Gotham Gazette Fri, 24 Jan 2020 23:11:21 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) January 2020 City Campaign Cash Roundup: Races for Mayor, Comptroller, Borough Presidents inauguration jan

(photo: Mayor's Office)

Candidates running for local office filed their latest campaign finance disclosures with the New York City Campaign Finance Board this week, showing their fundraising and expenditures from the last six months, and cumulative numbers for the 2021 election cycle.

Next year’s election is shaping up to be highly competitive and consequential, with two of three citywide elected officials, four of five borough presidents, and 35 of 51 City Council members facing term limits. The city will elect a new mayor and comptroller for the first time in eight years, among many other new positions to be decided by voters through the June 2021 primaries and general elections to follow that November.

Early fundraising numbers can give an indication of which candidates have momentum behind them for 2021 and which ones may struggle to show popular support. The most immediate race to watch is just two months away: the March special election for Queens Borough President, which was triggered by Melinda Katz’s election as Queens District Attorney. While that race could lead to a special City Council election to fill the victor’s seat, several sitting Council members are running, the vast majority of the upcoming city action is for 2021. And that election cycle will see the first implementation of ranked-choice voting in primaries, which is likely to shift not only some campaign strategies, but outcomes.

Also relatively new are recent enhancements to the city’s voluntary campaign finance program, where candidates will be able to raise far more public funds from small dollar donations, though they could choose to abide by the old rules which have higher contribution limits but lower public funds payments. The new system will become mandatory after this election cycle.

Under the old system, a participating mayoral candidate could raise a maximum donation of $5,100, and could receive a 6-to-1 match on the first $175 of every qualifying contribution. The new system comes with a $2,000 contribution limit but provides an 8-to-1 match on the first $250. Similar numbers apply to candidates for other offices, with max donations dropping as the offices move from citywide to boroughwide to City Council.

The public funds program also comes with spending limits, which do not apply to those who do not participate (though spending limits can be raised or eliminated in certain rare cases).

Participating mayoral candidates can spend nearly $15 million, limited to just under $7.3 million in each of the primary and general election (only up to $343,000 can be spent in outyears such as 2018, 2019, and 2020). They can receive a maximum of about $6.5 million in public funds under the new campaign finance rules and $4 million under the old rules. The first public matching payouts will be made in December of this year, helping to set off what will be a six-month sprint from just after the presidential election to the June 2021 primaries, where the Democratic races will all-but-certainly decide most of the November winners.

Candidates for public advocate and comptroller can spend $4.55 million in the primary as well as the general for a total of more than $9.1 million, with the same outyear limit as mayoral candidates. Public funds payments to those citywide candidates are capped at $4 million under the new rules and $2.5 million under the old ones. While there’s a competitive ‘open seat’ race heating up for comptroller given incumbent Scott Stringer’s term limits, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is expected to win another term without much competition.

The spending limit for borough president candidates is $1.64 million for each the primary and general election, for a total of nearly $3.3 million, with $153,000 allowed in the outyears. Opting in to the new system would allow such candidates a maximum of $1.45 million in public funds, while the old system provides up to $902,000.

City Council candidates can spend $380,000 total between the primary and general, with only $51,000 in the outyears. The new public funds cap is $168,888, compared with the old cap of $104,500.

Mayoral Contenders
Comptroller Scott Stringer leads in total fundraising over the other declared and likely candidates running to replace Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is also term-limited. Stringer has raised a total of about $2.7 million for his campaign (including $1.4 million transferred over from his previous campaign account) and has spent about $296,000, leaving him with a hefty $2.4 million in cash on hand.

In the latest disclosure period, from July 12, 2019 to January 11, 2020, he raised $130,000 and spent about $79,000. But he also chose to opt in to the new campaign finance rules, which forced him to refund about $446,000 to donors. His total fundraising includes about $423,000 in contributions that the campaign claims would qualify for public matching funds but that number has yet to be audited and will likely change since he switched to the new rules.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is a close second in total fundraising, having pulled in $2.3 million in total (which includes a $365,000 transfer of funds from a previous committee), and he has spent about $321,000 so far, for a remaining balance of just over $2 million.

In the latest period, he raised just under $194,000 and spent about $76,000. Like Stringer, Adams also decided to change course and participate under the new campaign finance rules. He had to refund about $663,000 above the lower contribution limit. His campaign has claimed to the CFB that it has received about $560,000 in qualifying small dollar contributions but, like Stringer, the actual number remains to be determined by the CFB. 

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has raised $1.25 million in total and spent just above $347,000, leaving him about $905,000 in cash on hand. Diaz Jr.’s recent fundraising has been lacklustre compared with other candidates. He only brought in $76,000 in the latest disclosure period and spent $102,000 (On Thursday’s “Driving Forces” show on WBAI radio, Diaz Jr. told host Jeff Simmons that “it's not encouraging.” He added: “You know, running for Mayor of the City of New York is monumental. This is what I try to tell folks, we have to have a sense of urgency. These are all things we have to weigh as we move forward.") Perhaps eyeing the chance to be the candidate supported by bigger monied interests, Diaz Jr., who has been a pro-development borough president, has opted in to the old campaign finance system, which will mean 6-to-1 for his small dollar contributions. His campaign has claimed nearly $71,000 in qualifying donations. 

