Gotham Gazette Sun, 31 May 2020 11:26:14 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) City Council Budget Response Seeks New Spending, More Savings bdb budget briefing w CMs

Mayor de Blasio briefs Council members on his budget (photo: William Alatriste) 

The City Council on Monday issued its formal response to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $82 billion preliminary budget for fiscal year 2017, capping a month of budget hearings that were fraught with concerns over how Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed state budget would affect the city and how prepared the city’s coffers are for a rainy day.

Until last week, uncertainty over significant cuts in funding to New York City outlined by Cuomo had the City Council on its toes, with Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito traveling to Albany to participate in efforts to eliminate them. The de Blasio administration said at the first Council budget hearing that it did not have a contingency plan if the state were to shift nearly $700 million in costs for Medicaid and CUNY in fiscal 2017 to the city. Instead, officials said, they would be making every effort to ensure that the cuts did not stay when the state budget was passed.

In a letter to the mayor on Wednesday, the Council identified its budget priorities but stopped short of issuing its full response given that the state budget had yet been finalized.

At the end of last week, a new $147 billion state budget was passed without the most significant cuts to city funding, and the Council had the all clear to move forward with its priorities unchanged. Out of a budget process so far largely focused on identifying savings across city government, the Council outlined specifics for a city budget that serves immigrants and youth, sets aside more in reserves, and invests in expanded services that it can track.

“The Council’s budget recommendations are the culmination of dozens of comprehensive budget hearings and reflect the needs of all New Yorkers while also planning for our City’s future,” said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, in a Monday statement accompanying the Council’s budget response, which will form the agenda over the next three months as it negotiates a final budget with the mayor’s office by the June 30 deadline. “This is a budget that is smart, fair and fiscally responsible, all while greatly expanding opportunities to New Yorkers across the City,” Mark-Viverito wrote.

The Council identified eight major priorities in its response: increased investment in city youth; investment in healthcare, education, jobs and legal services for immigrants; specific funding for the diverse communities; capital investment in infrastructure; creating a Rainy Day Fund and adding to existing reserves; baselining essential city services; expanding criminal justice, community support, and human services; and more accurately tracking city agency performance.

The Council is proposing $790 million in new spending and tax reductions but estimates that the increase to the budget would ultimately be only about $127 million once larger agency savings and changes to debt service payments are included. Even with additional spending, the Council estimates a budget surplus of $258 million in fiscal 2017.

The Council identifies $91.2 million in agency savings that the preliminary budget did not account for. A majority of this amount, $80 million, would come from reducing the city’s contribution to fringe benefits for the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and the Human Resources Administration (HRA), which have received increased state and federal funding for these costs, the Council says.

The response also calls for reduction in the city’s data processing equipment budget by $14 million and a $6 million reduction in Other Than Personal Services costs at the Department of Transportation. All of these savings figures were arrived at through analysis by the Council’s budget office, which is under the supervision of Mark-Viverito, Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who chairs the finance committee, and Finance Director Latonia McKinney.

Although the state budget no longer haunts the city’s fiscal future, the Council recognizes risks remain. An economic slowdown is widely expected by city officials, economists, and budget watchdogs, and the Council’s budget response notes the consequences it could have on consumer spending, tax revenue, real estate prices, and cost of living.

“These preliminary budget recommendations reflect a central challenge in government: making our city more equitable while also planning prudently for the future,” said Ferreras-Copeland, in a statement. “The proposals included address inequality in New York City while remaining fiscally responsible, and I believe they represent the diversity of needs across our city. As the budget process advances, I will continue to ensure that the Council is an equal partner and that the Administration’s investments are transparent.”

The budget is due before the start of the next fiscal year on July 1. Along with the state budget, Mayor de Blasio will take the Council’s feedback into consideration as he crafts his executive budget, due out later this month. The release of that updated spending plan, which the mayor has indicated will likely include a more robust agency savings plan, will trigger another round of hearings at the City Council. Then, the two sides will negotiate out of public view until a deal is struck.

Asked to respond to the Council’s preliminary budget response, Office of Management and Budget spokesperson Amy Spitalnick, recounted by email that “Budget monitors and rating agencies have all applauded this administration's fiscal prudence and focus on targeting investments and protecting against economic uncertainty – and investors agree,” while providing a link to a Bloomberg news article on the subject.

Spitalnick outlined that the administration has “unprecedented” reserves while restoring “funds cut under the prior administration.” Even with billions already in savings, she wrote, “the Mayor has made clear, we’ll continue to build on those savings in the Executive Budget.”

“We look forward to continuing to work with the Council throughout the budget process,” she said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Council Budget Response Seeks New Spending, More Savings Mon, 04 Apr 2016 21:06:46 +0000
City Resets First Budget Hearing for New Veterans Affairs Department veterans outside city hall flags

photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

In December, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law the City Council bill creating a separate, dedicated Veterans Affairs department which would take over responsibility from the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA) in handling services for more than 200,000 military veterans living in New York City.

By law, the new department will be official on April 10 and the fiscal year 2017 budget being negotiated between the de Blasio administration and the City Council will outline its first agency allocation and spending plan. The city’s fiscal year begins July 1.

As part of ongoing Council hearings on the mayor’s $82 billion preliminary budget, the new veterans affairs department was scheduled for a session on March 21. As is usually the case in such hearings, where agency heads and other administration officials testify before a Council committee, MOVA Commissioner Loree Sutton would have testified, Council members would have asked her questions, and advocates and members of the public would have aired their concerns.

But, owing to the transition of veterans affairs from the Mayor’s Office to a full-fledged department, the hearing was deferred. “It doesn’t officially become a department in name till April 10,” said Joe Bello, a member of the city’s Veterans Advisory Board, “and it doesn’t become a real department budgetary-wise till July 1. So there was really no preliminary budget to discuss.”

The Council veterans affairs committee’s preliminary budget hearing couldn’t really occur because the mayor and his budget office had not established a budget for the new veterans affairs department in the initial spending plan.

Instead, it will be taken up when the administration and City Council get down to brass tacks during executive budget negotiations. The Council will soon release its preliminary budget response, which will trigger closed-door discussions and lead to the mayor’s release of his revised spending plan later in April, followed by another round of hearings. The new veterans department is expected to be included in the executive budget and to have a budget hearing thereafter.

Last year, the MOVA budget was $1.9 million, up from $600,000 the previous year, “the largest increase in its 29 year existence,” according to the VAB’s annual report.  Between January and July 2015, MOVA’s full-time staff increased from six to 20.

The administration is also doubling down on its commitments through other initiatives. In late March, the first veterans affairs satellite office opened in Queens. Then, on March 28, the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and MOVA announced partnerships with the private sector to end veteran homelessness, with an investment of $750,000. It’s not clear yet, however, what the total budget for fiscal 2017 will entail.

“As we've said, we are determining costs for the new agency and expect it to be reflected in the executive budget,” said Amy Spitalnick, spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget. “We look forward to working with the Council on this and more throughout the budget process.”

Spitalinick declined to provide details of what the executive budget may include.

Bello from the VAB, a Navy veteran, is not worried about the preliminary budget hearing being scrapped. “As an advocate, I just want them to get it right,” he said. He expects significant increases in the budget and said the department could have as many as 35 staffers by the end of the year. “They gotta ramp up personnel. They gotta ramp up services,” he added.

City services for military veterans include helping connect them to federal programs and often deal with housing, education, employment, and health care needs.

Bello spoke of the ThriveNYC mental health roadmap the city has released, which touches on veterans, and mentioned conversations with the de Blasio administration on veteran homelessness as well. He wasn’t sure if the latter would be directly tackled by the new department or remain under the purview of the Department of Homeless Services.

“I don’t know what I’m expecting,” said Kristen Rouse, an Army veteran and president and founding director of NYC Veterans Alliance, an advocacy group. Rouse is a bit more skeptical than Bello, insisting on a line-by-line breakdown of the department’s budget. “They’ve never put out a policy paper saying, ‘Here’s what we’re doing on veterans services and here’s how much we’re spending,’” she said. “The administration has quoted a lot of different numbers to us.”

While she appreciates the administration’s initiatives, she hopes for an explanation of the budget to the veterans community and outreach for advice from veterans once a hearing is set. “I would hope that members of our community will be notified so we can contribute to it,” she said. Bello echoed the sentiment and said the VAB has been soliciting comments online from veterans in the city. “The public and advocates wouldn’t be able to give feedback if there wasn’t a hearing,” he said.

A spokesperson for City Council Member Eric Ulrich, chair of the veterans affairs committee, insisted that the Council will hear from veterans themselves. “We look forward to working collaboratively with all the interested parties to ensure New York City provides the highest level of service to our veterans,” said Kevin Tschirhart, Ulrich’s director of communications. “Issues regarding the budget will be taken up at the executive budget hearings and will be finalized in coming months.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Resets First Budget Hearing for New Veterans Affairs Department Mon, 04 Apr 2016 05:00:00 +0000
The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 4 New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

We're about two weeks from New York's April 19 presidential primary vote. The three remaining Republican candidates and two remaining Democrats have been campaigning in New York, which is more in play than it has been in several cycles. Hillary Clinton is set to hold events in New York City and Albany Monday, including a rally with Gov. Cuomo and a meeting with state Assembly Democrats, and while the candidates are also paying attention to Wisconsin as the week begins, New York already has a great deal of their and the nation's focus. It should be an exciting and dramatic two weeks. As this week begins, the Clinton and Sanders campaigns continue to spar over whether there will be a Democratic debate in New York before the state votes.

