Gotham Gazette Sun, 31 May 2020 10:47:32 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Enough Talk, Time to Give FDNY EMS Their Due enough talk op

Mayor de Blasio visits with EMS (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

The coronavirus pandemic has compelled us to take stock of the racial and socioeconomic inequities that have burdened our city’s more than 5 million New Yorkers of color for generations. These obstacles to their upward mobility exist not only in health care, education, and housing but within our own municipal workforce.

The most glaring among them happens to also be one of particularly cruel irony given COVID-19’s onslaught on the city’s 9-1-1 system and related services: the unequal pay received by emergency medical technicians and paramedics at FDNY EMS.

These more than 4,000 EMTs and paramedics are predominantly people of color, often hailing from the same communities being ravaged by the coronavirus, and their ranks boast a higher percentage of women than any of the city’s uniformed services. They too are employees of the Fire Department, but, compared to their overwhelmingly white, male firefighting counterparts, FDNY EMS members are paid about $12,000 less on average, annually, and more than double that amount after five years; despite routinely facing threats to their safety as they provide life-saving medical care to well over 8 million New Yorkers, as well as commuters, tourists, and other visitors who need it.

FDNY EMS responded to over 1.5 million medical emergencies in each of the last two years. Over that same time, assaults against its members increased by 27% in 2018, and 36% through last fall.

Demoralized and undervalued, some 900 skilled and well-trained EMTs and paramedics left their jobs during that period to earn tens of thousands of dollars more as firefighters through an exclusive testing and hiring process within FDNY.

This pipeline, created on the heels of legal rulings affirming that FDNY engaged in hiring discrimination against minority and women applicants, has served to help the Department compensate for the abysmal racial and gender diversity outside of its EMS workforce.

Less known is the number of FDNY EMS members that walked away to join other city agencies, or left the city altogether, thus jeopardizing the health and well-being of our fellow New Yorkers. This is crucial work, and yet the compensation and parity issues have made it a difficult path to pursue for so many talented New Yorkers – and this was before COVID-19.

At the peak of the outbreak, as many as 7,000 emergency calls were placed in a single day, a level not seen since September 11, 2001; including the highest three-day call volume in FDNY history.
Despite the indignity of having only 12 sick days available to them, one out of every four FDNY EMS members called out during those agonizing weeks due to exposure to the coronavirus.

Four EMTs ultimately lost their lives to the virus, and a rookie EMT, John Mondello, tragically killed himself after just three months on the job serving in one of the busiest EMS stations in the city, having succumbed to the mental anguish of watching patient after patient die from the disease.

To this day, the most progressive city in America is denying these first responders their due. Mayor de Blasio himself previously described the work of EMTs and paramedics as “different” from firefighters, but has since given them numerous platitudes.

If the dedication, bravery, and sacrifice of FDNY EMS wasn’t apparent to him before COVID-19, it surely is now.

There can be no further argument against fairly compensating these beleaguered but endlessly brave first responders.

The time is now to show our gratitude for their service, commitment to excellence, and the value they add daily to our city by giving them the equal pay and benefits they rightly deserve.

Corey Johnson represents parts of Manhattan and is the Speaker of the New York City Council. I. Daneek Miller represents parts of Queens and is the Chair of the City Council Committee on Civil Service and Labor. On Twitter @NYCSpeakerCoJo & @IDaneekMiller.

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Enough Talk, Time to Give FDNY EMS Their Due Tue, 26 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Hasn't Visited Rikers Island During His Second Term dcc pont risland

Mayor de Blasio on Rikers Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

In his second term in office, Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked with the New York City Council to usher through a plan that will close the scandal-ridden Rikers Island jail complex and replace it with four borough-based facilities by 2026. He has repeatedly decried the crumbling infrastructure and the well-documented incidents of violence, by detainees and guards, among the many issues of the sprawling Island facilities. But the mayor has not visited Rikers Island in three years, and not at all since he was reelected nor since the deadly coronavirus pandemic took hold in the city.

The mayor’s last visit to Rikers was in June 2017, a few months before he won his second and final term. Three months prior to that visit, he had announced his support for the plan to close Rikers that had been proposed by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, convened by former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and chaired by former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann.

The mayor hasn’t always taken a keen interest in the issues that plague Rikers. His first visit to the island was in December 2014, nearly a year into his first term, in the aftermath of federal and state investigations into the conditions of the jails. De Blasio said then and has said repeatedly since that the conditions in Rikers jails were something he did not have a firm grasp of before becoming mayor.

He also initially hesitated to back calls from various advocates and elected officials, including Comptroller Scott Stringer and Mark-Viverito, then the Lippman Commission’s plan, before adopting the essence of that plan and seeing its initial phases through.

The focus on Rikers has only intensified in his second term, however, as the borough-based jails plan sped through the city’s land use review process, finalized by the City Council. The city combined all four jail facilities, located in each borough save Staten Island, into one land use application, shortening the window for its approval. The overall plan faced criticism from some criminal justice reformers, while each individual facility proposal was the target of community opposition. Concessions were made to local Council members, with the sizes of the new facilities reduced, and the plan was approved.

The coronavirus pandemic has also renewed attention on Rikers, as city jails have seen clusters of infections, and the deaths of three detainees and ten corrections employees. When the city was beginning to shut down in March, the mayor suspended in-person visits to all jails to limit the spread of the virus. He’s also ordered the release of hundreds of detainees who were being held on nonviolent offenses or were vulnerable during the outbreak because of their age or health.

Several news reports have emerged since then of the apparent mismanagement of the crisis by the Department of Correction. The New York Times, in a Wednesday report, quoted several unnamed Rikers corrections officers who complained that they felt at risk because of the failure to respond adequately to the outbreak. But none of it has prompted the mayor to head to the Island to see the issues for himself. In contrast, de Blasio has been visiting food distribution centers, traditional and pop-up hospital facilities, supply warehouses, and other sites.

The mayor’s press secretary did not provide comment when asked about de Blasio’s last trip to Rikers and whether he felt it may be necessary to see the conditions there in person during the pandemic.

Other elected officials have similarly not been to Rikers in recent months, citing the concern for the safety of detainees and DOC employees. Notably, elected officials haven’t shown the same reluctance to visit hospitals where tens of thousands of New Yorkers infected with the virus have been admitted.

In early October, just prior to the Council’s vote to approve the borough-based jails plan, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and several of his colleagues paid their most recent visit to the Island.

Johnson said in a statement that the Council is continuing its oversight of the situation on Rikers. “From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I urged for the release of as many incarcerated New Yorkers as possible to tackle the spread of this virus in our jail system,” he said, adding in particular that individuals should not be jailed for technical parole violations.

“We had a more than seven-hour long hearing on Tuesday to assess how DOC is handling the crisis. As we mourn the death of DOC staffers and incarcerated individuals, we are in constant communication with the Department, the Board of Correction, and advocates to ensure robust oversight as this situation develops,” he said.

A spokesperson told Gotham Gazette that Johnson does not have plans to visit the island any time soon, and that only essential workers should be travelling to and fro.

Council Member Keith Powers, who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee which has Rikers under its purview, said he has thought about visiting Rikers but has balanced that with the need to ensure that there is no further spread of the virus. “I thought about going in at some point to see conditions for myself, but I did think it was right to withhold doing that for the time being based on what's going on in the world,” he said.

Powers was among the members who went to Rikers in October. He said he has been in constant contact with the Board of Corrections and DOC to conduct ongoing monitoring from afar. He said he is concerned about reports he has received from the Board of Corrections that some social distancing protocols are not being followed, and the concerns being raised by advocates that the conditions at Rikers are ripe to make the crisis worse. “My philosophy here is we can always be doing more and doing better to help people out as they are in our city jails,” he said.

He also emphasized that he wouldn’t want to make a symbolic trip to Rikers. “I would do it for substantive reasons to make sure that there is an appropriate response to the Covid crisis within our city jails and to oversee how the operations are running during the public health crisis,” he said.

He added, “This crisis only reiterates to me that you can't move vulnerable populations out of sight and out of mind. Because when they are visually out of sight, out of mind, they are from a policy standpoint or from a budgetary standpoint, out of mind for many folks here as well.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio Hasn't Visited Rikers Island During His Second Term Thu, 21 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City Budget Crisis, State Bail Reform Could Delay Closure of Rikers Island Jails dcc jponte rikers

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The Rikers Island jail complex, a notorious and decrepit institution sitting on 413 acres in the East River, was slated for closure well before New York City became the country’s epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, during which the complex has emerged as a hotspot for infections that have led to the deaths of several detainees and corrections officers.

But the timeline for shutting down the jail complex and building local jails in four boroughs has been thrust into uncertainty by countervailing forces: state bail reforms were recently rolled back and could reverse a downward trajectory of New Yorkers detained on the island pre-trial, but there are also fewer detainees than ever before as the city has released hundreds in the interest of their health and safety during the pandemic. Meanwhile, due to the economic shutdown, the city’s financial picture has become dire, quickly shifting planned investment in the construction of the new jails necessary to the closure of those on Rikers.

The $8.7 billion plan to close the Rikers jails by 2026 and replace them with four smaller, safer, and more humane borough-based jails, in each borough except Staten Island, was approved by the New York City Council last year after years of pressure from criminal justice reform advocates and elected officials who decried the horrid conditions and crumbling infrastructure of the island’s jails. 

[A Closer Look at the Costs, and Savings, of Closing Rikers and Building Four New Jails]

The plan was put into motion in 2017 by former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who convened the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, chaired by former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann. The commission crafted the foundation of the city’s plan for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who reluctantly embraced it but then ensured a path to its fruition.

The closure of Rikers was contingent on reducing the average daily jail population to below 5,000. In October, when the Council voted on the plan, the daily average was about 7,200 and dropping, with major state-level bail reforms set to take effect in January; there are 14,000 beds across the city jail system. The initial design of the borough-based jails calls for a total of 3,795 beds, and the city intends to house only 3,300 detainees across all four.