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson is the only candidate who self-imposed a lower-than-mandated donation limit, saying he won’t take anything over $250 from anyone. While this has resulted in a far smaller haul than the others, he’s banking on the new 8-to-1 match to get him in the same ballpark (all four of the big-name candidates expected to run for Mayor are likely to raise what is needed to be able to spend the maximum allowed, though that’s not a given). Johnson, who started fundraising later than the other three, has raised $790,000 so far, and has spent about $98,000. He has about $691,000 in his campaign account. But he’s claiming as much as $575,000 in qualifying matchable contributions.

The speaker’s most recent haul was about $326,000, and he spent about $66,000 over the past six months.

The most recent entrant into the race is retired Army Brigadier General Loree Sutton, the former commissioner of the city’s Department of Veteran Services. She has raised $113,000, spent about $61,000, and has $52,000 left in her account. Her campaign claims about $13,000 in matchable contributions so far and she is participating in the old campaign finance program. 

There are other candidates who have also declared mayoral bids but have few funds raised so far, including Aaron Foldenauer, Dianne Morales, and Joycelyn Taylor. Of them, Morales, who runs a nonprofit in the Bronx, has raised the most at about $62,000, and has spent about $26,000. She has $36,000 in the bank as of the filing.

There are four declared or exploring candidates for city comptroller – City Council Members Brad Lander and Helen Rosenthal, State Senator Brian Benjamin, and Assemblymember David Weprin. All of the candidates are participating in the new 8-to-1 matching system. 

Lander has raised the most funds, about $469,000, and has spent about $211,000. He has about $257,000 in cash on hand. In total, his campaign claims about $227,000 in qualifying contributions that can be matched with public funds. In the latest period, he raised $108,000 and spent just over $60,000.  

State Senator Brian Benjamin has close to the same amount of campaign cash at this time. Though he has raised less than Lander, a total of $265,000, he has only spent about $13,500, leaving him with $252,000 in his campaign account. He claims about $90,000 worth of qualifying contributions. All his fundraising occured in the last six months.

Weprin has raised a total of $108,000 and spent only $23,000, giving him a balance of about $84,000. He claims $42,000 in matchable contributions. But Weprin still owes the CFB about $320,000, to repay public funds from an unsuccessful run for comptroller in 2009. He would have to pay that full amount before he can receive any more public funds. 

Rosenthal has raised about $136,000 in total, but has spent nearly all of it, about $122,000, leaving her just under $14,000 in cash on hand. Her campaign claims about $63,000 in matchable contributions. 

Borough Presidents
The Queen Borough President special election -- set for March 24 of this year -- is shaping up to be a quick and competitive race, with nine candidates having filed petitions with the Board of Elections. In Brooklyn, there are also several candidates running in the 2021 race. But in the other boroughs, there seems to be little competition. In both Staten Island and the Bronx, there is only one candidate who has declared a run. In Manhattan, only two candidates are poised to face each other.

Queens Borough President
There’s little time left till the March 24 special election for Queens BP, which looks like it will be a competitive race among several sitting and former Democratic City Council members, with other longshot candidates on the ballot as well. All of the candidates are enrolled under the new campaign finance rules.

Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer has raised about $463,000, the most of any candidate, and has spent about $260,000 so far, leaving him a balance of $203,000. His campaign has claimed about $65,000 in matchable contributions.

A close second is former Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, who has raised $452,000 and spent about $232,000. She has nearly $220,000 in cash on hand, and about $115,000 in matchable contribution claims.

Council Member Donovan Richards has not raised as much but is considered a frontrunner after he was endorsed by the Queens Democratic Party in December. He has raised nearly $199,000, spent about $72,000, and has a balance of $126,000. He has claimed $64,000 in matchable contributions. 

Council Member Costa Constantinides has raised $227,000 for the race but has spent nearly all of it, about $213,000. He has just over $14,000 in cash on hand. His campaign claimed $79,000 in contributions that could be matched with public funds.

The CFB will start distributing public funds by the last week of January, after the Board of Elections has set the ballot.

The other candidates in the race include Danniel Maio, Anthony Miranda, Jim Quinn, Dao Yin and Everly Brown, all of whom have not made major strides in fundraising.

Brooklyn Borough President
Three candidates are currently in the running for Brooklyn Borough President – Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Robert Cornegy, and longshot candidate Lamor Whitehead-Miller – after Council Member Rafael Espinal dropped out of the race early. Cornegy and Reynoso are participating in the new public funds program while Whitehead-Miller has not opted in to the program at all.

