Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/500 Sat, 17 Aug 2019 17:19:05 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) '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.”

***
bySamantha 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.

***
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.”

***
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
It Pays to be Comptroller: Scott Stringer's Mayoral Platform Takes Shape https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8653-it-pays-to-be-comptroller-scott-stringer-s-mayoral-platform-takes-shape https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8653-it-pays-to-be-comptroller-scott-stringer-s-mayoral-platform-takes-shape scott stringer bill de blasio bernie sanders inaugural ceremonies

Comptroller Scott Stringer (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has made no secret of his plans to run for mayor in 2021, when both he and Mayor Bill de Blasio will be term-limited out of their current positions. And the outline of his mayoral policy platform is already hiding in plain sight.

After briefly entering the 2013 mayoral campaign before shifting to a first successful run for comptroller, Stringer has spent a long time laying the groundwork for a full mayoral bid, so much so that many expected him to challenge de Blasio in the Democratic primary in 2017 had the mayor faced any consequences from dual ethics investigations into his fundraising activities. But the mayor faced no charges and both officials instead sailed to reelection.

One of three citywide elected officials, besides the mayor and public advocate, the comptroller is the city’s top fiscal officer, charged with overseeing the mayoral administration’s spending, auditing city agencies for waste, approving city contracts, and acting as the fiduciary to the city’s pension funds (with assets worth nearly $200 billion). Though they have next to no official policy-making power, those who’ve held the office also tend to issue policy reports and make recommendations for policies the city should implement.

In about five-and-a-half years as comptroller, Stringer has released numerous sweeping proposals to tackle everything from the cost of child care to building more affordable housing to abortion funding, improving city bus performance, and hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. Stringer fought against term limits for community board members, a ballot measure overwhelmingly passed by voters last year, and he’s pushed for this year’s city charter revision commission to propose creation of a citywide Chief Diversity Officer, building on his focus on city contracting for minority- and women-owned businesses. And, he’s helped lead the effort to divest city pension funds from fossil fuel companies.

As a citywide official, he’s weighed in with statements on many issues that don’t directly relate to functions of his job, and he’s taken on certain mantras, like the need for more “community-based planning,” that also indicate the initial building blocks for his all-but-official run for mayor.

Stringer’s work in the comptroller’s office has been a continuation of similar efforts he made as Manhattan borough president, unveiling various plans that would have a citywide effect.   

“Comptroller Stringer has spent his career in public service standing up for working families. From his time as a housing organizer, to his work as Manhattan Borough President, to his leadership as the City Comptroller, he’s proven progressive government isn’t just something he talks about – it’s what he delivers on each and every day,” said Hazel Crampton-Hays, Stringer’s press secretary, in a lengthy statement responding to Gotham Gazette’s inquiry about Stringer’s various policy proposals.

“He’s used his office to change the face of corporate America and open doors of opportunity to women and people of color; he’s changed the conversation and shined a light on the touchstone progressive issues of our time, including housing and child care; and in every challenge impacting working New Yorkers, Comptroller Stringer sees a progressive solution worth fighting for,” Crampton-Hays continued. “With two and half years left in his term, he will continue the fights that have been at the heart of his entire career -- for equity, affordability, and fairness for all New Yorkers.”

When Stringer declares his candidacy for mayor in earnest, he’ll have a lengthy, detailed campaign platform on day one, thanks to all of the reports and audits out of his office. It’s a smart and appropriate use of the comptroller’s office, said veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “The New York City comptroller can do whatever the New York City comptroller wants. The office has broad authority under the city charter,” he said.

The issues Stringer has examined, Sheinkopf noted, cut across a swath of constituencies in a citywide electorate and have garnered significant attention. “He’s very able to get appropriate coverage for whatever he does. He also knows – because politics has been his life – how to take those issues and turn them into relationship-builders with particular interest groups,” Sheinkopf said. “He will be a highly competitive candidate for mayor, should he choose to run.”

Along with his policy proposals, Stringer’s near ubiquitous presence across the city should help him, Sheinkopf added. “No matter what choice New Yorkers will make, anyone who’s paid attention to the news will be able to say, for whatever reason, whether they can identify the issue or not, that somehow Stringer spoke to them about something,” he said. “And that’s a pretty good place to be and what he spoke to them about goes beyond color lines or race lines or ethnic lines or gender lines. He has made himself into the person whose words and even actions have become relevant to people beyond and outside of his social grouping, religion, race, class, and residence, which is not easy for someone who’s a west-sider from Manhattan.”

Stringer is expected to compete in a Democratic mayoral primary with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and anyone else who throws their hat in the ring ahead of the June 2021 vote. Each has also been in the process of staking out their policy positions and possible major mayoral platform areas, though none has led the size of operation or had the citywide vantage point, at least for as long, as Stringer in the comptroller’s office.

Political consultant George Arzt, who previously served as a campaign spokesperson for Stringer, echoed Sheinkopf. “The comptroller can put out anything on a platform just as the mayor or public advocate would put out anything on their platform,” Arzt said. “Perhaps increasingly so during an election year. But every elected official does it.”

Below are a sampling of the ideas that Stringer has proposed over the years, some of which are likely to form the basis for his mayoral campaign platform:

Child Care
In May, Stringer proposed a plan dubbed “NYC Under 3” aimed at drastically reducing child care expenses for 70,000 families. The plan, paid for with a payroll tax, would purportedly expand child care assistance to families with a combined income of up to $100,000 a year for a family of four, and triple the number of children enrolled in city-funded child care programs. The proposal was broadly praised by advocates, unions, and educators.

