Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/500 Mon, 09 Dec 2019 02:19:05 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: Comptroller Scott Stringer https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8940-max-murphy-podcast-comptroller-scott-stringer-housing-de-blasio-child-care https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8940-max-murphy-podcast-comptroller-scott-stringer-housing-de-blasio-child-care comptroller ss 20

Comptroller Stringer (photo: @NYCComptroller)


November 20, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Comptroller Scott Stringer

comptroller scott stringer wbai 150City Comptroller Scott Stringer returned to the show to discuss various aspects of the work his office has been doing and various issues facing the city, touching on affordable housing, child care, NYCHA, and much more. The comptroller repeatedly criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio's management of city government and previewed his pitch for his 2021 mayoral campaign.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Comptroller Scott Stringer Wed, 20 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Where Top City Officials Who Appointed the 2019 Charter Revision Commission Stand on Its Proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8876-top-city-officials-who-appointed-the-2019-charter-revision-commission-stand-proposals-de-blasio-johnson https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8876-top-city-officials-who-appointed-the-2019-charter-revision-commission-stand-proposals-de-blasio-johnson council finance dromm johnson mbdblasio fiscal budget

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photo Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio and other top city officials have remained mostly quiet about their positions on a set of proposed changes to city government and elections, which are set to go before voters when early voting begins on Saturday. The five “yes” or “no” ballot questions include 19 distinct proposals from the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, whose members were appointed by the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, City Council speaker, and five borough presidents. Yet those same elected officials have been hesitant to say whether they approve of the commission’s recommendations.

While some of the city’s top elected officials, namely City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, have when prodded expressed their thoughts on some or all of the proposed charter amendments, Mayor de Blasio is said to still be reviewing the proposals and other top officials have been reluctant to opine on the potentially consequential changes.

The ballot proposals include instituting ranked-choice voting for some city elections, strengthening the city’s civilian police oversight body, and making various other changes to city governance, budgeting, and land use processes.

Gotham Gazette surveyed the city’s most powerful elected officials to find out how they plan to vote on the proposals and whether they have taken positions on any provisions in particular. Almost all of the elected officials contacted had at least one appointment to the body that created the proposed amendments (Williams is the exception given that he took over as public advocate after his predecessor, Attorney General Letitia James, had made the office’s one appointment to the charter commision).

Williams, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer have all indicated they support a “yes” vote on all five ballot questions. (Johnson had initially expressed enthusiastic support for a “yes” vote on question one, which includes instituting ranked-choice voting, and on the land use question, number five, then said he supports all five sets of proposals in an October 31 tweet to Gotham Gazette).

The commission was conceived by James and Brewer, and created through City Council legislation with the support of Johnson, who wound up with the power to appoint several members and the commission chair. Appointments were apportioned so that no one official or entity held a majority. Gotham Gazette contacted each of the appointing offices and received varying degrees of response, while Johnson and Williams made some of their thoughts known during a recent radio and podcast interview, respectively, as well as Johnson's subsequent tweet.

To amend the Charter, the city’s central governing document, the proposed changes must be approved by voters, who can weigh in either during the new nine-day early voting period October 26 through November 3, or on Election Day, November 5.

The commission developed the five questions, which encompass 19 individual measures to change city governance. As captured by the commission, each question covers a different category of potential reform: elections, Civilian Complaint Review Board, ethics and governance, city budget, and land use.

Question one, which mainly deals with ranked-choice voting, has garnered widespread support and almost no opposition, and could have a major impact on how party primaries and special elections work.

Together, the changes in questions two through five amount to a relatively minor retailoring of certain aspects of city government, not a large-scale overhaul. But, some of the provisions are considered important by various officials, experts, and interest groups.

Perhaps the most controversial changes voters will decide on related to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city’s civilian police oversight agency that investigates certain allegations of police misconduct. One provision within question two would expand the jurisdiction of the CCRB to include prosecuting officers who lie while they are under investigation. That provision is being supported by many police reformers and opposed by the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the state’s largest law enforcement union.

Another proposal, found within question four, to allow the city to use a “rainy day fund” for savings during times of prosperity is being supported by the Citizens Budget Commission and other fiscal watchdogs.

Mayor de Blasio has not taken a public position on any of the five questions or the specific proposed amendments they contain.

“Mayor de Blasio continues to review the Charter revision questions that will be on the ballot,” wrote administration spokesperson Will Baskin-Gerwitz in an email to Gotham Gazette. De Blasio appointed four of the 15 members of the Charter Revision Commission that devised the proposals, two of whom currently serve as top officials in his administration.

While still avoiding a public position, Baskin-Gerwitz says the mayor “encourages every New Yorker to do their civic duty and have their say on their city’s Charter after early voting begins on October 26 or on Election Day November 5.”

De Blasio’s non-position on this year’s proposed charter amendments contrasts with his push last fall to secure a “yes” vote on the three ballot questions last year, placed on the ballot by a charter revision commission created and appointed entirely by the mayor.

Four of the officials contacted by Gotham Gazette have publicly expressed support for all five of this year’s ballot questions.

Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Comptroller Scott Stringer, said he supports all five proposals but would not comment on any specific proposal nor whether he is urging New Yorkers to vote in favor of the amendments. Some of that hesitancy may be related to questions about whether elected officials are allowed to in their official capacities discuss items on an election ballot.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is “100% supportive of all five ballot questions and is urging New Yorkers to vote for them all,” according to her press secretary, Courtney McGee. McGee did not elaborate on any of the positions or what outreach Brewer has done. There are major questions about how many New Yorkers actually know about the ballot questions and the ability of the Charter Revision Commission to get the word out, especially with limited help from top elected officials.

On the Max & Murphy podcast, Public Advocate Williams said, “I am in favor of voting ‘yes’ on all of the ballot initiatives, including ranked-choice voting.” A number of the proposals deal directly with the office of the public advocate. Two of the provisions would give the public advocate an appointment to the Conflicts of Interest Board and Civilian Complaint Review Board, and another would guarantee the public advocate’s budget at a set minimum calculated based on the size of the overall city budget.

“If people come out and vote, [we] may have an independent budget, which I think is critical. It sucks if you have to go ask the people for money that you are supposed to hold accountable,” Williams said.

Johnson, who appointed four charter revision commissioners including the chair, spoke about two of the measures -- ranked-choice voting, and changes to the city’s land use process -- on The Brian Lehrer Show on Monday. He said he supported both -- which are parts of question one and five, respectively -- but did not discuss any of the other proposals. Johnson’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article, but the speaker then made his opinion clear in the October 31 tweet.

Other officials have either weighed in on specific aspects of the ballot questions, did not respond to requests for comment, or declined to comment.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams “supports ranked-choice voting, and encourages New Yorkers to support it,” wrote Jonah Allon, an Adams spokesperson, in an email.

“He has also been a strong champion of police accountability and transparency dating back to his days serving in the NYPD, and supports any proposal that would further the goal of making police more accountable, while upholding the public safety gains we’ve made in recent decades,” Allon wrote, apparently referring to the amendments related to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. He did not clarify whether the borough president explicitly supports that ballot question or others.

“We are closely reviewing the other questions, and encourage a robust debate in the weeks ahead to ensure all New Yorkers are informed and make their voices heard on these important proposals,” added Allon.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, the lone Republican with an appointment to the charter commission, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A spokesperson for Queens Borough President Melinda Katz declined to comment. Katz is the Democratic nominee for Queens District Attorney, appearing on the ballot in her borough along with the charter questions, and expected to win that election easily.

