Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/483 Thu, 12 Dec 2019 06:49:11 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Department of Investigation to Publicly Track City Agency Compliance with Recommended Reforms https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8922-department-of-investigation-to-publicly-track-city-agency-compliance-with-recommended-reforms https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8922-department-of-investigation-to-publicly-track-city-agency-compliance-with-recommended-reforms cm ritchie oversight

DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnett (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The Department of Investigation, a watchdog agency tasked with rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse in city government, issues hundreds of recommendations each year, urging other city agencies to reform their procedures and enhance the services they provide. It’s not always apparent to the general public, or even elected officials, whether agencies comply with those suggestions, which are typically based on extensive investigations.

But the department has now promised a new database next year that will provide a window into the agencies that are willing and able to improve and those that are resistant or incapable to do so. At the same time, the City Council may codify that database into law.    

Council Member Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations, is pursuing legislation that would mandate that DOI create an online, public-facing database to track the various Policy and Procedure Recommendations (PPRs) that it makes every year and how agencies are or aren’t implementing them. The legislation has three other sponsors and was the subject of a Council committee hearing on Wednesday chaired by Torres. 

DOI’s recommendations are just that, recommendations, and agencies are not beholden to them. An agency can choose to “accept” or “reject” recommendations and, even when they are accepted, there is no guarantee they will be implemented.

“Without systematic tracking by DOI, agencies have no incentive to implement reforms, and the public has no means of knowing whether agencies are implementing reforms as promised,” Torres said in his opening remarks at the hearing. “An investigation is only as good as the real-world result it produces. It is only as good as the follow-up and the follow-through. As a city, we cannot afford a hit-and-run approach to investigations. We cannot content ourselves to issue reports and then move on to the next order of business.”

Torres has a willing partner in DOI. At the hearing, Commissioner Margaret Garnett said the department has been working for the last year to create a database along the lines of Torres’ bill. It will report on recommendations made, those that are accepted, rejected, and implemented (all of which is required by the bill) and would record agency explanations on implementation, if provided. 

“The idea is significant,” she said, “providing a window for the public into DOI’s compelling work in a way that goes beyond our press releases on arrests or our public reports, and reflects the wide-reaching impact our investigations have on the city.” 

Garnett noted that DOI already publishes some information about PPRs in the annual Mayor’s Management Report. Between the 2015 and 2019 fiscal years, the department issued a total of 4,669 recommendations to agencies. Currently, DOI only reports on the percentage of recommendations accepted by agencies in sum, and that does not get at how many have been implemented. For instance, in fiscal year 2018, DOI issued 2,538 recommendations, 56% of which were accepted. In previous years, there were far fewer recommendations but they were accepted at a much higher rate. (The report does not show how many of the 549 recommendations from fiscal year 2019 were accepted.)

Garnett said DOI will provide that new information, about the percentage of reforms accepted and implemented, in the MMR for the 2020 Fiscal Year. The larger database will be made public by the summer of 2020 or potentially earlier, she said. 

Garnett acknowledged that DOI has not had an effective centralized method so far to track how its recommendations have been implemented. “In the past, that had been a process that had been located more with individual [Inspectors General] for the agencies, and different inspectors general at DOI had different methods for keeping track and for following up with agencies,” she said. The new database will provide both the public and the department internally with a tool that “would show all of the PPRs and an accurate and up-to-date assessment of where the agencies are in both agreement and implementation,” she added.

Garnett did caution the committee against mandating a ranking of the reform recommendations in any public database or using it to grade individual agencies for compliance. “All PPRs are not created alike,” she said in her opening statement. “Some address relatively minor issues while some address significant systemic changes. Some are more costly or difficult to implement while others may require the approval or cooperation of other entities.”

As Garnett pointed out, PPRs span across city agencies. For instance, a 2015 report on the NYPD’s use-of-force policies included 15 recommendations on policy, training, discipline and documentation procedures. A 2016 investigation of the Administration for Children’s Services yielded five recommendations on case management and employee discipline. A 2017 report on the New York City Housing Authority’s failure to conduct mandatory lead paint safety inspections made five broad recommendations on compliance and reporting. 

One notable exception from the database will be the Department of Education, which falls under the purview of the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District. Garnett’s predecessor, Mark Peters, infamously tried to wrest control of SCI and was fired by the mayor for overstepping his authority (though Peters and others have also claimed that de Blasio was unhappy with how aggressively Peters had approached his work holding city agencies accountable, and a possible investigation into the mayor’s office over a stalled DOE examination of yeshiva education that some believe de Blasio himself has slow-walked). SCI is independent of DOI but must report certain information to it. 

“A dashboard that fails to include one-third of city government is deeply deficient,” Torres said, referring to the massive DOE. “And that might be a major point of disagreement between DOI and the Council. And this is a point on which I'm going to push very hard. But it feels like it would be odd not to include the largest city agency, or city entity, in the dashboard.”

Garnett was open to the idea. “I think that's certainly something that we can explore,” she said.

Garnett did reject an idea put forward by Torres that the online dashboard allow comments from the public. 

“Is there going to be some mechanism by which the opinions of external stakeholders are going to be included in the dashboard as DOI envisions it?,” Torres asked. “Is that something you're open to?”

“That, for a variety of reasons, is a challenge that I think is beyond our ability to implement,” Garnett responded. “The information that is currently going to be in this PPR tracking database is all information that is sort of in the possession and control of DOI.” She noted that simply making the information available to the public would allow individuals, elected officials, community groups and advocates to hold agencies to account. 

“Personally, I don't know how much time you spend on the internet, Chairman Torres, but I'm not sure that a publicly open comment field is useful,” she joked.

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

Read more by this writer.

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Department of Investigation to Publicly Track City Agency Compliance with Recommended Reforms Wed, 13 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
New York City is Waist-Deep in a School Desegregation Conversation - How Did We Get Here? https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8769-new-york-city-waist-deep-school-desegregation-conversation-how-did-we-get-here-de-blasio https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8769-new-york-city-waist-deep-school-desegregation-conversation-how-did-we-get-here-de-blasio maydbd district15

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Earlier this week, the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) released its second and final set of recommendations to integrate city schools, a significant development in the current chapter of the city’s response to deep racial and economic segregation in its school system, which is the largest in the country and home to 1.1 million students.

This chapter began in 2014, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education and Bill de Blasio’s first year as Mayor, when a report published by the UCLA Civil Rights Project showed that New York’s was one of the least integrated school systems in the country -- the worst state in terms of white-black segregation and among the bottom three for Latino-white segregation. Much of that segregation was due to the facts on the ground in the country’s largest city.

De Blasio and his administration have been forced to acknowledge that dismal reality in the years since, at first looking to largely sidestep the issue, then beginning with modest proposals to improve diversity in schools and ultimately creating the SDAG at the end of 2017. The administration’s focus on school segregation did not happen immediately following the March 2014 UCLA report, released just three months into de Blasio’s tenure as mayor, and not without pressure from grassroots advocates, students, families, and local elected officials at various stages during the last five years.

The SDAG’s two sets of recommendations, some of which are especially controversial, on top of de Blasio’s previous proposal to take aggressive measures to integrate the city’s eight prestigious specialized high schools, have set off something of a firestorm. They set the stage for challenging decisions that de Blasio will soon make about which recommendations to pursue, including, perhaps, a sweeping overhaul of the city’s “gifted and talented” programs and selective admissions to middle schools. Following will likely be years more of debate about how to desegregate city schools while also improving the quality of education hundreds of thousands of students receive.

Before the next chapter begins, how did we get here?

2012-2013
Some would say the recent history of New York City’s school desegregation debate begins, before the 2014 UCLA report, with a districting proposal that illustrated the complex factors the city would later need to address.

In the fall of 2012, the District 15 Community Education Council approved a school district rezoning proposed by the Department of Education (DOE) under Mayor Michael Bloomberg that would shrink the geographic districts of two popular but overcrowded schools in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and open a new school to serve some of the students who would be cut out. At the same time, the DOE was rebuilding a predominantly African-American 300-seat school in neighboring Community School District 13. For a period of time, both the District 13 and District 15 schools were housed in the same building.

“That sounded sensible, except what they were really saying was, ‘We’re gonna build a building with two doors; into one door will go 300 black kids, and to the other door will go 600 mostly white kids,” said Brad Lander, a City Council member representing parts of both school districts, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

“That was enough for people to wake up in this district and say, ‘That is insane. We will not allow that level of school segregation,’” recalled Lander, who succeeded then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio in the City Council.

After a prolonged battle with the Bloomberg administration, local elected officials, parents, and advocates, the DOE agreed to create a single 900-seat school -- P.S. 133 -- open to students from both districts with a model for inclusive admissions, becoming the first school with enrollment set-asides to increase diversity, according to Lander.