“New York City should drive a child care revolution, put working families first and establish a model for the nation to follow,” Stringer said in a statement at the release of the plan. “NYC Under 3 is a down payment on future generations and would benefit children, parents, and the local economy by increasing job stability and economic security.”

Since releasing it, Stringer has done a media and local event blitz to talk it up, including a “roundtable discussion” Monday evening with members of advocacy group Community Voices Heard in East Harlem.

Affordable Housing
Stringer has repeatedly criticized de Blasio’s affordable housing program, saying it has not created or preserved enough affordable units for low-income New Yorkers and that it has failed to stem the city’s homelessness crisis. In November, he released a proposal that would reimagine the city’s housing plan to target the 580,000 households that are in most need.

Stringer’s plan would put $375 million in the capital budget annually and repurpose the roughly 85,000 units left to be built under the mayor’s 300,000-unit plan towards extremely low-income households (which earn less than $28,170 annually) or very low-income households (which earn less than $46,950 annually). An additional $125 million would go to operating subsidies to ensure apartments remain affordable. He also proposed increasing the set aside for housing for the homeless by nearly three times to 15%.

The plan would be paid for by eliminating the Mortgage Recording Tax and implementing a Real Property Transfer Tax on all home purchases based on price. These measures would raise roughly $400 million each year, Stringer estimated. He also reiterated his call for a New York City Land Bank/Land Trust, which he first proposed in February 2016, to build housing on vacant lots.

Teacher Residency
In June this year, Stringer released a plan to reduce teacher turnover in city schools, after an analysis by his office showed that 41% of teachers hired in the 2012-13 school year had left their jobs within five years. 

Stringer proposed a paid, year-long residency program to train 1,000 new teachers annually, partnering them with mentors for classroom training and providing them with stipends for living costs.

On other education fronts, Stringer’s efforts more closely linked to his core job responsibilities have already shown results. After a May 2015 report on inadequate physical education at schools across the city, the de Blasio administration added $100 million to hire physical education teachers in the five boroughs. And following an April 2014 report on broad disparities in arts education, the city allocated $24 million in new city funding to hire more than 100 arts teachers in neighborhoods with the highest needs. 

Abortion Funding
Ahead of the passage of the city budget this year, Stringer rallied with reproductive health rights activists to push the city to allocate $250,000 to the New York Abortion Access Fund, a nonprofit service provider. The push was successful, with the City Council and de Blasio deciding to earmark funding, reportedly making New York the first city in the country to directly fund abortion services.

Insurance for Pregnancy
In March 2015, the comptroller released a report on pre-natal care coverage for pregnant women enrolled in insurance under the Affordable Care Act. The ACA did not recognize pregnancy as a “qualifying event” for immediate coverage. Following Stringer’s report, State Senator Liz Krueger and Assemblymember Aravella Simotas introduced and passed legislation to allow for that coverage in New York, making it the first state to do so.

Puerto Rico Recovery
In October 2017, after Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria, Stringer released a six-point plan based on an analysis of federal programs to help the island recover from the hurricane’s devastation. New York City is home to the largest community of Puerto Ricans outside of the island, many of whom continue to have ties to family living there, and the city was one of the main destinations for residents fleeing the island after the hurricane.

Stringer proposed federal loan guarantees for the construction of public infrastructure to help the debt-ridden island, called on Congress to authorize Disaster Recovery Private Activity Bonds (which were utilized after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks to rebuild Downtown Manhattan), and an expansion of federal safety net programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit for residents of Puerto Rico. He also pushed for measures to help displaced Puerto Ricans, including additional education funding for displaced and homeless students, and for higher education institutions where Puerto Ricans are enrolled.

Chief Diversity Officer
Stringer has used his position as the fiduciary to the city’s pension funds to push for greater board diversity at companies where the pension fund invests its money. At the same time, he has pushed for more diversity at city agencies, more city contract spending with MWBEs, and has called for the creation of a Chief Diversity Officer at City Hall (Stringer has appointed his own chief diversity officer). He pushed the 2019 Charter Revision Commission to include the idea among its ballot proposals but was unsuccessful, though the commission is moving ahead with a proposal to enshrine responsibility for the city’s MWBE program at City Hall.

Immigrant Services
In March 2015, Stringer released an “Immigrant Rights and Services Manual” – initially translated into Chinese, Korean, Russian and Spanish – to help immigrants navigate local, state and federal services.

In February 2016, he also released a report on citizenship application fees, with recommendations for federal and local action. He urged the city to provide more citizenship assistance programs, to add funding for English and civics classes, and to expand free legal services, among other proposals.

Commuter Rail & Bus Reliability
In October 2018, Stringer released a proposal to expand access to Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road, by reducing fares for in-city trips to the cost of a single MetroCard swipe. He called on the MTA to ensure commuter trains take more local stops, that buses provide enhanced service to commuter rail stations, and that those stations be made ADA accessible. His plan, which would entail providing commuter rail service at 38 stations in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, would cost about $50 million each year, he estimated.

In 2017, Stringer released a major report on the city's struggling buses, which have lost ridership at a dangerous clip, with an agenda for how to improve the system.

Security Deposits & Credit Score Benefits
In July 2018, Stringer released an analysis of security deposits in the New York City rental housing market, finding that renters paid about $507 million into security deposits in 2016. He called for legislation to cap security deposits as well as additional regulation regarding payments and refunds. The state Legislature this year put new rent regulations into effect that implement some of those reforms.

And in October 2017, Stringer launched pilot projects to help renters in roughly 3,000 apartment units to report their rent payment to increase their credit scores. The program was expanded a year later.

