implicate the entire system, and any balance struck toward making it “more fair for everyone,” as de Blasio said, may not be what everyone wants.

This is the third and final part of a three-part series on New York City's antiquated and unfair property tax system. Read part one - Taking on the Difficult Task - here. Read part two - Deep and Complex Inequities - here.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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An Old, Unfair System: New York City's Property Tax Conundrum - Part III - The City's Bottom Line Sun, 04 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
An Old, Unfair System: New York City’s Property Tax Conundrum - Part II - Deep and Complex Inequities https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8713-old-unfair-system-new-york-city-property-tax-conundrum-part-ii-classes https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8713-old-unfair-system-new-york-city-property-tax-conundrum-part-ii-classes maybdb rem

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayor's Office)


This is part two of a three-part series. Read part one - Taking on the Difficult Task - here. (Skip to part three - The City's Bottom Line - here.)

Elected officials and their critics alike have decried the complexity and inequality of the state’s property tax system. They say it is layered and non-transparent, and produces disproportionate tax burdens for various populations because of technical factors that are difficult for taxpayers to understand. These can lead owners of similarly valued properties in different parts of the city to pay drastically different annual property taxes.

The rising value of a homeowner’s property can belie the struggle they may face to stay afloat and keep their homes when property tax payments also climb. For those who own rental property, when the tax burden goes up it is often passed on to renters in the form of higher rents and fees on apartments that are not rent-regulated.

The Advisory Commission on Property Tax Reform was emplaneled by Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, both Democrats, in 2018 to examine these issues and develop recommendations to reform the system, which could implicate both city and state policy, without reducing the city’s largest revenue stream.

On the table are aspects like the way different properties are classified and assessed by the state, how statutory restrictions on tax rate growth interact with market forces, and how the city sets the tax rate. These factors have had consequences for communities of color, low-income New Yorkers, seniors, and residents in some, but not all, boroughs.

As it was in 1981, when the current system was wrought out of practices that extend to the early days of the American republic, the issue today is a political flashpoint. Property taxation affects every resident in the state, and members from nearly every interest group and political party have called for its overhaul. But some of the most outspoken critics of the system, especially certain homeowners who see their taxes go up every year, may end up responsible for an even greater share of the levy if changes are made.

Four decades ago, in Hellerstein v. Assessor, Islip, the courts found New York’s property value assessment methods, which had been in practice for roughly 200 years, to be in violation of state law. Homes were being assessed with great variability on a fraction of their sales price, while business owners were footing a much larger bill for their commercial properties. Rather than adjusting practices to assess the full value of homes, lawmakers in Albany changed the rules to allow government assessors to continue favoring certain types of property over others.

Reflecting the old order, the current system divides properties into four classes, each to be assessed and taxed differently. Statutory caps are in place to ensure property taxes payments remain stable even if market values jump. To help account for variables like income, location, and the condition of housing, tax abatements and rebates are available. As a result of the classification regime’s disparate assessment methods, discrepancies exist among residential properties, with cooperatives and condominiums greatly undervalued for tax purposes compared to other homes despite at times being worth far more.

One- to three-family homes are in Class 1 and are assessed based on comparable sales prices; in Class 2, apartment buildings, as well as co-ops and condos, are taxed based on a market value derived from the annual income earned in rent by similar, nearby units, which is usually lower than the market value based on sales price, according to property tax experts. Even within the classes, statutory caps on assessed value growth have led, more recently, to uneven tax burdens across the five boroughs because of the way the housing market has exploded in some neighborhoods more than others.

An Unfair System
Attempts have been made to address property tax inequities in New York City since the current system was adopted nearly 40 years ago, but they have failed to produce transformative results. The most notable review was led by Mayor David Dinkins in 1993.

Dinkins, a Democrat, empaneled a commission to study the issue, which released a report just days before his term ended. Its most salient recommendation was to bring the treatment of co-ops and condos closer to Class 1 properties, but years of negotiations under his Republican successor, Rudy Giuliani, led only to a temporary tax abatement for apartment owners, according to an Independent Budget Office report. (A piece in the New York Times from 1994 provides an alternative account in which the Dinkins commission made no recommendations because it could not come to a “consensus on objectives,” using the words of one of the commissioners.)

The issue has become a recurring political motif. De Blasio discussed it during his first campaign for mayor and a year later, in 2014, his Commissioner of Finance, Jacques Jiha, said he would undertake a comprehensive analysis before making recommendations to the state for change. Yet it appears the Advisory Commission empaneled in 2018 is conducting the first such review of the mayor’s tenure.