2014-2015
In 2014, six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in schools unconstitutional, the UCLA Civil Rights Project published its report, with research led by Dr. John Kucsera and Dr. Gary Orfield, which stated New York State had “the most segregated schools in the country,” largely due to inequality in the city’s school system.

The report found roughly 66 percent of black students and 57 percent of Latino students attended schools where less than 10 percent of students were white. Some of the worst segregation was in the Bronx, where not a single school’s student body was more than 10 percent white.

“For New York to have a favorable multiracial future both socially and economically, it is absolutely urgent that its leaders and citizens understand both the values of diversity and the harms of inequality,” the report reads.

When asked about the report and the city’s segregated schools, de Blasio initially and for years mostly had a three-pronged answer: one, that school segregation is the result of hundreds of years of history and broader “structural racism” in society; two, that his education programming was focused on improving all schools and thus helping foster integration and reduce the need for desegregation; and three, that if local communities wanted to pursue solutions to desegregate nearby schools, they had his blessing.

He also noted on multiple occasions that families make major decisions and investments based on schools, and indicated he needed to be cautious about more drastic measures that might alter school zoning, enrollment or admissions policies. And, the mayor repeatedly mentioned that in part because of housing segregation, there are many geographic areas of the city home to residents of limited diversity, making local school integration especially challenging without a choice he was not willing to pursue: the New York City equivalent of busing students to achieve integrated schools.  

“The reason we have segregation in our society is about structural racism, is about 400 years of American history and a lot of things that should have been done differently in American history,” de Blasio said later, in 2018. “It’s about economics first and foremost and the fact that economic opportunity is still not open and consistent across different racial groups and ethnic groups and that’s the first problem. That leads to housing segregation and that in turn leads to a situation where our classrooms are not diverse.”

In November 2014, prompted by the UCLA report and the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown decision, the City Council held its first public hearing on school segregation in decades, and led to the passage in 2015 of three pieces of legislation sponsored by Council Members Inez Barron, Brad Lander, and Ritchie Torres, known as the School Diversity Accountability Act.

The UCLA report and the anniversary year “presented an occasion to renew our city and our country’s commitment to desegregation,” Torres, who represents parts of the Bronx, said in an interview. “The fact is that we have the most segregated school system in the country. We have a school system more segregated than the vestiges of Jim Crow in the South.”

The package required the DOE to report annually on demographic data that could be used to evaluate segregation and diversity, and report on what steps the DOE is taking to address those issues. The City Council cannot mandate the DOE adopt specific policies, so Torres sponsored a resolution in the package calling on DOE to develop a plan to combat school segregation. 

“In some ways that call is what SDAG is now, many years later, answering,” said Lander.

“This is a step further in our efforts to ensure that our schools are as diverse as our city and people of all communities live, learn, work together,” de Blasio said in June 2015 when signing the legislative package.

In 2014 and 2015, grassroots advocates, parents, and educators in Community School Districts 1, 3, 13, and 15 became more active organizing around school-by-school, as well as district-level, integration plans. Some of the most vocal desegregation activists, like those in IntegrateNYC, a student-led advocacy group, formed during this period.

They “saw a historic opportunity to renew the campaign to desegregate our school system. It was driven not primarily by elected officials but by grassroots activists, especially students,” Torres recalled.

Activism, panel discussions, and other conversation around school desegregation continued.

In 2015, the DOE took its first steps toward establishing the Diversity in Admissions pilot program, a school-by-school approach modeled on the types of inclusive admissions policies P.S. 133 was employing. The city designated seven schools to participate in the program that year, according to Lander, “and since we have 1,700, that was pretty modest...It was the first official step of them doing anything [but] it was not yet a serious effort to confront segregation across the school system.”

“We were able to create admissions policies that promote diversity and respect the needs of the community. I’m hopeful that these changes will help serve as a model for schools across the City,” said then-Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in a press release, without explicitly mentioning the issue of segregation.

When Gotham Gazette asked the mayor in November 2015 why he wasn’t taking more aggressive measures to integrate city schools, de Blasio’s response made waves. “You have to also respect families who have made a decision to live in a certain area oftentimes because of a specific school,” de Blasio said.

By this point, the advocacy around the issue was well underway and gaining steam, and the DOE was submitting its first reports required under the School Diversity Accountability Act.

2016
In 2016, much of the public attention and advocacy was focused on district-level plans, where changes could be made on a small scale and tested, especially in areas that resemble a microcosm of the city’s school demographics.

Questions still hovered around whether de Blasio, who ran for mayor on a progressive platform focused on equity -- including bridging racial, educational, and socioeconomic gaps -- would make the issue a priority. (School segregation was not a high-profile issue during the 2013 election, and his campaign did not address it other than de Blasio calling for greater diversity at the city’s eight specialized high schools.)

A “controlled choice” admissions policy -- in which parent/student school choices are balanced with goals of socioeconomic integration -- was proposed in District 1 in the Lower East Side. (In October 2017, District 1 became the first district to push for and win a district-wide model for school integration.)

Asked about pursuing greater desegregation measures and specifically a broader controlled-choice admissions policy during a June 2016 appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio demurred.

“We believe there is a lot more to be done in terms of fully integrating our schools, but I do want to say, right now we are seeing some real success with models that are being used right now in our school system that are starting to be very, very effective in terms of bringing in a better mix of kids into some of our schools. I think the pre-K program has also been an example of an initiative that has had a really good impact in terms of diversity. So, we’re looking at a lot of options. I’m committed to it.”

Pushed a bit further, de Blasio said, “There’s different models that we have some real hope in. But let’s be clear...this is also the result of decades, in fact hundreds of years, of segregation in our nation. And a lot of that goes back to economics and housing. Our affordable housing plan, also, we believe, creates more diversity in neighborhoods, and that’s really, obviously, the root of the situation. If we can create more diversity through housing and development, that is another way to get at the schools issue.”

In September 2016, de Blasio was asked by a reporter about pushing more desegregation measures, and said, in part: “[W]e’ve already foreshadowed we’re going to have a bigger vision that we’ll put forward about how we can do diversification work for our schools – something we believe in. But we also want to be clear about the limits of it, and I’m going to be very explicit about this as we present that vision. The problem is not an education problem, the problem is an American history problem. It’s the problem of structural racism. It’s a problem of housing segregation.”

He continued: “Let’s not ask the schools to address all those problems simultaneously – that’s not viable. But there’s ways that we can do better through our schools. And, I certainly think if you talk to parents about pre-K and what it’s done for their kids, it’s been a success. So, we have to – the first mission is always to make the education system work for the kids to achieve onto itself equity and excellence. And it’s crucial distinction – if we want a more just city and a more just nation, then let’s get our school system to live up to a notion of equity and excellence. Separately, we have to do a lot in our society writ large to create more diversity and more opportunity across the board.”

2017-2018
One indication from de Blasio that he would pursue a broader integration plan came with the launch of Equity and Excellence for All in June 2017, which led to the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) that would explore solutions for city-wide desegregation, according to Council Member Lander.

The vision’s main focus, however, was expanding course options and resources in underserved (and heavily segregated) schools and districts. The program included initiatives like “Algebra for All” and “AP for All” and other planks of a platform de Blasio said would help improve learning opportunities for students wherever they may attend a city school.

The framework also provided for the DOE to support school districts in developing diversity plans to achieve greater integration, without ever making explicit mention of segregation, according to Lander. 

All the while, de Blasio maintained that through his universal pre-Kindergarten initiative, Renewal School turnaround program, and Equity and Excellence initiatives, he was ensuring there would be “no bad schools,” which would make racial segregation less of a concern and improve the chances of integrated schools.

During a June 2017 appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio defended himself against the notion that he was not being bold enough on school desegregation. He said, in part, “Here’s what troubles me when people put the question of diversification ahead of the question of immediate efforts, toward better schools and more equal schools. We’ve got kids right now -- a generation of children right now who need our help. By doing things like Pre-K for All, Advanced Placement courses in all high schools, including ones that never had any – getting kids on grade-level reading by third grade. These are things that got ignored for many, many years...And so, bluntly, inequality grew and grew and grew. I have the tools right now to start addressing this, with the geographical realities and demographic realities we face. That is how we address equity right now while building towards a more diverse and integrated society. But, we’ve got to help kids now.”

In Fall 2018, District 15 in Park Slope, where Lander, Council Member Carlos Menchaca, and Parents for Middle School Equity had been working to change screening policy in middle school admissions, became one of the first districts to be approved and receive funding for integration planning.

“We eliminated screening in the District 15 middle schools. In some ways that is the proposal SDAG is making, to take that to a broader level,” Lander told Gotham Gazette, referring to the recommendations released this week that call for sweeping changes to admissions processes and investments in new enrichment programming.