All three Republican candidates - Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich - are set to attend the New York GOP's annual gala, set for April 14. The candidates are expected to campaign in New York over the next two weeks.

The day of the New York presidential primaries, April 19, is also the date of special elections in the state Legislature, including the races to replace both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Both those races appear competitive two weeks out. The Senate race is especially important given that Democrats are eyeing this year's elections as a chance to take control of the chamber - they already have a wide majority in the Assembly.

Monday will see return to a focus on the recently-passed state budget. Hillary Clinton will rally in New York City Monday with Gov. Cuomo and others to celebrate that the budget includes a path to a $15 per hour minimum wage and a paid family leave policy.

There is sure to be more analysis of the $147-plus billion budget this week, it was passed Friday after much last-minute negotiating (a deal was announced just a few hours before the midnight Thursday deadline, with voting by the Legislature taking place through Thursday evening and into Friday - the state's fiscal year begins April 1). The new budget was met with some criticism, largely over the process by which it was agreed upon and passed with little time for review by lawmakers and the public, and much celebration, especially over the minimum wage and paid family leave provisions, as well as increased funding for education, transportation infrastructure, and more. There is a lot of budget language to digest as the details have been made public.

The Legislature is due in Albany for three days of post-budget legislative session this week. Including this week, there are 27 days of session scheduled between now and its scheduled end on June 16. Issues to address include mayoral control of New York City schools, which expires at the end of June (the Senate will hold two May hearings, it recently announced, at which Mayor de Blasio is expected to testify), a property tax abatement program to spur affordable housing development (renewing or replacing the expired 421-a program), raising the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16, the Dream Act, and much more - including government ethics reform, which the governor says will be his top priority after none was included in the budget deal.

On Monday we expect the City Council's official response to Mayor Bill de Blasio's $82 billion preliminary budget plan. The Council has held a month of budget hearings and now has the state budget to consider, so it is able to give its response to the mayor, who will take it and the state budget into account as he prepares his executive budget. When de Blasio releases his updated spending plan in a few weeks, it will kick off another round of Council budget hearings as the two sides head toward a deal by the end of June and the July 1 start of the city's new fiscal year. Since major cuts in funding to the city from the state that Gov. Cuomo had in his budget plan were taken out of the final deal, there will be little drama to the city budget process the rest of the way. The biggest bone of contention appears to be whether the mayor is insisting on enough agency savings. There will also be small battles over things like levels of library funding.

Many eyes are also on East New York as the week begins. A large area of the Brooklyn community is set to be rezoned, the first of 15 neighborhoods where the de Blasio administration plans to significantly change land use rules to facilitate more housing and community improvements, but the clock is ticking as the administration and local stakeholders, led by City Council Member Rafael Espinal, negotiate the final details of the plan. There is no zoning subcommittee or land use committee vote scheduled as of Sunday evening, but one could be scheduled if a deal is reached. The parties have until the end of the month to reach and pass a deal.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - read our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max:***

The run of the week in detail:

Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Monday in Albany.

The City Council’s preliminary budget response to Mayor de Blasio is expected on Monday.

At 11 a.m. Monday at the Javits Center in Manhattan, The Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice will hold a "victory rally for $15 minimum wage and paid family leave" - participants will include "Governor Andrew M. Cuomo; Hillary Clinton; George Gresham, President of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East and Chair of the Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice; labor leaders; advocates and minimum wage workers." City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is expected to attend the rally, according to her schedule.

On Monday at 1 p.m. at 1 Police Plaza, "Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton will host a press conference to discuss monthly crime stats," according to the mayor's public schedule.

At the City Council on Monday:

  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Transportation will meet to discuss several items, such as the provision of certain parking privileges for press vehicles, the requirement of curb extensions at certain dangerous intersections, and the establishment of Earth Day 2016 as a car-free day for private and all non-essential city vehicles.
  • 10:30 a.m., the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections will meet to discuss various candidates for appointment to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the Board of Corrections, and the City Planning Commission.
  • 1 p.m., the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions will meet to address several land use applications.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Contracts will hold an oversight meeting on the challenges facing nonprofits in city contracting.

At 11:30 a.m. Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will visit "a Model Dual Language Program to make an announcement," at High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies in Manhattan.

On Monday at noon, "At a press conference Monday, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance will release a new report on Mayor de Blasio's OneNYC Plan, his administration's blueprint for increasing the city's environmental sustainability and resiliency. The report shows that six low-income communities of color on the waterfront designated by the city as Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas (SMIAs)—the South Bronx, Sunset Park, Red Hook, Newtown Creek, Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the North Shore of Staten Island—are still the most vulnerable to the threats of climate change and not sufficiently protected by the OneNYC Plan. A number of constructive recommendations for strengthening the plan are offered in the detailed report."

At 5 p.m. Monday, Comptroller Scott Stringer will deliver remarks "at 32BJ Security Contract Rally" at the Wall Street Bull. At 9 p.m., Stringer will appear on BronxTalk with Gary Axelbank (BronxNet TV or

At 7:30 p.m. Monday in Albany, the burgeoning Museum of Political Corruption will host a roundtable discussion and public forum on political corruption following a reception and fundraiser. Speakers include Frank Anechiarico, professor of government and law at Hamilton College; Blair Horner, Executive Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group; Zephyr Teachout, Fordham Law School professor and Congressional candidate; Jimmy Vielkind, Politico NY Albany bureau chief; and Thomas Bass, SUNY Albany professor, who will moderate.

Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Tuesday in Albany.

At 8 a.m., Bill Mulrow, secretary to Gov. Andrew Cuomo will discuss the administration’s budget goals and legislative priorities, including a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, and infrastructure projects, at a Crain’s New York Business event. Moderating the conversation will be Crain’s New York editor Erik Engquist and Ken Lovett of the Daily News.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday on the Upper East Side, the launch of LinkNYC Kiosks with free Wi-Fi and more, featuring City Council Member Ben Kallos, Assistant Commissioner Telecommunications Planning at NYC Department of Information and Technology Stanley Shor and LinkNYC General Manager Jen Hensley (86th Street and 3rd Avenue, South East Corner).

At the City Council on Tuesday: at 10 a.m., the Committee on Immigration will address a resolution calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a decision in U.S. v. Texas, which overturns the Fifth Circuit’s ruling and upholds the implementation of President Obama’s expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) programs.

At 2 p.m., a town hall meeting to discuss the 2017 referendum to hold a New York constitutional convention will be held at the University at Buffalo. The event will feature a number of experts, such as Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz and Henrik Dullea, who served as director of state operations and policy management for Governor Mario Cuomo from 1983-91, who will discuss what a constitutional convention would look like and the issues at stake in constitutional reform.

At 6 p.m., The Coalition to End Broken Windows will launch a two-day conference, Breaking Broken Windows, at the CUNY Graduate Center. Participants will evaluate, debate, and debunk Broken Windows policing theory, which “contends that policing disorder leads to reductions in serious crime.” They will also analyze the era of mass criminalization and imprisonment while working towards alternative solutions for a better future for New York City. Speakers include a variety of academics, advocates, and journalists, including Noha Arafa, of New Yorkers Against Bratton, Janine Jackson of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, and Professor Alex Vitale of Brooklyn College.

Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in Queens, "City Council "Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer and Access Queens will host a Town Hall on the 7 train with New York City Transit President Veronique "Ronnie" Hakim. At this event, 7 train riders, angry and frustrated by seemingly endless delays, overcrowding, and weekend and evening closures, will have the opportunity to ask questions and share concerns directly with the president of New York City Transit."

Both houses of the New York State Legislature are in session on Wednesday in Albany.

The Manhattan Institute and the Fordham Institute will host a conference beginning at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday to address “The Future of Charter Schools—And School Choice—In NYC,” following a recent study ranking U.S. cities on various school-choice metrics (by the Fordham Institute) finding that local political support for charters in NYC has fallen from 8th to 26th place, and the city’s overall ranking from 3rd to 12th. Speakers include Priscilla Wohlstetter, professor at Teachers College, Columbia University; James Merriman, president of the New York City Charter School Center; Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute; and Charles Sahm, Director of Education Policy at the Manhattan Institute.

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Public Safety will meet to address several resolutions on Nicholas’ Law, the Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act, Congressional funding for gun violence research, safeguards against wrongful convictions, and opposing the Constitutional Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act.
  • 11 a.m., the Committee on Economic Development will hear a bill requiring a survey and study of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity among the leadership of city contractors.
  • 11 a.m., the Committee on Land Use will meet to address several issues deferred from the meeting of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises and the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses.
  • 1 p.m., the Committee on Governmental Operations will meet to evaluate the structure and content of the preliminary Mayor’s Management Report.

On Wednesday at 11 a.m. in Albany, "State Senator Liz Krueger will hold a forum on modernizing sales tax collection in New York State. New York State's current system of sales tax collection has not kept up with changes in retail payment methods and technological innovation. This forum will evaluate proposals for modernizing the collection of sales tax to improve its efficiency for retailers and to reduce the potential for fraud through sales tax suppression. One tax researcher has estimated that sales tax suppression costs New York State $1.7 billion in revenue annually. A number of other states and countries have adopted or are exploring the adoption of new technologies to address these issues."

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Brooklyn Historical Society will host a panel to discuss “Moving Beyond the Rhetoric: Creating a Diverse Workplace in the 21st Century.” Panelists include professionals leading Bloomberg LP’s Diversity and Inclusion group; Kristen Titus, Founding Director of NYC Tech Talent Pipeline; Anthony Crowell, President of New York Law School; Eulas Boyd, Dean of Admissions at Brooklyn Law School; and Tom Finkelpearl, Commissioner, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs” and will discuss their experiences in building and instituting workplace diversity policies.