Playgrounds
In April, Stringer launched the “Pavement to Playgrounds” campaign, pointing to a dearth of playgrounds across the city and substandard conditions at hundreds of city playgrounds. Stringer pushed the city to build 200 new playgrounds over five years through partnership between the city’s Parks Department, the Department of Transportation, nonprofits and community boards.

BQE Reconstruction
In March, Stringer proposed his own vision for how the city should rehab the crumbling Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, including by converting the triple cantilever and Cobble Hill trench into a truck-only thruway and building a new two-mile park on the remaining space. A panel assembled by de Blasio is working on coming up with recommendations for a new plan after the city’s original idea received a great deal of pushback and appears to have been scrapped.

Marijuana Legalization
Before de Blasio released his administration’s plan embracing the legalization of recreational adult use of marijuana in December, Stringer had already explored the possible ramifications of creating a legal market in the city and proposed measures to ensure that the city creates an equitable industry.

Stringer pushed for investing tax revenue from sales into communities most adversely affected by marijuana enforcement, called for equity provisions in state legislation (particularly by making people with marijuana-related convictions eligible for licenses to sell legal marijuana) and proposed a citywide equity program to provide assistance to individuals and businesses seeking to enter the industry. 

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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It Pays to be Comptroller: Scott Stringer's Mayoral Platform Takes Shape Mon, 08 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council Passes Campaign Finance Bill Roiling Early Mayoral Race https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8601-council-passes-campaign-finance-bill-roiling-early-mayoral-race https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8601-council-passes-campaign-finance-bill-roiling-early-mayoral-race Johnson Kallos City Council

Council Members Kallos, left, & Rodriguez, right, with Speaker Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The City Council passed a much-anticipated, controversial campaign finance bill Thursday, raising the cap on how much public funding a campaign can receive and altering other dynamics of the city’s matching system. The bill -- the source of significant consternation over the past several days, particularly among likely 2021 mayoral candidates - passed by a vote of 41-6, with one abstention, and three absences.

The legislation, which Mayor de Blasio has indicated support for, increases the public matching funds ceiling so that campaigns are able to raise only smaller donations and still have enough money to hit their spending limit. It also has a retroactivity component, a bill change within just the past 10 days, that caused a stir and appears likely to impact several upcoming races, including the Democratic primary for mayor.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a likely 2021 mayoral candidate, and City Council Member Ben Kallos, the lead sponsor of the bill, defended the legislation, including retroactivity that will make candidates return money raised in 2018 above new lower donation limits if they choose to opt into the newer of two programs that has more public matching.

That portion of the bill stands to benefit Johnson and hurt competitors like Comptroller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

“We are literally doing something that is entirely consistent with what we did three months ago and now all of a sudden we are being criticized for it,” Johnson said at the press conference, referring to actions the Council took to make new campaign finance rules approved by voters last year apply to the special election for Public Advocate.

Johnson, who pledged in January not to take any donations larger than $250 as he explores a mayoral run, said he has long supported the legislation and it has nothing to do with the race. He and Kallos also pointed out that the retroactivity component was discussed during an April hearing on the bill and recommended by the Campaign Finance Board so that an entire four-year election cycle would be run by the same rules, for whichever of the two programs candidates choose.

Still, neither Kallos nor Johnson had a clear answer for why the amendment to the bill had come so close to the Council’s votes on the matter.

Johnson noted the difficulty in creating legislation that affects lawmakers themselves.

“It’s hard to vote on these things because every time you do you’re potentially affecting yourself and your colleagues in what you do. It’s one of the challenging things you deal with as a current elected official when you start to look at the system that exists and you seek to improve it or change it,” Johnson said.

“For the current election cycle, just like we did for public advocate, when no one criticized it, you need to pick option A or option B,” Johnson said at the press conference. “No one is being forced to opt into the 8-to-1 [matching] system. We are just saying if you are going to opt into one system, be consistent throughout the entire cycle,” Johnson said.

If Stringer or others opt into the new system, they would receive its 8-to-1 match on all qualifying donations $250 or under, but under maximum individual donations of $2,000 (down from $5,100 for citywide candidates), and they would, based on the new Council bill, have to return the difference on any donations above the new maximum. That last aspect is what has driven Stringer and others to call Johnson out.

Others have criticized the bill for using more taxpayer money.

“I’m not sure how we look a homeless person in the eye and tell them we can’t find them an affordable place to live but don’t worry we have money for our next campaign mailing,” Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat, said on the Council floor before the vote. He voted no, as he had done in committee on Tuesday.

Supporters of the bill pointed out it’s potential to decrease the power of special interests and large donors in politics.

“I can’t believe we’re standing here having an argument over how much big money people should get to take after the voters said they want politicians to get less big money,” Kallos said at the press conference.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone say to me ‘I don’t want my dollars matched.’ The public match is increasing participation and the taxpayers, the residents actually like it. They like having their voices amplified and direct access to elected officials that they otherwise wouldn’t,” Kallos added.

“There’s a lot of cynicism in government because people feel like big donors have too much access in government, and here’s a way to take big money out and have it be publicly financed,” Johnson said at the press conference.

Representatives for Stringer, who would likely have to return the most money under the new system, if he sticks with the program of lower donation limits and higher matching, called Johnson amending the legislation and pushing it through a “brazen power grab” and using his government position to advantage his campaign.

“Johnson is rushing through a law that explicitly benefits him,” wrote Stringer spokesperson Tyrone Stevens on Twitter. “It’s deeply unethical and it’s not good government. Shame on him.”