Cornegy leads in fundraising with a total haul of nearly $151,000 and expenditures worth $137,000, giving him a balance of just under $14,000. He has claimed about $30,000 in matchable contributions. Reynoso has raised about $85,000, and spent just $17,000. He has nearly $68,000 in cash on hand and claims about $40,000 in matchable contributions.

Whitehead-Miller, a preacher and activist, does not seem to be running much of a campaign. He hasn’t raised more than $26. Meanwhile, the New York Daily News reported on Friday that Mayor Bill de Blasio has been pushing his wife, First Lady Chirlane McCray, as a possible candidate as well, and there have been rumors of others joining the fray, such as Council Member Mark Treyger.

The Manhattan Borough President race is shaping up to be a contest between sitting Council Members Mark Levine and Ben Kallos, both Democrats. Levine and Kallos are both participating in the new public funds program, while Levine has raised far more than Kallos early on. His most recent filing shows a total fundraising haul of about $282,000 and expenditures of about $98,000. He has just over $184,000 in cash on hand, and has claimed more than $100,000 in matchable contributions.

Kallos, in comparison, has raised about $134,000, and has spent about $45,000, leaving him $89,000 in cash on hand. He has claimed about $42,000 in contributions that could be matched 8-to-1.

Staten Island
Staten Island Council Member Steven Matteo, a Republican, is the only candidate currently running for Staten Island BP. He has raised about $156,000 and, with little competition and so far out from the race, he has only spent about $14,000. He has a balance of about $142,000. He has not opted into the public matching funds program. Many are waiting to see if Democratic Council Member Deborah Rose jumps into the race.

The Bronx
In the Bronx, Democratic Council Member Vanessa Gibson is the sole declared candidate for borough president. She doesn’t seem to have kicked off her fundraising efforts in earnest, however. She has only raised about $14,000 and has spent less than $2,000. She is participating in the new campaign finance system. Council Member Andy Cohen, a fellow Democrat, has expressed some interest in the race but has not created a committee or raised any funds for it so far.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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January 2020 City Campaign Cash Roundup: Races for Mayor, Comptroller, Borough Presidents Fri, 17 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Without Chair, Council Committee Hears Bills Aimed to Help Discharged Military Veterans Council Member Chaim Deutsch

Council Member Deutsch (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

A bill that would require the New York City Department of Veterans Services to help veterans discharged from the military solely for their LGBTQ status to upgrade or change the narrative of their discharge status and “extend all city benefits and services” to them was introduced to the City Council’s Committee on Veterans at a hearing on Monday.

Introduced alongside it was a bill that would require DVS to create a unit to assist veterans with discharge characterization upgrades and offer legal advice for those pursuing meritorious appeals. Almost all of the activists, city officials, and other members of the veterans community who attended the meeting supported the sentiment of the bills — but almost none of them supported them as written.

Other than retiring, most people leave military service through the discharge process. When a veteran is first discharged, they can be given one of five statuses: honorable, general, other than honorable, bad conduct, and dishonorable. Discharge status is given at the discretion of the commanding officer. A less than honorable discharge, often referred to as a ‘bad paper discharge,’ can be given for any number of reasons — including being injured or ill — and results in a veteran being disqualified for certain federal Veterans Affairs benefits.

President of the American Veterans for Equal Rights’ New York Chapter Denny Meyer stated in his testimony that between World War II and the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” 100,000 LGBTQ American soldiers were less than honorably discharged for being gay. During the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, another 14,000 were involuntarily discharged for the same reason, and although most of these veterans received honorable discharge paperwork, the narrative of the paperwork listed their homosexuality as the reason for being discharged.

The bill related to LGBTQ discharge and reparations, Intro. 479, was proposed by Council Member Daniel Dromm, a Democrat from Queens and chair of the Council’s LGBT Caucus. The bill would seek to address discriminatory practices by requiring the city’s DVS to offer assistance to those less than honorably discharged solely for their sexual orientation or gender identity in upgrading their status or changing the narrative of that discharge.

This effort complements Intro. 1218, a bill sponsored by Council Member Chaim Deutsch, the chair of the Council’s veterans services committee, which would require DVS to create a unit with the sole purpose of giving legal advice to any veteran seeking discharge upgrades.
Deutsch did not chair the hearing on the bills, despite not only being the committee chair but also having one of his own bills on the docket. A conservative Democrat from Brooklyn, Deutsch did not provide an on-the-record explanation of his absence from the hearing despite repeated inquiries by Gotham Gazette. The City Council speaker’s office did not provide comment for this article when asked. Council Member Dromm’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about Deutsch’s absence. It is rare that a Council committee will hold a hearing without the chair.

The hearing was chaired by Council Member Justin Brannan, a Brooklyn Democrat and member of the committee. Council Members Dromm and Alan Maisel, another member of the committee, were also in attendance at the beginning of the hearing, though Dromm left for state Senator Jose Peralta’s wake shortly after discussing his bill, with Maisel leaving not long after as well. Council Member Mathieu Eugene, a committee member, came for a short time later in the meeting, leaving after asking a few questions concerning the logistics of discharge statuses. The only other member of the veterans committee, Council Member Paul Vallone, was not present at all.