Attorney General Letitia James, who as public advocate co-sponsored the legislation creating the charter commission and appointed one of its members, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Some officials or their representatives expressed trepidation about whether they were allowed under the city’s conflicts of interest law to promote their positions on ballot questions at all. During his conversation with Lehrer, Johnson made sure to indicate he was talking about his personal, not official, positions on ranked-choice voting and other measures.

A Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) representative said they could not comment on general policy matters related to elected official conduct, but added in an email, “To the extent that elected officials may not understand the scope of the application of the conflicts of interest law to their conduct you should feel free to refer them to us.” The spokesperson said they could not respond to a question asking whether any officials had sought clarity from COIB on publicly promoting their positions on the referenda.

Johnson, Adams, Stringer, and Diaz, Jr. are all Democrats expected to run for mayor in 2021, what would be the first city election to use ranked-choice voting should it pass.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated with Johnson's Oct. 31 tweet.

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Where Top City Officials Who Appointed the 2019 Charter Revision Commission Stand on Its Proposals Thu, 24 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
As City Council Vote Nears, Leading Mayoral Contenders Clarify Positions on Jails Plan They May Have to Implement https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8839-city-council-vote-positions-rikers-jails-plan-stringer-johnson-adams-diaz https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8839-city-council-vote-positions-rikers-jails-plan-stringer-johnson-adams-diaz De Blasio close Rikers

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated.

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As City Council Vote Nears, Leading Mayoral Contenders Clarify Positions on Jails Plan They May Have to Implement Wed, 09 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Helping Our Small Businesses, Saving Our Retail Corridors, Improving Our Neighborhoods https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8827-saving-our-small-businesses-retail-corridors-neighborhoods https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8827-saving-our-small-businesses-retail-corridors-neighborhoods amdo kitchen momo

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Ask any New Yorker and they will tell you how neighborhood streets that once bustled with small, mom-and-pop businesses now have a Duane Reade on one corner and a large bank on the other, with a row of empty stores in between. When I was growing up in Washington Heights, like a lot of New Yorkers, I could walk down the street to the local corner store where they knew my name and could even guess what I wanted before I started talking. That’s what made growing up in the city so special – the local institutions embedded in the fabric of our neighborhoods. But nowadays, that reality is disappearing.

This is a moment of tremendous challenge for the thousands of local small businesses that have been a source of vibrancy, character, and diversity for our neighborhoods for generations. Tragically, these vital establishments are closing at an alarming rate from one end of the city to the other. Every New Yorker sees it — and feels it, too.

Last week, my office released the most comprehensive analysis to date in a first-of-its-kind report, reviewing data from the Department of Finance over a decade that puts numbers behind the phenomenon of retail vacancies playing out across the city.

What we found was that the amount of vacant storefront space across the city has doubled since 2007 — from around 6 million square feet to more than 11 million square feet. The city’s vacancy rate citywide rose by 45 percent from 2007 to 2017, to nearly 6 percent. The report offers a startling picture of new economic trends in communities across the five boroughs.

While Manhattan neighborhoods account for nearly half of the 20 neighborhoods with the most empty square footage -- including Chelsea, Canal Street, and even along 5th Avenue -- the neighborhoods with the highest rates of vacancy are in the other boroughs, in neighborhoods from Little Neck and Jackson Heights in Queens to Throggs Neck and Mott Haven in the Bronx and New Dorp and Rossville on Staten Island. 

The reasons for this are complex but nonetheless crucial for us to consider and comprehend if we’re going to give mom-and-pop businesses a fighting chance – not just to stay afloat, but to thrive.

Yes, there are landlords who are pushing for the highest rents they can set and are willing to let storefronts sit empty for months to do so. But it’s not just that – it’s also the changing nature of how people shop today. Call it the “Amazon Effect,” where we increasingly buy everything from mattresses to groceries online. As a result, we’re seeing an exodus of traditional merchandise stores, replaced with new businesses that are service-oriented.

The result is a wave of closures of flower shops, independent pharmacies, bookstores, and more. Independent bookstores and pharmacies are being replaced by chain coffee shops, cycling studios, and doggie daycare. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of service businesses rose by nearly 50 percent, and bars and restaurants soared by 65 percent – while traditional retail storefronts grew by just 19 percent.

Meanwhile, rents are rising on ground-floor retail — by 22 percent citywide from 2007 to 2017, and by much more in neighborhoods from Greenwich Village to Douglaston, Annandale to Central Harlem — hurting our smaller, independent stores the most. They are being hit twice, by changing shopping habits and rising rents, and it’s making it almost impossible to compete with online retailers.

If we’re going to offer relief, we should be taking a hard look at the regulatory hurdles that stall turnover of retail space. There’s a lot that needs to happen for a bookstore to become a coffee shop: licenses have to be approved by a community board and agencies need to approve alterations and conduct inspections for health and safety. The process is confusing and convoluted — and it’s making vacancies more common, and more prolonged, while hurting the chances that new businesses are run by New Yorkers invested in their local communities instead of big corporations.

We must streamline the process. We can create a one-stop shop for our small businesses, and break down the silos in city government that are hurting, not helping. The bureaucracy has to act faster and in a much more coordinated fashion. Our city agencies must get on a track to streamline those conversions and make it easier to open up shop.

Let’s also help new retail businesses get a foothold by offering a tax break to independent local businesses — not national chains — in high-vacancy retail corridors. And let’s use this data to plan our city with retail space in mind. Too often developers build out retail space that ends up sitting vacant. We need to plan smarter, more comprehensively, and embrace an approach to planning for new residential and commercial buildings that allows neighborhoods to capture diverse retail opportunities.

If we don’t adapt, our local businesses that define our neighborhoods, bring life to our city, and provide goods and services to residents they’ve built relationships with, will disappear.

It’s time we rethink our approach to support our local neighborhood anchors, the mom-and-pop stores that line our streetscapes and serve as some of our most vivid markers in communities across the city. Understanding the changing reality is the place to start. We have the power to shape our commercial corridors and therefore our neighborhoods — let’s take the right steps to move them forward.

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Scott Stringer is the New York City Comptroller. On Twitter @NYCComptroller.

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

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Helping Our Small Businesses, Saving Our Retail Corridors, Improving Our Neighborhoods Tue, 01 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
State Senator Brian Benjamin Explores Run for City Comptroller https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8790-state-senator-brian-benjamin-explores-run-for-city-comptroller https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8790-state-senator-brian-benjamin-explores-run-for-city-comptroller senator state a

State Senator Brian Benjamin, left, with Comptroller Scott Stringer (photo: @NYSenBenjamin)


The 2021 primary for New York City Comptroller may be 21 months away, but there are already three declared Democratic candidates in the race, and another has now indicated he’s exploring a run. State Senator Brian Benjamin, who represents Upper Manhattan, announced on Thursday that he is testing the waters for a potential bid for comptroller and said he would explore over the next year, including a 2020 Senate reelection campaign, to see if his candidacy is viable.

“I believe that the decisions I have made over my life have really set me up to be uniquely qualified to serve in this role,” Benjamin said in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette, citing his work as an affordable housing developer, an investment advisor, and Harvard Business School graduate.

Should he choose to run, Benjamin would likely face New York City Council Members Brad Lander and Helen Rosenthal and Assemblymember David Weprin, as well as others who may enter the field ahead of the June 2021 primary, which is likely to be decisive in the overwhelmingly Democratic city. Incumbent Comptroller Scott Stringer will be term-limited out of office in 2021 and is running for mayor.