At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Columbia’s schools of International and Public Affairs and Law will host a public policy forum about policing, criminal justice reform, and public integrity. Loretta Lynch, the 83rd Attorney General of the U.S., will deliver the keynote address. Former Mayor David Dinkins, who the event is named for and is a professor at Columbia, will deliver remarks. Professor Ester Fuchs will moderate a panel on on "Criminal Justice Reform and Public Integrity" featuring Mark Peters, Commissioner, NYC Department of Investigation; Daniel C. Richman, Paul J. Keller Professor of Law, Columbia Law School; Ken Thompson, Brooklyn District Attorney; Nicholas Turner, President and Director, Vera Institute of Justice. (This event is by invitation only.)

At the City Council on Thursday:

  • 10 a.m., the Committee on Finance will meet to address a land use application and introduce a bill establishing a temporary program to resolve outstanding penalties imposed by the environmental control board.
  • 1:30 p.m., the City Council will hold a full-body stated meeting, which will be prefaced as usual by a pre-stated press conference hosted by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

State Legislature hearings Thursday:

  • 10 a.m. in Albany, the Assembly Standing Committee on Insurance and the Assembly Standing Committee on Health will be hosting a public hearing to evaluate the process of modifying or enhancing health insurance coverage requirements under the Affordable Care Act.
  • Noon in Oakdale, the Senate Joint Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction will host a public meeting to examine the issues facing communities in the wake of increased heroin abuse.

At 5 p.m. Thursday, the MTA will hold a public hearing about a proposal to restore service to the N and Q lines in connection with the opening of Phase I of the Second Avenue Subway, expected to be completed late this year.

Friday and the weekend
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara is scheduled to deliver the keynote speech at the New York Press Association Spring Convention, which will begin at 9 a.m. Friday.

At 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, Staten Island Borough President James S. Oddo will join the ROLE Call in hosting the NYC Fatherhood and Family Enrichment Conference at Port Richmond High School. This event aims to enhance Fatherhood Engagement by offering seminars and workshops in family and fatherhood services.

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Kelly Fan and Ben Max

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 4 Sun, 03 Apr 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Library Funding One Discrepancy in Quiet City Budget Season van bramer libraries rally

Council Member Van Bramer leads a library funding rally (photo: William Alatriste)

Funding for New York City’s three public library systems is still $22 million short of the $65 million in city funding libraries received before the recession, despite increased demand for the services libraries provide, the presidents of the New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, and Queens Public Library said at a March 23 City Council preliminary budget hearing.

Hundreds of orange-clad librarians and library advocates filled the Council chambers at City Hall to support the three library heads in calling for the entire $43 million in funding that was restored in last year’s budget to be baselined by Mayor de Blasio, and for the additional $22 million in funding that was cut from libraries in 2008 to be restored.

A greater investment in libraries is necessary, the three library presidents argue, to expand access to vital programs libraries provide, such as English Speakers of Other Languages classes, early literacy programs, after school programs, adult-learning classes, and job training. Not to mention more basic library services providing books, space, and internet.

With last year’s added funding, the Queens Library system “increased its ESOL seats by 6.6 percent,” said Dennis Walcott, the new president of the Queens Public Library and former schools chancellor. “However, we still turned away more than 1,100 students due to the lack of capacity. The 2016 investment was historic, but too many needs remain unmet.”

Though the Mayor and the City Council restored $43 million in funding in last year’s budget, Mayor de Blasio has baselined $21 million in his preliminary fiscal year 2017 budget.

“This year, we have taken the unprecedented step in the preliminary FY 2017 budget of baselining the additional mayoral operating funds provided last year,” Amy Spitalnick, a spokesperson for the mayor, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

The $21 million that de Blasio has baselined is the share of the funding that the administration contributed last year, and the remaining $22 million that has not been baselined was the Council’s share of the funding, yet it seems the three library heads and Council members want the mayor to baseline the entire $43 million.

“We have been fighting for several years, as all of you know, to restore the funding that was cut from the libraries beginning in 2008,” said Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who chaired the hearing, in his opening remarks. “We have continued to urge the administration to baseline all of that funding, and were very pleased when the mayor baselined roughly half of that in the preliminary budget. But it is equally important that the remainder be baselined in the executive budget.”

De Blasio unveiled an $82 billion preliminary FY17 budget in late January. His executive budget will be released in late April or early May and after the Council has presented its official preliminary budget response. In a year with little drama around the budget, funding for libraries and summer school programming appear to be among the few discrepancies between the administration and the Council.

It is unusual for the administration’s presence to be somewhat absent at a City Council budget hearing, and though Tom Finklepearl, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, testified, funding for libraries went unmentioned throughout his time in front of the Council members presiding over the hearing.

While the presidents of the three library systems; Council members; representatives from DC37, the union that largely staffs libraries; and the many librarians and library advocates present at the hearing were all strongly in favor of completely restoring funding and baselining that money, no one from the de Blasio administration discussed the issue on the record. In part, this is the result of the fact that the libraries have their own boards of directors and operate in somewhat gray area. It was not immediately clear why Finklepearl was not asked to explain the administration’s stance on library funding.

Mayor de Blasio did include library systems in the 10-year capital plan for the first time ever last year, dedicating more than $300 million to the three systems. Yet, the three library presidents argue that the capital investment falls more than $250 million short of what is needed to address critical maintenance needs of the city’s libraries, many of which are over half a century old.

“Infrastructure problems have a direct, negative impact on our staff’s programming,” said Anthony Marx, president of the New York Public Library, which serves Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. “At 115th [Street] Library in Harlem, for example, a coveted basement programming space was rendered unusable by serious leaks in a nearly 100-year-old underground pipe. The leaks destroyed the floor, and the outdated pipe and boiler need to be replaced.”

“I fear for the soul of a city that allows libraries to deteriorate so quickly,” said Linda Johnson, president of the Brooklyn Public Library, adding that unplanned branch closures caused by the sudden need for repairs are an all-too-frequent occurrence for Brooklyn’s branches. Johnson says the administration must “baseline the increased operating support from last year and provide sufficient capital funding for libraries to appropriately address emergency needs.”

Libraries provide an array of services that help to achieve the goals of both the mayor and the City Council, including providing IDNYC enrollment and universal pre-K. “Libraries have come through for this administration in a very big way,” Van Bramer said.

For example, Marx pointed out at the hearing, the mayor and the Council have set an ambitious target of having every child reading on grade level by the end of second grade, though currently, 70 percent of the city’s third graders cannot read at grade level. The added funding distributed to the New York Public Library last year “provided us with the opportunity to expand our early literacy programming across the system, increasing overall attendance by 16 percent,” Marx said.

Though libraries did not receive the full $65 million in restored funds that they pushed for last year, all three libraries have made “measurable gains,” and have “nevertheless found a way to deliver six-day service and increase our programming,” Walcott said.

Last year’s added funding allowed the city’s public library systems to offer six-day service once again, for the first time in nearly a decade. As of November, 2015, all 217 libraries across the city are open for at least six days a week, with 15 branches open seven days a week.

“Six day service is a floor, not a ceiling,” Van Bramer said. The three library presidents and the scores of library-lovers that showed up both outside City Hall for a press conference, and inside City Hall for the hearing, want the city to restore the remaining $22 million in funding in order to improve and expand programs that the libraries offer, particularly early literacy services, and increase to seven-day service.

“Libraries are on the front lines of tackling inequality,” Marx said, touching on the main throughline of de Blasio’s agenda. “No institution does more for New Yorkers; from helping to bridge the digital divide to offering new immigrants a chance to learn English, libraries offer essential services for high-need communities, at all stages of life across this city.”

[Related: Assessing City Library Expansion After Budget Boost]

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.


Library Funding One Discrepancy in Quiet City Budget Season Thu, 24 Mar 2016 20:29:13 +0000
City Council to Begin Public Examination of Mayor's Budget de blasio council budget briefing

Mayor de Blasio briefs Council members on his FY17 budget (William Alatriste)

On Tuesday, the City Council will hold the first of many preliminary budget hearings on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initial fiscal year 2017 spending plan, part of a months-long negotiation process that will end in June when the City Council and the Mayor must agree upon a budget for fiscal year 2017.

First in general terms, then agency by agency, the Council will ask de Blasio administration representatives to explain spending and programmatic choices. Council members will examine overall budgeting principles, looking at savings from prior years and money socked away in case of an economic downturn, as well as how clearly the administration is showing what money is being allocated for. Throughout the weeks of hearings, members will also push for their individual funding priorities, such as summer youth employment and efforts to fight gun violence and rape.

General Budgeting & Savings
Mayor Bill de Blasio released an $82.1 billion preliminary budget on Jan. 21, which he described as “boring” and short on “splashy new” initiatives, instead stressing fiscal responsibility and building reserves, with increased “targeted investments” to address the homelessness crisis, fund pension obligations, and reduce school overcrowding, among other priorities.

Signs of an imminent economic slowdown after years of growth and the specter of losing state aid loomed over de Blasio’s budget address, yet the preliminary budget set aside less money in savings than budgets have in previous years. The administration says they have unprecedented reserves, but watchdogs say that the “budget cushion” is not as deep as it should be.