As this year began, the bail reforms were implemented, arrests continued their multi-year drop, and the city jail population shrunk significantly, to 5,557 by March 16. But facing a growing campaign of criticism, including some disinformation and fearmongering, state lawmakers decided in April of this year to alter the still-new bail reforms, ensuring more defendants jailed pre-trial. By the time that decision was finalized, the state was already in lockdown due to the coronavirus, concerns about the health of detainees were growing and tax revenues were plummeting. As he ordered the release of some Rikers detainees, de Blasio redesigned his capital budget plan to postpone spending on the new jails.

“In October 2019, the City Council, backed by the Mayor and numerous justice reform advocates, passed a historic measure that will allow the City to replace Rikers Island with four new community-based facilities by 2026. That remains the plan,” said Colby Hamilton, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, in an email.

Initially expected to be completed over a decade, the closure plan timeline was shortened to nine years after a spate of reforms passed last year by the Democrat-led state Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo that eliminated cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felony offenses. Those reforms quickly led to a 40% decrease in the city’s pretrial jail population over the previous year, according to an analysis by the Center for Court Innovation.

But, just three months after those reforms went into effect, Cuomo and the Legislature rolled them back, reinstating cash bail for dozens of offenses and giving judges discretion in setting bail for offenses currently ineligible for pretrial detention. The new rules go into effect July 1 and the Center for Court Innovation estimates that they will lead to a 16% increase in the use of bail and detention over one year, based on the number of people ordered to bail and remand in 2019, adding about 450 more people to the average daily jail population.

After the rollback, activists worried that the Rikers plan was in jeopardy, though the de Blasio administration has not expressed the same level of anxiety. “We also do not believe the recently passed changes to the State bail laws will have a significant impact on the jail population -- we remain on-track for 3,300 by 2026,” Hamilton told Gotham Gazette, referencing a new projection released by the city just before the City Council voted through the jails plan.

The Council also remains committed. “The goal of closing Rikers has not changed,” said a spokesperson for Speaker Corey Johnson, in a statement. “We will work to build on our criminal justice reform efforts as we negotiate a budget during an unprecedented economic downturn.”

The pandemic has proved both a curse and a blessing to those who want to see Rikers shuttered for good. Already reviled for its inhumane conditions, Rikers was at risk of becoming a petri dish for the coronavirus. Data released last week by the Department of Correction showed 362 confirmed cases of coronavirus among the jail population, and another 1,319 among DOC staff. Three detainees and ten corrections officers have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

But, because of the concern for safety of detainees, since the city went into lockdown, de Blasio has ordered the release of hundreds of people detained for nonviolent offenses or those who are particularly vulnerable because of age or preexisting medical health conditions. Cuomo has also taken measures to reduce jail and prison censuses across the state, including by releasing some people incarcerated for technical parole violations.

There are now 3,906 people in New York City jails, down 1,651 from March 16. Of those still in jail, 3,421, or 87.5%, are pretrial detainees, including 595 there on open cases and parole violations. Another 214 are being held only on technical parole violations with no open cases, such as missing curfew or an appointment with a parole officer, for instance.

For those who have long criticized New York’s punitive carceral system, the drastic reduction in the jail population through administrative measures has been vindicating, though there have been a number of detainees who have been rearrested after being released. And the pandemic has added to their fervor to push for a quicker closure of Rikers.

“The COVID-19 crisis has only created more urgency to shut down the Rikers jails, and we are closer than ever to actually doing so,” said former Chief Judge Lippman, in a statement, noting that the jail population was lowered below 4,000 through “smart decisions” while prioritizing public safety. He said the city could still move forward with the borough-based jail plan despite its fiscal woes and “put a permanent end to the miserable legacy of Rikers and save billions in operating costs over the long term. This is a time of great difficulty and pain across the city, but it is not the time to turn back on our commitment to a better future.”

Tyler Nims, executive director of the Lippman Commission, echoed Lippman in a phone interview. “We have fewer people in jail than in any time in recent memory,” he said. “This crisis has just heightened the need to shut Rikers down and placed even more attention on the harms that incarceration can have and the need to use it as sparingly as possible.”

A new report from the commission that looks at the impact of the recent changes to state bail laws recommends several measures that will ensure that the jail population continues to fall after the pandemic. The commission is pushing for the passage of the Less is More Act, sponsored by Manhattan state Senator Brian Benjamin and Brooklyn Assemblymember Walter Mosley, which would limit reincarceration for technical parole violations. That would enshrine into law the administrative changes that the mayor and governor have enacted in the last two months.

The commission also urges district attorneys and judges to employ the additional discretion they will have after July 1 and request bail only when absolutely necessary, expand the use of supervised release, and provide greater pretrial services like housing to those who need them. “There are also a lot of things that can be done by the courts, by the district attorneys, by the city to make sure that that additional judicial not used in a way that results in a return to the pre-bail reform practices,” Nims said.

The commission also recommends implementing an “ability-to-pay assessment” for cases where cash bail may be imposed and calls on the state Legislature to give charitable bail organizations greater ability to post bail.

“I do have faith that, with the right political pressure, the right smart policies and laws can be put in place to continue the progress that has already been made,” Nims said.

However, the mayor’s latest budget proposal released last month would delay capital spending meant to build the new borough-based jail system. The administration cut the entire $140 million it planned to spend on the effort in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and reduced planned capital spending in the next fiscal year from $392 million to $196 million. Even in the best of times, the city has struggled to complete large capital projects on time and within budget. The design process for the jails has barely begun – the city released a Requests for Qualifications for construction vendors for the project in November. While reiterating that the city plans to meet its larger timeline, MOCJ’s Hamilton did not address the delay in capital spending or say whether the planning process for the borough-based jails is still on track.

[Jails, Affordable Housing and Other Capital Projects Delayed as City Grapples with Cash Crunch]

The city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure was suspended on March 16, which means that a land use measure initiated by the City Council that would officially prohibit future jails on Rikers Island by designating it a public space was also put on hold.

City Council Member Costa Constantinides, whose district includes Rikers, has called on the City Planning Commission to resume hearings virtually to ensure the process is completed. “Every day we let this application stall is another life put at risk on Rikers. Nothing should stop the decision to close Rikers Island, when we have proven everything from City Council meetings to weddings can be conducted remotely,” he said in a statement last week. “What this virus has done to the detainees, employees, and guards there only underscores why we cannot wait any longer. If there is one application the City hears virtually, in a way that keeps everyone safe, it should be the one that guarantees Rikers is no longer used as a jail.”

Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank, has suggested that, with the financial uncertainty the city currently faces, the administration would be better off abandoning the borough-based jails plan and instead rebuilding Rikers. “With the pandemic, the city must inevitably rethink its capital-budget priorities so that one experimental project does not overwhelm the rest of the scarcer money available for critical infrastructure,” she wrote in a report last week that cited the city’s poor performance on capital projects in the past, among other issues with the plan.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Budget Crisis, State Bail Reform Could Delay Closure of Rikers Island Jails Tue, 19 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Stringer Takes Veiled Shot at Johnson: Being Mayor 'Not About Dancing Around' scott stringer corey johnson insult

Scott Stringer, center, with Corey Johnson, left (photo: @NYCComptroller)
(photo below: John McCarten/City Council)

With just over a year until the 2021 Democratic primary that will likely decide who becomes New York City’s next mayor, one of the leading contenders, Comptroller Scott Stringer, in a recent interview took an unmistakable jab at another, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, while previewing his argument that he is best suited for the job.

Stringer has had his eye on the mayoralty for years and is finally making his run, with Johnson, who recently emerged at the top tier of city politics, seen as an especially challenging competitor given the two white Manhattan liberals are no doubt seeking many of the same voters.

After launching a brief mayoral run in 2013, eyeing a challenge to Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2017, winning two citywide elections, and more than six years as a citywide official, Stringer has honed his campaign pitch. He made it evident again in a recent interview on Arena Talks, a podcast hosted by Ravi Gupta, co-founder and managing partner of Arena, a national progressive organization that assists and trains left-leaning Democratic candidates, campaign operatives, and government aides, while also take a shot at Johnson.

When Gupta asked Stringer what he would tell voters who might have lost faith in the progressive vision that de Blasio offered for years but in many ways failed to provide, Stringer offered some praise for the mayor’s accomplishments and his “heartfelt” focus on income inequality, while also offering a typically harsh critique. But he also had veiled criticism for Johnson, whom Stringer has mostly not publicly attacked as the two, among others, are on their collision course.

“But we now have to, I think, have a progressive administration that knows how to govern, especially in these very difficult times. We need a progressive who has real on-the-job experience because you can't leave it to chance. This is not about speechifying, I don’t know, dancing around,” Stringer said, with apparent reference to Johnson’s penchant for public dancing, which has often garnered attention at parades across the city.

Stringer continued, “This is about thinking strategically about the economy we want for younger people, [we] want to make sure that we can safely open our schools and our colleges. We have to make sure that the people who are in the gig economy and the frontline workers, in particular the doctors and the nurses, the people who are today's heroes, we need to get them the resources they need. I mean I love parades, I love ticker-tape parades but man, Ravi, hook up the people who every day go to work not knowing that they're going to ever see their child again.”

Stringer’s comments may seem anodyne but, for those familiar with the City Council speaker, it was a thinly-veiled back-handed critique. Johnson, the first openly gay and openly HIV-positive speaker of the Council, is known to some for his outgoing, affable personality, and his dance moves, which he has shown off at several parades, including, for example, the Brooklyn Pride Parade of the last two years, where's he's led a Council pack along 5th Avenue, as he has at other parades in other parts of the city since being elected speaker by his Council colleagues. Some of those dance moves have become sensations on social media, where Johnson has also repeatedly posted himself lip-syncing to pop music and dancing in other venues. At a September news conference when he released a comprehensive plan to combat homelessness, Johnson spoke of his mother, who works with the homeless in his home state of Massachusetts, and how she does a happy dance when she finds a home for one of her clients. Johnson then danced with a reporter.