Testimony on the two bills was first given by DVS Commissioner Loree Sutton, who in part responded to Dromm’s discussion of his bill.

During the testimony, Sutton brought up two major issues with the bills that would be echoed throughout the hearing by advocates.

First, although the language of Dromm’s Intro. 479 implies that some city benefits depend on discharge status, this is not the case, according to Sutton.

“Discharge status and LGBTQ status are not identifiers used to screen out applicants for city resources,” Sutton said.

The bill states: “A veteran with any discharge status less than honorable, for example, cannot access the full range of benefits offered by the VA and, often, are denied benefits by the state and local veterans affairs bodies as well.”

Dromm said that part of the intention of the bill was to codify LGBTQ veterans’ rights into law. Mentioning how the Trump administration has set back LGBTQ rights, he said that this bill would prevent a similar occurrence at the city level.

“One of the reasons why we put this legislation forward is because while we recognize Mayor de Blasio's commitment to LGBT rights and [Sutton’s] personal involvement in it as well, we don’t know what the next mayor’s going to bring,” Dromm said. “We’ve seen an administration in Washington D.C. that is already attempting to take away our rights and God forbid something like that should happen here in New York City, and all the work that either [Sutton has] done or the Council has done could be lost if in fact we don’t codify it.”

When it came to the bill proposed by Deutsch, Sutton and others mentioned that it would have DVS provide a service already provided by non-profits, some of which had representatives at the hearing. The service of providing legal advice and guidance in regards to discharge status upgrades is somewhat specialized and requires intricate knowledge of the legal system, according to Director of the Veteran Advocacy Project Coco Culhane, whose non-profit provides said legal advice.

“We do not believe that a unit within DVS would be an efficient use of city funds or city employees’ time,” Culhane said, going on to note that DVS was not originally intended to be a service-based agency, and so should not be advising veterans even if it had the legal expertise. The original mission of the still-new agency is to educate veterans about the services they are applicable for, largely federal, and help connect them with the resources they need.

Sutton agreed with this sentiment.

“DVS is not a subject-matter expert on evaluating the legitimacy of discharge upgrade claims,” Sutton said. “This bill would require that DVS provide what is actually legal advice and counselling, which is beyond its capacity and is inappropriate because city agencies do not provide direct legal counsel to members of the state.”

Systems DVS already has in place to assist veterans seeking discharge upgrades mainly rely on reaching out to attorneys for their advice, and helping link veterans to appropriate legal services. VetConnect, an online website that seeks to connect veterans with services they need, is also part of these efforts.

Ashton Stewart, coordinator with SAGE Vets Program, an LGBT veterans advocacy group created for the purpose of helping veterans who had been less-than-honorably discharged due to their sexual orientation, supported the legislation.

“SAGE wholeheartedly supports the discharge characterization upgrade assistance legislation.” Stewart said. “We believe that taking this step will bring profile to the important issue of LGBT service members wrongfully discharged from the military because of their sexual orientation.”

Vadim Panasyuk, Senior Veteran Transition Manager at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, added to the concerns about the bills, saying that if DVS were to provide legal advice concerning discharge upgrades it may complicate things for veterans and nonprofits.

“There are already processes in the nonprofit sector that will help veterans upgrade their discharge status free of charge,” Panasyuk said. “IAVA is concerned that passage of these bills could create confusion among the nonprofit and veterans community. DVS may be better served to complement these existing services rather than competing or duplicating them.”

The larger problem, according to both Culhane and Kent Eiler, Project Director of the City Bar Justice Center’s Veterans Assistance Project, is the lack of qualified lawyers in the field of veteran law.

“The demand for able, experienced accredited representatives is vastly outstripped by the demand of veterans who need assistance,” Eiler said.

According to Sutton, so far in 2018, 105 veterans contacted DVS about discharge status. However, both Eiler and Culhane expressed that this number is not representative of the actual need. Eiler mentioned that those who come to the City Bar Justice Center are often put on an eight- to ten-month waiting list, while Culhane said that the Veteran Advocacy Project has had as many as 650 veterans waiting at a time just for the non-profit to investigate the merit of their case. Culhane said in just under two years, 500 veterans had contacted her association seeking assistance with a discharge upgrade.

With only two members of the Council remaining by the time the last panel of activists testified, Brannan brought the meeting to a close, with the fate of the bills unclear -- they can be voted on by the committee at a future meeting, amended and reheard by the committee, or laid over indefinitely.

Meyer, who was the last to give testimony, representing the American Veterans for Equal RIghts’ New York Chapter, expressed that having heard the testimony given at the meeting, his thoughts on the bills had changed. However, his feeling that LGBTQ veterans needed to be repaid for their service even in light of unjust treatment, remained.