The preliminary budget contains about $740 million in new agency spending, a relatively modest amount, including $62 million for ThriveNYC, the city’s multifaceted plan to increase access to improved mental health services and $53.7 million more on programs to address homelessness. With the City Council, de Blasio has increased the city budget significantly since taking office, largely due to the settling of many municipal labor contracts that were left expired at the end of the Bloomberg years. But, there have also been large increases in agency spending, including the addition of 2,000 new officers to the NYPD and billions more toward affordable housing development and homelessness-fighting.

The mayor’s preliminary budget did not account for the proposals in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget that would change the way CUNY and Medicaid are funded, which would cost the city nearly $1 billion starting in fiscal year 2017. Cuomo has since backtracked on the proposed cuts, saying they “won’t cost New York City a penny,” and that he wants to collaborate to find efficiencies and savings in the programs. There have been no signs of any conversations to that effect, though, and questions around how the city is accounting for these potential losses in state aid, and others, are sure to come up during preliminary budget hearings.

Council members, city Comptroller Scott Stringer, and the Citizen’s Budget Commission have all called on the mayor to find more recurring savings in the budget and to build up reserves to safeguard against a financial downturn.

A majority of City Council members sent a letter to Mayor de Blasio on Dec. 31 calling on the mayor to instruct all city agencies to find five percent in potential savings in their budgets. The letter, spearheaded by Council Member Dan Garodnick, was signed by 26 of the 51 Council members, including chair of the finance committee, Julissa Ferreras-Copeland. Ferreras-Copeland will be center stage for budget hearings, especially Tuesday’s kickoff where de Blasio’s budget director, Dean Fuleihan, will testify.

Though the letter did not explicitly say so, Council members were asking the mayor to institute a PEG, or Program to Eliminate the Gap, a cost-saving practice used by previous administrations that Mayor de Blasio did away with after taking office in favor of a Citywide Savings Program (CSP). A CSP encourages agency commissioners to find savings, but does not set a percentage.

Mayor de Blasio did not include a PEG in his preliminary budget, though he has since said that a PEG is something he is “seriously considering” for the executive budget and is sure to be discussed during the upcoming budget hearings. After several weeks of hearings, the Council will craft its official preliminary budget response, then de Blasio will put together his executive budget, before another round of hearings and continued negotiations leading to a June deal.

Comptroller Stringer has echoed the Council members’ call for implementing a PEG, and released an analysis of the mayor’s preliminary budget on Feb. 10 which pointed out several areas of concern amid an overall positive financial outlook for the city. Stringer has said the “budget cushion” Mayor de Blasio has allocated is not enough to adequately prepare for an economic downturn, and that the comptroller’s office expects larger budget gaps in the coming years than the mayor’s plan accounts for.

The Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) has also called for more savings, and has said the Citywide Savings Program is too small, does not include enough efficiency initiatives, and cannot sufficiently offset the costs of new initiatives or build up reserves. As the CBC points out, the planned savings in the preliminary budget amount to $1.9 billion in savings over fiscal years 2016 to 2019 - 0.6 percent of total city-funded spending.

The CBC has urged Mayor de Blasio to direct his agencies to “identify operational efficiencies that provide recurring savings” ahead of his executive budget proposal which would not only increase the budget cushion, but also make agencies run more efficiently. The mayor has indicated that he may go further than the current savings plan and will look at increasing agency savings before releasing the executive budget, due in late April or early May.

Ahead of the first preliminary budget hearing on March 1, Gotham Gazette spoke with Council members about their priorities and concerns for the upcoming FY17 budget. Securing funding to expand the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program, speaking out against the proposed funding cuts to CUNY and Medicaid, and advocating for greater savings in the budget appear to be some of the Council’s top priorities.

Council Member Ferreras-Copeland, chair of the finance committee and one of the key figures in the budget negotiations, said she aims to “use the process to ensure we are being transparent and fiscally prudent as a city, while mitigating any potential risks the State budget might pose to the city.” Ferreras-Copeland has also previously expressed that the Council is keen to evaluate how the preliminary budget addresses healthcare and pension costs, and that the Department of Education capital plan will be an important issue as many districts struggle with school overcrowding.

Last year, Ferreras-Copeland led the first budget hearing by pushing de Blasio budget reps on “units of appropriation” in the budget, meaning that she and her colleagues want to see more carefully laid-out line items in agency spending, not lump sums. That could be a source of tension again this year.

Specific Priorities
In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Ferreras-Copeland said that she will be paying “special attention to the Council’s priorities, which include the Health and Hospitals financial plan, as well as how to better support youth jobs during the summer and throughout the school year.”

Supporting youth employment is also a priority for Council Member Jumaane Williams, among others. On Feb. 24, Williams, joined by the Community Service Society and several of his colleagues, called on the city to support 100,000 summer jobs by April 1, which would require an additional $95 million in funding, and to enhance the current model of the Summer Youth Employment Program in order to better connect summer jobs to school experiences and ensure better quality programming.

According to a report released by the Community Service Society, summer youth employment reduces risky behavior and has a generally positive impact on academic, behavioral, and employment-related outcomes for children. Over 100,000 youths in New York City have applied for the Summer Youth Employment Program, yet the City has only funded 55,000 program slots.

Williams told Gotham Gazette he believes “there is a lot of push throughout the Council for [youth employment] to be one of the top priorities,” and also wants to see funding allotted to pilot a new model of the summer jobs program in a limited number of high schools, and increased funding to double year-round youth employment, an initiative that is spearheaded by Ferreras-Copeland.

Funding for summer after school programs for middle school students is another issue to watch as budget talks begin. Mayor de Blasio's preliminary budget eliminates the funding for the programs which serve about 34,000 middle school students.

Last year, de Blasio’s preliminary budget cut funding for afterschool programs, only to restore funding in the executive budget after Council members and advocates criticized the administration for eliminating the programs and pushed for the funding to be restored.

This year, Mayor de Blasio has said that while “the summer programs are a very good thing, we just don’t feel we can afford it at this point. We’ll take another look going into the executive budget.”

“But this time,” the mayor added, “we’re saying no, we’re not going to fund that. People should not assume it’s coming. They should not prepare for it.”

As chair of the Committee on Housing a Buildings (for which the preliminary budget hearing is March 3), Williams will also be looking to make sure “everything housing related is properly funded with groups that are able to help prevent displacement,” and wants to make sure “that Housing Preservation and Development and the Department of Buildings have the assistance they need, particularly technology-wise and for hiring additional staff for things like inspections.”

Preventing displacement is one of many important aspects to remedying the city’s homelessness crisis, however, regarding Mayor de Blasio’s proposed increased spending on programs to address homelessness, Comptroller Stringer says spending money more efficiently is needed.

During the comptroller’s preliminary budget analysis presentation, Stringer pointed out that the city is committing $1.7 billion on homeless services across three agencies - a 46 percent increase over two years - and said more coordination and better management must happen for the city to get the optimal return on the investment.

Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the Committee on Government Operations, told Gotham Gazette that during the upcoming budget hearings, “the first item that folks can expect to see is following up on waste in government contracting. In my first year, I identified $4 billion in potential contract overruns.” Kallos added he looks forward to “getting to the bottom of that waste.”

Given the likelihood of an economic downturn, Kallos said he is “concerned about the city’s capital reserves,” and will be advocating to increase the amount of money put aside in the Capital Stabilization Reserve Fund, which received $500 million last year.

Regarding his goals as committee chair (the government operations preliminary budget hearing is March 14), Kallos said he’ll be looking at “outsourcing and provisionals,” and estimated there are roughly 21,000 provisional employees in the city - civil service positions that are filled non-competitively.

“We need to crack down on provisionals. That falls under the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which I oversee,” Kallos said. Thousands of provisional employees were hired during the Bloomberg years, creating something of a city workforce crisis under de Blasio, with questions about which managerial-level city workers have to take civil service exams and make their employment fit requirements.

“I’m focusing on removing outsourcing where possible,” Kallos added, referring to the hiring of outside contractors and consultants by the city to do work that could be done by government employees.

With four election dates scheduled this year, Kallos will also “focus on making sure the Board of Election has all the funding they need…this is going to be the most expensive year for the Board of Elections.” Millions could be saved by consolidating election dates to hold the state primary on the same day as the congressional primary, which Kallos has called for in a resolution.

For Council Member Vanessa Gibson, chair of the Committee on Public Safety, top priorities include securing more support “in terms of financing and resources” for the city’s district attorneys, evaluating the needs and effectiveness of the special narcotics prosecutor in terms of handling K2 (synthetic marijuana) and opioid abuse issues in the city, increasing support for the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, and investing more in anti-gun violence efforts.

“I’m very supportive of anti-gun violence programs,” Gibson said, “I’m grateful the mayor has included in his budget an expansion of ShotSpotter, it’s extremely helpful to detect gunshots in our communities.” Gibson, whose committee’s preliminary budget hearing is March 8, will be looking to expand upon the “incredible investment we’ve already made of about $11-12 million” for initiatives to combat gun violence. Continuing and expanding on trauma services and victim services for those impacted by gun violence is also of importance to Gibson, as is redoubling investments the Council has made in those summer youth employment programs.

The number of reported rapes taking place in New York City has increased in recent years, and advocates and counselors who help victims of sexual assault are eager to see if Gibson and the Council will stick to its word about providing more resources to rape crisis centers.

Gibson told Gotham Gazette she thinks “increasing access for us as a Council to rape crisis centers and counseling and mental health professionals” is a necessary response to the increased number of rapes and sexual assaults. “I know the advocates have talked to us about rape crisis centers and how we need to beef up the borough-wide services because in some boroughs it’s not equal in terms of access, and that’s important for us as well.”