Corey Johnson dancing parade

Stringer’s ticker-tape comment was a more obvious dig at de Blasio, whose early promise to hold one for first responders and health care workers after the pandemic has passed prompted widespread criticism and ridicule. “I want to guarantee you one thing, that when that day comes that I can restart the vibrant beautiful life of this city again, the first thing we will do is have a ticker-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes for our health care workers and our first responders,” de Blasio said at an April 21 media briefing.

Stringer did go on to say in the Arena interview that he was “not thinking about” the mayoral race. A campaign spokesperson said the same when Gotham Gazette asked whether Stringer’s “dancing around” comment was meant for Johnson. “There are almost 200,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New York City. We've lost 15,000 of our fellow New Yorkers. The Comptroller is singularly focused on providing oversight and leadership to help New Yorkers get through this crisis. Everything else is just noise,” said Jennifer Galvin, a spokesperson for Stringer’s campaign, in an email.

Jennifer Fermino, a spokesperson for Johnson’s campaign, said, “The Speaker is focused on the City Council and providing relief to tenants, small businesses, and essential workers during this crisis.”

A Democratic consultant who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely and who is not involved in any 2021 campaigns at this time said there was no predicting how the 2021 race will shape up after the pandemic, but voters will definitely yearn for “competent, steady leadership.”

“The case that Stringer can make to people is that he has worked his way through the rungs of government, that as the comptroller he understands the fiscal side of the city perhaps better than anyone else, and he's been a legislator and he's been a borough president. So he's got a good grasp of how the different pieces of this all fit,” the consultant said. “Clearly, he's making the case that whoever the next mayor is, they need to be someone who has the experience at all these levels of government, and can corral the city's bureaucracy while at the same time projecting a steady hand.”

The consultant said Stringer was making a contrast with Johnson, “who has made a brand of cheerleading for New York, of being an unapologetic New York ‘nationalist,’ someone who wears New York on his sleeve. And there’s definitely a need for that.”

The consultant said the goodwill Johnson has experienced may evaporate at some point. “Corey has had a pretty good run of noncritical press for a long time now and as the campaign eventually heats up, that's gonna go away,” the consultant said.

Though the coronavirus has upended New York City politics, subsuming focus on future elections, the June 2021 primary nonetheless looms large over the city. Every seat in municipal government will be on the ballot, and the mayor, comptroller, four borough presidents, and dozens of City Council members face term limits disallowing them to run again and provoking additional competition. In a heavily Democratic city, the winner of that primary is all but assured to win the general election for almost every seat.

Stringer abandoned a short-lived bid for the mayoralty in the 2013 election that saw de Blasio win the first of two terms as Mayor. Stringer instead successfully ran for comptroller, winning reelection in 2017.

Before that reelection run, Stringer eyed a run for mayor in 2017, when de Blasio faced dual ethics investigations by federal and state prosecutors over his fundraising activities and relationships with donors. But Stringer again demurred when the investigations closed and no charges were filed.

Now Stringer finds himself in the top tier of candidates seeking to become the city’s chief executive, alongside Johnson and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, another two-term Democrat. All three, along with de Blasio, are term-limited from running again for their current seats. Several other candidates are also in the running or exploring a mayoral run, including Loree Sutton, a retired Army Brigadier General and former commissioner of the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services; Dianne Morales, a nonprofit executive in the Bronx; and Shaun Donovan, a former high-level aide to President Barack Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Stringer Takes Veiled Shot at Johnson: Being Mayor 'Not About Dancing Around' Wed, 13 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Questions De Blasio's Priorities at First Executive Budget Hearing covid19 mayor

Mayor de Blasio & Speaker Johnson (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

With the city facing a severe budget crunch because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s executive budget proposal released last month cut $6 billion in planned spending, tapped $4 billion from reserves and delayed major capital investments to future years when another mayor will be in office. On Wednesday, about eight weeks before a deal must be reached between the two sides, the City Council held a virtual hearing on the mayor’s spending plan. Council members questioned de Blasio administration budget officials on the mayor’s decisions, why he chose to prioritize certain city agencies and programs over others, and whether they have any contingencies now that the city’s reserves have been all but depleted and tax revenue projections continue to slide. 

The mayor’s $89.3 billion executive budget proposal was crafted with much uncertainty. The city has received far less than it has asked for in federal stimulus funds. The state shifted as much as $800 million in costs onto the city. Cash flows have been interrupted as the annual tax deadline was postponed. It could be months before the economy can be rebooted, with no certainty around what that reboot will look like given the contraction taking place. And the city continues its daily struggle against the coronavirus, with the administration spending $950 million by April 21 on its pandemic response, according to the mayor's office, with those costs only increasing by the day. 

Projections for the future also look bleak. By city budget office projections, the city will lose as much as $7.4 billion in revenue by the end of the next fiscal year in June 2021. It is now facing budget gaps of $4.5 billion to $5 billion in three upcoming fiscal years. To balance the budget, de Blasio decided to identify $2.1 billion in savings through a program to eliminate the gap (PEG), which mandated cuts at city agencies, and found another $600 million in reduced spending on citywide needs. Federal aid worth $2 billion provided some relief but de Blasio has said the city needs the full $7.4 billion it isn't pulling in from taxes in order to avoid the worst possible scenario, which would involve layoffs and furloughs for municipal workers.

“Every one of us has to start looking at that possibility if we don't have any money,” he said at his daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday morning, pressed for more detail after he had floated the possibility of furloughs and layoffs of essential workers during a Wednesday morning appearance on CNN, in an apparent effort to lobby federal officials. “We have a budget coming up in June. I'm not here to project anything while we're in the middle of fighting for the stimulus funding, because that's what would get us out of this mess, and that's what New York City deserves. That's what every city and state that's suffering deserves, is stimulus funding that makes us whole, that replaces all the lost revenue, that allows us to retain our full workforce, ensure that public services are being provided, basic services so we can get on with a restart and recovery.”

Council Speaker Corey Johnson struck a different tune at Wednesday’s hearing. “[E]ven with our limited resource pool, we still have options,” he said in his opening statement. “And the choices that we make can make the difference between success or defeat for so many of our city’s residents and businesses.” He worried that should the federal government fail to provide further relief, the city budget could face “draconian, drastic and unprecedented cuts.” 

The Council itself has not offered a unified vision for either raising more revenue or avoiding budget cuts. In a statement last month, after the executive budget was released, Johnson, along with finance committee chair Council Member Daniel Dromm and capital budget subcommittee chair Council Member Vanessa Gibson conceded that tough decisions will have to be made. “Our guiding principal will be to ensure that the most vulnerable New Yorkers are protected and that we keep providing critical social services,” they said. 

At the hearing, Dromm emphasized that the executive budget lacks a clear plan to protect the city’s social safety net. “We must also ensure that cuts are targeted without depriving the most vulnerable New Yorkers of vital services. The financial plan proposes many types that would be extremely painful to endure,” he said, citing cuts to the Department of Youth and Community Development, and the Departments of Education, Sanitation, and Parks and Recreation. “We must find a way to preserve the critical investments championed by the Council to promote access to food, protect older adults, align shelter and housing conditions with recommended health policies for coronavirus, stabilize the small business community, and support human service providers,” he said. 

As chair of the subcommittee on the capital budget, Gibson said the city should not take its eye off long-term projects. She noted, for instance, that the latest capital commitment plan, which lays out four years of capital spending, includes a $513 million reduction in spending on affordable housing programs and delays $472 million for the borough-based jails plan, which is necessary for the closure of Rikers Island jails, to later years. “Now more than ever before, is the time for the City Council and the administration to work together to ensure that the path to rebuilding our city remains a priority,” she said.

The Council did not treat the administration with a light touch at the hearing. Council members seemed mostly frustrated with the mayor’s budget proposal. Some questioned why summer youth programs had been practically eliminated, while the NYPD’s budget remains nearly flat. Others advocated for greater aid for populations particularly vulnerable during this outbreak – seniors whose health is at risk, undocumented immigrants who have lost their livelihoods and cannot access government benefits, renters who could face eviction once a state-imposed moratorium on housing court proceedings is lifted. Others pushed for cuts to signature de Blasio programs like ThriveNYC, the oft-maligned mental health initiative led by First Lady Chirlane McCray that has struggled to show effectiveness and spends over $200 million per year.   

Council members also argued for more capital spending, not less, so that the city can continue pursuing its long-term goals for more affordable housing, new schools, and to close Rikers jails.

Melanie Hartzog, director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, was blunt at the hearing about the city’s prospects in the months ahead. By the end of September, the city will lose more than half a million jobs, she said. By the end of 2020, she projected that the city will have spent $3.5 billion just to fight the pandemic.

“Our priority was to maintain funding for health and safety for the COVID-19 response,” she said of budget planning. “This meant very difficult choices. Many programs that cannot operate during this time of crisis were reduced or scaled back, and some new initiatives have delayed start dates.”

Hartzog also expressed concern that the city could see further budget cuts if the state adjusts its own budget in the upcoming months to respond to lost revenue. Governor Andrew Cuomo has indicated that the state will have to make drastic cuts, including $8 billion less to localities, which would likely affect education and Medicaid spending. “New York City stands to lose an alarming level of funding needed to educate our children and care for at-risk residents,” Hartzog said. Like the city, the state continues to call for billions in federal “bailout” funding to replace lost tax revenue and sustain government spending and services.

Speaker Johnson was disappointed that the mayor’s budget plan doesn’t include more funding to maintain the social safety net, with no major programmatic increases in the budget for the Human Resources Administration and Department of Social Services. “Why doesn't the fiscal 2021 budget reflect the growing demands for food pantries, for senior home-delivered meals for homeless shelters, for isolation hotels, for street homeless New Yorkers, for eviction prevention, etc.?”