Benjamin, whose district includes Harlem, the Upper West Side, Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights and Morningside Heights, said he will begin to raise funds and drum up support, setting a deadline of November 2020, after he likely earns another two-year legislative term and the presidential election has wrapped up, to make his ultimate decision. “I think a year is enough time to see how it's going,” he said. “Have I raised sufficient resources? Am I getting support of people thinking that I would be a good candidate in that role?”

The comptroller serves as the city’s top fiscal officer, overseeing how city agencies expend resources and auditing their performance, reviewing and approving city contracts, monitoring the city budget, and enforcing the living wage and prevailing wage laws. The comptroller also acts as the fiduciary to the city’s pension funds, worth more than $200 billion. That’s a role that Benjamin says he takes very seriously, particularly as the son of two union workers.

“I've actually done this in the private sector before being a senator,” he said of his investment management experience on Wall Street. He said he could use the pension funds to finance the creation of affordable housing and stem the city’s homelessness crisis. And he proposed creating a public bank to provide loans to affordable housing developers. “A public pension fund has to be mindful of the needs of its constituency,” he said.

He also emphasized that his finance background positions him well to oversee city spending. “It's not my decision as the comptroller to determine where the resources go,” he said. “That’s the mayor's job, the City Council's job. I do believe there's a role for someone to be the chief financial officer to say, ‘Okay, wait a second. Let's evaluate the decisions that have been made, and provide some analysis around whether or not it has accomplished the things that you expected to accomplish when you made the investment.’”

“There is a real role for someone to not be the decider, but to be an analyzer, to be an accountability person,” he added.

Benjamin did praise Stringer’s work in the office and said he would build on it. Two entities he said he would focus on closely are the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the Department of Education.

Along with the other candidates, Benjamin said he would also participate in the city’s public matching funds program, which matches qualifying small dollar donations at an 8-to-1 or 6-to-1 ratio, depending on which of two programs candidates choose for the 2021 cycle. Benjamin said he would aim for the higher match, which comes with lower contribution limits, and also said he would refuse all contributions from individuals who have business with the city.

“I believe very strongly that anybody running should be able to convince ordinary everyday citizens that they are the right person for the job,” he said. Benjamin has over $280,000 in his state campaign account, though it’s unlikely he’d be able to transfer all of it to a city account.

Lander leads the early race in fundraising by a wide margin and has been the most active in working to secure allies and endorsements. He has about $204,000 in his campaign coffers; Rosenthal has about $67,000; Weprin has just under $50,000 but also owes the Campaign Finance Board nearly $320,000 in public funds repayments from his race for comptroller in 2009. 

Next year, Benjamin will be up for reelection to his Senate seat but he doesn’t believe his eye on the comptroller’s race will distract him from his work. Even if it prompts primary challenges, he welcomes them. “Anyone who believes they will be a better senator than me, they should put themselves forward,” he said. “I'm not one of those people who believe in being fearful of whether someone runs against you or not.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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State Senator Brian Benjamin Explores Run for City Comptroller Thu, 12 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
'It's What I Was Elected To Do': State and City Leaders Take Different Approaches to Pension Fund Divestment from Fossil Fuel Companies https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8735-new-york-pension-fund-divestment-fossil-fuel-companies-different-city-state https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8735-new-york-pension-fund-divestment-fossil-fuel-companies-different-city-state pension divestment stringer de blasio

Mayor de Blasio & Comptroller Stringer (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


Amid the larger discussion about addressing climate change before it’s too late, debate is raging in New York over whether government-run and -affiliated pension funds worth hundreds of billions of dollars and responsible for payments that support hundreds of thousands of retirees should divest from fossil fuel company stock.

Advocates, elected officials, and others have been pushing at the city and state levels for full divestment so that the pension funds are not supporting or tied to companies that are leading contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, a warming planet, and the negative consequences of climate change.

But some officials have warned, and practiced, caution, putting forth arguments that the primary priority of pension fund investment must be return for current and future retirees, and that it is important not to overly politicize investment decisions, especially given how uncertain the future is and that some of the leading fossil fuel companies are at the front lines of figuring out the renewable energy future.

There’s also the argument, often made by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, that by remaining invested with fossil fuel (and other) companies, it is possible as activist investors to help shift their behavior. And while New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer often espouses and practices that philosophy, when it comes to fossil fuel company divestment, Stringer has worked with Mayor Bill de Blasio, labor union leaders, and others to move city pension funds toward dropping stake in those companies.

The New York City and State pension fund pictures are significantly different, with responsibility at the state level much more concentrated in DiNapoli’s office than the city’s in Stringer’s. But the different approaches being taken by the two Democratic comptrollers, who are the popularly-elected chief fiscal officers of their respective jurisdictions, show divergent paths in this particularly fraught political, financial, environmental, and existential moment.

While he’s one of a number of key decision-makers, Stringer is pushing full speed ahead toward fossil fuel divestment by the city pension funds. DiNapoli, meanwhile, has cautioned against that approach, even criticizing it as overly political and reactionary, while taking his own steps to diversify investments, experiment with a carbon-free energy stock portfolio, and push fossil fuel companies toward new policies. 

Advocacy groups like Fossil Free New York and New York Communities for Change are pushing for the $210-billion state pension fund, known as the Common Retirement Fund (CRF), to divest from fossil fuel companies completely. The CRF has about $13 billion in fossil fuel-related investments, according to Fossil Free New York.

In April 2018, as the Democratic primary in his bid for a third term was heating up, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared the state’s pension fund should divest from fossil fuels. But in New York the Governor does not control the pension fund; the State Comptroller is the sole fiduciary of the CRF and, as such, has final say over when investments are made and retracted.

Cuomo DiNapoliWhile he took that stance, Cuomo has not made divestment a major focus, applying minimal pressure to DiNapoli to take more aggressive action. His office recently told Gotham Gazette that the governor is working with the DiNapoli on a path toward divestment, in large part through an advisory group they established together.

Advocates did celebrate in March of this year when Cuomo took a significant new step, calling on state agencies and authorities such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to examine divesting whatever funds they have in fossil fuel companies.

“As part of the Green New Deal, Governor Cuomo directed State authorities, public benefit corporations, and the State Insurance Fund, which collectively hold approximately $40 billion in investments, to study divesting from fossil fuels. They are reviewing and evaluating the feasibility and appropriateness of such a measure,” Jordan Levine, a spokesperson for Cuomo, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

The governor’s office was unable to identify at this time how much of that $40 billion is currently invested in fossil fuel companies.

Back in early 2017, DiNapoli and Stringer both argued that engaging with major fossil fuel producers like ExxonMobil as shareholders would yield better results than immediate divestments.

However, in 2017, Stringer and the five municipal pension funds initiated an analysis of their investments’ carbon footprint in 2017. Then, in January 2018, after the study concluded, Stringer changed his stance. He, Mayor de Blasio, and other pension fund board members announced their plan for three of the five pension funds (the police and firefighter pension funds are not currently part of the plan and account for less than a third of total pension assets). The city’s five funds have about $5 billion invested in fossil fuel producers out of almost $211 billion in pension fund investments. 

In a celebratory announcement that month alongside de Blasio and others, Stringer asserted that he and other city pension fund trustees “would be shirking our fiduciary duty if we were not exploring all options to address climate risk.”

An involved divestment process is underway, at least at three of the funds -- the Comptroller and the Mayor have seats on the boards of all five pension funds but cannot make unilateral or even bilateral decisions about their investments.