One area of concern for Gibson and others is the state’s proposed Medicaid and CUNY cuts. “The state support from Albany is going to probably be the thing that we’ll talk about with Dean Fuleihan,” Gibson said, referring to de Blasio’s budget chief, “the cuts are not acceptable, and we need to make sure that we do get support from Albany.”

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Samar Khurshid contributed reporting.

City Council to Begin Public Examination of Mayor's Budget Sun, 28 Feb 2016 21:10:34 +0000
De Blasio Releases Cautious $82 Billion Preliminary Budget de blasio presents preliminary budget FY17

De Blasio presents his budget (Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office) 

New York City's fiscal year begins July 1. As the city moves toward a fiscal year 2017 budget agreement between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council by June 30, the mayor began the process on Thursday when he unveiled his preliminary budget, which comes in at $82.1 billion.

De Blasio didn't outline any major new initiatives, instead focusing on fiscal discipline, building reserves, and making "targeted investments," including in major areas the city has already announced new programs and significant monetary investment.

De Blasio took pains to stress the need for caution given some larger economic warning signs and an inevitable slowdown of a what has been a bullish economy yielding strong job gains and massive overall revenues for the city. Still, the budget has grown by more than 10 percent since de Blasio took office - in no small part due, though, to the fact that the mayor came into office with none of the municipal unions under current contracts and has negotiated about 94 percent of the workforce into deals.

De Blasio admitted it was a relatively "boring" budget, but said "it's a good boring," explaining that "a lot of what we're focused on is moving the agenda we started in the first two years: the affordable housing plan, the Equity and Excellence agenda for our schools...the neighborhood policing plan – I mean, we don't need to always have splashy new things when we feel that the choices we've made are going to have a huge impact if we implement them right. So this year's going to be a lot about implementing the pieces that are already underway and making sure they reach people – Vision Zero, obviously."

While saying the administration is adding funds to back his ongoing housing, education, and other equity-focused initiatives, de Blasio also highlighted new spending "such as $12.1 million in expense funds for 327 new Traffic Enforcement Agents that will improve traffic flow and safety, and $868 million in capital to reduce school overcrowding through 11,800 new seats."

The city is adding money to fund an increase in the minimum wage for city employees, its increasing homelessness-fighting efforts, the new mental health roadmap that First Lady Chirlane McCray is spearheading, and additional school literacy coaches, park security agents, and correction officers.

De Blasio explained that along with several hundred million dollars in added spending, the budget shows $1 billion in savings, including about $400 million from debt consolidation and $500 million from agency cuts.

Still, de Blasio said he's strongly considering instituting a PEG - program to eliminate the gap - for his Executive Budget, which would require all his agencies to identify potential savings of a set amount, followed by the mayor deciding what to cut. About half the City Council recently recommended that the mayor use a PEG, which he has eschewed thus far over his three years, but was a mainstay of prior mayors.

"We think $5 billion is a very healthy number given a typical – if you'll forgive the phrase – a typical economic downturn," de Blasio said of what the city now has in reserves, which he said is an unprecedented number. "They're the most substantial reserves the city has ever had."

The city could need more than $5 billion, though, if there is a significant economic downturn. The mayor said he's "going to be looking at the Executive Budget in terms of the question of agency savings" through a PEG.

Of the mayor's budget, the president of the Citizens Budget Commission, Carol Kellermann, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, "It raises spending without significant offsetting savings and/or increases in reserves. The Mayor acknowledged and warned of the risks to the budget in the event of a downturn and said that there will be a serious effort at agency savings between now and the Executive Budget. We look forward to hearing about the results of that effort."

De Blasio argued that he was striking the right balance. "You know, the trick here is we have to protect against future dangers while continuing to build our economy," he said, "and obviously addressing the quality of life and the needs of New Yorkers. When we build our economy, that brings in revenue."

"I'm a lot more concerned than I was this time a year ago," de Blasio said about economic risks, even though he had expressed fairly strong concerns last year, citing the potential effects of terrorism, a slowdown of the Chinese economy and the U.S. stock market, and more.

Some of where the city heads in its process will of course be dictated by the state budget - which is due by April 1. Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his Executive Budget last week, including several items pleasing to de Blasio and many New York City leaders and advocates, but also a few key potentially costly provisions.

Those possible cuts include to the funding the state sends back to the city for CUNY and Medicaid payments. Gov. Cuomo has indicated that his plans on those two fronts "won't cost the city a penny" and that he was putting ideas forward to collaborate on finding efficiencies in these two cases where the city and state run the programs together.

"I'm not saying we don't have to worry about it," de Basio told reporters of the possible cuts in state aid to the two programs. "I'm saying I am taking the governor at his word, and I will hold him to that word...He said he wants to find collaborative process to find reforms and savings."

De Blasio heads to Albany on Tuesday, where he will testify at a joint legislative budget hearing of Senate and Assembly finance committee members.

Soon, the City Council begins several weeks of preliminary budget hearings, leading up to its official response, which will come in an April letter. Other watchdogs, both in and outside of government, will weigh in throughout the process - including Comptroller Scott Stringer, who will release his preliminary budget analysis within the next few weeks.

The mayor will take into account these and other factors, and release his Executive Budget in late April or early May, leading to another round of City Council budget hearings, negotiations, and a deal. 

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

De Blasio Releases Cautious $82 Billion Preliminary Budget Fri, 22 Jan 2016 00:35:02 +0000
What to Watch for as City Budget Season Begins de blasio budget 14

The Mayor delivers a budget presentation (photo: Rob Bennett for the Office of the Mayor)

For the next several months, New York City elected officials will be consumed with numbers. They’ll throw around terms like efficiencies, gaps, capital, expenses, revenues, and deficits as they go back and forth over how, where, and when the city should spend its money.

Mayor Bill de Blasio will release his preliminary budget for fiscal year 2017 on Thursday, Jan. 21, setting off a months-long review and negotiation process that concludes in June.

Lines are already being drawn. A majority of City Council members called on the mayor to be more fiscally responsible, while Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed cuts in state funding to the city in two key areas. Combined with a widely expected eventual slowdown of the city economy, these factors are bound to loom large over the mayor as he unveils his 80-plus-billion dollar financial plan for the year beginning July 1.

Since the November financial plan update to the current, fiscal year 2016 budget, the mayor has announced a number of policies that will add to the budget, including a $15 minimum wage for city workers, increased spending on homelessness, and, on Tuesday, an expansion of the Vision Zero traffic safety program. There have also been initiatives in tandem with the City Council which are yet to be fully accounted for, such as the hiring of 1,300 additional NYPD officers and security guards for private and religious schools.

Under de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the city budget has grown significantly over two years. The FY2016 adopted expense budget was $78.5 billion, up from $75 billion for FY2015 and $73 billion for FY2014, the last budget passed during the previous administration. Part of this growth has been due to labor contracts signed by the mayor, who inherited a situation where all of the municipal workforce was working under expired contracts. (The annual expense budget is also distinct from the capital budget, which is part of the Mayor’s $83.8 billion ten-year capital plan for FY2016-FY2025 and pays for infrastructure needs like renovating or building schools.)

Budget watchdogs are in general agreement that while spending has grown, city operational savings are solid but lower than previous years, reserves are robust, and the city’s fiscal forecast shows sunny skies with clouds on the horizon.

Many, including de Blasio and city Comptroller Scott Stringer, have repeatedly warned of an economic downturn and the need for the city to be prepared for it, not wanting to see repeats of the nature that occurred when the economy crashed toward the end of last decade. By the November financial update, the city’s general reserve was increased to $1 billion each year, the Retiree Health Benefit Trust Fund was increased to $3.3 billion and the city also put aside $500 million in the first-ever Capital Stabilization Reserve, which lets the city invest in capital projects and allows retiring debt in a potential downturn.

The executive budget, released in May last year, also accounted for $2.6 billion in savings across FY2015 and FY2016 -- including $530 million in agency savings. Still, spending has continued to grow at rapid rates and many are calling on the mayor to look for additional savings.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Stringer said that the city's financial outlook "is positive if the City continues to manage its expenses and save for a downturn." The comptroller said that the agency savings program initiated by the de Blasio administration in last year's executive budget "was a start, but we need to go further. If a savings program is implemented again in FY17, the savings will stack."

Citing a longheld savings program that de Blasio did away with, Stringer said that the "program to eliminate the gap" or PEG, "required agencies to cut costs, and save money on a recurring basis. PEGs initiated between 2008 and 2013 saved the City $6.5 billion in fiscal year 2014 alone. PEGs make agencies run more efficiently and ensure that taxpayers are "getting their bang for their buck" when it comes to government services."

"I've called for an agency savings program as far back as June 2014 and have reiterated that call," Stringer said. Adding that the city could use "a boost" in "the budgetary cushion – which guards against another financial downturn, terrorist attack, or superstorm," Stringer said that progress has been made since 2008, but that the cushion should include billions more and that "We've got to continue to repair the roof while the sun is still shining and implementing PEGs could get us that much closer to the finish line."

While he has called for additional savings, Stringer has largely signed off on de Blasio's first two budgets. The comptroller will present an analysis of de Blasio's preliminary budget in the weeks following its release.

Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, believes Mayor de Blasio has lucked out in his first three years, owing to the longest post-recession growth of the economy in history. “This will be the easiest budget in a very long time,” she said. But she faulted the mayor for failing to deal with increasing healthcare and labor costs, and for the sudden announcement of a $15 minimum wage for city workers. Generally speaking, ratings agencies and other budget monitors have given approval to the deals the de Blasio administration signed, noting that the city needed a sense of fiscal certainty brought about by settling long-expired contracts and that the wages therein were not exorbitant.

Gelinas warned of possible rough times in the future and said the city needs to be prepared to deal with a declining stock market and international forces that could affect tourism revenue. “It’s really easy to balance the budget if the economy keeps doing well,” she said. “But savings can go very quickly. The 2008 crisis opened up a $6 billion deficit immediately and to deal with a recession you need more government spending.”

Gelinas expects that the coming year will have less new spending since many initiatives have already been announced.

The spectre of another recession was part of the rationale behind the Dec. 31 letter that 26 Council members sent to the mayor urging him to have his commissioners identify five percent in budget savings for the next year. Maria Doulis, vice president at the Citizens Budget Commission, believes the mayor needs to strongly consider that advice.

“During good times it’s wise to store away as much as you can to limit the impact of a downturn,” she said. “[The Mayor] should really build up the savings program before he introduces the next budget.”

Doulis said there needs to be restraint in adding new spending as the mayor has done across city agencies in his first two years. Like Gelinas, she criticized the minimum wage announcement which she said “sets a terrible precedent” by making a contract more costly after it has been settled without insisting on enhanced productivity and services. “It shouldn’t be a one-way street,” she said.

The Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan city-funded agency that analyzes the city’s fiscal policy, predicts that in the coming year, despite modest job and revenue growth, the city’s budget will be positive.

Revenue projections by IBO are more generous than the city’s -- for 2017, it anticipates that the city will receive $82.5 billion in revenue, higher than the city’s estimate of $80.8 billion as stated in the November plan. It is typical practice for the city to underestimate revenue, which is helpful for keeping spending down, adding to reserves, and being in good shape ahead of unforeseen events.

IBO fiscal analysis even modelled an alternative economic scenario in a recession and found that the reserves the city has in place are more than sufficient to weather the storm.

“There are substantial fiscal threats to the city, not the least of which is that the economic expansion could come to an end,” said Doug Turetsky, IBO chief of staff. “New York City is an international city and not at all exempt from what is going on from China to Europe and beyond,” he added.

The city is certainly not immune from what is happening in Albany, of course. Gov. Cuomo’s State of the State and budget presentation has complicated the city’s financial future. Even though Cuomo has walked back some of what it appeared he was proposing, the governor’s budget would make New York City assume significant additional spending on Medicaid and CUNY -- about $1 billion and growing annually -- as well as cut certain tax rebates.

“The ground has changed considerably with the governor’s presentation of the state budget,” Turetsky said, adding, though, that “the smoke hasn’t settled yet.” Turetsky thinks the mayor doesn’t have enough time to incorporate Cuomo’s proposals into the preliminary budget. “But it’s going to hang over what [the mayor’s] proposals are,” he said.

After the State of the State, de Blasio vowed to push back against the proposals and the governor later seemed to concede that he would work with the city to find savings. “What you’ll see is it won’t cost New York City a penny,” Cuomo said in an interview on NY1.

City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, chair of the finance committee, isn’t convinced. “I don’t see how you can make those proposals and say it won’t cost a dollar,” she said, promising that the Council would stand up against the proposals. “It’s the job of the city to demonstrate that this is a huge burden,” she said.

Ferreras-Copeland has been vocal about responsible budgeting and was one of the 26 Council members to sign the letter calling on the mayor to identify potential agency budget savings (which was sent well before Cuomo’s budget was released and spearheaded by Council Member Dan Garodnick). She is well aware of the dangers of budget cuts, and resulting diminishment in services or job losses, and insisted that the Council members simply want suggestions to look at “smart savings that have a minimum impact on the city.”

Ferreras-Copeland will be one of the key figures in the Council’s negotiations with the mayor, beginning when she chairs the first preliminary budget hearing soon after the mayor releases his initial spending plan. Working closely with Mark-Viverito and others, Ferreras-Copeland will craft the Council’s preliminary budget response, one of the most important documents in city budget negotiations. The letter will come once the Council has held about a month of budget hearings, bringing in de Blasio administration commissioners to discuss their spending plans.

The Council’s first priority, Ferreras-Copeland said, will be looking at how the preliminary budget addresses healthcare and pension costs. She also indicated that the Department of Education’s overdue capital plan would be an important issue. The DOE’s annual expense budget for FY2016 was $27.6 billion, accounting for about a third of the total city operating budget. The proposed five-year capital plan includes another $13.5 billion of DOE spending from 2015 to 2019. That draft plan was supposed to be released in November but was delayed.

“This is just the beginning of a long process,” Ferreras-Copeland said. “We want a budget that is responsible and responsive to New Yorkers’ needs.”

James Parrott, deputy director and chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, thinks that the city has indeed been responsible with its budgeting and that the Council letter was “a little unusual.” The mayor’s increased spending, he said, was not especially significant in the grand scheme of a many billion dollar budget and amid good financial times.

Parrott also took issue with the governor’s proposed funding cuts. “The main thing is, the governor is now basically dictating the city budget and the city’s going to have to move a lot of stuff around to make room for that,” he said, adding that Cuomo’s proposals lend insecurity to the city’s reserves and crowd out spending.

As for the mayor's capital budget, Comptroller Stringer's office pointed to recent announcements by the mayor that will need to be accounted for, including billions of dollars in commitments to build new supportive housing units and contribute to the MTA, as well as money dedicated to homeless shelter repair and new affordable housing.

One other large portion of the budget many are watching is employee overtime costs. The city’s spending on overtime has ballooned in the last decade. According to a recent IBO report, the city spent $1.659 billion on overtime in 2015, up from $928 million in 2006. Although that’s a nearly 80 percent increase, adjusted for inflation it is about 40 percent. The report does acknowledge that, compared to the entire budget, this spending is relatively modest, increasing from 1.7 percent of the total budget in 2006 to 2.2 percent in 2015.

"Overtime is a significant part of the budget," Comptroller Stringer said. "Every year, the City consistently underestimates how much it will spend and each year, my office's budget reports consistently point out that budget risk. In the current fiscal year, overtime is budgeted at over $1.3 billion, but my office projects it will come in at more than $150 million above that."

The increase in OT spending has been driven by the uniformed agencies - 70 percent of the overtime funds in 2015 were spent on the police, fire, corrections, and sanitation departments. NYPD overtime grew the most, from $412 million in 2006 to $716 million in 2015. The department’s adopted budget for FY2016 was $9.2 billion.

“It has grown tremendously and continues to grow despite changes in head counts,” said CBC’s Doulis. ”We’ve called for more control on overtime authorization. There needs to be a real attempt to rein in these expenditures.”

The increase in overtime is often rationalized and accepted by many - it is sometimes cheaper to pay overtime than make new hires that require payments of healthcare and pension benefits. Also for years hiring was low in the corrections and fire departments - for seven years the FDNY was facing a lawsuit over its hiring practices.

IBO’s Turetsky also said the city has routinely under-budgeted overtime spending and that the mayor and City Council seem to want to reduce it. “It’s a balancing act,” he said. But he echoed the report that it was a relatively small share of the budget.

Coucil Member Ferreras-Copeland promised the Council would address overtime. Last year’s deal with the mayor to hire 1,300 more NYPD officers was coupled with a cap on overtime, which is supposed to eventually flatten police overtime spending. She also insisted it is always a part of preliminary negotiations.

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette. Meg O’Connor contributed reporting.
@samarkhurshid     @GothamGazette

Note: this article has been updated.

What to Watch for as City Budget Season Begins Tue, 19 Jan 2016 22:45:10 +0000
The Week Ahead in New York Politics, January 18 New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo released his Executive Budget for fiscal year 2017, which, for the state, begins April 1. It was not without controversy for the city, with Cuomo including significant cuts to state aid for city Medicaid and CUNY costs. Mayor Bill de Blasio and others from the city pushed back quickly and firmly, and the governor seemed to indicate that he was ready to work with the mayor and others to find efficiencies in the two programs in order to save money, rather than simply moving costs to the city.

This week, it's de Blasio's turn. The mayor is due to release his Preliminary Budget for FY17 on Thursday. It will be especially interesting to see how the mayor accounts for the Medicaid and CUNY aspects of Cuomo's budget. Also, many are watching to see if the mayor calls for clearer savings from his agencies - a majority of City Council members sent the mayor a letter recently, asking him to ask his commissioners to identify five percent savings. The city budget has grown significantly over the past two years, in part due to labor contracts the mayor has signed - he inherited a labor situation with none of the city's labor unions under non-expired contract.

The state legislature is in session on Wednesday and Thursday in Albany, beginning budget hearings on the governor's budget. And, on Wednesday, the legislature will consider the governor's nominee to fill the vacancy for the state's chief judge. Details below.

In the city, we're watching reaction to the announcement of a deal on Central Park carriage horses, announced Sunday evening; what the next steps are related to the for-hire vehicle study the city released Friday, as well as the related legislative package the City Council announced, and more. We also saw on Friday the expiration of the 421-a real estate development tax break meant to spur affodable housing. What's next there is also to be seen.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - read our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max:***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. There are commemorative events all over the city and many elected officials are either holding events or participating in them.