Hartzog said the city has already allocated $170 million to emergency food security programs as the administration ramps up the goal of providing a million free meals to New Yorkers each day. But she also insisted that costs are in flux for all types of needs and will be adjusted over time. “Yes, it doesn't reflect it at this moment, but as we assess the needs, and they are growing, we will be adding that funding,” she said.

The same was the case for funding for the direct response to the coronavirus. As Johnson pointed out, the executive budget does not include allocations for disease detectives and contact tracers, increased public health services, or hotels to isolate people who contract the virus.

“The pandemic is very dynamic and challenging for us to project and as things are moving on the ground, we're just reacting and moving as quickly as we can on the budget side,” Hartzog said. “But again, it does not prohibit the spending that needs to happen to ramp up.” She noted that as COVID-19 testing increases across the city, so will spending on isolation beds, with $250 million expected for spending on hotels. The mayor also announced the hiring of 1,000 contact tracers at a cost of $100 million, of which between 300 and 400 are already in the pipeline, she said. 

A major point of contention for several Council members was the cuts to summer youth programs. Both the Summer Youth Employment Program for more than 70,000 youth and the COMPASS, Beacon, and SoNYC afterschool programs were eliminated in the mayor’s latest budget plan. Council members juxtaposed it with relatively minimal changes in spending on the NYPD at a time when crime is mostly very low and people are sheltered at home. The contrast has been particularly jarring in the context of several videos showing NYPD officers violently arresting young New Yorkers of color while enforcing social distancing regulations. The NYPD has also been directed to remove homeless individuals from the city’s subways. Both roles, many Council members said, should not fall to the police. 

“We had one in six police officers out sick, whether they were sick, COVID-positive, and we had a time where we were actually ramping up on social distancing and needed enforcement. And so from that perspective, making reductions was not something that made sense to us,” Hartzog told Dromm. 

But her explanation was not sufficient for Council members. “The challenge that I see is the administration's response seems to be that we're going to utilize the NYPD to police our young people,” said Council Member Laurie Cumbo. “What we're going to see again is what happened with the Eric Garner situation where this is going to create a dynamic where young people are going to be arrested, brutalized throughout the summer, and communities of color are going to have to organize and galvanize and focus all of their energies around the NYPD, when in reality, they should be focusing on stimulus money, getting their businesses back up to speed. This is going to be devastating.”

Council Member Adrienne Adams echoed Cumbo. “I don't understand a formula that would create such a disparity between youth services and the NYPD,” Adams said. 

Hartzog did say that DYCD is working with the DOE to possibly provide for remote youth jobs and learning programs. “Those plans are forthcoming,” she said.  

Later in the hearing, after Hartzog had to leave, Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the public safety committee, even suggested that the city could save about $25 million by canceling an incoming class of NYPD officers, which was already delayed, particularly since there is little need for crime enforcement in the current times. “We're talking about all the essential things we need to get through this crisis. Why aren't we looking at cancelling a class that would serve no real reason right now as crime continues to decrease, as we see during this pandemic?” he wondered. “Is policing the priority of the administration?”

Ken Godiner, first deputy budget director, responded, “We obviously have to balance all the priorities that we have including public safety...The mayor has said that health and safety are our North Star. And [the NYPD] has taken $90 million in savings already between the preliminary and [executive budget].”

There were several members who criticized the de Blasio administration for having increased spending by $20 billion since 2014, only to have to make drastic cuts now. “This administration is about to leave us with no reserves, and raid the retirement trust fund,” said Council Member Mark Gjonaj, referring to the $4.7 billion Retiree Health Benefits Trust, which formed a part of the city’s nearly $6 billion in reserves before this budget. The administration drew $2.6 billion from the trust to balance the budget (though it is balanced against potentially too rosy of a tax revenue picture). 

“This is a time that we're supposed to be thinking out of the box and making sure every dollar gets spent wisely. I’m not hearing that from this administration,” he said, insisting that the administration’s actions would leave the next administration with a tougher budget to manage. 

Hartzog pushed back against the suggestion. “I do not think that we're leaving future administrations with any more challenges. I think in fact, we have increased reserves and continued to have record levels of savings. And we'll continue to do so, including the fact that we've negotiated labor contracts, which has provided a lot of stability and planning forward for this city's budget,” Hartzog responded. 

There were several other priorities that Council members expressed over the nearly four hours that budget officials testified. Council Member Keith Powers pushed the administration on relief for small businesses and rental assistance for tenants that are out of work. Council Member Margaret Chin called for more. Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer urged Hartzog to ensure libraries and cultural institutions continue to be adequately funded. Council Member Ben Kallos called for cuts to wasteful contracts and consultants that make up the $16 billion contract budget. Council Member Carlos Menchaca implored the administration to help undocumented immigrants, who were left out of the federal stimulus package approved by Congress.  

The Council will continue hearings on specific agency budgets over the next few weeks before it moves to closed negotiations with the administration. The budget for the next fiscal year is due by July 1.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated.

City Council Questions De Blasio's Priorities at First Executive Budget Hearing Wed, 06 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City Council to Hold Oversight Hearing on 'Disparate Impacts of COVID-19 on Communities of Color' city council hearing

Mayor de Blasio visits health care workers (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Though the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged New York City, causing more than 17,000 deaths and untold devastation on the lives of residents, the impact has been worse for communities of color where existing disparities in economic status and access to health care have only been exacerbated. On Thursday, the New York City Council will hold a remote oversight hearing to examine those disparities, their causes, and the steps that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is taking to tackle the problem.

The hearing will be led by the Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Council Member Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat who himself contracted and recovered from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“Our goal for the hearing is to understand how systemic failures and injustices in the healthcare system, housing, education and environmental degradation contributed to communities of color being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” Torres said in a statement. “We'll hear directly from experts knowledgeable about how disparities in these areas exacerbated the spread of COVID-19.”

Council Speaker Corey Johnson said, “The Council is holding this hearing to hear from both experts and impacted communities about what is causing these disparate impacts so we can chart a path forward for a more equitable city that eventually closes these gaps of racial inequality.”

On April 6, the city shared initial data that showed black and Latino New Yorkers dying at much higher rates than white and Asian people. De Blasio expressed both a lack of surprise and indignation. Though equity, including racial and ethnic equity and good health care for all, has been a major through-line since his first mayoral campaign, he spoke of the disparate coronavirus impacts almost as inevitable. He pledged additional resources, testing, and an added public information campaign in the hardest-hit neighborhoods.

Nearly three weeks later, on April 26, de Blasio announced the creation of a Task Force on Racial Inclusion and Equity to monitor efforts to mitigate the outbreak in communities of color and to ensure that long-term recovery programs are focused on remediating existing inequities.

The task force was one of several the mayor announced to focus on a “fair recovery” for the city. He also said he would convene yet another Charter Revision Commission, the third in his time as mayor and the second created by him directly (another commission was created by the City Council through legislation).

“This crisis is not only about a virus; it’s about the fallout from hundreds of thousands of our neighbors losing their jobs and struggling to provide for their families. It’s about the outsized devastation communities of color are facing across the country,” de Blasio said in a statement. “I am not only calling on New Yorkers from all walks of life to help us get our city back on its feet – I am calling on them to join me in the fight ahead for a fair recovery.”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams had called on the administration two weeks ago to ensure a coordinated response to the impact of the outbreak on communities of color. On Sunday, Williams praised the mayor’s announcement but issued words of warning.

“Who comprises this task force, how quickly they are empowered to act, and the force of that action are paramount,” Williams said in a statement. “Throughout this crisis, our government has moved too slowly on all levels, and now we need to be quick and decisive. The primary function of this task force cannot be to engage in a long, protracted process of deliberation and study, dwelling on how we got here. We know this disparity was created by a long history of systemic inequities and injustices. Additional delays waste time that the people being devastated by this crisis-- those who are deemed essential but treated as expendable-- just don't have. Ultimately, we need results, not a report, and the work of this task force must have a voice in and be supported by the city's budget.”

The mayor’s new racial equity task force quickly faced criticism. Along with Deputy Mayor Phil Thompson, de Blasio appointed his wife, First Lady Chirlane McCray, to co-chair the group, which was seen by some as a political move to boost her reputation as she considers a possible bid for Brooklyn Borough President in an election set for next year. McCray has also been the architect and face of ThriveNYC, the city’s beleaguered mental health initiative that has stumbled over a dearth of results for the hundreds of millions put into the program.

Among those who criticized the mayor for appointing McCray was Brooklyn City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who is already a declared candidate in the Brooklyn Borough President race. “We need people that are health experts at the front lines that are doing this work,” Reynoso said in a phone interview. “I think of Chirlane McCray as a very capable and intelligent person. I just don’t think she’s an expert in handling any of these issues that we're talking about.”

Reynoso said the administration should not have been caught off guard by the disparate impact of the coronavirus on communities of color. “My biggest concern is that the mayor ran on a campaign of a ‘tale of two cities,’ so to me it feels like he understood the gross inequities that existed before the coronavirus hit,” he said, “and I just feel like we've had six-and-a-half years to adjust to many issues in a significant or an aggressive way.”

He noted in particular that the communities with the greatest rates of asthma are the poorest communities of color in the city, so the administration should have taken specific precautions to protect those populations from a respiratory disease like COVID-19. “So for me it just is very concerning,” Reynoso said. “We needed to wait for data and even after we got the data, we had to wait some more.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Council to Hold Oversight Hearing on 'Disparate Impacts of COVID-19 on Communities of Color' Tue, 28 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Amid 'Really Tough Process' Adjusting to Coronavirus Recession, De Blasio Set to Release Executive Budget de Blasio city budget coronavirus executive

Mayor de Blasio gives a budget presentation (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

For his first six years in office, Mayor Bill de Blasio enjoyed the fruits of a booming economy and massively increased the size and cost of city government. But this week, he will present his executive budget proposal for the 2021 fiscal year facing a possible $6 billion revenue shortfall, hundreds of millions in cuts and cost shifts from the state, and almost complete uncertainty about the future as the coronavirus outbreak continues with New York City at its epicenter. 