The SDAG, a group of civil rights activists, students, parents, educators, and other experts appointed by the mayor as he sought reelection, held its first meeting on December 11, 2017. The same month, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced she was stepping down from the post.

At the December 22, 2017 press conference announcing Fariña’s retirement, Gotham Gazette asked her if she regretted not taking on school desegregation more aggressively.

“No,” she said, “I think we’ve done some really good work. There’s always more than can be done on any initiative, but I’m going back to what I said before – you could mandate some things, but having a lot more conversations with people, which is what we’ve been doing...And I think convincing people to come to the table to want to do the right thing for the right reasons is a lot more important, and I think that’s what we’ve been doing.”

She continued; “I certainly feel that our new diversity committee that we just put in place – they just met, I think, last week – has gotten some great suggestions because this is not just us coming with ideas, but what does the community think?”

After a few other thoughts, she concluded: “So you can always do things better. I agree with the Mayor that in our Equity and Excellence the next chancellor should be thinking about going deeper and deeper, but I think we’re on the right path.”

2018
In March 2018, Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho very publicly announced he would not become the new Schools Chancellor a day after accepting the job. That week Mayor de Blasio hired Richard Carranza, a superintendent in Houston and San Francisco schools, to be the next schools chancellor.

“The equity agenda championed by our mayor is my equity agenda,” Carranza said at the City Hall press conference announcing he would be taking the position. Within a month, Carranza was discussing school desegregation explicitly, breaking from de Blasio’s and Fariña’s practice of avoiding the term in favor of the far less defined and loaded concept of “diversity.”

“Without that [shift] we would not be anywhere close to where we are. He has been much more enthusiastic about this issue than the mayor,” Lander said, responding to a recent New York Times article that describes Carranza in his second year as trying to “reset expectations” about the prospect of integration.

In June 2018, two months after Carranza started, he and the mayor announced a proposal to improve diversity at the city’s selective specialized high schools, where enrollment of black and Hispanic students has declined precipitously in the last four decades. The plan included scrapping over three years the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), which is seen as a critical factor in the predominant enrollment of white and Asian students.

The fate of the SHSAT for the three most prestigious of the eight specialized schools is controlled by the state, not the city, and many saw it as a way for de Blasio to take up the issue of school segregation without implicating his administration’s own responsibility in addressing it. That plan faced severe backlash from many parents and students who were eager to keep the rules the same, and was criticized for not having enough community input. It did not advance in Albany in 2018.

2019
A year later, the SHSAT is still the single admissions test for enrollment in eight of the city’s nine specialized high schools (the ninth is a performing arts school). In March, it was reported that only 7 out of 895 seats in Stuyvesant High School’s next freshman class would go to black students. Later that month, as he was considering a presidential run on a progressive platform, de Blasio used the word “segregation” to describe New York’s school system for the first time, according to Chalkbeat.

Discussing specialized high schools during an appearance on WNYC radio, de Blasio told host Brian Lehrer, “We’re saying we’re not going to live by this old system that has perpetuated massive segregation, not just segregation – massive segregation.”

Meanwhile, in February, the School Diversity Advisory Group released its first of two sets of recommendations for the city to improve school integration. The recommendations include adding metrics on diversity and integration to mandated reporting, creating a “General Assembly” of high school reps to assist in crafting a citywide agenda, and monitoring discrepancies in school discipline. Other suggestions dealt with improving culturally-relevant education and engaging communities through local partnerships.

“Although we applaud SDAG’s reference to more ambitious short, medium and long term integration goals by requiring district, borough and then city-wide integration plans, these will only be effective if the City develops powerful metrics for defining integration,” wrote the Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation, a coalition of recently-formed and longstanding civil rights groups, in a statement following the report.

Asked about taking on segregated schools during a February 26 press conference on the “record high” number of city students taking Advanced Placement course, de Blasio said, “[T]here is a much bigger discussion that we will have in this city and we’ve put forward some pieces of it, and there is a lot more to come, on how to make sure our children learn with each other and how to have the most diverse classrooms that we can have. But that should not be mistaken for the primary way or the only way to ensure that kids get a great education. We have kids in every kind of community who are ready to achieve their potential. They need investment. They need high quality teachers. They need the best possible principals. This is the path forward, first and foremost, that’s what Equity and Excellences is all about.”

In June, de Blasio announced the city would be adopting 62 of the initial 67 recommendations. At the time, the report was criticized for not dealing with gifted and talented programs for elementary school children and selective admissions screenings for higher grades, which are seen as among the greatest barriers to integration.

“I wish the focus could largely be kept on reforming admissions. For me enrollment policy is, beyond housing, the root cause of a heavily segregated school system,” Council Member Torres told Gotham Gazette, saying the administration’s preoccupation with specialized high schools diverts attention and political capital from more fundamental issues. 

On Tuesday, SDAG released its second and final report, which among other things recommended the city eliminate its gifted and talented elementary school programs and admissions screenings for middle schools, while adding new enrichment programs to all schools that need them to serve all learners. The new recommendations fell short of proposing admissions policy for high schools be changed, even as they called for other selective admissions practices to be reformed, instead suggesting study down the line after other changes are adopted.

Now it is up to Carranza, and ultimately the mayor, to act on the group’s recommendations. At a press conference Tuesday, Carranza indicated he was eager to review the report, and de Blasio also said he would review it but made no commitment to acting on the recommendations. 

SDAG has left the ball in the mayor’s court.

“We have decided not to be very prescriptive in terms of the recommendations, in part in recognition that New York City is so large, districts differ greatly in terms of their demographics and their needs,” said Amy Hsin, a sociologist at Queens College and a member of the SDAG executive committee, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. 

“So we feel that the DOE needs to work with communities to co-develop an integration plan where communities are stakeholders,” she added. “That’s what we are trying to push the city to do in our reports.”

How de Blasio responds will pose a major test in the final years of his mayoralty, and may significantly shape public discourse during the upcoming race to replace him.

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

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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New York City is Waist-Deep in a School Desegregation Conversation - How Did We Get Here? Mon, 02 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Launch of Required City Reporting on Required Reports Shows Gaps in Reporting https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8765-new-york-city-government-reporting-required-gaps-in-reporting https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8765-new-york-city-government-reporting-required-gaps-in-reporting council holds oversight

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The New York City Council regularly passes bills mandating that city agencies create reports on their work, ostensibly as part of the Council’s oversight responsibilities. From city jail populations to hate crimes statistics to use of force by police officers, the Council has passed bills requiring a report be delivered to it.

The Council passes so many reporting bills that last year, it passed legislation that would help it track the number of total reports required under local law, the City Charter, or mayoral order. The bill compelled the city’s Department of Records and Information Services to create a central list of every single report required from every city agency, board, or office.

The result: a 57-page document that lists a whopping 842 required reports of various types due at a variety of time intervals. Of those, 490 are listed as not received by DORIS, despite some being producing by agencies on a regular basis, raising questions for Council members about whether agencies are refusing to comply with the law or are overwhelmed with burdensome reporting mandates.

The Council often requests information from city agencies to gauge the effectiveness of city services and programs and to decide on annual budget allocations. City agencies, however, can sometimes be less than forthcoming, necessitating that the Council put the force of law behind their inquiries.

But agencies just as often fall out of compliance with their reporting requirements, which even City Council Members admit can be onerous and time- and resource-intensive. Council Members themselves can forget about their requests once they’ve been legislated. Some have questioned whether passing a “reporting bill” is good for a press release or constituent newsletter but leads to little follow up from the Council members who insist on their importance.

The initial posting of the list, which was due July 1, shows that the mayoral administration, city agencies and boards, and the Council have a long way to go to prove that the reporting bills so frequently passed are actually essential to effective and efficient city government, and getting completed and used.

“Transparency is essential for responsive and effective government. We need accurate and up-to-date information to be easily available to the public,” said Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who sponsored the bill as chair of the governmental operations committee, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Cabrera inherited the bill from former Council Member James Vacca, who introduced it last session as chair of the technology committee but was term-limited out of office before it passed.

Cabrera said the bill was a response to a review that showed reports from several years either missing from agency websites or unavailable on the DORIS website. His legislation now requires a full list of all such agency reports, the frequency with which they are due, the law mandating them, and the date they were last published.

For example: The Department of Homeless Services’ shelter repair scorecard, due every quarter and last delivered to DORIS on July 15. The Department of Buildings report on injuries and fatalities at construction sites, produced monthly and submitted to DORIS but marked as not received on the list. The Department of Corrections’ latest report on punitive segregation in the third quarter of 2019, available on the DOC website but listed as last received by DORIS in July 2014.

Starting in January 2020, the report will also have to include links to the reports online, and DORIS will be required to request each report from a specific agency if it is not delivered within ten days of its due date.