Mayor de Blasio is speaking at three Martin Luther King Jr. Day events Monday, per his public schedule:

  • At 11 a.m. Monday at BAM in Brooklyn, "Mayor de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray will deliver remarks at the 30th Annual Brooklyn Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." (after which the mayor will speak with members of the media)
  • At 2:45 p.m., "the Mayor will deliver remarks at the National Action Network's Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Policy Forum in Manhattan."
  • "In the evening, the Mayor will deliver remarks at the St. Mary's Episcopal Church's Community Celebration in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day."

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will also speak at the BAM event, at 10:30 a.m. She will then speak at Convent Avenue Baptist Church's Martin Luther King Day service at 11:30, and at the National Action Network event at 1:15 p.m.

Public Advocate Letitia James has nine Martin Luther King Jr. Day events on her schedule, including the BAM and NAN events mentioned above. Comptroller Scott Stringer has several MLK Day events on his schedule, too.

Gov. Cuomo will be honored at NAN, according to the governor's public schedule, on Monday at 3 p.m., "Governor Cuomo Delivers Remarks and Receives the "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Crusader for Social Justice Award" at the National Action Network's Annual NY King Day Public Policy Forum." After the event, "the Governor will join the National Action Network in a "Fight for Fair Pay" march."

At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Finance will meet on three bills related to business improvement districts, one bill that would "require the Department of Finance to include a notice regarding legal and preferential rents on certain documents related to the NYC Rent Freeze Program" and a resolution to approve designation changes in its expense budget.
  • At 1:30 p.m., the Council will have a Stated Meeting. It will be prefaced, as usual, by the Speaker's pre-stated press conference at 12:30.

Prior to the stated meeting, at 10 a.m., "elected officials, labor and community leaders will gather on the steps of New York City Hall to rally in anticipation of a vote on the Grocery Worker Retention Act (GWRA). The GWRA (Int 632-2015) provides for a ninety day transition period to eligible employees following a change in ownership of a grocery store." This will be led by "Council Member I. Daneek Miller, Council Progressive Caucus members, RWDSU, RWDSU 338, UFCW 1500, other elected officials, labor and community leaders, and more." [Read: City Council Considers Regulating Grocery Personnel Decisions]

At 10 a.m. in the John Adams Houses projects in the Bronx, New York City Housing Authority CEO and Chair Shola Olatoye is expected to announce "the completion of major CCTV installation and ongoing security upgrades at 32 NYCHA developments citywide."

At 11 a.m. at the Razi School in Queens, "Mayor de Blasio will host a press conference to make an announcement related to Vision Zero."

At 11:30 a.m. outside City Hall, "Wheelchair advocates and taxi drivers will join a first-of-its-kind rally aimed at forcing the City Council to act and leveling the playing field for all sectors of the taxi and for-hire industries...Uber now has over 30,000 vehicles in the city, but not a single one is wheelchair accessible. Uber's growth has also driven down medallion values, poached drivers from the taxi industry, and reduced taxi-generated MTA revenue by displacing existing taxi pickups."

On Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. a large number of community groups will organize representatives outside U.S. Attorney Preet Bharar's office, where "Youth speakout to demand Preet Bharara & DOJ prioritize justice in killing of Ramarley Graham and protection of Black & Brown young people's lives." The action is being led by Communities United for Police Reform.

At 6:30 p.m., the Museum of the City of New York is hosting a panel called "Housing a Growing City," featuring City Council Member Ritchie Torres, Department of City Planning Executive Director Purnima Kapur, Citizens Housing and Planning Council Executive Director Sarah Watson and Seema Agnani and National CAPACD's director of policy and civic engagement. The panel will be moderated by Ingrid Gould Ellen, NYU professor and the director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committees on Fire and Criminal Justice Services and Parks and Recreation will meet for an oversight hearing to examine Hart Island's future and to introduce a bill that would give the Department of Parks and Recreation jurisdiction over the island, which is currently controlled by the corrections department.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Youth Services will have an oversight hearing to discuss "Connecting Young People to Volunteer Opportunities".

The New York state legislature is in session on Wednesday, and will also have three hearings in Albany, including the first joint budget hearing on Governor Cuomo's recently unveiled Executive Budget for fiscal year 2017:

  • At 9:30 a.m., a joint legislative public hearing on the governor's 2016-2017 budget proposal on transportation.
  • At 11 a.m., a joint hearing by the Assembly Standing Committees on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions and Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry will be held about "Providing Affordable and High Quality Cable, Broadband, and Telephone Service".
  • At 1 p.m., the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing about the appointment of Gov. Cuomo's nominee for Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore.

The City Planning Commission will discuss several items during a public meeting at 22 Reade Street at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, the Panel for Educational Policy will meet at the Taft Educational Campus in the Bronx. The panel is set to vote on the DOE Community Schools Policy, "proposals for significant changes in school utilization" and Chancellor's Regulations amendments and proposed contracts.

The New York state legislature is in session on Thursday.

Mayor Bill de Blasio will deliver his preliminary fiscal year 2017 budget on Thursday. Later on Thursday, de Blasio will head to Washington, D.C. for the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter gathering. He's set to speak at a Friday plenary and then head back to New York City.

Queens Borough president Melinda Katz will will deliver the State of the Borough address at Queens College's Colden Auditorium at 10 a.m.

At 10 a.m. Thursday, there will be a press conference held by state legislators, health professionals, advocates and educators about the Mental Health First Aid bill sponsored by State Senator Jesse Hamilton, at the Legislative Office building in Albany.

At the City Council on Thursday: At 1 p.m., the Committee on Recovery and Resiliency will meet to introduce a bill to absolve criminal and civil penalties for owners of buildings with code violations that were created in response to natural disaster, and a bill with the same function for building owners waiting for repairs from a city disaster recovery program that also requires that the city refund them of fines paid for these penalties.

At 6:30 p.m., Representative Hakeem Jeffries will give his State of the District address at Long Island University's Paramount Theatre.

Friday and the weekend
Mayor de Blasio will speak Friday at the U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering in Washington, D.C.

Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz will speak at a CityLaw breakfast at 8:15 a.m on Friday at New York Law School.

On Friday at 9 a.m., the Urban Justice Center will host a policy briefing. The Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision and the Coalition for Community Advancement in Cypress Hills/East New York will discuss the community plans, which are alternatives to the de Blasio’s administration’s plans.

At the City Council on Friday: at 10 a.m., the Committees on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations and Juvenile Justice will discuss “Cultural Non-Profits in the New York City Juvenile Justice System” in a joint oversight hearing.

At the New York State Legislature Friday: at 1 p.m., the Assembly Standing Committee on Real Property Taxation will have a public hearing about the real property tax system of New York City.

At 4 p.m. on Saturday, Assemblymember Michael Blake will deliver his State of the District address at Dreamyard in the Bronx on Saturday.

The second public workshop on Inwood’s neighborhood rezoning will be held by Community Board 12, the Department of City Planning, and Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez at J.H.S. 52 on Saturday at 6:30 p.m.

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Ryan Brady and Ben Max

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, January 18 Mon, 18 Jan 2016 00:38:21 +0000
Majority of Council Members Urge Mayor to Identify Budget Savings budget handshake bdb mmv

A budget handshake between the Mayor & Speaker (photo: William Alatriste)

Concerned about the city's increased spending and possible future budget deficits, a majority of City Council members have appealed to Mayor Bill de Blasio to have his agencies evaluate their priorities and find ways to reduce spending before he releases his next preliminary budget.

"After two years of experience, your agency heads should be asked to identify those policies that are either not working, or unnecessary," says the Dec. 31 letter signed by 26 of the 51 Council members. The effort was spearheaded by Council Member Dan Garodnick and, significantly, includes the signature of finance committee chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland. The signature of Council Member Steve Matteo, minority leader of the Council's Republican caucus, was accidentally omitted from the letter, his office told Gotham Gazette.

The letter, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, calls on the mayor to instruct his agency heads to find five percent in potential savings across the board in what would be a return to a cost-saving practice performed by his predecessors that de Blasio has moved away from.

Though the letter does not explicitly say so, the Council members are referring to a PEG or Program to Eliminate the Gap, which was used by prior administrations to identify ways of reducing expenses, eliminating waste, and boosting revenue to close projected gaps in the budget. It is called a good government practice by officials and budget watchdogs, some of whom have raised eyebrows as the city budget has grown rapidly over the past two years.

Mayor de Blasio did away with PEGs once he took office and instead launched a Citywide Savings Program in his May 2015 executive budget. The CSP relies on recommendations from city agencies, without a hard requirement. Some have called PEGs too ruthless, noting that in certain cases an agency may be ripe for finding reductions while another agency actually needs more funding.

"Budget monitors and rating agencies have all applauded this administration's fiscal prudence, with reserves at unprecedented highs, out-year gaps at lows, and a strong $1.1 billion citywide savings program for FY15-16 that we'll build on this year in collaboration with the Council," said Amy Spitalnick, spokesperson for the Mayor's Office of Management and Budget, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Spitalnick added that the administration has also secured "billions in unprecedented health savings" through the union contracts it negotiated. Those new labor deals - signed by de Blasio after he came into office with no municipal unions under contract - are part of the reason the city budget has grown under de Blasio.

The city budget for the current 2016 fiscal year is over $80 billion, though city reserves are at unprecendented level, in part due to a booming city economy. Spitalnick also told Gotham Gazette what she had told the Wall Street Journal, that "The city has prudently used revenue that came in above estimates to pay down future years' gaps and boost reserves."

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who chairs the contracts committee and signed the letter, seemed to scoff at this suggestion, writing on Twitter, "Admin response to "boost reserves" misses the point. There are always savings."