"I’m a firm believer you don’t change the game in the middle of the game,” Adams told the Max & Murphy podcast on Wednesday, “...any major changes in the system should not be beneficial to any party involved. And I think that’s part of what Scott Stringer was saying." Adams said he wasn’t yet sure which of the two campaign finance programs he’ll choose.

A spokesperson for Diaz Jr. did not respond to a request for comment.

At the Council on Thursday, among those voting no was Yeger, who sits on the Committee on Governmental Operations, which first heard and passed the bill, sending it to the full Council. Joining Yeger in opposition were Council Members Mark Gjonaj and Ruben Diaz, Sr., both Bronx Democrats, and the Council’s three Republicans: Council Members Eric Ulrich, Steven Matteo, and Joseph Borelli.

Council Member I. Daneek Miller was the sole abstention. Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who was absent for the committee vote on Tuesday, was also absent for the vote by the Council, despite having been present during the press conference preceding the full Council meeting.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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Council Passes Campaign Finance Bill Roiling Early Mayoral Race Thu, 13 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Amid Controversy, City Council Moves Ahead with Campaign Finance Bill Extending Public Match https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8593-amid-controversy-council-moves-ahead-with-campaign-finance-bill-extending-public-match https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8593-amid-controversy-council-moves-ahead-with-campaign-finance-bill-extending-public-match committee gov op

Council Members Yeger, left, and Cabrera, right (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Significantly more public funding of political campaigns appears on the way given legislation that the City Council Committee on Governmental Operations passed on Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, aims to prevent corruption and increase engagement with local communities by adjusting the public matching funds system to allow candidates to raise only relatively small donations and receive enough public money to reach the spending limit in their race.

Though the bill has over 30 sponsors in the 51-seat Council and passed the committee 4-1 on Tuesday, a last-minute amendment to the legislation caused a significant stir, including accusations of impropriety by Comptroller Scott Stringer against City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, both likely mayoral candidates in the next election.

Expected to be passed by the full Council on Thursday, the bill lifts the cap on how much public funding – or taxpayer money – a participating campaign can receive from Campaign Finance Board. The cap, currently set at 75 percent of the spending limit for participating candidates, would rise to 89.9%, effectively making it a full match relative to the spending limit when the private funds involved are also taken into consideration.

The city’s campaign finance system currently has two tracks, “Option A” and “Option B,” that only apply to the 2021 election cycle, before the newer of the two programs takes full hold. That program, “Option A,” includes lower individual donation thresholds and matches the first $250 of individual contributions at an 8-to-1 ratio for a maximum disbursement of $2,000 in public funds per contribution.

These rules are the result of a November 2018 referendum that both raised the disbursement cap and increased the public matching ratio. But it also left in place the old system, which has much higher contribution limits and matches the first $175 of donations at 6-to-1.

Different offices, from citywide posts like mayor and comptroller to borough presidencies to City Council seats, have different donation and spending limits.

The change to individual contribution limits in Option A dropped the maximum donation limit from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide candidates who opt into that program.

Related to that new donation cap, an amendment to the legislation being passed this week has caused a rift among mayoral candidates and raised eyebrows around city government.

The amendment requires candidates who opt into the new system to return contributions from 2018 that go over the new maximums, which could mean a $3,100 return on each maximum donation for participants.

The November referendum allowed candidates participating in the system to choose between the new rules – with the higher public match but lower contribution limits – and the old rules until 2022, when candidates will have to conform entirely to the new rules to receive public funds. The 2021 city elections are expected to be highly competitive, crowded affairs, with almost all city seats open due to term limits.

Comptroller Scott Stringer, one of several likely mayoral candidates in the upcoming election, would be particularly impacted by the amendment. He’d have to return many thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the past year if he wanted to opt into the new matching system. As first reported by the Daily News, Stringer viewed this amendment as a “brazen power grab” by fellow mayoral candidate and Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

“The voters passed a groundbreaking campaign finance system to clean up government, not corrupt it,” a Stringer spokesperson said. “Speaker Johnson is trying to circumvent the will of the voters and change the rules to benefit himself. The Council should reject his brazen power grab.”

A spokesperson for Johnson reiterated that it’s optional for candidates to return their contributions and said that the amendment was created at the recommendation of the CFB.

“The changes were made at the strong urging of the CFB. Both because of fairness and administrative efficiency,” Jennifer Femino, a spokesperson for Johnson, said. “That said, no contributions made in a prior election cycle will have to be returned. Any candidate who wants to keep their big money donations from the last cycle is free to do so and maintain their edge over the competition.”

Council Member Kallos stressed to Gotham Gazette that not only did the CFB recommend retroactivity because it would then make administration of the program easier, but that Kallos led an extended conversation on changing the bill to include retroactivity during the initial April hearing on the legislation. The amendment wasn’t made until just days before the committee vote, however.

On Tuesday, governmental operations committee member, Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat, referenced the Stringer-Johnson rift during the hearing, though he didn’t name either of them. He said he was “certainly sensitive to the concerns that have been raised amongst those who are current candidates that feel this bill has a negative impact on them,” but remained supportive of the bill and voted yes.

There was opposition to the bill at the hearing, from City Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat. He said it disregards what the voters decided with the 2018 referendum and amounts to little besides another big dip into taxpayers’ pockets.

“It doesn’t seem to me that when the voters voted in November, they put an asterisk next to their vote and said, ‘Hey, this is what we’re voting for, but just in case you get a chance, take some more money out of our pockets and do this a little better,’” Yeger said. “I don’t think we got that message. I didn’t get that message, that’s not what I heard. What I heard was, there was a yes/no question, and the yes won.”