“People have a right to easily access the information that the law requires be made public. This is about accountability,” Cabrera said.

For some agencies, such as the Department of Education, the Council also has a limited ability to pass new laws dictating policy or procedure, and has to instead rely on requiring greater transparency that can lead to better oversight. “There's nothing more meta than a report on reports,” said Council Member Ben Kallos, a member and former chair of the governmental operations committee and co-sponsor of the legislation, in a phone interview.

“As a legislator, I try to avoid legislation that requires a report, a task force or a study, because they always seem like a waste of time,” Kallos added. “I prefer to focus on legislation that just does things. That being said, with certain non-city agencies, we're left with no other choice.”

The current report includes dozens of city agencies and the information they are meant to publish everywhere from just once to monthly, quarterly, annually, or every two, five or ten years. The Department of Environmental Protection tops the list in number of required reports, with a total of 48; the Department of Transportation is second with 41; the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is meant to produce 35 reports; and the NYPD is mandated to provide 34.

A glimpse at the report of reports might give the impression that agencies are being negligent with their reporting responsibilities, given that 490 of the 842 are listed as not received. But the list is far from perfect. Those reports that are listed as having not been received include many that have been created and are regularly maintained by city agencies on their websites, which is part of the problem that Cabrera pointed to in his statement.

Ironically, the report even notes that DORIS itself has not submitted an annual report “on powers and duties, cost of savings,” as required by the City Charter. 

Jose Bayona, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said the discrepancies stem from processing the hundreds of required reports which, for a small agency like DORIS, is an intensive task. “It takes time,” he said. Reports may have been sent but not included in the list or have not been sent and DORIS has pushed agencies to provide them, he added.

“DORIS continues to expand content on the government publications portal by working with agencies to submit all of their reports, as required by the City Charter,” Bayona said in an email. The publications portal is meant to contain digital copies of every report produced so far by city agencies, commissions, and boards. “The number of reports available on the portal has increased from 4,180 in [Fiscal Year 2015] to 23,089 today.”

On DORIS’ annual report, Bayona explained, “DORIS submits data about its powers, duties and costs in the [Mayor’s Management Report] and considers that to be an annual report. Nevertheless, the Librarians listed the charter requirement for an annual report as a separate document because one of the Council’s requirements is that the Library list all required reports.”

For Council members seeking greater transparency from the administration, the report is illuminating, even with its deficiencies. “I can’t say I’m not disappointed,” Kallos said, pointing to the picture of “rampant non-compliance” that emerges from the report. He said agencies often withhold reports from the City Council that they are required to provide.

“It's no surprise that if they didn't send reports to the City Council, that they didn't follow their charter requirement to submit them to the Department of Records and Information Services. After all, very few people even know that DORIS exists.” He did concede that perhaps agencies themselves are unaware of their responsibility to send reports to DORIS, an issue that this new report might rectify.

Kallos said he often requests reports from agencies which they will send to the Council but not to him, leaving him to track them down. Then, agency officials will embarrass him at City Council hearings. “It's a game of cat and mouse in the very worst way of Tom and Jerry where the mouse actually clobbers the cat,” he said, noting that the DORIS report would help him in those efforts. “If there's a report I can't get my hands on and [DORIS] can't either, then it seems like maybe the agency didn't do their job.”

Council Member Ritchie Torres chairs the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, and he said the report of reports is a valuable tool for the Council’s scrutiny of the administration but might also prompt a more “holistic” review of how the Council requests information.

“Reporting bills can be a powerful advocacy tool for shining a spotlight on a matter of public concern,” he said in a phone interview. “But here's the problem. Even if a reporting requirement has merit, the accumulation of the requirements over time becomes a real imposition on a city agency. The notion that a reporting bill has no fiscal impact is something of a myth.”

Similarly, as the city’s new reporting on reports law went into effect July 1, state legislators in Albany are looking into whether they are imposing burdensome “study bills” on state agencies. Polltico New York reported earlier this month that State Senator James Skoufis and Assemblymember Brain Barnwell plan to introduce a bill requiring an examination of state study bills. “We do need to, as silly as it sounds, study all of these study bills,” Skoufis told Politico.  “Perhaps if nothing else, it will shine a light on this issue and make us think twice about just doing study bills to make a political statement.”

Torres said the Council should refocus on a more demand-based approach to obtaining the reports they need, to ensure that the information being produced is not obsolete.

“Rather than have ongoing reporting requirements that persist in perpetuity, why not make the reporting requirements dependent upon written request from the City Council, from the Speaker or relevant committee chair?,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Launch of Required City Reporting on Required Reports Shows Gaps in Reporting Thu, 29 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Officials Debate What To Do About Taxi Medallion Debt Crisis https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8695-city-officials-debate-what-to-do-about-taxi-medallion-debt-crisis https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8695-city-officials-debate-what-to-do-about-taxi-medallion-debt-crisis taxi medallion drivers rally city hall

Council Members Levine & Rivera & drivers rally at City Hall (photo: Jeff Reed)


City Council Speaker Corey Johnson asked what sounded like a simple question: should the Taxi & Limousine Commission apologize for its role in the taxi medallion debt crisis, in which thousands of taxi owner-drivers have been trapped in predatory loans unchecked by city and state watchdogs?

Jeffrey Roth, nominated by Mayor Bill de Blasio to lead the TLC, failed to give a direct “yes” or “no.” Johnson asked again, to which Roth said, “whether or not the TLC leadership there should apologize, I don’t know.” Visibly frustrated, Johnson moved on to a new question.

The exchange took place at a July 18 hearing to discuss Roth’s nomination for TLC Commissioner – a nomination that has since been temporarily withdrawn in part due to Roth’s performance at the hearing.

Roth’s evasiveness on the apology questions and others, and Johnson’s resulting exasperation highlighted a growing debate over the culpability of city government in facilitating the medallion crisis. As a New York Times two-part investigation published in May revealed, the TLC ignored warning signs of a highly inflated medallion market (the city sells taxi medallions and sets baseline prices for auction) and risky lending practices, leaving many medallion owner stranded in colossal debt when the market collapsed. A wave of suicides among driver-owners, along with the Times' series, has elevated the discussion to emergency status.

But, as policymakers, drivers, and others have been asking, should the city itself be responsible for forgiving the debt? What is the best path for helping driver-owners get out from under their loans?

For the Taxi Workers Alliance, the most prominent organization representing for-hire vehicle drivers, the answer is a resounding yes: New York City government should prepare a bailout. But Mayor de Blasio has repeatedly said a bailout would be both out of the city's purview and too costly to the city's budget. On the other hand, several City Council Members, including Speaker Johnson, have expressed some initial support for the idea of a partial bailout of driver-owners.

Bhairavi Desai, the head of the union since its inception in 1998, has called for a city-run program to determine the current market value of medallions, then buying out and forgiving loans down to that value. At the height of the market in 2014, medallions were going for more than $1 million, compared to a $200,000 price tag a decade earlier.

The TWA has calculated that, based on a current medallion market value of $150,000 and an average owner-driver debt of $600,000, the program would cost between $1.6 and $2.4 billion – an increase from the $1 billion the TWA estimates that the city made from inflated prices at medallion auctions.

City Council Member Mark Levine, who represents Upper Manhattan and has long been one of the TWA’s strongest allies in government, claimed at a July 11 rally outside City Hall that a clear precedent for a city-run bailout exists.

“During the housing mortgage bubble, an entity here called the Center for New York City Neighborhoods did exactly that for New Yorkers with underwater housing mortgages,” he said alongside Desai and dozens of assembled owner-drivers. “The fact is, there is a myriad of precedents for this here in New York City, and it’s simply inexcusable to say this isn’t possible when we have done projects like this in the past.”

Levine is not alone in his support for the TWA’s proposal. Council Member Carlina Rivera of Lower Manhattan appeared at the same rally to call for loan forgiveness; City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Council Member Ritchie Torres, among others, have also expressed some measure of support for city-financed debt relief. Because bailout legislation has yet to be introduced to the City Council, it is difficult to gauge how broad the proposal’s support is.

Desai and the TWA have also called for a cap on medallion mortgage payments at $900 per month (compared to an average of $3,000 a month currently) and the creation of a retirement fund for drivers, among other things. But with chants of “Loan forgiveness now!” and pre-printed signs calling for “Debt Forgiveness NOW!” at the July 11 rally, owner-drivers have made their first priority clear.

On the other hand, de Blasio, as well as officials in the TLC, have expressed skepticism about, even dismissal of such an idea. Their preferred plan of action is for the city to instead pressure the private banking lenders to downsize loans, without the city itself directly buying or bailing out anything.