State Response - DiNapoli and His Critics
Under considerable pressure to divest state pension funds from fossil fuel companies, in April 2018, Governor Cuomo and Comptroller DiNapoli convened the Decarbonization Advisory Panel to study the issue. In April of this year, the panel released its report, which made several recommendations and put forward “examples” of what the comptroller could do to mitigate the fund’s carbon footprint. However, the report was criticized by climate activists like 350.org’s Richard Brooks for not including a timeline or benchmarks to achieve divestment.

But even before the panel was assembled, DiNapoli had been taking steps around the question of divestment, creating a $10 billion portfolio of investments into green companies. “We’ve done a lot already to allocate money to climate solutions,” DiNapoli said during a May interview on The Capitol Pressroom with host Susan Arbetter, “they’d like to see us do even more there.”

But the comptroller’s stance has caught the ire of local climate activists, who are the ones who want him to “do even more,” as the comptroller put it. Pete Sikora, the climate and inequality campaigns director at New York Communities for Change, said the comptroller “continues to finance the climate crisis.”

“Not to be too sarcastic, but if you’re going to finance evil stuff that destroys our future, you'd hope the state would at least make - not lose - money off it,” Sikora said, noting that the energy sector “continues to trend down over a decade...of industry under-performance.”

“It’s simply insane to not divest, and losing money on the proposition makes it even more absurd,” said Sikora.

Despite growing pressure from activists and lawmakers on the issue, DiNapoli has maintained that his more moderate approach is what is in the best interest of the CRF and its members. He believes that implementing standards such as the ones suggested in the panel’s report will naturally lead to fossil fuel investments being phased out over time and would avoid the negative impacts of wholesale divestment.

In a June 2019 interview with WAMC’s Capitol Connection, DiNapoli said “when we make judgements about where to put the pension fund, we put it in the best interests of the state.” He went on to defend his approach in significantly more harsh terms than the mild-mannered and reserved DiNapoli typically uses.

Some state lawmakers disagree with the comptroller’s assessment and want to force the his hand on the issue.

The Fossil Fuel Divestment Act would require the CRF to withdraw all investments in the 200 largest fossil fuel companies. The FFDA sets a five-year deadline for this to happen and would allow the comptroller to stop or reverse divestment if it can be demonstrated that it would significantly hurt the CRF’s value.

Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat and the FFDA’s prime sponsor in the state Senate, said in a statement that while the proposal did not pass during this year’s legislative session, she “continue[s] to have conversations with my colleagues about the importance of” the bill. She also added that she is “working on amending the bill based on testimony we heard, both to make it stronger and to address various concerns that were raised.”

“With all due respect to the Legislature, for the Legislature to start micromanaging the pension fund is a recipe for disaster long-term,” DiNapoli said on WAMC, adding that “it may be climate change today, but what will it be tomorrow?”

DiNapoli has previously divested the pension fund from gun companies following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and from the private prison industry over concerns about the treatment of immigrants and people of color in 2018. Both are cited by critics who want the comptroller to act more decisively on fossil fuel companies.

Krueger said she “strongly believe[s] that [DiNapoli] is wrong on divestment” when it comes to fossil fuels, while noting that they “have talked about divestment extensively” and the comptroller has “been a long-time champion of the environment and climate action.” Despite their talks, “neither of us have managed to convince the other,” she said.

Krueger criticized DiNapoli’s “strategy of engagement with major fossil fuel producers like ExxonMobil” for not “providing any consequences when they repeatedly brush him off. It’s time for some consequences.”

“New York should begin the process now or our retirees will be left holding the bag,” Krueger concluded.

“Does anybody think if we sell the stock tomorrow that’ll make the air cleaner? No,” DiNapoli said during the WAMC interview.

“Since it's become clear that Comptroller DiNapoli currently lacks the moral and fiduciary courage to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and Wall Street, this legislation is necessary,” said Sikora, referring to the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

“It’s clear we have our work cut out for ourselves in both houses,” said Sikora, assessing the bill’s likelihood of passage next session, which begins in January. During the last session, the FFDA had 28 sponsors in the 63-seat Senate and 37 in the 150-seat Assembly.

DiNapoli plans to follow the advisory panel’s recommendations. According to the DAP’s report called the Climate Action Plan, “rather than making a narrow recommendation to divest from specific stocks, the panel supports the concept of minimum standards to guide the fund in its decisions to sell securities and/or avoid investment managers whose operations and strategies are not sustainable.”

The report argues that divestment from unsustainable companies is “baked in” to this plan of action and that the fund will only invest in sustainable assets by 2030.

The panel’s report says that the CRF should have a minimum standard for where its funds are invested. The panel recommends that the criteria for these minimum standards be set through contracts, but only gave “examples” of what the standards could be, such as requiring “an appropriate corporate governance system for the management of climate-related issues” and “a lobbying policy actively supporting government actions to address climate change.”

The report also suggests examples of actions and timeline that the comptroller’s office could pursue, including “excluding all companies that derive more than 10% of revenue from mining thermal coal or account for more than 1% of global production” by 2020 and “if less than 5% decreased in [greenhouse gas] emissions year on year after” several engagements then “consider a shareholder resolution.”

When DiNapoli released the climate action plan, Fossil Free New York called it “a weak plan at a time when we need bold and transformative action,” and said it is “lip service and incrementalism.” The advocacy group further said “the plan includes no benchmarks, no firm delivery deadlines, no parameters to measure companies’ actions, and doesn’t even commit to divest from thermal coal companies, including ones on the edge of bankruptcy.” FFNY supports the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act.

On WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom in May, DiNapoli said his opposition to divestment stemmed from his responsibility as fiduciary of the state’s pension fund, saying “this is my job, it’s what I was elected to do.”

He also brought up his 2018 reelection, in which he received more votes than he did in 2014, while Mark Dunlea, the Green Party candidate who campaigned almost exclusively on pension divestment from fossil fuel companies, did worse than the previous Green Party nominee when DiNapoli sought reelection in 2010.

“I actually feel that those in the broader public who’ve looked at this issue are more on our side,” the comptroller said. DiNapli’s Republican opponent in the race, Jonathan Trichter, criticized the comptroller from the right, saying he was playing politics by making the moves he had to explore divestment and create the Sustainable Investment Program, in which $10 billion of pension assets are invested in low-emissions or green companies.

Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit, praises Comptroller DiNapoli as “a global leader in the fight against climate change, addressing material risks and pursuing opportunities for the Fund’s investments.” Ceres supports the “active” investor strategy that DiNapoli has claimed is a better path forward than divestment.

During a debate last fall, Dunlea claimed “if we divested a decade ago, we’d have about $22 billion in the state pension fund,” referring to a 2018 assement from Corporate Knights. A competing unions-funded study said the opposite.

While there are competing studies, Bloomberg News reported recently that some private investment funds are beginning to divest themselves from fossil fuel producers, based solely on the financial risks involved.

DiNapoli regularly notes that while he is the sole fiduciary, he does not make his decisions alone by a long shot, with a chief investment officer, a board of advisors, and others who help determine all aspects of pension fund management. On The Capitol Pressroom, DiNapoli said he was unfairly being singled out by activists and other critics, while also noting that New York City was still in the study phase and that two of the five city pension funds had not agreed to divest.

“So the pressure on me is that we guarantee retirement security for the 1.1 million members of the pension plan, which is a lot of pressure,” DiNapoli said.

New York City Divestment
City Comptroller Scott Stringer has changed course from his previous stance and is now leading an initiative to divest the city’s pension funds from fossil fuel companies, although he is encountering his own challenges in doing so.