“Someone is going to have to decide who is going to help them, who is going to rectify this, it’s as simple as that,” Meyer said.

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

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Without Chair, Council Committee Hears Bills Aimed to Help Discharged Military Veterans Thu, 29 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Checks In On Department of Veterans Services, Discusses Reporting Bill committee vets hearing

Veterans Services Commissioner Loree Sutton, middle (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

The New York City Council’s Committee on Veterans met Monday to discuss a bill that would require the city’s Department of Veterans Services to release an annual report detailing certain information about its work to help the city’s military veterans, including the number of its employees and types services it is providing.

The chair of the committee, Council Member Chaim Deutsch, a Brooklyn Democrat, advocated for the bill, Intro. 1118, as a necessary step toward better understanding of what DVS is doing and what may be needed to improve services for veterans. However, DVS Commissioner Loree Sutton suggested that an additional report would be redundant, as DVS is already required to give a report to the committee under law (Local Law 23 of 2015, introduced by Council Member Paul Vallone, a Queens Democrat) and it also takes part in the Mayor’s Management Report, which gives detailed accounts of city agencies and their effectiveness.

“Currently, City budget documents and the MMR include most of the information sought through Intro. 1118,” Sutton said. “While DVS looks forward to continued collaboration with the City Council concerning DVS personnel and performance metrics, we are confident that these aims can be best achieved through existing reporting mechanisms.”

The bill would specifically ask for the title of and services provided by each employee, as well as the number of veterans and families to whom services had been provided and how they learned about the services.

Most of this information is indeed available elsewhere. The Mayor’s Management Report gives a summary of the services provided by DVS, the number of veterans and their families engaged by DVS and the number of them given assistance. When it comes to DVS employees and their titles, those can be found on the department’s website. However, this leaves questions concerning how the veterans and their families learned about services provided by the department and what services each employee specifically provides unanswered.

While Sutton believes any additional information should simply be added to the current required report, Deutsch said the bill is an important step forward.

“I think that this bill is a step forward to receiving the information that we need and we deserve and the veterans deserve,” Deutsch said. “And this way we can better continue to understand what the issues are and how we could better implement [solutions in] some of the areas that need improvement.”

After discussion between Deutsch and Sutton, the committee allowed advocates to voice their views.

President and Founding Director of NYC Veterans Alliance Kristen Rouse said the bill does not require enough reporting on the part of DVS.

“We state our strong support for this committee providing oversight of the services provided to veterans and their families by DVS and other city agencies, programs, and funding,” Rouse said. “We are, however, uncertain of whether Intro. 1118 or other recent bill proposals will effectively accomplish the oversight and accountability that our community has called for and deserves.”

Rouse went on to mention that the information DVS provided the committee under Local Law 23 had not yet been made publicly available, and that even better than the proposed bill would be “for this committee to examine ways it can further empower DVS to accomplish its mission.” Asking for the report to be made public, better tracking of services provided by DVS through VetConnect, and the creation of an Agency Chief Contracting Officer to manage city contracts for veterans services, Rouse proposed multiple reforms to which Deutsch responded, “we’ll have the committee get back to you.”

Director of the Veteran Advocacy Project Coco Culhane said her organization “supports the introduction of Local Law 1118 and believes that DVS reporting on even more figures than they already do will benefit the entire community.”

Senior Veteran Transition Manager of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Vadim Panasyuk noted the redundancy of the bill Sutton alluded to earlier, suggesting that different metrics should be used to better evaluate DVS.

“IAVA supports the intent behind this bill,” Panasyuk said. “However, it appears that it is somewhat redundant as some of the data is already available, and does not require the reporting of necessary metrics to accurately evaluate this department’s performance and many of its various initiatives.”

Panasyuk would like to see more qualitative data used in conjunction with “organizational and programmatic” metrics in order to better understand the population being served by DVS and the needs of that population.

Another adjustment to the bill was suggested by Vallone, who said it was “critical” that they incorporate a requirement for DVS to distinguish in reports which veterans found them through sister agencies and which came directly to them.

Ashton Stewart, coordinator with SAGE Vets Program, an LGBT veterans advocacy group, also requested a more detailed report. “This bill is just a start of the reporting, we need to start from somewhere,” Deutsch said.

Earlier in the hearing, other topics were discussed as part of oversight by the committee. Deutsch expressed concern over a decrease in applications for and awards of vending licenses to veterans, and inquired about why significantly more veterans where using federal housing vouchers in the Bronx than any other borough. Sutton commented on the delay of federal GI Bill housing allowances for student veterans, noting that DVS would collaborate with the Department of Social Services to attempt to allocate resources towards supporting students negatively affected by the delays.

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Checks In On Department of Veterans Services, Discusses Reporting Bill Tue, 30 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Budget Hearing Shows Veterans Department Settling into Agency Status ulrich flags

Council Member Ulrich (photo: William Alatriste)

The City Council Committee on Veterans held a preliminary budget hearing Monday, hearing testimony from the Department of Veterans Services and advocates for military veterans in New York City.