De Blasio, in a June interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, said that he would “absolutely pressure banks and lenders to be fair to these drivers, we’ll do that.” But he rejected the possibility of a city bailout, saying the city “doesn’t directly fund the drivers…There’s some things the City of New York simply has limits on.” He has indicated on multiple occasions that the city simply doesn’t have the billions of dollars that would be needed for a bailout, that it would be too costly of a one-time expense.

Meera Joshi, formerly the commissioner of the TLC, listed in an email to Gotham Gazette several proposals to address the crisis, all of which involve the city leaning on banks to modify loans so that they match drivers’ income. “State and city officials should publicly name those that refuse to work with borrowers,” she suggested, “much like the 100 worst landlords list. Publicity about their inflexibility will go a long way in making a change, and will achieve change quickly.”

Two other possibilities Joshi mentioned involve conditioning medallion ownership on viable financing, thus causing “banks that do not modify loans within a prescribed period [to] lose the medallion as an asset,” and “chang[ing] state tax law to ensure that forgiven loans are not considered taxable income for individuals below a certain income level.”

When asked directly about the possibility of direct loan forgiveness by the city, Joshi stated that she supports “all real assistance, but prioritizes what can realistically happen, affects the largest group, and most of all happens quickly, which is pressuring banks to restructure loans.”

Current Acting TLC Commissioner Bill Heinzen, during a June 24 City Council oversight hearing on the crisis, expanded on this assessment, saying that “the people who have the power and money here are the banks and the credit unions that hold those loans, and they should be the ones who should be forced to write down those loans to something that is human and possible to pay.”

And Roth, responding to pointed questioning from Johnson, said that he thinks “there are measures short of financial bailout...that might be sufficient and not excessive.”

Writing in a City & State op-ed column the day after the July 11 rally, Nicole Gelinas argued that the roughly $2 billion required for a bailout of many owner-drivers would make a significant, arguably unfair dent in the city’s budget. “The city must follow only public need,” she wrote, “not the extraordinary circumstances of one industry.” Others, including Roth, have pointed out that a city-financed bailout might inadvertently reward lenders for their predatory behavior.

While she echoed some of the other ideas that have been offered for alleviating the crisis, another of Gelinas’ proposed fixes involves city- and state-level regulation, without either funding a bailout. “The city,” she wrote, “should make it much clearer whether it is giving up on the medallion system or not, guiding both lenders and borrowers on underlying value, and allowing lenders to keep an interest in the future, possibly higher value of a medallion in exchange for debt relief.”

For their part, the TWA and its Council allies have also called on the city to lean on lenders to forgive debt and ease burdens on owner-drivers. Levine noted that, if the city can successfully push lenders to downsize loans, then the pricetag the city pays for a bailout decreases and becomes more politically feasible.

But some who support a city forgiveness program worry that the focus on outside forces like credit unions makes concrete solutions harder. Council Member Brad Lander, at the June 24 oversight hearing, said he worries “that if we only focus on accountability, we will fail to come up with a real approach to relief...We must find a way to do both.”

A spokesperson for the City Council said in a brief Thursday statement to Gotham Gazette that “Speaker Johnson and the council are committed to helping drivers, and the newly appointed task force is exploring a variety of ways to help including various forms of a bailout.”

Appearing on Thursday evening’s Inside City Hall on NY1, Johnson was asked by host Errol Louis about what he thinks should be done for the medallion owners. “I think the mayor is right in one aspect,” Johnson said after disagreeing with the mayor’s claim that if a cap on new for-hire vehicle licenses had been instituted in 2015 much would have been different, while also reiterating his regret for not supporting the cap back then, “which is $17 billion for a full bailout is not realistic, and it would be inappropriate and disingenuous for me to say that’s what we can do. But there has been a proposal -- Council Members Levin and Levine and Lander have been talking about doing a partial bailout for some of the medallion owners who are under water, maybe at $100,000 or $200,000, to get them out of debt in a way where they’re not as under water. It’s something we need to look at.”

Underlying the debate over debt forgiveness is a deeper question over who, exactly, bears the blame for the crisis to begin with. Mayor de Blasio has called the crisis a “private market reality,” and the TLC released an investigation it conducted laying the responsibility on lenders and the National Credit Union Association while insisting that “TLC and the City have no regulatory oversight or control over lending practices.”

Additionally, Roth, Heinzen, and Joshi – the prospective, current, and former TLC commissioners, respectively – all pointed to the specific ways in which the TLC worked to mitigate the crisis, including loosening restrictions and reducing taxes on drivers. The cap on vehicle hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft has also been highlighted as a measure that the city took to help owner-drivers (de Blasio has repeatedly said he wishes the City Council had gone along with his 2015 push for a FHV cap, rather than stalling for several more years until its passage in 2018). 

For many, however, these measures were too little and too late. Though the city was not directly responsible for reckless lending practices that may have helped thrust owner-drivers into severe debt, Levine and others claim it still has a “moral debt” to pay for its lack of oversight. Levine charged that “the city itself was asleep as thousands of drivers entered into a world of financial hell.” 

Council Member Torres, who co-chaired the oversight hearing with Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, said that the TLC “is inclined to scapegoat everyone except itself.”

The TLC, as many debt-relief proponents have pointed out, was not just a regulator asleep at the wheel. Faced with a $3.8 billion budget deficit early in his administration, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his TLC commissioner, Matthew Daus, advertised the medallion market as a stable, “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity in order to increase city revenue. In 2011, Andrew Murstein, the former president of a prominent medallion lender, called the city his “partner,” because “they want to see prices go as high as possible.”

Debt relief, either from the city or from lenders, is not the only measure being discussed to address the medallion crisis. At the June 24 oversight hearing, four bills were proposed that would increase accountability at the TLC, with the goal of preventing future crises.

Additionally, Council Member Rodriguez, who chairs the Transportation Committee, has proposed a bill that would exempt taxi drivers from congestion pricing. The TWA held a rally on July 18 demanding that the cap on for-hire vehicles be extended, which would continue to restrain competition to the taxi industry. And, as Roth mentioned in the July 18 committee hearing, the TLC plans to set up a driver assistance unit to provide drivers with financial and mental health services.

But, as these legislative proposals’ backers have attested to, such fixes are not enough to help those already in massive debt. Regardless of who bears the blame for the crisis and who needs to pay for it, thousands of drivers remain in dire straits. “This may have taken years in the making; it cannot take years more in the fixing,” said Desai at the July 11 rally.

“Otherwise," she said, "thousands of families are going to simply break.”

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by Joey Fox, Gotham Gazette

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City Officials Debate What To Do About Taxi Medallion Debt Crisis Thu, 25 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Campaigning for Congress, Torres Touts City Funding Secured for Development Outside Council District https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8672-campaigning-for-congress-torres-touts-city-funding-secured-for-development-outside-council-district https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8672-campaigning-for-congress-torres-touts-city-funding-secured-for-development-outside-council-district 1 cm r torres lib

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Campaigning for Congress, Torres Touts City Funding Secured for Development Outside Council District Mon, 15 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council to Examine City’s Role in ‘Taxi Medallion Crisis’ https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8621-council-to-examine-city-s-role-in-taxi-medallion-crisis https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8621-council-to-examine-city-s-role-in-taxi-medallion-crisis bloomberg gillibrand nadler yassky fed

(photo Credit: Edward Reed/City Council)


Amid a new flurry of attention to challenges faced by taxi drivers in New York City, the City Council will hold an oversight hearing Monday on the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission’s “role in the taxi medallion crisis.”

As a New York Times two-part investigation published in May helped bring back into extensive public conversation, taxi medallion prices rose to extreme heights between 2002 and 2014 – as high as $1.3 million – before crashing down amid a boom in the launch of the app-based for-hire vehicle sector. Thousands of medallion owners are in immense debt with their medallions, which allow them to operate a city-sanctioned yellow taxi, worth far less than at point of purchase, when they bought them from the city through loans provided by private banks.

Reporting prior to the Times’ exposé had already documented the mounting debt crisis for medallion owners, connecting it largely to the rise of ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft. All of the city’s 13,587 taxi medallions took significant hits in value, both those owned by individual drivers themselves and those constituting larger taxi fleets. The City Council passed and Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a cap on new for-hire vehicle licenses and new wage guarantees for drivers amid a series of driver suicides in 2018, tragedies that pushed the medallion crisis into public view.

Now, the Times’ investigation has caused a new flurry of legislation after it showed how the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) was instrumental in the extraordinary inflation of medallion prices. Though the TLC was not directly involved in the reckless lending practices that led to the taxi drivers’ debt, it stood to benefit from skyrocketing prices at medallion auctions and chose to ignore signs that the market was highly unstable. The TLC is charged with regulating the taxi industry, and the Mayor oversees it and the city budget, which has included and relied on revenue from medallion sales.