De Blasio’s preliminary budget proposal for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1, was a $95.3 billion spending plan, up more than $20 billion since he took office in 2014. Year after year, the mayor has taken advantage of quickly growing tax revenue, increasing the municipal worker headcount by more than 30,000 and only paying lip service to finding savings and efficiencies at city agencies. Though his administration kept putting away money in reserves – nearly $6 billion for the current fiscal year – budget watchdogs warned that it would be insufficient to survive a sustained recession. What the city faces now is no mere economic downturn.

Coronavirus, estimated to have now killed more than 10,000 New Yorkers as of April 14, presents a fiscal crisis of unprecedented proportions. It’s unlike previous recessions, which had cost the city between $15-20 billion in lost revenue over three years. There is no clear end in sight to the crisis and no guarantee that even once it is over, the city will be able to bounce back as quickly as it did in the past. That has forced the mayor toward the first truly hard budget choices of his tenure.

The city has already found $1.3 billion in savings and cost re-estimates under a Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG) that the mayor quickly instituted after the outbreak. But far from recurring savings, it includes programmatic cuts and delays that may not be sustainable, and some will be far from palatable to New Yorkers. It also reflects adjusted spending estimates as a result of the coronavirus’ impact on how city residents access local government.

For instance, the PEG includes a $100 million reduction in fair student funding, and $124 million saved by cancelling the Summer Youth Employment Program. It delays the expansion of the 3K for All program, temporarily reducing expenditure by $43 million. It includes $52 million that wasn’t spent on snow removal this winter, though there’s no guarantee that next year will be as mild a season. Another $106 million is meant to come from a hiring freeze and vacancy reductions at city agencies.

The mayor has even said the city may have to consider borrowing in the short-term to cover costs, for which it would need authorization from the state Legislature.

“[W]e've had to go through a really tough process around cuts to the budget and savings and PEG program,” de Blasio said at his daily coronavirus briefing on Tuesday, when he was asked about the prospect of seeking that authority from Albany. “But we're going to have to look at everything to figure out how we get through this.”

Mayoral spokesperson Laura Feyer would not say whether the city plans to draw on its reserves to cover costs for the coming year, among other details about cash-flows and prepayments that Gotham Gazette inquired about. “We will be presenting the budget this week and will have more to say then,” she said in an email. “One thing you can count on now and always: we are committed to keeping New Yorkers fed, safe, healthy and sheltered.”

It’s unclear what new savings or savings plans de Blasio will announce when he presents the executive budget this week. 

There could be some relief, as the city is anxiously awaiting the next round of emergency funding from the federal government, which is currently being negotiated among Congressional leaders and the Trump administration and may be aimed at state and local governments experiencing steep revenue shortfalls. In media appearances on Wednesday morning, de Blasio emphasized that those funds will be crucial, particularly in ensuring that the city's emergency response mechanisms and services aren't hobbled. "We're not going to be able to provide basic services and actually have a normal society if we don't get help from the federal government so we can restart, so we can actually have a livable working city again," the mayor said on CNN's New Day. "If it doesn't come from the federal government, it's not going to happen. So Congress has got to get back and do a stimulus that helps cities, helps states, helps everyone get back on their feet and actually sustain a normal economy again."

But there is also the possibility of mid-year cuts from the state, with the recently-approved state budget allowing Governor Andrew Cuomo to periodically reduce spending if state revenues should come in below already-lowered expectations. As it stands, the budget could add several additional costs to the city’s books, including $200 million for healthcare, among others.

[Read: 10 Ways the New State Budget Impacts New York City]

There are also new costs the city is accruing in fighting the coronavirus, such as additional spending on emergency food and related services. The city has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its coronavirus response, the mayor's office told Gotham Gazette.

In an analysis released March 23, city Comptroller Scott Stringer projected the city already faces losses of up to $6 billion in revenue between the current and next fiscal year from the economic effects of the coronavirus.

“The City should explore all budget actions that protect essential services, the social safety net, and our long-term fiscal health, and the federal government must step up with substantial financial support for New York City as the epicenter of this crisis,” said Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Stringer, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “In that context, while it would be premature to rule out any specific course of action, we urge caution before the City engages in borrowing to cover operating costs, which would create debt service obligations that have the potential to crowd out funds for the very services and people we are trying to protect.”

The city often uses revenue surpluses at the end of the fiscal year to prepay certain costs, such as debt service, for the next fiscal year. As the comptroller noted in his analysis, the city expected a surplus of $2.7 billion, and if those funds are used to balance the budget, then next year’s budget gap would potentially increase to $4.5 billion, a number that would have to be closed by the time a spending plan is approved in June.

The City Council is the other key participant in the city budget process. A spokesperson for Council Speaker Corey Johnson said, “We are facing unprecedented budget challenges with rapid shortfalls in revenue and rising unemployment, but we must continue to deliver for the thousands of New Yorkers who rely on that social safety net, especially our most vulnerable populations: the elderly, homeless, disabled and low-income families. We are going to have to make very hard decisions about where to find savings and efficiencies. At this point, nothing is off the table.”

Johnson has said the City Council is working to develop ways to hold budget hearings digitally -- the Council was in the midst of its hearings on de Blasio’s preliminary budget when the coronavirus shutdown began. On April 7, Johnson and Council members who chair budget committees offered a formal response to the mayor’s budget, noting that de Blasio’s spending plan was released in early January when the city was in a very different place.

“The impact of COVID-19 on our economy has been much like the effect of the virus itself – sudden and with a quick decline,” said Johnson, Finance Committee Chair Danny Dromm, and Capital Budget Subcommittee Chair Vanessa Gibson.

They gave their “estimation of the components of the baseline budget that are essential and must be preserved even in the face of impending budget cuts,” and while recognizing the need to cut the budget, said “as we make the tough decisions about where to find savings and efficiencies, it is imperative that the basic social safety net programs remain untouched, and in some cases expanded with additional investments.”

They identified seven key areas for protection and even increased funding: Maintaining Public Health; Addressing Food Insecurity; Protecting the Senior Population; Keeping New Yorkers Housed; Supporting Human Services Providers; Protecting Tenants and Small Property Owners; and Supporting Small Business.

Budget watchdogs have several prescriptions to rein in costs, though some may be hard pills to swallow for the mayor. While it will not help in the current crisis, they have renewed a push for creating a dedicated rainy day fund, which requires state legislative approval. And they all agree though that short-term borrowing should not be the mayor’s first instinct.

“Borrowing funds is the last resort,” said Andrew Rein, president of Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit watchdog organization. “The first step is to look at savings and make significant changes. That certainly hasn't been the pattern in this administration but we need bold action now.”

Rein said the mayor should deliver, at minimum, a $3 billion savings plan for the next fiscal year focused on agency efficiencies, with savings that will recur year after year. “This is not a one year problem,” he said. 

[Read: Coronavirus Recession Makes New York City Rainy Day Fund More Urgent, Watchdogs and Legislators Say]

The outyears will also be impossible to predict, since there’s no telling when people will be able to go back to work and when major industries that the city relies on like tourism, food service, and hospitality will recover. “We haven't experienced a shock of this kind before so it’s not readily clear what the response from tourists, from New Yorkers, from businesses will be in terms of how quickly people get back to normal,’ said Ana Champeny, Citizens Budget Commission’s director of city studies.

Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said the “easiest thing” would be to institute a public sector wage freeze, which could save the city a significant chunk of money but is an unpopular decision that the mayor is unlikely to embrace.

Part of the problem with planning the budget, Gelinas noted, is not knowing the level of aid to expect from the federal government. “Unless we get tens of billions of dollars of federal aid in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic, we're going to not have a very good recovery,” she said, “and then you don't want what should be a temporary crisis to become a permanent crisis."

Gelinas said the city should focus on maintaining core services – such as fire, police, EMS, corrections, and sanitation – instead of cutting them, which is what she criticized in the mayor’s $1.3 billion PEG.

“I think it's disturbing how quickly they went to make cuts to frontline services,” she said, noting the cuts to bike lane construction and organics collection programs. “If that's the first thing you're going to cut that saves you like a tiny, tiny fraction of a percentage of the budget, it doesn't seem like you’re starting out in the right frame of mind.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with the mayor's comments from a CNN New Day interview. 

Amid 'Really Tough Process' Adjusting to Coronavirus Recession, De Blasio Set to Release Executive Budget Tue, 14 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
How 2021 Mayoral Candidates Have Responded to Coronavirus Crisis One Will Inherit how mayoral

Three of the leading 2021 mayoral candidates (photo: Gotham Gazette)

It took merely three weeks from the first case of the coronavirus being confirmed in the city to thousands of New Yorkers testing positive for the virus. The scale of the outbreak has presented an emergency of a scope that the city has perhaps never before faced. The aftermath of the crisis will be felt well into the future and in 2022, the effects it will have on the city’s people, its economy, and its politics will be inherited by whoever takes the helm at City Hall.

Next year, Mayor Bill de Blasio will in all likelihood be finishing his second and final term, attempting to heal the city and seal his legacy as a field of candidates runs to replace him. Among many other issues, it now appears that the coronavirus outbreak and its aftermath will be central to the race to be the next mayor, shifting the dynamics of a race already in its early stages.

Those considered the top contenders are already enmeshed in city government – City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. The three have played different roles as the coronavirus outbreak has gripped the city, and while none has the awesome responsibilities of mayor, in their responses they may be giving some indication of how they would approach such a seismic event if elected the city’s leader.

Other exploring or declared candidates include Loree Sutton, a retired Army Brigadier General and former commissioner of the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services; Dianne Morales, a nonprofit executive in the Bronx; and Shaun Donovan, a former high-level aide to President Barack Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. All three shared thoughts about the coronavirus crisis with Gotham Gazette.

As coronavirus was confirmed to have landed in New York City and as the fallout unfolded, there’s been some early criticism, or at least difference of opinion, between Mayor de Blasio and those who seek to replace him on how the city should have reacted and how it continues to operate in the face of the deadly pandemic.