Council members, led by committee Chair Eric Ulrich, heard from Loree Sutton, the commissioner of the Department of Veterans Services, and others in assessing the department’s budgetary needs for the upcoming 2018 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Formerly the Mayor’s Office of Veteran’s Affairs, DVS was established as a stand-alone agency in 2015 to provide more support for the city’s military veteran community. This includes more staff and a bigger budget, as well as more oversight from the Council.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $84.67 billion preliminary budget, unveiled January 24, surprised some veterans advocates with its $318,000 funding decrease for DVS from the current fiscal year’s adopted budget. As previously reported by Gotham Gazette, this proposal was initially met with outrage from members of the Council’s veterans committee and other elected officials, who joined veterans advocates to protest the proposed reduction outside City Hall last month.

A few days later, the mayor’s office announced it was adding money to the DVS budget for fiscal 2018 to keep one position that had been federally funded and was not slated to be kept and for other services.

Thus, outrage was largely absent from Monday’s hearing. Despite DVS receiving $3.84 million in the adopted budget for the current fiscal year, Commissioner Sutton and Council Member Ulrich seemed at peace with the $3.63 million (plus the to-be-seen additions) in proposed funding for DVS in fiscal year 2018. The city's November budget modification had the DVS budget at $3.95 million, but projected $3.63 million for the next fiscal year, and that is what de Blasio wound up budgeting. State and federal funding may also play a role in the next adopted DVS budget, though.

In her testimony, Sutton framed the decrease as a natural reduction for a second-year agency. Referring to DVS as “truly a ‘start-up’ entity,” Sutton explained that the budget decrease is due to one-time costs associated with forming a new agency that were included for the current year and are unnecessary next year. “Part of the inaugural agency budget was assigned to staffing, as well as certain non-recurring start-up costs such as the purchase of computers, office equipment, supplies, and furniture.”

Following Sutton’s testimony, Ulrich praised Sutton for keeping operational costs down. “Commissioner Sutton is probably one of the few agency heads who doesn’t come to the City Council saying ‘we need more money,’ so I’m very impressed with her level of austerity - she’s doing so much with the limited resources she has. If she needed more money I’m sure she would ask for it and the Council would be obliged to give it to [DVS].”

Sutton’s testimony also provided an overview of DVS operations. She outlined the progress made on housing, health services, and employment programs for the city’s 210,000 military veterans. According to Sutton, DVS “led the nation in its response to homelessness by connecting 1,600 homeless veterans with permanent, affordable housing this past year.” Sutton also reported that, in an effort to increase accessibility, DVS is establishing satellite offices in all five boroughs “to serve as a direct link between the community in each borough and DVS.”

A DVS spokesperson, Alexis Wichowski, had previously told Gotham Gazette that the agency had hired 33 of its 35-person budgeted staff. “We are almost at full capacity, that’s a huge milestone,” she said. “Getting people on board and getting them trained has been the focus for the last few months.”

Though neither Sutton nor Ulrich called the mayor’s preliminary budget lacking in DVS funding, that position was not unanimous Monday. The committee also heard from the NYC Veterans Alliance, represented by Kristen Rouse, who testified to the need for an increase in DVS funding, arguing that her organization is still overwhelmed with the number of requests it receives from veterans and their families.

“I would love for a day when we don’t get phone calls and emails from distressed people saying ‘we need help,’” Rouse said, before officially calling on the administration to increase DVS funding. “DVS was created because of the enormity of the need and the urgency of helping veterans and their families in New York City...Funding must go up, not be reduced,” Rouse told the committee.

Though Ulrich could not commit to securing such an increase in the final budget - the deadline for which is June 30 - he did conclude the hearing by remarking that DVS represents a vast improvement to the city’s former veteran care and policy-making process. It was a push by Ulrich and groundswell in the Council that led to the creation of the department over the initial objections of de Blasio. “Prior to DVS...The budget [for veterans affairs] was whatever the Mayor wanted it to be and the Council really had no formal role it that process...I think it was incredibly important that people feel a sense of accountability. Now we have that and we’re very grateful for that.”

by Luke Foley, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated with additional information.

Budget Hearing Shows Veterans Department Settling into Agency Status Mon, 06 Mar 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Long-Awaited, City's New Approach to Veterans Services Moves Ahead sutton buery veterans city hall

Commissioner Sutton, left, at a City Hall ceremony (photo: @RichardBuery)

With Veterans Day approaching, veterans advocates in New York say they want to see the long-term vision of the newly created city Department of Veterans’ Services and how its Commissioner plans to tackle the most significant, persistent issues affecting the city’s military veterans.