While much of the Times’ reporting focused on other culprits, including predatory lenders and the National Credit Union Association, medallion owners and their representatives have laid a lot of blame on city government.

Sergio Cabrera and Carolyn Protz, two medallion owners, wrote in a scathing Crain’s New York Business op-ed that “the real scandal...is how the Taxi and Limousine Commission, as well as elected officials, played a pivotal role in taxis’ demise.”

Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, similarly charged that “the city raked in profit while working-class immigrant drivers of color were swindled and pushed into financial despair.”

Many elected officials agree. In an interview with City & State, City Council Member Mark Levine stated that “the city itself also bears responsibility for this, because we were selling medallions with the goal of bringing in revenue to the city and we were promoting them and pumping them up in ways that I think masks the true risks that drivers were taking on.”

The hearing on Monday, which will be jointly held by the Committee on Transportation and the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, will likely feature significant grilling and criticism of the TLC, as well as testimony from non-governmental parties, like medallion owners, pointing the finger at city government. On its website, the Taxi Workers Alliance has already promised to “pack the hearing room.”

Council Member Ritchie Torres, who will be leading the hearing as chair of the Oversight and Investigations Committee, said in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette that “the purpose of the hearing is to examine TLC’s role in creating a speculative bubble in the medallion market, and to identify the regulatory failures, the policy failures, that led to the collapse of the medallion market and the resulting humanitarian crisis.”

“There’s a sense in which TLC was functioning both as a market regulator and a market purchaser, and there is a conflict of interest between those two parts,” Torres said, echoing concerns outlined in the Times articles.

Although his committee began an investigation into the commission in November of 2018, “TLC has [since] been insufficiently cooperative with the City Council,” and the hearing is intended as a continuation of this inquiry. Despite the TLC’s stonewalling, Torres did disclose that the investigation has been productive, saying “there’s more evidence that the City is culpable than even the New York Times exposé suggests.”

In addition to the oversight portion of the hearing, which will begin at 10 a.m. Monday, four new bills aimed at mitigating the crisis will be introduced and discussed.

The first, from Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Transportation Committee, would require the TLC to “evaluate the character and integrity” of medallion brokers. Another, from Torres, would create a department within the TLC to evaluate the financial stability of the industry. This could theoretically prevent another bubble from forming based on false assertions of taxi market infallibility.

A third bill, sponsored by Council Member Adrienne Adams, would require the TLC to collect annual financial disclosures from individuals with interest in a taxi license. Finally, Council Member Francisco Moya is introducing a bill to prohibit the sale or transfer of a taxi license unless the funds used have been reviewed by the TLC.

These four bills are far from the only ones being drafted and discussed. On May 21, Rodriguez and fellow Council Member Fernando Cabrera proposed an exemption for taxi drivers from congestion pricing to lower their costs, saying that legislators had a “moral obligation” to do so.

Rodriguez also recently saw the City Council pass his bill to reduce the commercial motor vehicle tax on medallion owners from $1000 to $400. In a statement, he pledged to continue “to find ways to ensure that Taxi Medallion owners receive the justice they deserve.”

Meanwhile, in the state legislature, State Senators Jessica Ramos and Leroy Comrie have proposed a bill that would establish a taxi medallion guaranty program to help medallion owners who are unable to pay off their loans.

For some activists and lawmakers, these proposed changes don’t go far enough. Levine, writing in the Bronx Free Press, proposed “dramatic plans” to buy back medallions and forgive taxi drivers’ debt to augment smaller changes such as waiving fees and establishing task forces; City Comptroller Scott Stringer has expressed support for a similar solution.

The Taxi Workers Alliance, one day after the Times article was published, proposed a slightly less drastic plan. It would create a Council-appointed task force to determine the proper current value of taxi medallions, and any loan amounts exceeding that value would be forgiven (the specifics of how the loans would be forgiven have not been made clear).

Unlike Levine’s proposal, this would still likely leave many drivers hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. And as transportation expert Bruce Schaller pointed out to City & State, many medallion owners have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay off their loans, money that a debt forgiveness program would not help them reclaim.

Any debt forgiveness bill may also face a difficult path under the de Blasio administration. Though the mayor has embraced investigations of lenders and higher wages for drivers, he dismissed the possibility of bailouts in an interview with Brian Lehrer, calling the crisis a “private market reality” that the city is not culpable for, mostly side-stepping city government’s role in selling such inflated medallions and TLC’s lack of oversight. De Blasio did acknowledge that the city allowed something of a bubble to develop, but cited his administration’s efforts to stop selling medallions and to cap app-based for-hire vehicles (a 2015 push by de Blasio to cap FHVs failed, only to be achieved three years later).

The June 24 Council hearing comes at a time of upheaval at the TLC. On June 18, de Blasio announced that Department of Veterans’ Services official Jeffrey Roth will become the new TLC commissioner. He replaces Meera Joshi, who departed the agency in March.

Joshi, for her part, was concerned that direct bailouts would benefit banks too much and drivers too little. Her preferred solution instead was to encourage banks to take a loss and downsize the loans. That way, the banks could “at least have a good live loan at the right price, [rather] than have someone who’s out of work and the bank with a loss.” Roth, who will need to be approved by the City Council before he becomes commissioner, does not yet have a stated position on the issue.

Though relief for medallion owners is likely still a long way off regardless of policy direction, Council Member Torres hopes that the upcoming hearing can begin the process of recovery. “My overall message is this: the city has been part of the problem, and it’s time to make the city part of the solution.”

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by Joey Fox, Gotham Gazette

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Council to Examine City’s Role in ‘Taxi Medallion Crisis’ Thu, 20 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Effort Launched to Elect LGBTQ Members to City Council https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8543-effort-launched-to-elect-lgbt-members-to-the-city-council https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8543-effort-launched-to-elect-lgbt-members-to-the-city-council  

ritchietorres ch230

 (photo: @RitchieTorres)


On the steps of City Hall Wednesday afternoon, a coalition of LGBTQ rights advocates and current and former City Council members announced the launch of an initiative to elect queer candidates to the Council in 2021, when 35 seats will be open because of term limits.

There are currently five members of the 51-member City Council who identify as LGBT, all of whom are a part of the body’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Caucus, and all of whom are not elligible for reelection to the Council: Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Danny Dromm, Ritchie Torres, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Carlos Menchaca.

The effort launched Wednesday, dubbed “LGBTQ in 2021,” is intended to ensure that the outgoing cohort of Council members from the queer community is replaced by another, larger, and more diverse group of LGBTQ electeds.

“We want to make sure that we elect lesbians to the City Council, we want to ensure that we elect transgender women to the City Council, we want to ensure we elect LGBT people of color to the City Council,” Speaker Johnson, who is openly gay and HIV positive, said to cheers from the audience assembled.

A number of other Council members were also present at the press conference, including Dromm and Torres of the LGBT Caucus, as well as former Council Members Tom Duane, who was the first openly gay person elected to the City Council, and Elizabeth Crowley, who has helped spearhead the “21 in ‘21” initiative to elect more women to the City Council, which was the inspiration for the project announced Monday. The City Council currently has 12 women out of its 51 members.

In the next City Council election in 2021, at least 35 of the body’s 51 seats will be open, meaning no incumbent will be running.

Whereas incumbents enjoy incredibly high reelection rates, races for open seats tend to be vastly more competitive, often comprising more candidates and resulting in narrower margins of victory. Initiatives like LGBTQ in 2021 and 21 in ‘21 are harnessing the opportunities of open seats at the same time that they are meant to combat any loss in representation that may result.

Coming out is “the deepest political thing anyone can do. And that goes for people who are out in legislative bodies. There is no substitute for a seat at the table,” Duane said at the press conference. “We have elected people here in New York City, but we have many more people that we need to get elected to the City Council.”

The coalition, which also includes LGBTQ Democratic political clubs like the Stonewall Demorats and advocacy groups like New York Transgender Advocacy Group and Queer-Amisú, plans to recruit and support queer candidates to run for City Council through training, mentorship, and networking resources. At the moment, LGBTQ in 2021 has a social media presence but an informal operational structure as its members determine its direction. It is currently focused on City Council elections, but may expand its mission in the future.

“It’s only been ten years since Queens has had openly gay elected officials,” Dromm reminded the crowd, after acknowledging Duane and other predecessors as rolemodels for him. “And of course we began to see the Council expand in terms of the numbers of openly LGBT people who were in it.”

“Invisibility is our biggest enemy,” Dromm added. “We had no role models in those days.”

Members of the coalition have drawn lessons from their personal experiences and those of activists in a number of overlapping and intersecting causes -- namely the struggle for LGBTQ rights in New York and nationally, but also the Civil Rights Movement and movements for gender equity.