Yeger was the sole no in the 4-1 vote, with Council Members Kallos, Powers, Alan Maisel, and committee chair Fernando Cabrera voting to approve. Two committee members were absent from the vote: Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez and Bill Perkins.

The bill now goes to the full Council for a vote on Thursday. If it passes there, it will go to Mayor Bill de Blasio for likely approval.

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by Caitlyn Rosen, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Amid Controversy, City Council Moves Ahead with Campaign Finance Bill Extending Public Match Tue, 11 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Does New York City Need a Chief Diversity Officer? https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8447-does-new-york-city-need-a-chief-diversity-officer https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8447-does-new-york-city-need-a-chief-diversity-officer mayor office city hall riders

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Many days throughout the year there are people gathered on the steps of City Hall calling on city government to make policy. On March 14, a rally of women and people of color who own businesses, organized by city Comptroller Scott Stringer, focused on a change that could significantly alter the direction of city government and opportunities for those business owners and others in similar positions.

Those in attendance were backing Stringer’s push to have the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission put a proposal on the November ballot to require a Chief Diversity Officer in the mayor’s cabinet and one at each city agency.

Fittingly, Mayor Bill de Blasio, AirPods in his ears, walked into City Hall at the time of the rally, seemingly paying it little mind. Over the last several years, Stringer has assailed the de Blasio administration’s approach to contracting with MWBEs -- minority- and women-owned business enterprises -- and called on the mayor to add a chief diversity officer (CDO) to his administration. De Blasio has adjusted the city’s MWBE contracting goals multiple times and created an MWBE office in 2016, but he has not created the CDO position. He has also repeatedly dismissed Stringer’s criticisms.

A second-term Democrat who created a CDO at the comptroller’s office upon taking the citywide position in 2014, Stringer has now pushed the issue to the fore as the 2019 charter commission considers what changes to the city’s central governing document and structure it will propose to voters this fall -- it is listed first among Stringer’s 65 charter revision proposals.

The City Hall rally, which included Stringer, MWBE owners, faith leaders, Manhattan City Council Member Ben Kallos, and Brooklyn Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte, came just hours before Stringer and others testified before the commission on the subject of adding the CDO positions to the charter.

Among other responsibilities, the CDO position would oversee city procurement and contracting with MWBEs, as well as strategies to improve those efforts. The city spends billions of procurement dollars each year to buy things such as office supplies or hire contractors on city construction projects. The CDO would also focus on issues of equity and diversity in city government, with each CDO at individual city agencies handling these tasks with a narrower scope.

“I’ve said to the mayor every year that we would really benefit from a chief diversity officer in City Hall,” Stringer told Gotham Gazette just after the rally. “For me, talk is cheap. We’re either going to be in the business of equality and economic justice or we’re not.”

The CDO in Stringer’s office, currently Wendy Garcia, is tasked with overseeing all of its procurement dollars, about $14 million spent annually.

“Every time I see a law or a regulation or some rule that inhibits minorities or women to have access, my job is to fix it and change it,” Garcia told Gotham Gazette in an interview. According to Stringer’s charter revision proposals, Garcia has helped the Office of the Comptroller almost double its spending with MWBEs to over 24% of its procurement spending in fiscal year 2017.

“I think people do not fully appreciate the role of the chief diversity officer,” Stringer said. “Imagine a chief diversity officer in City Hall in this building right now working every day across all agencies to look at ways to up-spend to bring more people into the procurement process. This is a necessary part of government. It’s the future of the city. There’s nothing more important than creating wealth with opportunity.”

Each year, Stringer puts out an MWBE report card for city agencies and the mayor’s office, and he includes his office as well. Six of the 32 agencies graded by the Comptroller’s Office already have CDOs: Department of Design and Construction, Department of Finance, Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, Department of Sanitation, Department of Transportation, Fire Department, and Law Department. (None of the agencies with chief diversity officers increased their share of procurement going to MWBEs by over 2.5% from 2017 to 2018 except the Department of Finance which spent only $25 million on procurement in total, about 21% of its procurement dollars.)

The Department of Design and Construction (DDC) has one of the biggest procurement budgets in city government, totaling nearly $1.7 billion, about as large as the other agencies with CDOs combined. DDC hired Chief Diversity and Industry Relations Officer Magalie D. Austin in 2014. According to budget testimony delivered last month by DDC Commissioner Lorraine Grillo, "Mayor de Blasio singled out DDC as the top performing agency in the City’s M/WBE program. We’ve awarded more than $1 billion to M/WBE firms since 2015. Between FY15 to FY18, our overall M/WBE utilization rate has increased from just under ten percent to 23 percent."

Furthermore, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and New York State also have chief diversity officers. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who took office in 2011, responded to a 2010 disparity study by focusing on the state’s procurement dollars going to MWBEs. In 2014, he upgraded his goal for MWBE utilization from 20% to 30% of the value of state contracts. In fiscal year 2017, the percentage of MWBE utilization in New York State was 28.6%, according to Empire State Development’s Division of Minority and Women's Business Development Annual Report 2018.

The state chief diversity officer originally solely oversaw the MWBE procurement process but has recently added workforce diversity and inclusion duties as well. Currently, the role of chief diversity officer is filled by Lourdes Zapata.

Other Major Cities Have CDOs
Outside of New York City, the position of chief diversity officer can be found in other major city governments around the country, almost all only created in the past five years.

There are currently chief diversity officers in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Columbus, San Antonio, Austin, Nashville, and Buffalo. The duties (and titles) of these CDOs vary – most of the positions are human resources in nature, such as researching workplace diversity, recruiting diverse applicants for city jobs, and raising awareness for diverse hiring practices.