“Fairness” is at the core of the commission’s mission, largely a response to a number of related policy consequences that have become apparent over the years.

>>Property Tax Classes
Legislators in 1981 created a system that would benefit small home owners by placing them in Class 1, maintaining the relatively low assessment rates they had enjoyed for so long, while leaving commercial properties, including apartment buildings, in Class 2 with a larger share of the levy.

At the time, co-op conversions, which started in New York City in the 1920s, had begun to take place at a very rapid rate; between 1978 and 1988, roughly 242,000 rental apartments in more than 3,000 buildings had been turned into tenant-owned cooperatives, according to a New York Times report published in 1988. In order to prevent assessors from considering the value of apartments if they were to be converted, lawmakers placed co-ops and condos into Class 2 and inserted language into the state law requiring they be assessed on the net income they would earn as rentals, as opposed to their sales value.

More recently, however, in an era of acute gentrification and concentrated market value growth, the low rates on co-ops and condos has become a new variation on the unequal assessment theme that sparked the Hellerstein case. As the price of homes in booming neighborhoods has skyrocketed, taxes assessed on co-ops and condos have become an increasingly smaller proportion of their sales value.

Tax Equity Now New York, a coalition of homeowners, renters, and business groups, led by former city Department of Finance Commissioner Martha Stark, filed a lawsuit in 2017 challenging the state laws that lead to disproportionate rent burden. The group claims the neighborhoods with the greatest burdens are less affluent and more likely to be the home of large populations of people of color.

By state law, taxes for homes in Class 1 are assessed on 6 percent of what assessors believe to be their market value, while co-ops and condos in Class 2 are assessed at a rate of 45 percent of potential rental income. But the way the city Department of Finance (which is responsible for calculating market value based on formulas set by the state) arrives at that value for the two property types is not consistent.

For Class 2, city finance officials compare co-op values to the income of nearby rental properties, vastly undervaluing what the property would be worth if sold. Because of the age and location of many co-ops, their taxes are often assessed based on comparisons to rent-regulated buildings, exacerbating the value discrepancy. 

Ana Champeny of Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), the fiscal watchdog, gave an example: “You look at the value that [Department of Finance] determined based on state law and it’ll be something like...$600,000, but when you look at how much the person paid when they bought that unit, they would have paid something like $3 million.”

To help address this inequity, CBC argued when it testified before the Advisory Commission in November, simply put condos and co-ops in Class 1 where they belong, and assess them based on sales prices. This would also help New Yorkers understand the system’s complex arithmetic and the outcomes it produces. Because now-distant beginnings created the fractional assessment practices established by the property classification system, the particular tax-related burdens New Yorkers face often feel arbitrary.

“I think that creates a lot more mistrust, too, in the system. Which is why we said you really should put all these homes into one class and you should value them based on sales,” Champeny told Gotham Gazette.

There were a number of bills in the Legislature related to condos and co-ops that lawmakers were apprehensive about taking up because of uncertainty about changes to the classification system, according to Assemblymember Galef.

“We want to see where the commission comes out on that one so those bills won’t be addressed this year,” Galef told Gotham Gazette in May before the legislative session ended. (The Legislature passed, and the governor has yet to sign, a two-year extension of a property tax abatement program for co-ops and condos, but nothing to address the structure of the real property class system.)

When everyone is a stakeholder, though, upsetting the long held fractional assessments would mean some people will have to pay more, and that is likely to include the high value co-ops and condos now enjoying low rates. As in the past, this will inevitably be a difficult pill to swallow.  In a letter to the Advisory Commission in May, City Council Members Steven Matteo, Joe Borelli, and Justin Brannan -- who represent parts of southern Brooklyn and Staten Island -- urged, “First, do no harm to Class 1 and 2 homeowners.”

Responding to a co-op owner who worries about rising taxes year after year, Mayor de Blasio said, “I want to be...really honest with everyone that we cannot end up with a system that reduces our revenue substantially, unless people want to see a change in the services provided by city.”

>>Renters
For residents, the weight of New York’s property classification system is harder to bear the further you are away from the mitigating effects of ownership, which can put serious pressure on renters who can’t cash in or pass on tax burdens to tenants. In a class-action lawsuit filed in 2014 on behalf of African-American and Hispanic renters, the real estate law firm Newman Ferrara claimed that the way the state classifies different types of property has resulted in a disproportionate tax burden being passed on to renters in large residential buildings.