“New York City is planting the seed for a clean, green, and thriving economy that can truly support future generations,” Stringer said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. The city has “taken this first-in-the-nation step toward divestment to protect both the retirement security of our city’s workers and the future of our planet,” the comptroller added.

The plan announced by Stringer and Mayor de Blasio in January 2018 set a goal of total divestment within five years. As of July 2019, the city is still in the planning stages, having sent out a request for proposals (RFP) for financial advisors to come up with a divestment strategy last December. The comptroller will select a plan to move forward by December 1 of this yea. But, a key wrinkle in the process is that two of the city’s five municipal pension funds are not on board with divestment as of now.

Unlike the state pension fund, New York City’s public employee pensions are not unified under one system. Instead, there are five separate funds, each with their own boards. In total, the pension funds account for over $195 billion in assets. The largest is the New York City Employees Retirement System (NYCERS), which handles the pensions for most municipal employees.

There were two pension funds for the city’s education-related employees, the Board of Education Retirement System (BERS) covers most non-teacher civil service employees of the city’s school district, while the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) is for educators employed by the Department of Education, CUNY, or charter schools in the city. The NYPD and FDNY each have their own pension funds, the Police Pension Fund (PPF) and Fire Department Pension Fund (FDPF), respectively.

Also unlike the state pension fund, each of the five funds has its own board and the city comptroller is not the sole fiduciary of the funds. Each board has its own composition requirements. The Mayor or a mayoral appointee sits on all five boards, as does the city comptroller. The Public Advocate sits on the NYCERS board. Also, relevant city officials sit on some of the boards, such as the Police Commissioner on the PPF board and the schools chancellor on the BERS board.

The NYCERS board includes a mayoral appointee, the comptroller, the Public Advocate, and the five borough presidents, along with representatives from labor unions including AFSCME, the Teamsters, and the Transport Workers Union, which are the three unions with the most members in the fund.

Primarily, pension fund board members are representatives of pension-eligible employees. Eight of the twelve board members for the both the PPF and the FDPF are either union leaders or elected representatives of pension fund members.

In 2017, all five pension funds initiated a study of climate change’s effects on their funds, which was led by the comptroller’s office. However, a year later, the police and firefighter pension funds did not join the other three funds in announcing plans to divest from fossil fuels.

The PPF and FDPF’s bylaws both require a seven-twelfths majority of the board to take action on anything, such as a divestment proposal. The comptroller and mayoral appointees on both boards fall far short of having the votes to divest without buy-in from at least some of the union leaders or employees. 

In a statement, Sikora praised the comptroller, along with Mayor de Blaiso and other trustees, for “taking real action to fight the climate crisis and we look forward to complete divestment.” Sikora also said that New York Communities for Change is “satisfied with the progress to date” of the city’s divestment plan.

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the Uniformed Firefighters Association did not respond to repeated requests for comment regarding their positions on the city divestment plan.

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

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'It's What I Was Elected To Do': State and City Leaders Take Different Approaches to Pension Fund Divestment from Fossil Fuel Companies Mon, 12 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Comptroller Wants to Start Country’s Largest Teacher Residency; Here’s 3 Ways to Make it Successful https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8704-new-york-city-comptroller-largest-teacher-residency-success https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8704-new-york-city-comptroller-largest-teacher-residency-success maybloomberg totalschools

(Photo: Edward Reed/Mayor's Office)


Late last month, New York City Comptroller (and likely 2021 mayoral candidate) Scott Stringer proposed allocating $40 million a year to run the nation’s largest teacher residency program in New York City. According to an analysis released by his office, a large-scale teacher residency program would address teacher retention and shortages of teachers of color and teachers in hard-to-staff areas of the city. 

Teacher residencies are a high-potential pathway into the classroom. And Comptroller Stringer’s plan is particularly promising. The residency would be an alternative certification program to prepare new teachers for the classroom. In it, residents would complete a year of training, primarily in the classroom, under the tutelage of an effective mentor teacher. Classroom experience would be complemented by relevant coursework completed at an institution of higher education. Residents would receive a living stipend during the program, and at the end of it, would be able to teach in a classroom of their own. 

And there’s reason to believe that Comptroller Stringer may get his way on this. Past analyses out of Stringer’s office called out issues in physical education and arts education, which ultimately led to $124 million in investments in those programs.

Stringer obviously did his homework, and proposed a residency program built on current best practices in the field. But now is the time to think through implementation. Operating an effective residency requires careful planning and design choices. Here’s what would need to be done to ensure this idea works:

1. Select and support effective mentor teachers
The success of Comptroller Stringer’s residency plan hinges on the quality of its mentor teachers. They serve as the model for what good teaching should look like, and are responsible for connecting what candidates learn in their coursework to classroom practice. They need to be effective teachers of children and adult learners. 

Stringer’s residency program will provide mentor teachers a “salary boost” for serving in this coaching role on top of their regular work. But other residency programs provide similar incentives and still struggle with recruiting mentor teachers who have the skills and willingness to shape the next generation of teachers. Without effective mentor teachers, Stringer’s entire program could fall apart.

2. Provide stipends large enough to attract the teachers the city needs
A key strategy of Stringer’s proposal is to provide teacher residents a financial stipend to offset the cost of living expenses, which may give the residency an advantage over other teacher preparation programs that don’t provide stipends, and appeal to people who otherwise may not consider teaching. The strategy may work: other residency programs offer similar incentives, and evidence suggests that they produce more diverse teachers and shortage area teachers than other preparation programs. 

But even with a living stipend, a residency is a year of full-time employment, and few people have the financial means to forgo a year of wages. Other residencies address this by paying residents a full salary and benefits. Especially in a place as expensive as New York City, the stipend alone may not be enough to recruit the candidates Stringer wants and the city needs.

3. Encourage teachers to stay in the classroom past the residency year
One stated goal of the residency program is to improve teacher retention; nearly 40 percent of New York City teachers leave within the first five years. But unlike other residency programs, this one doesn’t require a teaching commitment after completing the program. 

It’s possible Stringer plans to phase that requirement in later, given that the report highlights several residency programs that require similar teaching commitments as models of success. But if that’s not the case, the city could end up making a substantial investment without actually improving teacher retention. 

Stringer’s residency proposal gets a lot right. But resources are scarce, so if the city is going to invest $40 million every year, it needs to do everything possible to make sure the plan is successful.

***
Ashley LiBetti is an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners. On Twitter @aklibetti & @bellwethered.

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

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New York City Comptroller Wants to Start Country’s Largest Teacher Residency; Here’s 3 Ways to Make it Successful Mon, 29 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
As Census Moves Online, City Comptroller Warns of Digital Divide and Recommends Steps to Bridge It https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8692-as-census-moves-online-city-comptroller-stringer-warns-of-digital-divide https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8692-as-census-moves-online-city-comptroller-stringer-warns-of-digital-divide comp scott stringerab

Comptroller Stringer (photo: @NYCComptroller)


The first Census to be conducted primarily online may undercount nearly 2.2 million New Yorkers — mostly communities of color, seniors, and those living around or below the poverty line — putting as much as $5.8 billion in federal funds at stake, according to a new report released Tuesday by city Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer held a press conference Tuesday with Congressional Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), State Senator Jessica Ramos, and census outreach advocates to outline the findings in the report and make recommendations for how the city can tackle challenges presented by a digital census. The decennial count of all people living in the United States that is mandated by the U.S. Constitution, is set to start in April of next year, with local preparations already underway, including city and state funding that was recently allocated for outreach efforts.

The report provides an analysis of which communities and neighborhoods in the city lacked broadband internet connection at home as of 2017, making it more difficult for them to complete the 2020 Census.