If the proposal passed, New York would be the first major city with a chief diversity officer whose main job duty would be to oversee procurement for MWBEs.

In Philadelphia, the role of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer is filled by Nolan Atkinson Jr. When offered the job, “I had one qualification. I wanted the title to be the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer,” he told Gotham Gazette in a phone interview. “I believe inclusion is vital in having a successful tenure in this position.”

Atkinson’s office provides diversity training to city employees, publishes quarterly reports, and oversees the Office of Economic Opportunity, which manages procurement to WMBEs.

Philadelphia city government awarded over $440 million out of an estimated $1.4 billion contracting budget (30.5%) to M/W/DSBE’s (Philadelphia includes business owners with a disability) in fiscal year 2018, a $128 million increase over fiscal year 2017, according to the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce’s Office of Economic Opportunity Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Report. Philadelphia has set an “aspirational” goal of 35% of contracting dollars to go to diverse businesses. In terms of city employee diversity, the Philadelphia city workforce skews heavily male, at 65% of the workforce, and 58% of “new hires.”

Boston’s CDO Danielson Tavares has had more success reflecting the city’s population in the city’s workforce but does not oversee procurement.

Danielson Tavares, Chief Diversity Officer of the City of Boston, told Gotham Gazette, “my initial mandate was as to try to diversify the [city government] workforce to be as reflective of the city population as possible with special attention to underrepresented populations.”

According to the first ever workforce report looking at diversity in Boston in 2015, just 42% of city workers were non-white while 54% of the city was non-white. The December 2018 report showed that out of the nearly 1,500 new city hires in the year before the report, 55% were non-white.

Something both Atkinson and Tavares emphasized: for a CDO position to work, they need the support of the mayor of the city.

It doesn’t seem like the proposal has it in New York.

The New York City Push, MWBE Spending, & the Charter Revision Commission
In a statement to Gotham Gazette, de Blasio spokesperson Raul Contreras highlighted the work of the Mayor’s Office of Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises but was noncommittal regarding the CDO proposal that’s in front of the charter revision commission.

A chief diversity officer in New York would undoubtedly cause changes in the procurement spending infrastructure with the Mayor’s Office of M/WBE’s currently overseeing procurement to M/WBE’s. When asked at a March 21 press conference -- one week after the Stringer-led rally and testimony at the charter revision commission -- about the possibility of a CDO in New York City, de Blasio said, “I think the current approach is a very aggressive, effective way. We’ll always look at ways we can improve it, but I think this model is the way to get it done.”

“If you’re chief diversity officer and you don’t report to the head, you’re set up to fail,” said Wendy Garcia. “If you’re reporting directly to the head, you’re part of the system.”

“As long as it doesn’t get overly politicized, we see the power and leverage of a position like this necessarily maintained,” said Julie Nelson, Co-Director of the Government Alliance on Race and Equality (GARE).

An issue the 2019 Charter Revision Commission brought up in its hearing was the already existing framework in the city overseeing M/WBE investment. Commissioner James Caras asked the panelist of experts who testified on the issue if a CDO was really necessary as the duties of the position, diversity hiring and overseeing the M/WBE program, are already handled by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) and the Mayor's Office of M/WBEs, respectively.

Commissioner Stephen Fiala argued that the specifics of how a CDO would integrate with the current MWBE officers in city agencies are unknown and would only add to a complicated charter and city bureaucratic structure.

“We’re always too quick to come up with a catchy title and then try to ram it into the charter and then we’re left very disappointed when nothing happens.”

A possible downside to the idea of chief diversity officers, said Nelson, is “when individual positions are allocated with the responsibility, that can take the pressure or the weight off other people” when promoting diversity.

Asked about this reservation, Garcia told Gotham Gazette it is the reason the CDO must be in every agency and there must be one CDO who reports directly to the mayor.

If skipped over by the charter revision commission, the creation of a citywide chief diversity officer could be legislated by the New York City Council, however the expert panelists at the revision commission’s hearing were dubious of this path as the charter is less malleable to political changes and pressures.

It’s notable that of the ways the push for a CDO could succeed, like through legislative action or executive order, changing the city’s Charter is the only way that does not directly include the mayor, though he does have four appointees to the 15-member commission. (The City Council could pass a bill then override a mayoral veto. There is no current bill in the Council to create a CDO.)

When the 2019 Charter Revision Commission heard testimony on the proposal of creating a CDO at the March 14 hearing, commissioners appeared interested in the topic. After including the CDO concept in its list of issues to explore further, the commission heard from Stringer and others, among a series of expert hearings it held on a variety of topics, and will now put forward its narrowed focus areas on April 22. That list will determine which issues the commission plans to craft actual ballot proposals around for suggested changes to city government for voters to approve or disapprove in November.

The MWBE program, created by city law in 2005, attempts to increase the amount of city procurement dollars that go to minority- and women-owned businesses. In fiscal year 2018, the city awarded $19.3 billion in contracts, of which $1 billion, or about 5.5%, went to MWBEs, according to Comptroller Stringer’s Making the Grade 2018 report. In 2007, it was just 1.6%.

In the same 2018 report, Stringer gave the city as a whole a D+. Of the 32 mayoral agencies graded, only nine received a B or higher, including the Office of the Comptroller. On spending specifically with African-American-owned businesses, five mayoral agencies received a B or higher.  

To improve, Mayor de Blasio set the goal of awarding $16 billion to MWBEs by 2025 in his OneNYC plan, a goal which has since been increased to $20 billion by 2025.