Spitalnick told Gotham Gazette in response, "We have a robust savings program in place AND we have simultaneously boosted reserves to unprecedented levels to protect the City in the event of a downturn. Seems like lots of folks are confused here."

A large part of the administration's argument against PEGs is that they would lead to billions of dollars in cuts to services and staffing, including tens of thousands of layoffs.

Estimates from the mayor's office say they would have to eliminate up to 45,000 positions -- including more than 10,000 teachers and 5,700 police officers -- and cut daily Fire Department emergency medical services by seven percent. It would also force a reduction in implementing Paid Sick Leave by costing the Department of Consumer Affairs dozens of staff.

Council Member Dan Garodnick pointed out that what the letter asks for is more of an advisory figure than a mandatory one. "That does not mean that we necessarily want to cut the budget by any particular amount," he said. "We just want to assess our priorities," he added, alluding to the exercise of finding "potential savings," as the letter requests.

Garodnick said the Citywide Savings program definitely helps, but agencies should undertake a more formal and complete review. "The agency heads are in the best position to identify what's working and what's not. We need to tap into that expertise to be able to do sound budgeting," he said.

The City Council itself has been party to the city's spending increases, of course. Aside from agreeing to the overall budget with the mayor, the funds directly spent by the Council has gone from $51.5 million in FY 2014 to $61 million for FY 2016 -- an 18.4 percent increase. Council members are also preparing to vote for salary increases for themselves and other city elected officials.

Last year, the Council was successful in its push for adding 1,300 more officers to the police force, adding around $100 million to the city budget. Just last month, the Council, with an overwhelming majority and in partnership with the Mayor, passed a controversial bill that would use public funds to pay for security guards at private and religious schools. In the debate over the bill, its lead sponsor, Council Member David Greenfield, said the $19 million price tag was affordable since the city is "flush with cash." Greenfield did not sign the December letter to the mayor.

Council Member Ferreras-Copeland did sign, though, and she could be heard on the floor of the Council responding to Greenfield and others that the city is 'not that flush' with cash, cautioning her colleagues to be mindful about assuming there is money for everything or an ever-increasing budget.

"What was powerful about the PEGs was setting strict targets for agencies to meet and so it generated greater savings," said Maria Doulis, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission. Agreeing with the intent of the Council members' letter, she said, "It's the responsibility of everyone in government to be constantly questioning whether things are operating as cost effectively as possible."

De Blasio is expected to release his preliminary Fiscal Year 2017 budget toward by the mid-January deadline, which will trigger the first round of Council budget hearings, starting with the mayor's budget director appearing before Ferreras-Copeland's finance committee. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito did not sign the letter, but a spokesperson for the speaker told Gotham Gazette that during preliminary budget hearings the Council will be looking for ways city agencies can find savings.

Ferreras-Copeland explained her support for the formal request: "As this letter states, asking agencies to review their budgets is sound policy, and we ask them to conduct these analyses with the goal of finding 5% in savings," she said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "These efforts will help ensure that our considerations in the Finance Committee are balanced as we develop a budget that reflects the values of efficiency, equity, and fairness for New Yorkers."

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid     @GothamGazette

Majority of Council Members Urge Mayor to Identify Budget Savings Thu, 07 Jan 2016 22:52:52 +0000
As Warmer Weather Approaches, Safety of City Playgrounds Questioned photo

The Oodle Swing broke at least five kids’ legs two summers ago in a Park Slope playground. Parents rallied, outraged by the apparently botched installation of the large multi-person discus of a swing which was allegedly too close to the ground and trapped the childrens’ legs between the swing and the rubber mat beneath.

“If any responsible inspection would have been made by an intelligent person working for the City, none of these children would be hurt,” said Robert Kelner of the law firm Kelner & Kelner, who is representing three of the injured children.

“I think, shame on them if they are not sufficiently inspecting areas where children are playing,” Kelner said. They are still waiting for the deposition, he said.

As another spring and summer of outdoor activity approaches, playgrounds across the five boroughs will soon be full of children. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation has a few systems in place to inspect and ensure that playgrounds are kept safe. One is the Parks Inspection Program (PIP), which conducts frequent and random inspections of parks and submits regular indicators of the safety levels and cleanliness of park facilities. In the most recent inspection, PIP found that 86.5% of parks had an “acceptable” overall condition.

The Parks Department also has Daily Immediate Attention Systems to respond to safety hazards and provide thorough documentation that it has adequately repaired a problem.

In spite of this, personal injury claims from playground accidents have cost city taxpayers over $20 million over the past 10 years, according to a report from the office of City Comptroller Scott Stringer released March 1. The majority of these claims were due to missing or defective rubber matting, known for burning kids’ feet and skinning their knees. Five percent of the claims were directly swing-related. According to the report, playground injury claims have gone up 53% since 2005.

Most of these personal injury claims paid by the City came from Brooklyn, with 209, compared to Manhattan’s 123, the Bronx and Queens with 111 apiece, and Staten Island with 23. The most dangerous playground has been Mullaly Park Playground in the Bronx, with seven claims and settlements over the span, which included $3.5 million paid to a woman who became paralyzed after hitting her neck on a fence installed too close to the swing set.

The playgrounds in Brooklyn with the most claims were the Stroud Playground in Prospect Heights and Slope Park (of Oodle Swing infamy). Stringer penned a letter to the Parks Department asking officials to get the playgrounds up to safety standards. As the playgrounds atrophy and nails begin peeking through old construction, matting wears thin, and new safety standards become increasingly strident, the City will need to devote extra resources to the maintenance or reconstruction of the playgrounds.

In his report, Stringer recommends that the Parks Department ensure that its facilities are up to date with current safety regulations. The comptroller also recommends boosting the City’s “playground associates” program, consisting of a group of Parks Department employees who, officially, facilitate outdoor programs and maintain comfort stations.

“Our experience with them is that they do play a calming role and generally create a safer environment,” said Manhattan City Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the Council’s parks committee. He also said that the salaries of the playground associates would account for significantly less than the amount that the city is paying in personal injury claims.

“It seems to be pretty clear that this will save the City some money,” he said of increasing the number of playground associates.

At his committee’s March 9 preliminary budget hearing, Levine proposed an increase of $5 million for playground associates on top of the $4.5 million already in the Parks budget. This would add 200 playground associates, on top of the 145 already stationed, who work only during the summer. The addition would edge the number closer to covering the city’s 680 playgrounds with comfort stations (their other job would be maintaining public toilets).

However, Levine said that the problem of playground safety will require more action than just supervision. He said that the real issue is retrofitting parks to meet current safety standards.

In a statement, Stringer added a similar solution. “With claims at their highest point in a decade, it’s clear that the Department of Parks and Recreation must find ways to improve safety in our City’s playgrounds,” Stringer said. “We owe it to our kids to adopt best practices for safety and install state-of-the-art equipment in our playgrounds that reduces the potential for injuries.”

This work would mean costly overhauls of the city’s playgrounds, dipping into a dry well of funding for retrofits or new equipment.

To boot, the Parks Department currently ranks last among city agencies in completing its capital projects, according to a separate report from Comptroller Stringer issued in late February. According to that report, Parks completed only 24% of its capital commitments for fiscal year 2015, while sanitation and education completed 89% and 82% of projects, respectively.

Council Member Levine recently proposed a bill that would mandate a report from each park with its progress in retrofitting toward accessibility to people with disabilities. All new construction has to fit the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the ADA does not mandate retrofitting. Levine said, unlike the bill that is meant to push parks to become more handicap accessible, there is no current movement toward making the city’s playgrounds safer.

However, in the preliminary budget hearing for the Parks Department, Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver made it clear that he has a team devoted to making repairs where they see a safety hazard. “We have a whole team in place where we do certain inspections and prioritize them to make sure our playgrounds are safe,” said Silver. “We’ll sit down with the comptroller to go through his reports so we understand that information a bit more.”

However, there has been no mention in this round of budget negotiations of allocating money to redo hazardous parks that are not in disrepair, but are still not safe. The only funding being proposed to enhance playground safety is the $5 million for the playground associates.

Parents are concerned that more playground supervision might hamper the spirit of free play that the playgrounds represent. While they are glad that the City is concerned about their children’s well-being, they are not completely sold that the playground associates program is the answer to the broken legs and burnt feet.  

Dan Janzen is the president of the PTA for P.S. 295 in Park Slope, directly across the street from “the swing of death,” as he calls it, in Slope Park. He is conflicted about the idea of playground associates.

“I get it in principle. But if your playgrounds are so crowded that they have hundreds of kids and need supervisors, maybe we need more playgrounds,” he said. Janzen said that playgrounds should be preserved as positive and protected spaces for play. It is outside of the playground, on the streets, where supervision is needed most. Playgrounds are safe zones where kids should be encouraged to run, spin, and swing mostly unsupervised, he said. That is ultimately the beauty of the playground.

Janzen added that the money could be better spent on baselining a project to make the facilities less treacherous. “Five million bucks. Think about how many rusty Tetanus shots you could avoid.”

Kelner, the attorney, said that he felt like increased supervision could save the City money and most importantly reduce injuries. But he was also skeptical of the City’s plan to increase supervision without making equipment at old playgrounds safe.

“I don’t know if this is someone who is going to do a very necessary job,” he said referring to playground associates, “or if they are just padding the peril.”

by Samuel Lieberman for Gotham Gazette


As Warmer Weather Approaches, Safety of City Playgrounds Questioned Thu, 02 Apr 2015 22:16:00 +0000