The report found that citywide, 29 percent of households lack internet access, but that the disparity hits some communities harder than others. Up to half of residents are without internet in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, Port Richmond, Hunts Point, Kensington, and Jamaica, while 30 percent of Hispanic and black residents also do not have sufficient access. Forty-four percent of New Yorkers in poverty did not have broadband internet and neither did 42 percent of senior residents.

“The very people who may need more federal support are at risk of going undercounted,” Stringer said.

The population totals in the Census guide amounts of federal funding — Stringer said around $5.8 billion in total — the city receives for programs like school lunches, Head Start, and winter heating assistance, as well as the number of representatives in Congress and the New York State Legislature.

The comptroller recommended eight ways the city can both use the $40 million allocated in the city budget for Census outreach and resources that already exist to help ensure an accurate count. These include sending paper forms to the communities with the lower rates of internet access, expanding digital resources at public libraries, and providing community-based organizations adequate resources to address potential challenges.

The state has also allocated $20 million for Census outreach.

The Census Bureau is attempting to have as many people as possible fill the Census out online, but expects to provide paper ballots to roughly 20 percent of the population. United States residents will be receiving postcards with a web address to fill the Census out online.

Espaillat, whose district includes Harlem, Inwood, and Washington Heights, said community outreach is key to improving the response rate in hard-to-count areas. He said to improve the response rate in Washington Heights in 2010, his office had an “army” in Upper Manhattan knocking on doors and asking pediatricians to inform mothers that they needed to include their children on the form.

“We really must become innovative in making sure that money goes as far as it can to get boots on the ground to knock on those doors three, four times,” Espaillat said.

Ramos emphasized that the 2020 Census will also steer the next legislative redistricting process and an accurate count has the potential to mitigate gerrymandering effects. She said counting every resident helps ensure that the government will be representative.

“We saw the disaster that was the Republican-led State Senate for such a long time, and now we have a Democratic majority, largely because of the work and the political climate that we lived,” Ramos said. “But that’s not how it should necessarily be decided. Gerrymandering needs to be stopped.”

Community stakeholders at the press conference stressed that outreach to some communities will be more difficult than previous years because of the fear stemming from the Trump administration’s attempted citizenship question and the president’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Some said there are concerns that the Muslim community will be undercounted and that undocumented immigrants will be afraid to open doors.

“This is an important fight,” Espaillat said. “It has not ended with the citizenship question. Now we have another fight which is to make sure that those neighborhoods in Internet deserts are included in the count.”

Julie Samuels — the executive director of Tech NYC, which advocates for policies that support the growth of technology companies and talent in New York City — said at the press conference that while the Census going online will eventually lead to a more accurate and more robust count, the White House has not adequately primed the nation for its rollout.

She added that transitions in general are difficult even with better build-ups.

“The Trump administration was spending its time chasing down this crazy citizenship question. It’s becoming clear, if it wasn’t already obvious, that in that distraction the administration has failed to properly prepare for the first online Census,” Samuels said. “People have to be able to take the census, and they have to understand how it works. And, they need the right access.”

Stringer said that with so much money at stake, he hopes the city and state will take his recommendations as a roadmap to tackling internet access disparities and ensuring all communities are counted.

“Without that $5.8 billion this city would be in real jeopardy,” Stringer said. “We can’t play games with this administration in Washington. They make no secret of their racist and anti-immigrant agenda.”

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by Samantha Handler, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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As Census Moves Online, City Comptroller Warns of Digital Divide and Recommends Steps to Bridge It Tue, 23 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Corey Johnson's Big Small-Dollar Bet https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8685-corey-johnson-s-big-small-dollar-bet https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8685-corey-johnson-s-big-small-dollar-bet Corey Johnson

Council Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s expected mayoral campaign is based in part on a big small-dollar gamble.

When Johnson announced in January that he was exploring a bid for mayor – he hasn’t made it official yet – he set a $250 limit on all campaign contributions, far below the maximum possible limit of $5,100. And though the latest campaign finance disclosures show him outpacing his three likely Democratic primary opponents in the number of donations he received, he is well behind the pack in total funds and will have to work overtime to fill the gap.

Along with the low self-imposed donation limit ($250 is also the ceiling for how much of each donation can be matched eight-to-one in the city’s public campaign finance system), Johnson has also pledged not to take any campaign money from real estate developers, lobbyists, or corporate political action committees.

By constraining himself in these ways, he’s making a calculated bet: that New Yorkers will be impressed enough by his voluntary limitations that so many will donate, albeit in small amounts, to still get him the war chest he needs to spend as much as his competitors given the cap on expenditures that comes with the city’s matching system. And, that he’ll hit those maximums while earning a larger, more enthusiastic grassroots base of supporters than his opponents.

He’ll be living out the values that many Democrats espouse, and he’ll have a very effective talking point as he seeks to separate himself from the pack, expected to also include City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“I’m focused on these small-dollar contributions because there’s a double benefit,” Johnson said in a Wednesday interview. “Of course there’s the money you raise, but also you get to meet a lot more people around the city and spread your message to New Yorkers.”

“I’m doing this in a way that no one’s ever done before,” he added, “and I was a little concerned when I made the pledge, wondering if I’d be able to raise the amount of money to be able to compete. But after these last five months, I feel good about where I am and I feel like it’s totally doable.”

The latest filings with the New York City Campaign Finance Board show that Johnson has raised a total of $379,728 from 3,029 contributions. The money came from 2,612 individual donors, with many of them giving more than once. He also transferred $88,780 from his City Council campaign account, spent only about $32,800 and has just under $432,000 in cash on hand.

“I think it shows the grassroots nature of the campaign and I did it all without raising money from real estate developers or people who work at lobbying firms and with a self-imposed cap of $250,” Johnson said Wednesday. “So I feel excited. I worked really hard. I went around the city and met with voters in their neighborhoods, in their living rooms and talked about the issues that matter to New Yorkers.”

Johnson will be bolstered by the city’s voluntary public matching funds program, which incentivizes small donations by matching them with public funds and has recently been enhanced by the City Council through legislation, a portion of which stirred controversy given its apparent benefit to Johnson and detriment to his rivals.

A ballot referendum approved last year gave candidates the ability to choose one of two versions of the city’s public funds program, run by the Campaign Finance Board. For candidates for citywide positions, they can now opt for a new $2,000 contribution limit and receive an 8-to-1 match for the first $250 of an eligible contribution, or they could stick with the older $5,100 limit and receive a 6-to-1 match for the first $175 of an eligible contribution.

The City Council then bolstered the new system further by enhancing the extent of the public match candidates can receive as it relates to the spending cap in their race, and made the new system retroactive to the beginning of the four-year cycle, meaning the start of 2018, which rankled Johnson’s rivals, especially Stringer, who would have to return a significant amount of money in order to opt into the new system.

Stringer accused Johnson of playing political games with his government position, while Johnson noted he was acting on a recommendation from the Campaign Finance Board, looking to help take big money out of politics, and that Stringer could stick with the higher donation limits if he’d like (though Stringer had already chosen the new system, not thinking he would have to make refunds from 2018 fundraising). The changes also impact Adams -- who also has criticized Johnson over the move -- and Diaz, Jr., though they have not made clear which system they plan to choose. After this election cycle, the new system will be the only choice.

Johnson chose the new system and of his total fundraising, $315,421 qualifies for public matching funds, meaning he could receive eight times that amount in public funds. When the Council increased the cap on the amount of public funds a candidate can receive – from 75% to 88.8% of the spending limit for a campaign – it meant Johnson will be able to stick to his self-imposed limit and spend as much as his three rivals, who are all expected to participate in the matching funds program and therefore abide by spending limits. It’s unclear if any other Democrats will jump into the race, or what the general election field may look like.