According to a CBC analysis, as of December 2016 one- to three-family homes made up roughly 48 percent of the total market value of New York City property, but were taxed only about 15 percent of the total levy. By contrast, Class 2 properties -- apartment buildings, co-ops, and condos -- made up approximately 25 percent of the market, but were taxed significantly more: nearly 38 percent of the total.

Most of that burden falls on apartment buildings because owners of co-ops and condos often pay such a small percentage of their property value in taxes. To maintain their profit margin, landlords often redistribute the tax burden to tenants (the same is true for commercial tenants, which can put a strain on small business). The 2014 suit alleged, since large apartment buildings are predominantly occupied by African-American and Hispanic tenants, the uneven tax burden they experience is a violation of the Fair Housing Act.

The property tax burden on one- to three-family home owners can be mitigated by the lower share they pay on the property’s value; the tax burden on co-ops and condos is not great because they are assessed on a fraction of their sales price; and much of the tax burden of big landlords can be passed on to tenants. But renters, who make up two-thirds of all occupied units, according to 2017 U.S. Census data, have no outlet to spread their burden.

(Homeowners who pay a significant portion of their income in property taxes and cannot immediately benefit from the rising value of their homes without selling them, are also put in a precarious situation as taxes rise annually and the costs of maintaining aging housing stack up. The city’s Third Party Transfer program, which seizes buildings from landlords who are behind on taxes and other fees, has recently come under fire for taking the homes of lower-income, minority property owners.)

The 2014 Newman Ferrara suit was dismissed by a state Supreme Court, which rejected the notion that property taxes could be shared more equitably among the classes as “speculative.”

Short of revamping the city’s entire property tax system, the push to improve conditions for many tenants was a major point of contention in Albany this year, as state rent regulations affecting the city and surrounding suburbs approached their expiration date in June. A concerted push under the new Democratic governing reality resulted in a landmark package of tenant reforms aimed at strengthening protections and closing loopholes in rent regulations like reforming the major capital improvement program, ending vacancy decontrol, and eliminating the vacancy bonus, among others. These regulations affect roughly 2 million tenants in 1 million apartments.

“We made a commitment that the new Senate Democratic Majority would help pass the strongest tenant protections in history,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in a statement after the package passed both houses of the Legislature. “The legislation we passed today achieves that commitment and will help millions of New Yorkers throughout our state.”

>>Income
While statutory caps were put in place to keep homeowners’ property taxes from rising too quickly, they have still tended to outpace the growth in household incomes, creating a disparity in tax burden across income levels. A report by the city Comptroller’s Office from September found that between 2005 and 2016 annual property tax revenue grew an average of 6.4 percent a year, while the household incomes of small home, co-op and condo owners rose only 2 percent per year. As a result, the share of income that goes to pay property taxes on those types of homes has risen significantly and is most pronounced among the lowest earners.

The comptroller’s report shows that households making less than $50,000 -- largely retirees whose incomes had been higher when the homes were purchased -- had property tax payments increase from 6.6 percent of household income in 2005 to nearly 13 percent in 2016 (the study does not take into account social security earnings and other non-taxable income for seniors, meaning its findings for this group may be higher than seniors’ true property tax burdens).

“For households at this income level, where there is little or no discretionary income, these increases impose significant constraints and sacrifices on household budgets,” the report reads. By contrast, homeowners with income between $250,000 and $500,000 paid only 2.9 percent of their income in property taxes.

Some advocates have proposed what are known as “circuit breakers” to deal with property tax burdens on lower-income New Yorkers.

A circuit breaker essentially provides a tax rebate for lower-income property owners by reducing state income taxes if property taxes exceed a certain proportion of income, or simply by capping property taxes as a percentage of income. Hellerstein was a proponent of implementing circuit breakers, as was Governor Carey, who included them in his own 1981 proposal, which failed. In November, the CBC testified about the benefits of circuit breakers before the city’s Advisory Commission.

But mechanisms like circuit breakers, which create indirect relief through income tax reductions -- as well as various other kinds of exemptions, abatements, and rate limitations -- when piled on to triage the discrete consequences of New York’s property tax system (exacerbated by the city’s complex housing portfolio), also contribute to the opacity of the system -- one of the main problems the Commission aims to address.

“Homestead exemptions, or elderly or disabled or veterans exemptions...tax abatements and rate limitations and assessment limitations and assessment increase limitations -- it becomes a very complex system and ultimately non-transparent,” John Anderson of the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy noted before the Advisory Commission in February.

