Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/510 Wed, 16 Oct 2019 12:55:06 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) The Governor's Signature is Next Step in Protecting New York Children from Toxic Toys https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8841-protecting-new-york-children-from-toxic-toys-cuomo https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8841-protecting-new-york-children-from-toxic-toys-cuomo children toys

(Dreamstime: Photo 3882847 © Jose Manuel Gelpi Diaz - Dreamstime.com)


Perhaps few items in society hold the same universal delight as children’s products. They are an important part of children’s wellbeing and development and can remind all of us of simple joys of childhood. We expect products designed specifically for children to be safe and free from chemicals that could cause harm.

Nobody wants their child to play with a toy containing alarmingly high levels of lead, cadmium, or mercury. However, there are many toys and products on the market today that do indeed contain chemicals that are hazardous to children’s health. Media reports of product recalls of children’s jewelry tainted with lead and arsenic, colored chalk contaminated with mercury, and baby soaps containing a chemical called 1,4 dioxane raise serious questions as to how manufacturers have been able to get these products into the market in the first place.

These products have been able to enter our state because of gaps in our regulation. Our regulations in New York have struggled to keep pace with the thousands of new combinations of materials and manufacturing processes involved in making children’s toys and products.

The good news is that New York has taken significant steps to remedy the issue through the state Legislature, with the new Child Safe Products Act, which passed in April 2019. By signing it into law on or around National Children’s Environmental Health Day, Friday October 11, Governor Andrew Cuomo could prevent further unnecessary harm to children on his watch.

The Child Safe Products Act, once signed, is poised to provide protections to keep toxic products out of the marketplace for all children. It would prevent the sale or resale of items containing the most dangerous chemicals — particularly important where consumers have less money for costlier toxic-free alternatives.

Low price and discount retailers that are commonplace in New York’s less affluent communities have been found to sell items containing very high levels of so-called “chemicals of concern.”

For example, a 2015 study by the Campaign for Healthier Solutions and HealthyStuff.org tested products commonly sold at dollar stores, like toys and jewelry for children, and found alarmingly high levels of lead, mercury, and cadmium. The new law would take a measured approach to regulating chemicals in products developed for children and includes a comprehensive list of chemicals that are currently known to have adverse effects on human health.

The Child Safe Products Act would also provide clear directives for each member of the supply chain – from the manufacturer to the seller. Manufacturers would be required to report to the state the chemicals included on the list that are found in their products. The state would in turn provide this information to an interstate chemical clearinghouse. Retailers would be notified which items they are forbidden to sell, due to their toxicity, and they would be held accountable for selling such items, prompting greater scrutiny in their buying processes and supply-chain management.

Intergenerational principles urge us to be mindful of our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of the next generation. This applies to all aspects of a child’s environment – where they live, learn and play. Governor Cuomo has lent his support to several environmental causes. Signing this act would demonstrate our joint commitment to future generations of New Yorkers and solidify our place as leaders in protecting children’s environmental health. Other states like Maine, California and Washington have similar policy mandates.

Let’s ensure that the next generation of New York’s children comes to associate products designed for them with happiness. Governor Cuomo, please sign the Child Safe Products Act into law and affirm New York’s commitment to a greener, more sustainable future for everyone.

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Christine Appah, Senior Staff Attorney for Environmental Justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a member of the JustGreen Partnership that supported passage of the Child Safe Products Act. On Twitter @NYLPI.

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

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The Governor's Signature is Next Step in Protecting New York Children from Toxic Toys Thu, 10 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
State Census Commission Releases Report, with Funding Decisions Kicked Back to Cuomo Administration https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8837-state-census-commission-releases-report-with-funding-decisions-kicked-back-to-cuomo-administration https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8837-state-census-commission-releases-report-with-funding-decisions-kicked-back-to-cuomo-administration mmv president attends

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


A state commission charged with creating a plan for ensuring a complete count of New York residents in the 2020 Census has finally released its report, nine months after it was due and with continued ambiguity over how state census funding will be distributed.