It's likely that Johnson, Adams, Diaz Jr., and Stringer are all able to raise as much as they need to, in combination with matching funds, and spend the allowable amount -- $7.3 million for the primary. But Johnson appears to think his pledge will significantly impact how voters and donors see him, and his competitors, which can potentially help him secure more support in the ascendent left wing of the Democratic Party.

Johnson sees significant momentum in his first filing period, noting that he currently has the largest amount of funds that can be matched, compared to the other candidates who had been raising funds for well over a year before he began.

There are also pitfalls to Johnson’s approach. He said he can’t afford full-time campaign staff and admits that it’s “been a challenge” to vet the thousands of contributions he’s receiving with a mostly volunteer crew. He’s had to return about $4,100 to people who have gone over his campaign limit. It also takes major time and effort to raise so many smaller contributions and not buttress them with larger ones.

“Oh my god, it’s very tough. It’s grueling. And sort of nonstop, and it’s house party by house party, 20-25, 30-35 people at a time,” said Johnson, who has been appearing at a variety of small campaign gatherings.

Compared to Adams, Diaz Jr., and Stringer, the Council speaker is currently far behind in money in the bank. Along with taking the larger donations, the other three have been raising funds far longer and have deeper coffers from their own earlier races. No one has received any public matching funds yet, and won’t anytime soon -- the Democratic mayoral primary will be in June, 2021. (If Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is running for president, doesn’t finish his term for one reason or another, things could speed up a bit.)

Stringer leads the pack with nearly $2.6 million in cash on hand. He raised $336,700 in the last six months from 1,447 individual contributors after having raised at a faster rate previously, when he was toying with a challenge to de Blasio head of the mayor’s 2017 reelection. Stringer was able to transfer $1.4 million to his campaign from a previous citywide campaign account and has been prolific in his fundraising. Of his total, he has about $254,554 in funds that qualify for a public match.

Opting in to the newer of the two campaign finance systems, Stringer now has to return many thousands of dollars that represent the retroactive lowering of the individual contribution limit. Stringer called the new regulations a “power grab” by Johnson, critiquing him for changing the rules midway through the race (a criticism that Adams echoed).

"Time and again, Scott Stringer has stood up for bold progressive solutions to our toughest challenges, and this latest filing shows the growing energy behind our people-powered campaign,” said Emily Bernstein, finance director for Stringer’s campaign, in a statement. “At grassroots events across the city, we’ve talked with New Yorkers about real ideas to make our city more affordable for working families, build a better future for our children, and deliver true progressive change. We’re incredibly humbled by the support we’ve received, and we’re excited to build on our momentum.”

After Stringer, Adams has the most funds, with nearly $2.3 million in cash on hand. He raised $583,627 in the last six months from 1,234 donors. He also made an earlier transfer of $332,594 from his borough president campaign account. A total of $273,385 from his fundraising would be matchable by the CFB, though Adams has not yet declared if he is participating in the public matching funds program, much less which of the two versions, and has been accepting donations of the maximum amount allowed, $5,100. “New Yorkers believe in Eric and trust that he shares their vision for our city--that's why so many of them from such diverse backgrounds are supporting his campaign to lead the five boroughs. And he's just getting started,” said Evan Thies, a campaign spokesperson, in an email.

In comparison, Diaz Jr. has about $931,228 in the bank. He raised $232,334 in this latest filing period, from 385 donors, and he transferred $219,395 to his campaign for this race. He also hasn’t declared whether he will participate in the public funds program but most of his money came from large donations. He has about $57,476 that would qualify for matching funds.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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Corey Johnson's Big Small-Dollar Bet Thu, 18 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Everyone Agrees City Buses are in Crisis. What's Being Done? https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8664-everyone-agrees-city-buses-are-in-crisis-what-s-being-done https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8664-everyone-agrees-city-buses-are-in-crisis-what-s-being-done bx6 select bus inter ave

Mayor de Blasio rides the bus (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


Elected officials, advocates, and especially riders agree: the city’s bus system is broken.

That consensus was reached in recent years as bus speeds slowed to a crawl and the system hemorrhaged ridership. Various advocacy groups and elected officials have put forth studies and plans, and the entities with actual control -- the state-run Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the New York City Mayor’s Office -- have taken steps toward improving the situation, though many questions around commitment and implementation remain.

Even as the city boasts 2.5 times more bus riders than any of its counterparts across the country, its buses are the slowest in the United States, according to data from the mayor’s office. In the past four years, city bus ridership has decreased by 13 percent; from an annual total ridership of 677,569,432 in 2013 to 602,620,356 in 2017. Buses average a speed of just 8 miles per hour, with speeds at about the pace of a brisk walk in some of the city’s busiest corridors. The slowest city bus route, the M42, runs across Manhattan’s 42nd Street at an average speed of just 3.9 miles per hour, according to data from the city comptroller’s office.

Fixing the buses is a transit issue and a socioeconomic issue; 75 percent of bus riders are people of color, and 50 percent are immigrants, said Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director for Riders Alliance, an advocacy group.

“Better bus service is really about uplifting the portions of our population that need it the most,” Pearlstein said.

Pearlstein said buses spend 20 percent of their time at bus stops, 20 percent of their time at red lights, and 60 percent in slow traffic.

Both the MTA, which has say over bus routes and personnel, and the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio, which controls the city Department of Transportation and use of the roadways, street designs, and more, have been criticized for doing little to attend to the buses as ridership plummeted. Asleep at the wheel, both have recently reacted to the bus crisis.

To try to fix the bus system and reverse the ridership trend, the MTA and the Mayor’s Office have implemented or announced, at times with partners, a series of plans and laws to improve bus speeds. They’ve recently been aided by legislation passed by the state Legislature to allow for mounted bus cameras that can ticket drivers parked in bus lanes.

According to experts, including advocates and elected and appointed government officials, the keys to speeding up city buses include: improving Select Bus Service, which is a form of express bus; increasing the number of buses with all-door boarding; eliminating inefficient bus stops; implementing transit signal priority (TSP) so buses can move through traffic lights more quickly; creating more bus-only lanes; and enforcing bus lanes. Much of this work has started or been promised, but results are few given that most responses to the crisis are recent.

MTA and the Bus Route Redesigns
This year, the MTA began a bus route redesign effort as part of a plan from Andy Byford, president of MTA New York City Transit, called Fast Forward, which aims to modernize New York City’s subways and buses. While the full go-ahead, including funding, for Fast Forward is still in limbo, moving ahead with bus route redesigns is among the lesser expensive overhauls. New bus routes are essential, Byford and many others agree, to react to changing residential, commuter, and traffic patterns.

The effort saw a complete redesign of the Staten Island bus network in 2018 and is now focusing on the Bronx. Following the redesign, bus speeds on Staten Island increased on average by 8.6 percent and trip reliability improved by 20 percent, according to data from Transit Center, a foundation that seeks to improve public transit. The bus routes in the remaining three boroughs will be redesigned over the next three years, according to Byford’s plans.

Upon completion of the Bronx plan, the MTA will have redesigned 27 of the 60 bus routes in the Bronx, and proposed frequency changes on an additional four routes. The plan will also implement 150 audio-capable “next-bus signs,” improving accessibility. Through expanding the use of queue jumps, which let buses bypass other traffic at intersections, and TSP, which holds green lights longer or turns lights green sooner for buses, the MTA aims to improve speeds significantly.