But exemptions and other forms of relief are popular among property owners in distress and are something that can be enacted by the city, making them attractive to local politicians trying to court voters. (Borelli introduced a bill to the City Council in 2018 that would give a tax exemption to veterans of Cold War conflicts.)

Disparities exist despite tax credits and other programs intended to ease the burden on lower-income New Yorkers, and they are likely to get worse.

The increase in tax burden identified in the Comptroller’s report was tempered by the rising value of property assets and declining interest rates over the past 20 years, which kept mortgage payments low, according to its authors. But the report notes interest and mortgage payments have begun to rise while property value growth has subsided in many neighborhoods, and phase-ins on co-ops and condos (like statutory caps on small homes) mean that property taxes can continue to rise even after the market stabilizes.

Changes in state and local tax deductions from Washington, D.C. last year mean taxpayers who itemize their deductions may no longer be able to deduct the amount of their property taxes from their federal taxes.

>>Geography
Last September, Citizens Budget Commission released an analysis showing that homeowners on Staten Island and in the Bronx have a higher effective tax rate than the rest of the city, meaning they pay a higher percentage of their property’s market value in taxes despite owning homes that are worth less.

This, the report notes, is the result of statutory caps set in state law on the rate by which assessed values can grow. There are different caps for different categories of property; for small homes the cap is set at 6 percent annually, or 20 percent over five years.

The growth rate cap, intended to insulate homeowners experiencing rapid market growth from dramatic property tax increases, has the effect of shifting the tax burden from booming neighborhoods to ones with more stable housing markets, regardless of the overall value of the homes. The CBC analysis finds only 5 percent of the city’s single-family homes are assessed at the 6 percent target ratio because the caps keep most assessments lower. But Staten Island and Bronx homeowners do not seem to be the beneficiaries of this dynamic.

Council Members Borelli and Matteo, who represent districts on Staten Island, in a 2016 press release said, “Staten Islander’s [sic] on average pay [property taxes on] 98.5% of their actual market values, while average Brooklyn and Manhattan class-1 homeowners pay 88.5% and 87.2% respectively.”

Politicians from Staten Island have been among the most vocal proponents of property tax reform. The borough has a large aging population on fixed income and roughly 70 percent of residents own their homes, according to Census data.

In 2016 Borelli and Matteo, both Republicans, called for a bipartisan commission to look at the economic burdens on one- and two-family homes, including the caps issue. They also called for the Department of Finance to use actual assessors, not statistical models, in order to account for a property’s actual condition (on Staten Island only a tenth of homes were built in the last 20 years). Assembly Member Nicole Malliotakis, also a Republican, joined Borelli in calling for a property tax commission when she ran for mayor against de Blasio in 2017. (Property tax reform and relief was also a central pillar of Republican gubernatorial candidate and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro’s 2018 campaign against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who this year pushed through a permanent 2 percent cap on annual property tax growth, which applies everywhere outside New York City.)

To address the tax burden inequities, Borelli has called for the Legislature to at least change the law so that caps reset when a house changes hands. Borelli was the prime sponsor of a resolution, co-sponsored by 13 others in the 51-seat Council, calling for the change in January 2018, but it has not been adopted.

He repeated the proposal to the Advisory Commission in September, saying, “The cap is attached to the property, not the owner, and the result creates vast disparities between the city’s wealthy and middle-class homeowners, and among wealthy homeowners themselves depending on when their homes were built and the characteristics of the market.”

>>Race
Tax Equity Now New York, the coalition led by former city finance commissioner Martha Stark, has highlighted some of these inequities in its lawsuit filed against the city and state in 2017. The lawsuit, filed after long-running frustration with elected officials’ apparent unwillingness to act on property tax reform, alleges New York’s property tax system has a disproportionate negative impact on homeowners and renters in less affluent neighborhoods with large populations of people of color.

In a study conducted by the group, higher tax burdens, especially those identified in the Citizens Budget Commission analysis, were shown to have a disproportionate impact on neighborhoods where racial minorities make up a majority of the population.

At the crux of the issue is the claim that property tax assessments have not reflected true market values, resulting in neighborhoods predominantly of color being assessed 19 percent more than predominantly white ones, the group alleges. Tax Equity Now is seeking changes to the law, not compensation, but has not specified what those changes should be. The suit survived the city’s motion to dismiss in September but is now stayed, pending appeal.

This is part two of a three-part series. Read part three - The City's Bottom Line - here. (Find part one - Taking on the Difficult Task - here.)

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

Read more by this writer.

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An Old, Unfair System: New York City’s Property Tax Conundrum - Part II - Deep and Complex Inequities Thu, 01 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000