Amid earlier criticism from Stringer, de Blasio created the Office of MWBEs in September of 2016, which is currently responsible for overseeing the MWBE program. The office, currently led by Jonnel Doris, is part of the mayor’s office and is overseen by the Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives, currently Phil Thompson. The office was created and enhanced under Thompson’s predecessor, Richard Buery.

Talk of a chief diversity officer actually came up in the 2013 New York City mayoral race. At a very early forum in the race -- held in June 2012 when Stringer was exploring a mayoral bid before he shifted to the comptroller’s race -- participating candidates including de Blasio criticized the Bloomberg administration approach to diverse hiring and MWBE contracting. According to news reports the candidates all supported the idea of a CDO at City Hall. “De Blasio also endorsed the idea, but said he would go further, making the person who holds that post a deputy mayor,” according to a Reuters article from the time. That’s what de Blasio has done, in a way.

But the city has failed to hit MWBE procurement benchmarks that were codified by Local Law 1 in 2013. For example, 18% of the value of city construction contracts awarded are supposed to go to women-owned businesses. In 2018, the city awarded just 4.1%, according to the comptroller’s Making the Grade 2018 report.

On the matter of diversity in the mayor's office and city government more broadly, little has changed since de Blasio took office, according to the most recent statistics available from the city. While de Blasio has elevated more women and people of color to top city leadership positions, the larger workforce is about what it was in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's final year of 2013.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of July 2017, New York City as a whole was 52.3% female and 46.7% male, and 32% white, 29% Hispanic, 24% black, 14% Asian, and 1% other races.

According to the city's Department of Citywide Administration Services: in 2013 the mayor's office was: 60% female and 40% male, and 54% white, 17% black, 15% Hispanic, and 14% Asian; in 2017 the mayor's office was: 58% female and 42% male, and 46% white, 20% black, 15% Hispanic, 16% Asian, and 3% some other race.

In 2013 the city government workforce was 58% female and 42% male, and 40% white, 31% black, 19% Hispanic, 8% Asian, and 2% some other race. In 2017 the city government workforce was 59% female and 41% male, and 38% white, 30% black, 20% Hispanic, 9% Asian, and 3% some other race.

Nelson, of the Government Alliance on Race and Equality, told Gotham Gazette the vast resources and dollars of New York City could have a real benefit on policies that would help people of color, if implemented well.

“What we don’t want to have happen is for these positions just to be spokespeople for the status quo,” she said.

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by Truman Stephens, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect accurate procurement spending with MWBEs by DDC. The original published version of the article inaccruately described DDC as making minimal progress in MWBE contracting in recent years whereas it has increased such spending significantly.

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Does New York City Need a Chief Diversity Officer? Sun, 14 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City’s Flawed Capital Project Process the Subject of Renewed Scrutiny, and Some Reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8381-city-s-flawed-capital-project-process-the-subject-of-renewed-scrutiny-and-some-reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8381-city-s-flawed-capital-project-process-the-subject-of-renewed-scrutiny-and-some-reform mayor bdb 200

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)


Many New Yorkers know the city has trouble completing construction projects on time and under budget. Projects like school renovations and the build-out of park facilities are capital projects, the subject of increasing scrutiny and some reform, with more promised, as frustrations persist and residents, watchdogs, lawmakers, and other city leaders seek answers.

Top officials from the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to Comptroller Scott Stringer have taken a fresh interest in improving the capital projects budgeting and delivery processes. The mayor’s office has released several plans promising to do just that. After forming a new subcommittee on the capital budget last year, the City Council has proposed reforms and Council members have been critical of the city’s handling of capital spending during this month’s annual budget hearings.

Stringer has proposed three city charter revisions to improve accountability, recommendations to a charter revision commission that will soon propose changes to the city’s central governing document.

There are some areas of agreement among the parties involved, but it is currently unclear if there will be any major substantive changes to the current system, wherein the city’s long-term capital budget planning is lacking in transparency and widely seen as unrealistic, and projects are consistently falling behind schedule and over budget.

Much of the recent attention has come through this year’s city budget process. As part of the reviewing the preliminary expense budget put forward by Mayor de Blasio, the City Council also assesses the preliminary capital budget for next fiscal year as well as the ten-year capital strategy.

At the first preliminary budget hearing of this cycle, Melanie Hartzog, the city’s budget director, said that the top priorities for capital projects over the next decade would be education, environmental protection, housing, and transportation.

In two recent hearings and several recently-released plans, city officials have promised to address many of the long-standing issues associated with capital project delivery, including planning, process, and transparency.

“We have doubts,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, at the Council’s initial budget hearing. Johnson and other Council members raised several issues about the capital budget and the ten-year plan. He said that the latter half of the ten-year plan “does not take into account the city’s needs,” including both its current commitments and new needs that will arise.

Multiple Council members brought up that the ten-year plan does not include any new school construction after fiscal year 2024. Council Member Vanessa Gibson, a Bronx Democrat and chair of the capital budget subcommittee, called this “unrealistic planning” and noted the city’s history of frontloading its ten-year capital plans.

Gibson specifically cited the budget planning for the NYPD’s capital needs. The current proposal allocates $850 million in capital spending for the first three years of the plan, and only $160 million in the next seven. Hartzog acknowledged the history and said that the city is working to improve. Council members did acknowledge some progress in clarity for what is outlined.

In addition to problems with planning, capital delivery from conception to completion has its own set of obstacles. Recognizing the past-due and over-budget trend, the city’s Department of Design and Construction earlier this year released a strategic blueprint that promises to “fundamentally reevaluate the status quo in City capital project delivery.”