More than 210,000 veterans live in New York City, making it one of the largest veteran populations in the nation, more so than some entire states. The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, has committed additional resources and funding to address veterans’ concerns and challenges. The City Council has been actively pursuing veteran-friendly policy, including the legislation that elevated the Mayor’s Office of Veteran Affairs into the new Department of Veterans’ Services (after initial objections from de Blasio).

The Department of Veterans’ Services launched in April and has been operating with its expanded budget since the July start of the new fiscal year, boosting its staff and ramping up operations. The department is well on its way to full deployment in the next few months, said Commissioner Loree Sutton in an interview with Gotham Gazette at the agency’s main office at One Center Street, across from City Hall.

Sutton laid out her priorities and the “non-negotiable core services” that the department is focused on: housing and support services, an integrative healthcare program, and the E3 initiative (education, employment and entrepreneurship). “For the first time, we’ll finally have the capacity to not only establish a citywide presence but be able to engage in these three lines of action,” she said.

The department now has 24 employees, up from four in June of 2015, and will add another ten by the start of 2017. With an eye towards having a presence in all five boroughs, it now has a satellite office in Queens and will set up offices in all the boroughs within the next three months. “We have been very dedicated to the process of designing a new agency,” said Sutton, “And really taking the time that we needed not just to fill slots but really build a team. We’re also creating a culture, a culture that honors the aspirations and the dreams of so many veterans here in New York City from years and years.”

The department’s priorities align with what veteran advocates have long demanded, and they praise Sutton’s leadership for it. Recognizing that the department is young, advocates do say they would like to see a clear articulation of those priorities through outreach to the veteran community. “It takes time to build out so of course some of the veterans in the outer boroughs are wondering, ‘Where is it?’, but it’s growing,” said Joe Bello, a Navy veteran and member of the city’s Veterans Advisory Board, shortly after a recent hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Veterans.

“There needs to be something about what the city is actually offering vets,” he added, saying the department should consider creating a resource guide to its services in order to reach out to veterans and their families.

Kristen Rouse, an Army veteran and president and founding director of NYC Veterans Alliance, an advocacy group, said the new department needs to be “responsive” to veterans’ needs. “They have to not only build the plan and execute the plan, they have to build trust in the community,” she said. “This is a community that has been underserved for a very long time and so they have to be responsive, they have to build that word-of-mouth trust.”

Rouse acknowledges, as a former city employee, that government can work slowly, but she’s encouraged by the staff the Sutton has hired, many of whom are veterans themselves. “It’s going to take some weeks and months for them to really gel as a team and to craft a plan that says, ‘Here’s what we’re doing,’” Rouse said. She stressed that the department should not lose focus, however, of issues that go ignored, like affordable housing for student veterans and discrimination faced by veterans.

“There are so many other different programs that need to be fostered,” she said, “to promote community, promote good quality of living, a sense of purpose for veterans in New York City so ultimately we’re a city that attracts veterans in the same way we attract artists, entrepreneurs.”

Sutton, a retired Army brigadier general, explained that the department is already doing much along these lines through coordination with different city agencies and setting up a network of local service providers under its VetConnect NYC initiative, which will roll out next year. “The number one challenge that veterans and their families point to is difficulty navigating,” she said, “to find the right services, to ensure that they’re quality services, to make sure they qualify for them, that the services are even available. That’s what this network really is designed to do.”

After the October 28 City Council veterans committee hearing, Council Member Eric Ulrich, a Queens Republican who chairs the committee, told Gotham Gazette he was optimistic about the new department’s execution, but hasn’t yet seen a long-term plan for veterans from the de Blasio administration.

“I don’t think it’s even on their radar right now,” he said. He did praise the city for ending chronic veteran homelessness and emphasized the need for connecting veterans with permanent affordable housing. But Ulrich said one area where the city is failing is in providing adequate employment for veterans, “and good paying jobs, not low paying menial jobs, but jobs that reflect their skills and abilities and their talents and the things that they’ve learned in the military,” he said.

What’s also important to consider, according to Ulrich, is the roughly 20,000 future veterans, soldiers currently in active service who will return to the city in the next five years. “I think the temptation is, on the part of the New York City government, to just supply a band-aid sometimes and treat how things are now, but we really have to come up with a long-term solution,” he said, “to make New York City a more veteran-friendly city.”

As Sutton tells it, that long-term vision is coming together, efforts that will be highlighted this week leading up to Friday’s Veterans Day and its annual parade. “We’re in the very early stages of what will absolutely continue to be a full-court press to improve the lives of our veterans and their families,” she said. “This is what I view as an essential municipal investment.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Long-Awaited, City's New Approach to Veterans Services Moves Ahead Sun, 06 Nov 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Council to Hold First Budget Hearing for New Veterans' Services Department city hall veterans flags

Mayor de Blasio with Commissioner Sutton (in blue) (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

On Friday, the New York City Council will hold the first-ever budget hearing for the newly created Department of Veterans’ Services.

The Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs is transitioning into the Department of Veterans’ Services, a standalone department with a distinct agency budget and providing expanded services for the city’s 225,000 military veterans. The department became official in April and will now proceed to rollout over the next year, increasing staff from a mere half-dozen to more than 30 full-time employees.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s executive budget allocates $3.84 million to the Department of Veterans’ Services, about twice as much as MOVA’s budget for the current fiscal year. Commissioner Loree Sutton has already indicated what the agency’s direction will be. Speaking at an event at LaGuardia Community College on May 2, she laid out her top strategic priorities: ending veteran homelessness; implementing elements of the city’s ThriveNYC mental health program; and promoting education, employment and entrepreneurship for veterans.

The department has already taken a few steps in implementing these goals. To fight veteran homelessness, it has hired five peer-to-peer coordinators to undertake outreach to homeless veterans, particularly the “hidden population,” Sutton said, which includes student veterans who have difficulties accessing affordable housing. The city currently has about 432 veterans in the homeless shelter system, down from more than 3,500 six or seven years ago. Last year, the federal government certified the city as having ended chronic veteran homelessness, meaning homeless veterans who remain. The department will also appoint two assistant commissioners, one to implement Thrive NYC with an eight-member team and another to connect veterans with educational and economic opportunities.

Sutton stressed that the department is rolling out in phases. “Just because the mayor signed the legislation establishing the Department of Veteran Services last December doesn’t mean that it’s a light switch,” she said at the event. “You don’t go from five folks to 34 folks overnight.”

Using rudimentary military terminology, she explained the process. Until July 1, the department will be in the “transitional planning and budget” phase. With the July start of the new fiscal year, the department will enter Phase II, IOC or initial operating capacity. That phase will go through the entire fiscal year. “We will ramp up to that full 33-34 positions and by July of 2017 we’ll be at FOC - full operating capacity,” Sutton said.

“It’s exciting but we’re not going to move out in front of ourselves,” Sutton added. “We know that it’s our privilege to not just fill slots but rather to build a team, to form a family, to create a culture that can best serve the veterans and families of all five boroughs.”

After the release of the preliminary budget, the department was initially slated for a budget hearing which was later cancelled. For veterans advocates, it would’ve been a chance to hear the administration’s plan to set up its new agency and identify its priorities for veteran services. Tomorrow, advocates and the Council will get those answers.

“I’m excited to hear from the new commissioner about what her long-term vision is for the department,” Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, “how the Council can be an effective partner in assisting the DVS in realizing this vision, and what the main priorities and goals are in the coming fiscal year.”

Mark-Viverito will attend Friday’s hearing, slated for 1 p.m. at City Hall, and deliver brief opening remarks. According to her office, the speaker will highlight the need for expanded services for the city’s veterans - the reason that the Council pushed for a new department outside the mayor's office - citing persistent challenges of mental illness, substance abuse, hunger, and unemployment.

Kristen Rouse, an Army veteran and president and founding director of NYC Veterans Alliance, an advocacy group, has many expectations of the “ambitious programs” that DVS has on the horizon and hopes to get the budget details on Friday. Rouse’s priorities, which converge largely with Sutton’s outline, include the department’s approach to communications with veterans, implementation of veteran-specific initiatives in ThriveNYC, support for homeless veterans, placement of veteran outreach counselors in every borough, improved support for veteran employees in city agencies, and job placement assistance for veterans.

“I'm also hoping to see a solid commitment of city tax-levy dollars in addition to the federal and state funding to show that the city is truly buying in on veteran programs and not simply going after external funds, or even private or philanthropic funds,” Rouse said.

Navy veteran Joe Bello, a member of the city’s Veterans Advisory Board and founder of NY MetroVets, which seeks to keep veterans informed, is pleased with the level of funding DVS will receive. “It shows that the mayor is committed to building up the department,” he said. “I’m looking forward to hearing from Commissioner Sutton about what kinds of resources and services they’ll provide.”

He did have minor concerns, however, about both the budget and Friday’s hearing. He said a vital reason that veterans advocates pushed for the new department was so that the city could ensure streamlined disbursement of funds to local nonprofit organizations that serve veterans. Those funds, he said, usually go through specific city agencies and face delays.

“When we saw the positions they’d put forth, I didn’t see any person to handle the money for nonprofits. I’m hopeful Council Member [Eric] Ulrich will ask about that,” Bello added, referring to the chair of the Council’s veterans affairs committee, Eric Ulrich. Ulrich, Mark-Viverito, and Council Member Paul Vallone were key driving forces behind the creation of the new department, which Mayor de Blasio had initially rejected.

Ulrich and Council finance committee Chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland will lead Friday’s hearing. Ulrich’s office did not return requests for comment ahead of the hearing.

Bello also said he was disappointed that the public would not be able to testify at the hearing, as is the case with all executive budget hearings. “For the first hearing ever, they should’ve given some consideration to that,” he said. “Otherwise I’m excited.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Council to Hold First Budget Hearing for New Veterans' Services Department Thu, 19 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000