The MTA also expects to expand Select Bus Service, which allows riders to purchase a fare before boarding the bus to encourage all-door boarding and skips “local” stops in express fashion.

By modernizing fare payment, the MTA has committed to fully switching to all-door bus boarding by 2021, “but that process should be expedited to capitalize on the redesigns before congestion pricing comes into place,” Transit Center spokesperson Ashley Pryce said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, referring to the upcoming 2021 institution of new tolls on driving cars and other private vehicles into Manhattan below 61st Street.

In addition to the MTA’s current plans, some buses could become faster by stopping every four or five blocks instead of every two, Pearlstein said.

Whether it’s redesigning bus routes or eliminating bus stops, the MTA will of course have local battles. The Bronx redesign plan has been met with some opposition from those who believe it will be too disruptive. In Co-op City, the redesign plan will eliminate certain routes and stops that have upset residents. The new system will require many of the neighborhood’s residents to transfer two or three times to get where they are going, said City Council Member Andy King, who represents Co-op City, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. King said that Byford and the MTA proposed a redesign without consulting Co-op City residents.

On June 27, King and Co-op City residents met with the MTA.

“Public feedback is a critical part of our efforts to reimagine the borough’s bus network,” an MTA spokesperson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We are currently in the process of reviewing the feedback we received before moving forward with any final decisions about the location of stops or changes to routes.”

The MTA declined to comment further on the number of bus routes that the plan would eliminate or the number of transfers it would require for trips in question.

“The transfer problem causes an issue. People in Co-op City would rather have convenience than timing. If I can get around Co-op City and it takes me 25 minutes, I will make sure I have enough time,” King said.

King and other community leaders met with Byford last week to discuss the problems they say the proposed redesign will cause for the neighborhood. Byford was receptive to King and the residents’ suggestions, King said.

“Any proposed bus plan for Co-op City must include conversation with the residents. If they’re not included in the conversation nothing will ever make sense. It might make sense for the MTA, but it won’t make sense for Co-op City,” King said, expressing fairly universal sentiments applicable around the city.

“If ridership in Co-op City has not dwindled that means you are still getting the same kind of fares in Co-op City. If numbers aren’t down, don’t punish them because you have low numbers somewhere else,” King said, taking issue with a “cookie-cutter” approach to redesigns.

However, some view slight inconvenience as necessary for the bus system to be more efficient.

“It may take time for some riders to adjust to new routes and bus stop patterns, but if the MTA and DOT implement their plans well, riders will get faster overall trips and a better experience waiting for the bus,” Pryce said. “While some riders may be asked to walk further to a stop, those remaining stops should be equipped with amenities like shelters and benches that can improve the experience for riders.”

Better Buses Action Plan
In April, Mayor BIll de Blasio and his Department of Transportation (DOT), which has a lot of control over the streets, bus lanes, and related decisions, released the Better Buses Action Plan. The plan aims to see bus speeds increase by 25 percent citywide by the end of 2020 -- a goal de Blasio first announced in his February State of the City speech.

The plan calls for the improvement (through painting lanes, adding all-door boarding, and other measures) of five miles of existing bus lanes each year, the installation of 10-15 miles of new bus lanes per year, and the piloting of physically separated bus lanes by the end of this year. From 2013 through early this year, the DOT has built 111 miles of bus lanes across the city, according to the Better Buses Action Plan. The plan also includes an additional 300 TSP intersections and the implementation of bus camera enforcement.

“Our buses have some of the highest ridership numbers in the country, yet we see that our buses are limited when it comes to their reliability and frequency,” said City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Council’s transportation committee, in a statement accompanying announcement of the Better Buses Advisory Group, convened by the mayor's office.

Bus lane cameras are currently limited to 16 of the city’s bus routes. They serve to enforce rules against parking in a bus lane, so as to take pressure off the police for finding violators and issuing tickets with fines for cars that park in or otherwise obstruct the bus lane. The program aims to improve bus speeds by making it clear to drivers not to block bus lanes.

At the end of the legislative session in Albany, lawmakers passed legislation to expand the number of automated cameras enforcing bus lanes. Owners of cars that block bus lanes will be fined $50 for the first offense, $100 for the second, $200 for third, and $250 for any additional offense.

In June, de Blasio announced the creation of the Better Buses Advisory Group, which will help implement the Better Buses Action Plan. The group includes the public advocate, state senators, Assembly members, City Council members, and representatives of advocacy groups.

“We are taking action to get New Yorkers moving and saving them time for the things that matter,” de Blasio said in a press release announcing the formation of the group. “With guidance from riders, our new Better Buses advisory group will come up with innovative solutions to get our bus routes up to speed,” he said.

2017 Stringer Report, De Blasio Announcement
The push to revamp the bus network got a shot in the arm in October 2017, following a report detailing the system’s ineffectiveness by Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer advocated for “major upgrades to our bus system, like better integrated, enforced and designed bus lanes, more bus shelters, all-door boarding, and Transit Signal Priority at traffic lights,” he said in a 2017 press release accompanying the report.

Also in October 2017, de Blasio announced a plan to introduce 21 new Select Bus Service routes across the city. As of that time, according to the city, SBS accounted for 12 percent of the city’s bus ridership, but de Blasio said he expected that number to go up to 30 percent, according to comments during a press conference announcing the plan. Select bus routes average speeds 27 percent higher than local routes.

If the buses are faster, “more and more people will use them. If they are easier to use, more and more people will get out of their cars. But if they’re not moving fast enough, it doesn’t encourage anyone to come and take the bus,” de Blasio said.

From 2013 to 2017, the number of SBS routes increased from six to 13. De Blasio expects increased select buses to improve service to areas that currently do not have regular bus service.

“The bottom line is we have to reach every single neighborhood. No neighborhood should be neglected. No one should have a problem getting around because of the ZIP code they live in. Select Bus Service is a difference maker,” de Blasio said in the announcement.

Car Culture and the Buses
Calls to improve bus service are coming in conjunction with broader efforts to improve pedestrian safety, reduce congestion, and decrease the city’s reliance on and deference to cars. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson recently introduced his “master plan for city streets” legislation, which includes a sweeping set of planks to “break car culture” by adding many more bus and bike lanes, and pedestrian plazas.

“A progressive city must do better for bus drivers and must deliver for bus riders,” Pearlstein said at the June City Council hearing on the bill. “This is powerful legislation to look forward to while we’re still unfortunately stuck on the bus.”

Johnson’s plan goes further than de Blasio’s Better Buses Action Plan, calling for 30 miles of new bus lanes each year along with TSP, compared to 5-10 miles under de Blasio’s plan.

“We need much better bus and commuter rail service,” Nicole Gelinas, a Manhattan Institute fellow, told Gotham Gazette. “We need a better bus network to take pressure off the subway as we decrease reliance on cars.”

Other major global cities have bus networks that are bigger and faster than New York’s. In 2010, London boasted a higher bus ridership than New York’s subway ridership.

If New York does not improve its bus system and regain riders, bus service will have to be cut, Pearlstein said, reflecting MTA Board discussions. “If we allow bus service to further deteriorate ridership will continue to fall and service will be cut. There is no leaving it the same,” Pearlstein said. “If you leave it the same it will get worse.”

“There do need to be faster trips, and more service, and they need to meet those lofty goals,” Pearlstein said of the MTA’s redesign efforts. “Otherwise it looks like a service cut.”

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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Everyone Agrees City Buses are in Crisis. What's Being Done? Wed, 10 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000