Melissa Sklarz, a transgender activist, 2018 Assembly candidate from Queens, and former president of the Stonewall Democrats, spoke after Dromm. “I don’t think invisibility is a problem. It’s fear! ‘I can’t run for office, Melissa, I don’t know what to do.’ We’ve got a solution for that. We know what to do. We’ve been involved, we have passion, and vision, and experience, and intelligence. We will help you.”

Torres, a Bronx Democrat planning to run for Congress in the 2020 election, emphasized the active nature of this type of recruitment and mentorship operation. “Progress doesn’t happen by accident. We have to organize for it, we have to fight for it, we have to recruit candidates, raise funds, knock on doors, and win elections,” Torres said. (Sklarz later told reporters that LGBTQ in 2021 does not have plans to raise money for candidates, but intends to educate them on how to create a campaign, and can assist with staffing and grassroots efforts in their neighborhoods.)

Along with the aforementioned groups, the coalition includes Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, Lesbian Gay Democratic Club of Queens, Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, NYC Pride and Power, and LGBT Democrats of Color.

“One of the epiphanies of the Civil Rights Movement is the realization that progress is not inevitable even when it has the aura of inevitability,” Torres observed. “We had more LGBT members of the City Council two years ago than we do today. Or when it comes to gender inequality...we had more women in the City Council in the 1990s than we do today.”

Despite overall progress made in LGBTQ representation in New York City elected office, members of the coalition pointed to significant shortcomings in the political landscape and barriers that still need to be overcome.

Ivy Frias of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group wondered why “only one letter of the LGBT community is represented here in the City Council,” referring to the fact that the City Council’s current queer membership are all gay men. “I think it’s time, as a queer, nonbinary, Dominican person, to tell you guys that it’s time to be here,” Frias said, adding later, “the LGBT community is beautifully diverse and intersectional.”

Sklarz also identified barriers. When asked whether she intends to run for City Council after her unsuccessful bid for the Assembly last year, she told Gotham Gazette, “Where I live is a difficult Council race. Neighborhood is everything. So however big my visage may be in the LGBT community, it’s very difficult in my neighborhood to run for City Council.” The 22nd Council District in Queens, where Sklarz lives, has been represented by Costa Constantinides since 2014 and has never had an openly queer Council member. Constantinides is term-limited and likely to run for Queens Borough President.

Those dynamics at the neighborhood level can play out in the Council itself. “There continues to be places in New York City where even vicious homophobes can be and have been elected to the City Council,” Torres told the crowd. “The homophobic antics of [City Council Member] Ruben Diaz Sr. is a cautionary tale of what happens when we, as a community, take for granted the inevitability of progress.” (Diaz Sr., who was recently punished by the Council for his latest homophobic remarks, is seeking the same congressional seat as Torres.)

“If you think someone’s going to come and save the day for you, then you’re naive. We’re not going take that chance,” Sklarz said to applause. “LGBT people are going to come together, we are going to create a moment, we are going to take care of our own, and make sure something happens.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Effort Launched to Elect LGBTQ Members to City Council Wed, 22 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Rep. Serrano’s Retirement and a Looming Rumble in the Bronx https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8394-rep-serrano-s-retirement-and-a-looming-rumble-in-the-bronx https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8394-rep-serrano-s-retirement-and-a-looming-rumble-in-the-bronx rubendiazjr richie torres cm

Rep. Serrano, BP Diaz Jr., CM Torres (l-r) (photo: @rubendiazjr)


It’s time for a rumble in the Bronx. After 29 years in Congress and 44 years in elected office, Congressional Rep. José Serrano has decided to retire from office. Together with the likes of Herman Badillo, José Rivera, Robert Garcia, Gerena Valentin, and Ramon Velez in the Bronx, Serrano has been a pioneering figure within the Latino/Puerto Rican political landscape in New York City.

Serrano fought at the frontlines for Latino political representation at a time when Puerto Ricans were left out of the political equation despite their burgeoning numbers. Serrano, and the rest, fought arduously for this long-sought-after recognition. Their hard work paid off. Serrano won an Assembly seat in 1975.

While Serrano’s early work to gain Latino political representation is not debatable, the rest of his legacy is more dubious. Serrano has not been known for any sort of legislative prowess. The South Bronx, which he represents, has long been a poverty stricken area that has seen scant federal resources for decades, despite Serrano’s long tenure in Congress.

As a result of this record, observers like long-time political operative Mike Nieves had surmised that a formidable and credible candidate could defeat Serrano. No one ever did.

Serrano’s legacy notwithstanding, the eyes of our political world will now turn to the 15th Congressional district in the Bronx to see who will succeed him in Congress.

The timing of Serrano’s retirement announcement coincides with City Council Member Ritchie Torres’ own recent announcement that he would challenge the incumbent representative for the seat. In a previous column, I mentioned that Torres would be one to watch as we eye the future of Latino politics in the city. His intellectual abilities, grasp of public policy, and ability to articulate his view have deservedly caught people’s attention.

Torres is clearly a formidable candidate for the “open” congressional seat. Most of his Council district, which he first won in 2013, lies within Serrano’s Congressional district. After six years in the Council, Torres has been able to gain some recognition among voters for his work on behalf of his constituents, particularly in areas affecting NYCHA residents.

Various other names are being floated at this nascent stage. Among them are former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Mark-Viverito has just come off a dismal showing in her race for the citywide position of public advocate. Yet she still holds some name recognition, particularly among Latinos.

Her home congressional district is currently represented by Adriano Espaillat but since there are no in-district residency requirements for a congressional seat, she could still make a play for the Serrano seat.

Then there is Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, who is also the Bronx Democratic leader. Crespo’s Assembly district lies entirely within Serrano’s Congressional district and he would therefore potentially go into a race of this sort with a natural base of followers. Some will question his alliance with Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr., who has been challenged for repeated homophobic statements and positions. But given Crespo’s potential to capitalize on some of the resources that would naturally come his way by virtue of his party position, he would quickly be considered a leading candidate for the position.

Yet another recent public advocate candidate might also throw his hat in the ring. Since Michael Blake’s election to the Assembly, and then his appointment to be a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, rumors have swirled that he would one day challenge José Serrano.

That day never came. But this opening can provide an opportunity for Blake. Despite losing the public advocate race, Blake won his home borough of the Bronx and did fairly well in the portion covering Serrano’s Congressional district.

And if he’s the only African-American in the race, that could also create a path to victory for Blake. With multiple formidable Latino candidates, a strong African-American candidate could win the seat.

Almost a third of the Democratic electorate in this Congressional district is African-American. Over 55 percent is Latino. If the race takes an ethnic path, that could lead to a split Latino vote and a more consolidated African American vote.

Then there’s state Senator Gustavo Rivera. Rivera, first elected in 2010, represents a swath of Serrano’s district in the state Senate. He has earned admiration from many progressives for standing up to the Bronx political machinery and for policies that progressives have long championed.

Lastly, if he were to step up, one elected official who could clear many if not all in the field would be Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. Diaz, Jr. is known throughout the borough and remains popular among many voters. Furthermore, this district has always been his home district -- he represented parts of it in the Assembly for 13 years.

Diaz Jr.’s capable communications guru, John DeSio, has tweeted that the borough president is not interested in the position. The borough president appears focused on launching a mayoral bid. But politics is practical and a congressional run could be an easier path to victory than a citywide mayoral race.

All this is conjecture, of course. What’s certain is that we can expect a free-for-all for the position ahead of the 2020 vote, and thus another rumble in the Bronx.

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Eli Valentin teaches political science at Monroe College and is a frequent guest political analyst on Univision NY. On Twitter @EliValentinNY.

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

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Rep. Serrano’s Retirement and a Looming Rumble in the Bronx Wed, 27 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Examines De Blasio's 'New York Works,' Said to Have Produced 3,000 Jobs of 100,000 Goal https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8368-city-council-examines-de-blasio-s-new-york-works-said-to-have-produced-3-000-jobs-of-100-000-goal https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8368-city-council-examines-de-blasio-s-new-york-works-said-to-have-produced-3-000-jobs-of-100-000-goal Patchett EDC hearing

EDC President James Patchett (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plan to create 100,000 “good-paying” jobs, with annual salaries of $50,000 or more, within 10 years, giving New Yorkers a pathway to the middle class. On Monday, City Council members held an oversight hearing on that plan, attempting to more fully gauge how the de Blasio administration is doing on its promise.

Bronx Council Member Ritchie Torres, chair of the Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigation, co-led a tense Council hearing where the head of New York City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), James Patchett, was grilled about how many jobs had been created as part of de Blasio’s jobs plan and who has been getting them.

“Anyone who heard the mayor’s [2017] State of the City would believe there are actual jobs,” said Torres, “but anyone who believes that is operating under a false assumption.”