The New York State Complete Count Commission, made up of executive and legislative branch appointees, spent months holding hearings across the state to solicit input on the challenges posed by the decennial census and how the state should respond. The commission was co-chaired by New York State Secretary of State Rossana Rosado and Jim Malatras, president of the Rockefeller Institute of Government and a former top aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo.

This year’s state budget included $20 million for census efforts and the commission’s report, approved in a unanimous vote on Tuesday morning, is meant to be a roadmap for allocating that funding and avoiding an undercount, which could lead to less federal funding for the state, a loss of possibly two seats in the House of Representatives, and a whole host of other ancillary effects over the course of a decade.

Many of the concerns the report outlines were already apparent to advocates and observers: That New York is home to potentially 4.8 million hard-to-count individuals (particularly children under the age of 5) and that several communities lack language access, that the new online methodology could lead to lower responses among seniors or those lacking computer literacy, that the Census Bureau is having trouble recruiting workers and that communities of color and immigrants are particularly wary of the process, owing in no small part to the Trump administration’s unsuccessful efforts to add a citizenship question.

That question threat, in particular, has “created a lot of controversy, and had a potential chilling effect and created consternation in many of our communities, especially our foreign-born communities,” said Malatras, at Tuesday’s meeting where commissioners video-conferenced in from across the state. “Besides California, New York State has the highest percentage of foreign-born communities and people in the nation. So, in particular, it hits our state hard.”

The report also noted worries about data protection because of the digital-focused questionnaire, and omissions of home addresses from the Census Bureau’s records.

The challenges are by no means small. There are more than 200 languages spoken across the state but the Census Bureau will only provide video and printed guides in 59 languages and will translate the online questionnaire into only 12 other languages besides English. As many as 113,000 New Yorkers will have no language support from the Census Bureau, the report notes.

About 13.5% of households across the state also lack access to the internet at home, which could depress their self-response rate. The federal government has also yet to provide a waiver to the New York Census office to hire non-citizens as enumerators, who go door-to-door surveying residents in communities where the self-response rate is low. Advocates and officials agree that in immigrant-heavy communities, non-citizens are often the most effective at gaining people’s trust and soliciting responses.

Failing to meet these challenges could mean that New York State could see a drop in self-response rates to 58%, down from 62% in 2010 when the national average was 76%, according to Census Bureau estimates.

The report lays out several recommendations for a strategy the state should follow. It includes an analysis of hard-to-count census tracts, identifying where the state should expend its resources. The commission recommends a targeted communications campaign for communities at risk of an undercount and additional support for areas that lack internet connectivity and populations that rank low on digital literacy.

It also pushes for expanded translation services and building trust with immigrant communities. The report notes that if federal immigration authorities seek to misuse Census data, the state’s Liberty Defense Project should be pressed into action to provide legal assistance to immigrants.

Acknowledging that certain sections of the population fly under the radar, the report specifically urges the state to ensure an accurate count of people experiencing homelessness. It also pushes for ensuring that individuals in group-living situations – students in dormitories, seniors in nursing homes, inmates in correctional facilities – are counted.

The commission laid out a detailed plan for how the state can support municipalities with their efforts to conduct census outreach including providing aid to local complete count committees, collaborating with “trusted voices” like nonprofit service providers, labor, and faith-based organizations, enlisting all state agencies in the census effort, collaborating with the philanthropic community and establishing Census Assistance Centers in hard-to-count census tracts.

One place the report falls short is on details of how the $20 million in state funding will be spent. It’s unclear in what form that funding will be utilized.

“We are reviewing the report and the insight it provides on how the State, local governments and our partners can work together so that every New Yorker is counted in the 2020 Census,” said Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget, in an email.

At the hearing, Malatras acknowledged that the commission’s work had been delayed – it was only appointed after its first report was already due. “What we have to do today is we get this report to the state so they can release those resources that they provided in the budget,” he said. The commission is also meant to release a second and final report in January that details progress on its recommendations, he pointed out.

Commissioner Henry Garrido, executive director of labor union DC37 (who was appointed when Commissioner Hector Figueroa of 32BJ SEIU unexpectedly passed away -- the report includes a dedication to Figueroa) raised concerns about mistrust in immigrant communities and the question of hiring non-immigrants. Though Malatras admitted that “there was no clarity” on the use of the federal waiver, he urged local authorities to move ahead either way. “So we're going to go forward as if it would be okay to hire,” he said.