Some of the candidates have proposed their own plans to save the city and its people from the outbreak’s devastation, which may not be political maneuvers but may serve that purpose when the campaigns relaunch after the crisis has subsided.   

Understandably, the candidates -- all of whom are Democrats like de Blasio -- have been reluctant to critique the mayor amid a public health, social, and economic crisis of this scale. But that doesn’t mean they all agree with everything he has done or don’t have their own ideas for other actions to take. 

Corey Johnson
Before the city at large grasped how acute the spread of coronavirus had become, elected officials at all levels were urging calm. Johnson was with Mayor de Blasio at early news conferences on the coronavirus, such as on March 2, after the administration held its second “tabletop exercise” to prepare for what may come.

“I want the public to continue to practice common sense and base decisions on science and public health information, not fear,” Johnson said, while maintaining that people who were not sick did not need to stay at home, echoing messages from the mayor and top city health officials. “We should be taking basic precautions...that means doing the things we know but not avoiding public places,” he said.  

At another briefing on March 5, Johnson continued with his sanguine message. “As the mayor has done consistently, I think it is important that we urge the public to be guided by fact and not by misinformation, not by fiction. You can still ride the can still go to can still go to work...and you can still go and enjoy a concert or a basketball game,” he said, noting that he’d ridden the subway earlier. The mayor, to drive the message home, took a rare subway ride himself that day.

Things would soon escalate quickly, and everything changed.

As the outbreak progressed, however, and the mayor hesitated to close the school system amid increasing public pressure, Johnson was among those who pressed him to take the major step (Stringer quickly followed suit, while then calling for a near-shutdown of the city shortly before de Blasio or Johnson did). The speaker’s plan to enforce social distancing is also more restrictive than what the mayor has pursued so far. 

[Read: Mayor and Council Speaker Differ on Creating Open Space, Enforcing Social Distancing Amid Coronavirus Shutdown]

On March 5, days after the first positive case of coronavirus was confirmed in Manhattan, the Council quickly convened an oversight hearing to examine the administration’s preparedness for a larger outbreak. As the crisis escalated, Johnson chose to indefinitely postpone his State of the City speech scheduled for March 11.

On that day, March 11, days before the mayor, under pressure from Governor Andrew Cuomo, announced the closure of schools, and restrictions on bars and restaurants to takeout/delivery only, Johnson called for “limits on non-essential large gatherings.”

“I am not calling for New York City to be shut down. This is a balancing act. Children should continue going to school. The subways should remain in operation. Healthy New Yorkers should continue working, shopping at local businesses and taking part in city life,” he said at the time. Large gatherings were restricted by the mayor the next day.

On March 13, Johnson changed his tune and said schools should close. After resistance, deliberation, and pressure from Johnson, Cuomo, and others, the mayor announced on March 15 that schools would be shuttered starting the next day.

Just like de Blasio, Johnson has also been making regular appearances on TV and radio news shows. And he’s continued to advocate for policy decisions that will matter both during and after the crisis. He called on the NYPD to stop making arrests for low-level offenses, pushed the state  Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to stop jailing individuals for technical parole violations, and urged district attorneys to ask for bail or remand only when absolutely necessary, among other criminal justice-related proposals. 

Most notably, on March 19 Johnson released a $12 billion plan to provide relief to businesses and workers affected by the coronavirus. Though he said the federal government should pay for it, he also noted that the city could fund it through bonds if its request is refused. His plan would include one-time city payments of $550 for each adult and $275 for each child, on top of any relief funds given by the federal government. It also called for expanding unemployment insurance to freelance and gig workers, and for increasing benefits by 30%.

The speaker proposed deferring sales and use taxes, and the commercial rent tax and business taxes, called for deferring collection of city fees without penalties, and expanding the city’s small business loan programs with no-interest loans and possible loan forgiveness. “This is a crisis unlike any we’ve ever seen. However, the tools that have helped us in the past can be utilized again,” he said in a statement. “The difficult steps we’ve taken to protect ourselves and others are necessary, including social distancing and mandatory closures, but they are devastating our businesses and workers in every corner of the city...This plan will provide relief not just for our economy, but also for the small businesses and workers that are the heart and soul of New York City.”

This week, Johnson also joined with other elected officials and advocacy organizations to call for an immediate plan to house the city’s 80,000 homeless people, along with several proposals to provide them with sanitation equipment, food, and clothing, and to end sweeps of homeless people by the police.

On Friday, as part of budget negotiations with the de Blasio administration, Johnson and the Council called for $50 million for emergency food assistance programs.

In the last two weeks, Johnson has been making remote media appearances as he shelters indoors, at times using his active social media accounts to discuss the experience, and has not been appearing as he was earlier with the mayor at his regular briefings on the outbreak.

Scott Stringer
Comptroller Stringer was also pushing for a “city shutdown” of all except essential services prior to the mayor’s announcement, including schools. Prior to that, on March 12, he announced that all employees in his office, numbering several hundred, would begin working from home the next day. 

After Johnson, following the lead of the Council’s education committee chair, Mark Treyger, had said schools should close on March 13, Stringer said similarly. “Many difficult decisions have to be made that have serious implications for our city, including the closure of schools. At this time I think the question is not if, but how, public schools should close,” Stringer said that day. He made his plea for a full shutdown on the morning of March 15 – later that day, the mayor announced closures of schools, bars and restaurants. 

Prior to that, the comptroller issued new guidance that allowed schools to purchase tablets with capital funds in order to facilitate remote learning. 

As would be expected, his office quickly examined how the outbreak would hurt the city’s economy, putting initial estimates at $3.2 billion in lost revenue over six months (which even he acknowledged is a conservative figure at best). In his analysis, he pushed the mayor to find savings in city agency operations (except at social service and health agencies) to prevent disruption of services for the most vulnerable New Yorkers. The mayor has since instituted a Program to Eliminate the Gap to cut about $1.3 billion in spending by agencies, and has said there’s more that will be needed as he prepares his executive budget plan for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.  

“This is an unprecedented public health emergency, and we need all hands on deck at every level of government to tackle this crisis,” Stringer said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “My office is doing everything in our power to support workers, help small businesses, secure the fiscal health of our city, and above all, protect the health and safety of New Yorkers. When we look back at this time, I want to be able to say that our city government stood up for our city, marshaled all resources at our disposal, and did everything we could to save lives. I am fully committed to assisting and supporting the pandemic response in every way I can.”

Stringer’s office has been busy approving hundreds of emergency contracts and monitoring how the tumult in the financial markets is affecting the city’s pension system.  

He also had several policy prescriptions to offer. Like Johnson, he called for deferring sales tax collections and for expanded services and assistance for small businesses. Instead of deferring fines and fees, he suggested they be waived entirely. He also pushed for the city to give contractual relief to those city-contracted nonprofits that provide human services but cannot meet their obligations under the current situation, which it did. 

Stringer also urged the federal government and private sector to take steps to mitigate the fallout of the coronavirus. He pushed for extending the in-person counting phase of the decennial census. He called on credit bureaus to put a moratorium on negative credit reporting and for the federal government to pass legislation to protect people’s credit scores. He also urged third-party food delivery companies to cap commissions at 10%.

Eric Adams
Though lacking the citywide purview that Johnson and Stringer hold, Brooklyn Borough President Adams has nonetheless been busy with his own borough-based response to the virus, including his typical focus on personal wellness.

Following the first case of coronavirus being confirmed in Brooklyn, Adams held an emergency briefing at Brooklyn Borough Hall on March 9, with Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Deputy Commissioner Daniel Stephens, and clergy and union leaders. He held a news conference right after to talk about best practices to deal with the outbreak, dispelling misinformation and urging against xenophobic reactions against the Chinese community. 

Adams did come under some criticism for continuing to require Borough Hall employees to commute to work through at least March 18. 

Adams wasn’t as ready as others to call for school closures and released a statement that hedged on the issue. “Our citywide leaders must be speaking in one voice at this time. I would support a call for citywide school closure that is unified, a unified plan of action for our healthcare and education professionals alongside our local and state leaders,” he said in a statement on March 15. “I would support a similar call for broader citywide closures in unison with our business community.”

Adams has called for a three-month universal moratorium on rent and utility payments, noting that the governor had already suspended mortgage payments for those affected by the outbreak. The borough president is a landlord himself and he acknowledged how a rent moratorium would affect him personally. “Though I have no illusions that this adjustment will be easy, I am confident it is the right thing to do given the current circumstances. No New Yorker should be at risk of losing their home while we contend with a public health emergency,” he said.

He also pushed for the mortgage payment freeze to apply universally to all rental properties – it was only given to single and two-family homes. He also called on the mayor to extend the city’s quarterly property tax deadline from April 1 to June 1. “It would be a cruel April Fool’s Day joke to ask struggling New Yorkers to meet this looming deadline in the face of such uncertainty,” he said. The mayor did not heed that call.

He was also among the proponents of a plan to help New Yorkers cover their rent in April. He joined with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council Members Robert Cornegy and Keith Powers, and CEO of Kairos, Ankur Jain, in releasing the $8 billion Renter’s Choice plan, which would require landlords to allow renters to use security deposits for their rent.

On March 22, Adams joined a number of local businesses and nonprofits to host a “Feed First Responders” initiative, personally distributing food to hospital workers at Maimonides Medical Center, and NYPD and FDNY members. Adams, who touts the benefits of healthy eating and living, even sought to allay people’s mental anxiety by inviting them to join him in remote guided meditation routines on Youtube. He’s also been posting videos making healthy meals at home and working out, doing jumping jacks, push ups, and pull ups. 

After Dez-Ann Romain, a principal at Brooklyn Democracy Academy, passed away from the coronavirus, Adams hosted a videoconference candlelight vigil on Zoom on March 26. 