Patchett responded to Torres’s rapid-fire questioning about unclear jobs numbers with a consistent message: answering a simple question like “how many jobs have been created” is not so easy.

De Blasio declared good-paying jobs to be those that pay $50,000 or more, and said those in his plan would be in economic sectors that will be around for years to come. When de Blasio, Patchett, and then-Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen laid out the plan a few months after de Blasio announced the goal during his 2017 State of the City speech, they said that they would only count jobs spurred by some kind of city action.

On Monday, Patchett said jobs are only counted towards the mayor’s 100,000 goal if they are created as a direct result of the five-point strategy laid out in the jobs plan, known as “New York Works.”

The plan focuses on investing in city-owned property, providing tax incentives to small and large businesses, making infrastructure investments, using zoning tools, and directly investing in companies that can bring 21st century jobs to New York City.

About $1.3 billion in capital funding has been allocated to New York Works, with about $300 million already spent, Patchett said, on projects like the Steiner Studios at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the FutureWorks advanced manufacturing shop at Brooklyn Army Terminal.

But even with specific strategies and budget numbers, there still remains a fair amount of estimation in gauging the impact of the plan.

At one particularly tense point in Monday’s hearing, Patchett was asked about the 2018 New York Works progress report, where EDC reported the city had “laid the foundation for 19,000 good paying jobs.”

“Of the 19,000, how many are actually working today?” asked Torres.

“3,000,” replied Patchett.

“We make projections based on the best available data,” said Patchett, explaining that in some scenarios, when EDC completes a project under the New York Works plan, actual jobs are still yet to come.

The economic development agency tries its best to project how many jobs will be created based on the expertise of their in-house economists, detailed economic data, and, in some cases, specific contracts that have been signed.

A recent example can be found in the Staten Island Teleport Campus.

In 2018, EDC reported in the New York Works progress report that it had “closed a deal” to create office space on the Staten Island campus meant for medical tenants, a charter school, adult education programs, and a variety of social ventures. Though no businesses had formally moved in, the agency estimated 750 jobs would be created and counted that towards de Blasio’s goal.

In the same report, EDC also noted the city “opened 500,000 square feet of space” at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, creating 1,000 good-paying jobs towards the mayor’s 100,000 jobs goal. It is unclear whether these jobs have actually been created or are still a projection, according documents published by the Council.

Patchett also confirmed that if out-of-state residents were to get a good-paying job created under de Blasio’s jobs plan, it would count towards the mayor’s goal.

When de Blasio announced the New York Works jobs plan in June 2017, he said the good-paying jobs would be meant primarily for New Yorkers who wouldn’t necessarily otherwise have access to such opportunities.

“These are jobs that we intend to be open to New Yorkers of every background,” he said at the time, “we can’t address the affordability crisis if we don’t turn the city into a place where more and more good people get a good paying job.”

But for City Council members that represent the city’s lowest-income residents, there are persistent concerns whether these good-paying jobs end up accessible to people in their districts.

Brooklyn Democrat Inez Barron, who represents the 42nd Council District where more than 30% of residents are under the poverty line according to census data, wanted to know why most of the $1.3 billion allocated to New York Works is for building and development projects rather than programs that could help train residents to actually qualify for the good-paying jobs de Blasio’s plan sets out to create.

Patchett mentioned that workforce development strategy is outside the purview of EDC, but he reassured the Council member that the agency works closely with higher education institutions such as LaGuardia Community College and other CUNY schools, along with the New York City Department of Education to inform them of what they think the skills of the future are that educational institutions should be aware of when creating training programs.

Monday’s hearing was also co-led by Queens Council Member Paul Vallone, chair of the Council’s Committee on Economic Development. Vallone left the hearing unimpressed.

“We just had a hearing on the progress of a jobs plan that revealed that there is no conclusive data on the jobs created by that plan,” Vallone said in a statement. “How can we rely on projections and job pathways when there is no tracking to ensure that they actually materialize into real jobs for New Yorkers?”

Near the end of the hearing, tensions between Torres and Patchett simmered down a bit, with Patchett offering a solution to Torres’ contention around confusing jobs numbers.

“I will try to provide not just projections,” Patchett said, “but an estimate as to actual jobs created based on the best data available.”

Torres responded with the crux of his complaint: “If my constituents ask me how many jobs are created by that plan, I want to be able to answer that question.”

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by Pranshu Verma for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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City Council Examines De Blasio's 'New York Works,' Said to Have Produced 3,000 Jobs of 100,000 Goal Mon, 18 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Opposing Responses to Cashless Retail on Docket for City Council Hearing https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8277-opposing-responses-to-cashless-retail-on-docket-for-city-council-hearing https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8277-opposing-responses-to-cashless-retail-on-docket-for-city-council-hearing cm rtorres funding

Council Member Ritchie Torres (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


The polarizing issue of local retailers going cashless has gotten the attention of New York City Council members, and on Thursday a Council committee will hear testimony on the topic and consider competing legislative proposals.

The Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing, chaired by Council Member Rafael Espinal, a Brooklyn Democrat, will hear the bills for the first time. One, sponsored by Council Member Ritchie Torres, would outright ban retailers from not accepting cash. The other, sponsored by Council Member Fernando Cabrera, would require cashless retail establishments to display conspicuous signage to alert consumers that they are card-only before they get to the register. Both Torres and Cabrera are Bronx Democrats.

After Torres introduced his bill last fall, it generated widespread media coverage and ignited a debate on the convenience of credit and debit cards versus how refusing cash excludes individuals without plastic. Notably, as of Tuesday afternoon, Torres’ bill has 18 co-sponsors in the 51-seat Council, including committee chair Espinal. Cabrera, along with Council Member Andrew Cohen, also a Bronx Democrat, are the lone sponsors of his bill.

Cashless retail establishments are seen as problematic for the “unbanked” or “underbanked,” those without bank accounts and those without easy access to banks, respectively. In 2015, an Urban Institute study surveying New Yorkers found that nearly 12 percent, or 360,000 households, did not have bank accounts. The finding is higher than the approximately 8 percent of Americans nationwide who are unbanked. An additional 25 percent, or 780,000 New York households are underbanked, the study found, compared to the 20 percent of underbanked Americans across the country.

Shoppers in the U.S. are expected to generate 190 billion cashless transactions this year, including e-commerce, according to Kristen Regine, a professor of marketing at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. She cites millennials as leading the way on the consumer side, but the move is likewise a matter of convenience for retailers.

“A lot of people think money is dirty and they don’t want to touch and deal with it. For retailers, it’s more labor intensive to deal with, to reconcile the days’ end transactions. And for the retailer thinking about line queue, it’s swipe and go and quicker to get through the line. In some places you’re not even signing your name anymore,” said Regine. “In areas where there’s a lot of traffic and robberies, it’s safer for the person working behind the counter not to have cash.”

The growing trend of exclusively requiring plastic or mobile pay, like Apple Pay, for purchases is here locally, with fast casual chains such as Sweetgreen and Dig Inn, or higher-end restaurants such as Danny Meyer’s epicurean empire adopting the policy.

Cabrera also sees this as part of the trend Regine described. “This is not new, this is not someday, this is the now. And if that’s their business model, and they have taken into consideration the potential they could lose a few customers, you know, that’s their business model. My bill basically gives them the freedom to use their business model, but at the same time, gives strong consideration to the customers to be able to know right off the bat that business will accept cash or not,” said Cabrera.

Torres, seeking to ban establishments from going cashless, is more concerned with inequality baked into cashless policies. “If you have the money you should be able to use it. Cash is the great equalizer and the universal mode of currency. Not everyone accesses credit or debit, but everyone uses cash at some time in their life,” said Torres. “In New York City, we have a historic opportunity to set a national precedent for rest of country to follow.”

As for the country, according to Regine, over 40 percent of U.S. adults don’t carry cash. “It’s just kind of our way of life,” she said.

Yet, both Cabrera and Torres want to account for that other 60 percent, which may be higher in New York City given the unbanked population. Thursday’s hearing will provide insights into where their legislation may be headed. But, there won’t be any votes on Thursday. The Council committee will hear the bills and testimony from whomever has been invited or signs up to discuss the legislation, such as business owners and consumers. Then the bills will be laid over in committee, at which point they can be tweaked within the Council, or not, and picked back up for a vote by the committee. If successful in committee, a bill heads to the full Council for a vote.

Both Council members are cautiously confident their bills will move forward for a vote. “I believe we’re going to get this through. It’s a common-sense bill,“ said Cabrera.

Torres slightly hedged his bet. “There’s no telling what will happen in a City Council meeting,” he said, adding, “I see a clear path of passage for the bill.”

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Opposing Responses to Cashless Retail on Docket for City Council Hearing Tue, 12 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000