As of the time of the report’s release, DDC was managing 834 active projects valued at $13.5 billion. Since 2004, the annual capital budget has grown by $1 billion to $3 billion each year to keep pace with a growing city, which has also added nearly a million jobs in the same period. DDC deals with most city capital projects outside of the School Construction Authority, which is its own entity dealing with its eponymous subject matter. SCA is known to be far more successful in its planning and delivery than DDC.

The blueprint identifies three internal and external impediments within the delivery process, including DDC’s own business practices, burdensome procurement process rules, and the engineering challenges that come with underground infrastructure that “all complicate efficient delivery of capital projects” in the city.

The report also identifies climate change as a necessary factor to consider in all future planning. Capital projects need to both protect the city from rising sea levels and natural disasters as well as minimize the city’s contributions to global warming, according to the report. The agency is under relatively new leadership as it embarks on this ambitious plan. Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Lorraine Grillo, who has also continued leading the School Construction Authority, as the new DDC commissioner last July. Grillo has been widely praised for her leadership of SCA, including by City Council members, though the city continues to struggle with school space in many neighborhoods.

DDC is currently undergoing an agency-wide review of its practices and external challenges. Through this review, DDC promises to “modernize how we do business.” These modernizing reforms include standardizing project initiation, managing projects more effectively, enhancing management capacity, and updating internal systems and technology. The plan promises to better identify and prioritize needs, streamline procurement, and restructure contracts to promote meeting deadlines, among other improvements.

Contracts and contractor diversity are also a primary concern for the mayor’s office and the Council, they say. DDC wants to get more out of its contracts and diversify and expand the pool of applicants. Daniel Steinberg, the Senior Advisor to the Mayor’s Office of Operations, said that many minority- and women-owned business do not apply for contracts because of the city’s history of untimely payments. This can also dissuade newer and smaller businesses from participating in the bidding process. Timely payment of contracts is a larger issue that DDC is also seeking to address.

During a February joint hearing, the City Council’s finance committee and capital budget subcommittee considered two bills that aim to improve transparency in the capital projects process.

The City Charter mandates certain reporting on the process to the Council and the public, but Council Member Gibson said these reports “often do not relate to one another or the city’s real spending in a meaningful way.” The two bills, which had the support of the Council members present at the hearing, are intended to address these issues. Gibson said that the proposals would give the Council and public “a wholistic and detailed look at all capital projects that are in progress throughout the city.”

The first, Intro. 32, sponsored by Council Member Andrew Cohen, a Bronx Democrat, would require city agencies to provide electronic notification of any delays or cost changes for capital projects. This is very similar to one of the charter revisions that Comptroller Stringer is proposing. The second, Intro. 113, sponsored by Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, would create a database to track citywide capital projects. Finance committee chair Daniel Dromm, a Queens Democrat, said that “transparency in the capital process is key to providing assurances to the public that city resources are being put into good use in an efficient and effective manner.”

While most of the hearing focused on these two bills, it was clear that the Council members had larger issues in mind and thought of the bills as first steps to larger-scale reform and improvements.

Steinberg, of the Mayor’s Office of Operations, said during the hearing that his office agreed with the two bills “in spirit,” but was concerned with components of each bill that he would consider to be “impractical.”

He voiced concern that Intro. 32 would require reporting for all capital projects, which includes everything from equipment acquisition (such as of paper shredders) to building or repairing massive water tunnels. In regards to Intro. 113, he said that it “would be incredibly burdensome to implement while providing little new information.”

Intro. 32 currently has ten Council sponsors, while Intro. 113 has 35 sponsors, well above the threshold required for passage in the 51-seat Council.

Nonprofit watchdog Citizens Budget Commission submitted testimony in support of Intro. 113 at the February hearing, saying that “the capital budget is just as important as the operating budget and should be subject to the same monitoring and scrutiny.” Gibson brought up the bills again at the initial preliminary budget hearing.

The two bills are focused on transparency in the capital projects process, but the sponsors and other Council members also contextualized the proposals as necessary for the eventual improvement of the entire system and not a distinct issue of bureaucratic transparency. During the hearing, Cohen said that “the inability of the city to deliver on capital projects is an epidemic.”

Council members frequently expressed their personal frustration with the process and the length it takes for many capital projects to be completed, some spanning multiple Council member terms. Cohen, who is in his second term, said that he “spends a significant amount of my time on projects that were funded by my predecessor.” Gibson similarly expressed frustration over parks projects commonly taking as long as eight years to complete, which presents an oversight challenge to Council members, who are term-limited to eight years in office over two terms.

A source of frustration for Council members was that only capital projects costing $25 million or more are required to be reported on the capital projects dashboard, a publicly-available transparency tool on the city’s website. Capital projects of that size account for only 300 of the over 10,000 ongoing projects for a year. Steinberg said that the Mayor’s Office of Operations would be open to expanding the scope of the dashboard’s reporting to be more inclusive than the current threshold. After learning that the city does not have an employee assigned specifically to data entry for the dashboard, Gibson said that it was evidence that capital projects transparency “is not a priority in this city.”

Another area of agreement between the Council and Comptroller is the need for individual budget line items for each capital project. This proposal was one of Stringer’s suggested charter revisions and Gibson brought it up at both recent Council hearings pertaining to the capital budget. Stringer is also proposing that the city regularly report on the condition of capital assets, a requirement he wants added to the charter.

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

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City’s Flawed Capital Project Process the Subject of Renewed Scrutiny, and Some Reform Thu, 21 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000