On Wednesday, April 1, taking note of the increasing numbers of NYPD officers becoming ill with the coronavirus, Adams called on the mayor to unify all the city’s law enforcement agencies under the central command of Police Commissioner Dermot Shea.

Loree Sutton
As a retired Army Brigadier General who was the Army’s highest-ranking psychiatrist, Loree Sutton looked at the current outbreak and the official response to it, and likened it to nothing less than a war, language that has also been used by her former boss, Mayor de Blasio, among others.

“These are the times that test each of us as leaders, test our character, test our competence, test our ability to communicate and to even console and collaborate,” she said in a phone interview. “So it's also not the time during a situation like this to look backwards or to critique what's been done in the moment.”

In a March 20 op-ed in the New York Daily News, Sutton wrote on a suppression strategy to flatten the rising curve of coronavirus infections, utilizing the resources of the United States military. At the time, the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort had been dispatched to the city by President Trump – the ship arrived on Monday.

“While President Trump is now embracing an ‘all of country’ approach by mobilizing military and other essential resources, this effort alone will be insufficient. We also need to mobilize an ‘all of community’ campaign,” Sutton wrote. She called for the creation of Health Safety Hubs in underutilized community facilities to test and monitor those who cannot safely quarantine at home and ease the burden on the hospital system. “Additional benefit would be derived from mobilizing medically screened community resources, including transportation assets, restaurant delivery, hospitality and entertainment services, volunteer opportunities and faith-based community support,” she wrote. 

Sutton said in the phone interview that she’s advanced her idea to the governor’s team through General Patrick Murphy, who previously led the New York National Guard and who was a “battle buddy” of Sutton’s.

Sutton insisted that she was not second-guessing the decisions made by the city’s and state’s leadership, though she did say that the crisis has highlighted the “fractious” relationship that Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo have had for years. (In the early months of her campaign, Sutton has repeatedly criticized de Blasio’s leadership of the city, regularly citing the feud with Cuomo.)

“In the military, when we're in the midst of combat, in the midst of action, there's a saying. We don't take the time to critique at that moment we ‘save it for the hot wash,’” she said. “So that's what I'll say...There has to be a hot wash and the next mayor of New York City will be in a position to lead that hot wash and to just fearlessly and clear-mindedly and with open eyes, view all that has gone well, all that needs to be repaired and all that needs to be planned for so that we will never ever be in this position again.”

But Sutton did say the city should take “extreme measures” to enforce social distancing, which the de Blasio administration has slowly come to embrace. While took pains not to criticize the mayor, she did mention his trip to the gym prior to when city-imposed restrictions were set to go into effect. “I would assume that if the mayor were reviewing that set of actions, I think he was trying to evoke in his own way, a sense of calm and routine and sort of ‘life goes on.’ But that's not what the situation is. That's not what it calls for. And we know that now,” she said.

Dianne Morales
Of all the candidates, Dianne Morales was particularly critical of the city’s slow movement towards stricter social distancing and the delay in closing schools and establishments where large crowds could gather. “I think that we should have actually had a much more aggressive response sooner,” she said. “I think we had the heads up in terms of what happened in China and in Europe. And I think that there was more that we could have done to prepare, including closing the schools sooner.”

“The leadership of the city and the state and definitely the country, we're walking this fine line between trying to maintain public calm and conveying the appropriate level of urgency around the situation,” she added. “And I think that they erred too much on the side of downplaying the imminent threat.”

She specifically criticized the fact that parks and playgrounds remain open, and that the city has chosen to close even a few streets to vehicular traffic in order to give people more space. “I think that there's a tension and a contradiction between opening streets for pedestrians and also telling people to shelter in place. I think those two things are not in alignment with each other. I understand that people need to be able to access fresh air but I think also right now we need to prioritize the safety of the city,” she said. 

In terms of her own campaign, as a (recently-departed to campaign full-time) nonprofit executive involved in providing human services at the community level, Morales quickly pivoted her campaign infrastructure to work on direct assistance efforts, she said. 

Shaun Donovan
Shaun Donovan has yet to launch his campaign and has not yet put out any public statements or materials. Asked for comment, Rick Fromberg, senior advisor to Donovan’s campaign, said in an email, “Shaun Donovan was a key member of President Obama's Ebola and Zika response teams and fully believes in following the direction of public health officials. He also played leading roles in guiding recovery from Sandy, Katrina, and the mortgage crisis. During the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, he has worked extensively to share his experience and expertise with leaders in New York and across the nation. He remains inspired by the bravery of our healthcare and other frontline workers fighting to keep us safe in the midst of this crisis."

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

How 2021 Mayoral Candidates Have Responded to Coronavirus Crisis One Will Inherit Thu, 02 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Mayor and Council Speaker Differ on Creating Open Space, Enforcing Social Distancing Amid Coronavirus Shutdown speaker co jo covid update

Mayor & Speaker at a coronavirus briefing (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Governor Andrew Cuomo on Sunday gave New York City officials a 24-hour deadline to provide plans for enforcing social distancing in public spaces as the coronavirus continues to rage through the city and the governor said there was too much group activity in the five boroughs under his “pause” orders. Mayor Bill de Blasio has since announced some of the measures his administration is taking but his approach differs from what the New York City Council under Speaker Corey Johnson has proposed. 

Despite repeated requests, neither the mayor’s office nor the governor’s office provided the de Blasio administration’s enforcement plan to Gotham Gazette. The City Council did make its own plan available and it goes much further than what de Blasio announced during his near-daily coronavirus briefings earlier this week.

Cuomo had expressed disappointment with the early days under his tighter stay-at-home and social distancing orders, and repeatedly stated that he had demanded a plan from de Blasio and Johnson for greater enforcement, especially in parks, while also suggesting that the city should open more streespace to pedestrian use.

De Blasio said Tuesday that the city’s enforcement efforts had begun, with NYPD patrols across the five boroughs attempting to ensure that people stay at least six feet apart to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, unless they are members of the same immediate family. Though people can still go to parks and playgrounds, the mayor has warned that he will close them if people do not follow the city’s guidance.

“[W]hat we are seeing is broad adherence to the rules and we're going to make clear through NYPD enforcement and enforcement by many other city agencies that we must have a real respect for these rules,” he said at a Tuesday news conference. “And anyone who is not following the rules will be quickly corrected. They'll be warned, they'll be educated, and NYPD will be out making very clear to people, using our patrol officers and with messages that'll be electronically transmitted all over parks as well as all the person to person contact that we need people to deal with this new reality of social distancing.”

The mayor said he had agreed with the state and City Council to wait till Saturday (March 28) to decide whether playgrounds would remain open. “We will be doing all the enforcement, but if by the end of Saturday, it is not sufficiently clear that New Yorkers are following these new rules, at that point we'll be prepared to shut down playgrounds for the foreseeable future,” he said. The city has already begun removing basketball hoops at 80 courts where people had refused to abide by social distancing guidelines, the mayor announced Wednesday, out of 1,700 across the city. 

He also announced a pilot program to close a small number of streets to vehicular traffic to provide pedestrians more space for social distancing while getting needed fresh air and movement. From Friday through Monday, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., traffic will be barred on Park Avenue between 28th and 34th Streets in Manhattan; On Bushwick Avenue from Johnson to Flushing in Brooklyn; on 34th Avenue from 73rd Street to 80th Street in Queens; and on the Grand Concourse between East Burnside and 184th Street in the Bronx. That pilot will be closely monitored by the NYPD and reevaluated, de Blasio said, while some worried he was just creating new opportunity for people to too-closely congregate and others said his initiative was so miniscule to be not even worth bothering.

Council Speaker Johnson said in an interview on PIX11 on Thursday that he would have liked to have seen the street closures be more expansive. “I want it to be a bigger area, more streets, but one of the issues that we’ve run into is the lack of personnel that we have to make sure that those areas remain safe, that you’re not seeing crowding there and that you are protecting folks when you are closing streets,” he said, apparently referencing, in part, the fact that the NYPD is starting to see a significant chunk of its workforce out sick or quarantined. “But I wanted wider swathes, longer avenues to actually accommodate folks that may be crowding into parks,” he said. 

The Council’s social distancing plan, a two-page document, also opts for more restrictive measures. It calls for closing and locking all children’s playgrounds, athletic fields and courts; and for the removal of all tennis nets, basketball hoops and any other equipment that is not being cleaned for the entire duration. The plan also suggests removing barbecues in parks. 

The plan acknowledges what Johnson raised in the PIX11 interview, that staffing may be the biggest hurdle. It calls for increased enforcement “using creative models that do not lead to over-policing or profiling,” including increasing the number of park enforcement police, redeploying 1,000-1,500 parks personnel from maintenance work and recreation centers to bolster enforcement, reassigning school crossing guards to parks, and speeding up the launch of the NYPD’s Youth Coordination Officer program to recruit more people to help educate the public about new social distance rules. 

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Johnson said, “Opening a couple of streets per borough to pedestrians is a good first step, but we need to provide more open public spaces for New Yorkers. Social distancing is a key component in the fight to mitigate the effects of this unprecedented public health crisis. As we battle this pandemic, this initiative once it is expanded could provide some relief to the city's parks as individuals look for places where to walk, exercise and get some fresh air while at the same time taking precautions to protect themselves and fellow New Yorkers."

It’s not the first time since the coronavirus outbreak in New York City that Johnson and de Blasio have disagreed. The speaker called for both closing the city’s public schools and more restrictive stay-at-home orders days before the mayor adopted those positions.

The Council plan also outlines various ways to create new open spaces, particularly in dense parts of the city that lack existing open and green space. Besides restricting vehicles on streets, it suggests expanding pedestrian plazas based off the city’s Summer Streets and Play Streets initiatives and looking at the streets under those initiatives for traffic closures. That push lines up with Johnson’s running focus on creating more space for pedestrians and bike-riders, a key piece of the “streets master plan” legislation he passed last year.

Besides public areas, the Council also recommended that the city look at the possibility of utilizing private spaces such as college campuses with outdoor space, botanical gardens, and finding recreation space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Brooklyn Army Terminal, or Bush Terminal. 

The plan envisions a mass-media campaign to inform New Yorkers of the new rules, with signage at all parks, playgrounds, and athletic fields, and a multilingual citywide PSA campaign.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Mayor and Council Speaker Differ on Creating Open Space, Enforcing Social Distancing Amid Coronavirus Shutdown Fri, 27 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
As NYCHA Teeters, Calls for More Funding in City and State Budgets comm center marcy

NYCHA is on the brink (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Despite significant attention from Mayor Bill de Blasio and some from Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York City Housing Authority, public housing home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers, continues to crumble. While both the mayor and governor, as well as many others, point to federal disinvestment in NYCHA, dissatisfied elected officials say that initial drafts of next fiscal year’s state and city budgets aren’t sufficiently addressing the problem.

As they push for more funding to a public housing authority with well more than $30 billion in estimated physical needs to enter a state of good repair, some have even threatened to vote against any budget that does not include a massive infusion of funds for NYCHA.

A growing chorus calling for more state and city money for NYCHA has been somewhat muted, at least temporarily, by the coronavirus outbreak, which is sure to bedevil the ongoing budget discussions. A new state budget is due by April 1; a city budget by July 1.   

For decades, public housing has been underfunded by the federal government, leaving the state and city to pick up the slack. But successive administrations showed little indication of taking the issue seriously, which left a ticking time bomb that exploded on de Blasio’s watch. While public housing is largely governed by federal law, the mayor appoints the leadership of the authority and is responsible for its day-to-day operations and conditions.

The latest federal budget proposed by the Trump administration would also slash funding for public housing further, including completely eliminating capital funding (which is currently about $582 million), $5 billion in cuts to Section 8 rental vouchers (the city would lose about 6,300 vouchers), and a 10% cut to operating funds for public housing agencies across the country (which would equate to about $100 million for the city).

NYCHA has had a few victories and mostly setbacks under the de Blasio administration. The administration was able to bring NYCHA’s operating expenses under control and has also put into place NYCHA 2.0, a plan to raise $24 billion in capital funds for repairs and maintenance at housing developments. But those funds are not only a long way from being realized, they are also eclipsed by the agency’s $32 billion capital need, which could rise to as much as $68 billion by 2028, noted Council Member Vanessa Gibson, at a NYCHA budget hearing on Friday, March 13. (Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, who chairs the public housing committee, was absent and Gibson, who chairs the capital budget subcommittee, chaired the hearing in her stead.)

Early in the hearing, Gibson raised the red flag about NYCHA’s worrying funding gaps for critical capital repair and maintenance. “While NYCHA 2.0 is a big and bold plan, it still leaves about $9 billion in unfunded capital needs across its portfolio and does not account for the fact that NYCHA’s capital need could as much as double by the end of the ten-year plan,” she said.

NYCHA is also currently under the purview of a federal monitor, Bart Schwartz, installed last year in agreement with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, after the authority was found to have falsified lead abatement reports for years. Lead and mold at housing developments continue to plague the city, which is undertaking a concerted effort to remediate those conditions. Heat and hot water outages have become all too common in the winter, though emergency measures and a milder winter have meant fewer outages this year. Adding to the authority’s woes is the coronavirus outbreak, which has affected the operations of the entire city government.

NYCHA’s budget cycle begins in January, as opposed to the city’s, which begins in July. Its 2020 budget was adopted in December. The agency has a $3.75 billion annual operating budget, and was projecting a surplus of $91 million in revenues at the end of the year.

At the budget hearing, Greg Russ, chair and CEO of NYCHA, detailed the authority’s various efforts to meet its obligations under the federal agreement, including putting $2.2 billion in city funding towards capital repairs over the next ten years. “Mayor de Blasio has committed an unprecedented level of resources to the authority,” he stressed in his opening remarks, “a total of $6.4 billion, including $1.3 billion to repair nearly 1,000 roofs and $200 million to replace boilers and upgrade heating systems.”

He also previewed several other measures the agency is taking to improve operations and conditions at housing developments. An additional $100 million in state capital funds will go to fulfilling the federal agreement, after a spending plan for the allocated money was approved by the state. He promised that a new organizational plan for the authority will be released this summer.

NYCHA is also creating a small projects management team for capital projects as well as a new staff position to act as a liaison with the City Council to oversee current and future capital projects funded by the city. The agency’s lead action plan is being submitted to the federal monitor for his approval. 

Even as NYCHA contends with a capital needs gap, the proposed federal cuts “would completely spin us in the wrong direction in terms of the investment that we have to make,” Russ said. “These are significant cuts that the President and the administration have proposed and they're unconscionable.”

He did say he did not expect federal capital funding to be zeroed out, putting faith in the Congress to push back against the cuts. And he said the authority could continue to manage day-to-day operations even if operating funds were reduced.

Russ also testified about aspects of the NYCHA 2.0 plan that are underway to raise funds for the authority’s housing stock and renovate and repair 62,000 apartments by 2028. Those particularly involve utilizing the Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) program and federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. Under PACT, the housing authority partners with private entities to maintain and repair developments, with housing units transferred to the Section 8 housing program. Through the program, Russ said the city has so far addressed $1.1 billion in capital needs by converting almost 7,800 apartments in 30 housing developments to Section 8 funding. He said 21,000 apartments would be “in the conversion pipeline” by this spring. Just last month, the authority selected five development teams to convert 5,908 apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn to the program, agreements expected to cover $1.5 billion in critical capital needs.  

There was, however, little discussion of other parts of the plan, including the sale of air rights and allowing private developers to build mixed-income housing on NYCHA land, also known as infill development. Infill projects were aimed at raising as much as $2 billion for the agency over ten years but have failed to move forward so far. Some air rights sales have been completed, though. 

On March 19, the New York State Assembly's Manhattan delegation released a report that highlighted conditions at NYCHA developments and tenant needs. Among several recommendations, the delegation urged the state to find a dedicated funding stream for the ailing agency as well as to provide more transparency around existing funding and how it is utilized. "Written prior to the COVID-19 State of Emergency, the pandemic further highlights that, for over 400,000 NYCHA tenants in substandard housing, the public housing crisis is a public health crisis,” said Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, dean and Chair of the delegation, in a statement. "New York State can act now with serious funding commitments and lead the way towards the restoration of NYCHA."

Though the City Council in its initial response to the mayor’s preliminary budget pledged to advocate for more funding for housing, there was no particular mention of NYCHA. It’s unclear what additional commitments the Council may request in its official response, which was due after budget hearings that have since been suspended amid the coronavirus outbreak.

But it’s clear that Council Speaker Corey Johnson is looking to Albany for additional funding from the state government. “The city can’t do it on our own,” Johnson said at a rally in early February outside City Hall, according to a New York Daily News report. He called for $2 billion more from the state. “We put up a lot of money — we should put up more money — but we need a state partner to put up money with us.”

Advocates and elected officials have also been critical of the state for its slow support for NYCHA. It was only in November that the state released $450 million in funds appropriated for NYCHA in 2017 and 2018. The funding was repeatedly put on hold as the city contended with the lead testing lawsuit and the subsequent negotiation over the federal agreement. Governor Cuomo eventually said he would not release the funds until an independent monitor was appointed to oversee its disbursement.

“For years the New York City Housing Authority was underfunded by the Federal government and its administrators, and to help, New York State stepped up and made an unprecedented commitment to NYCHA for reliable heat, safe elevators and a better quality of life,” said Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of Budget. “In all,” he said,” the executive budget Cuomo released in January that forms the basis for budget negotiations with the Legislature, “includes $650 million in ongoing support for NYCHA projects so that their 400,000 residents will finally see results.”

“Is there always a need for more funding for public housing? Absolutely,” said Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake, a legislator who has repeatedly called for more NYCHA funding, in a phone interview. He said the state’s first priority should be to release $100 million for NYCHA that was allocated by the state Legislature last year, atop the $450 million that had already been set aside for the agency. And he called for an urgent response to ensure public housing residents are protected during the coronavirus pandemic without having to forego day-to-day maintenance.

“We have to make sure that we don't have a scenario where the funding that we're going for that is needed for the everyday repairs comes at the risk of the present emergency upon us,” he said. “While, yes, coronavirus is an emergency, so is a lead paint crisis.”

Other elected officials at the state and city level have already declared that they wouldn’t support any spending plans that don’t substantially increase NYCHA funding, though it is worth noting those promises came before coronavirus seemingly changed everything.

“I repeat. I will not vote for a budget without funding for our public housing,” tweeted Manhattan Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou.

Manhattan Assemblymember Harvey Epstein echoed the sentiment. “I am with you @yuhline I will NOT vote for a budget without a substantial investment in public housing!” he tweeted.

New York City Council Member Carlina Rivera of Manhattan wants to see the city cough up more funding. “The City and State must step up this year and contribute billions more dollars in their own budgets, and we will be calling on our colleagues in the Council and State Legislature to fight for this as well,” Rivera wrote in a joint op-ed with congressional Rep. Nydia Velazquez in Gotham Gazette.

The Legal Aid Society, a member of the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance which is behind the Housing Justice for All campaign, released data last week showing that between October 1 and December 31, 2019, there were 1,246 heat and hot water outages at NYCHA complexes, affecting about 178,267 apartments that are home to 391,661 residents.

“NYCHA is clearly still unable to ensure that utility systems seamlessly provide for residents, and these numbers confirm what we hear from our clients on a regular basis,” said Lucy Newman, Staff Attorney with the Civil Law Reform Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “These outages could be meaningfully addressed with the right resources. As Albany continues to negotiate the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, we demand that lawmakers allocate $2 billion to NYCHA to help the Housing Authority address these and other outstanding issues that still plague tenants.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with a reference to a new report released by the New York State Assembly's Manhattan delegation. 

As NYCHA Teeters, Calls for More Funding in City and State Budgets Mon, 16 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000