He also noted that, with a lack of support from the federal government, the state would have to step up. He pointed to the Department of Labor, in particular, noting that it has a robust census outreach plan in place already and said that the state would use SUNY and CUNY as recruiting centers for census outreach workers. 

Commissioner Jose Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation, raised the issue of the release of state funds. “We are already really late in the game,” he pointed out, wondering about the process and timeline on which the money would be awarded to community-based organizations. “It is those trusted sources that are going to help us deliver on the promise of getting a complete count in New York State,” he said.

Calderón’s worries were echoed by other commissioners including Esmeralda Simmons, founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, CUNY. “It's a roadmap,” she said of the report, “but unfortunately, it doesn't get us to our destination.”

She said CBOs have been waiting for months for funding to assist their work and the report provides few details on that front. “Everyone's waiting for recommendations on how the money is going to be spent, and how it's going to be utilized,” she said. “And we all know state government is not usually that swift. I appreciate all the actions that are anticipated but we have said none of that in this report. We've talked about no plan on how to get the money out there.”

Malatras sought to downplay those concerns, insisting that the next report due in January will address any funding issues and that it wasn’t within the commission’s authority to dictate whether the state dole out funding through a competitive bidding process or through agencies. “We want to make sure there's maximum flexibility for the state Legislature, the executive and others to say this is how they want to do it,” he said.

Simmons later pushed a motion to send a message of urgency in writing that the $20 million in census funding “be appropriated by the most efficient and expeditious method using state entities.” The motion was unanimously approved.

[Read: As City Rolls Out Census Funding for Outreach Efforts, State Lags Behind]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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State Census Commission Releases Report, with Funding Decisions Kicked Back to Cuomo Administration Tue, 08 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Reining in the Maleficent Middlemen: Governor Cuomo Should Sign America’s Toughest Prescription Drug Legislation https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8821-maleficent-middlemen-governor-cuomo-to-sign-america-s-toughest-prescription-drug-legislation https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8821-maleficent-middlemen-governor-cuomo-to-sign-america-s-toughest-prescription-drug-legislation gov cuomo legislation 200 million

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


Like the rest of America, New York State is ensnared in the stranglehold of our byzantine healthcare system, which today is best known for skyrocketing pharmaceutical drug prices and a rapid decline in quality of care. One of the most vicious, insidious, and disingenuous tentacles of that system choking the life out of us is the group of corporations known as Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs). 

While just three Fortune 25 companies – CVS, Express Scripts, and OptumRx – control nearly 80% of the pharmacy benefits market, most Americans are unaware of the outsized role PBMs play in their healthcare. And PBMs want to keep it that way.

Hired by insurance companies as their prescription drug middlemen, PBMs claim they play an important role in making prescription drugs accessible and affordable for consumers – including in New York’s Medicaid program – by negotiating prices with manufacturers.  

In reality, however, PBMs control which medications are covered by insurance, what patients pay out-of-pocket and the amount pharmacies get reimbursed for dispensing them. PBMs are unregulated thieves who are not required to — and therefore don’t — disclose how much money they take in, how much they pay out, or the savings they achieve through this process. 

When challenged to provide more transparency about their business practices, PBMs flat-out refuse. Why? Because a lack of oversight is their key source of power. And it’s the consumers, and the pharmacies that dispense medications, who pay the price.

According to a study by the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York (PSSNY), PBMs last year pocketed 24% of New York State Medicaid managed care spending. That adds up to more than $300 million in taxpayer money in the hands of giant corporate middlemen that do not actually provide any healthcare service. 

How did they do that? Through a nasty practice called “spread pricing,” in which a PBM bills an insurer for prescription drug claims at one rate and then reimburses the pharmacies that filled those prescriptions at a substantially lower rate. The difference, which PBMs pocket, is called the “spread.”

Thanks to Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature, New York in April became among the first states in the country to eliminate spread pricing in Medicaid managed care. This was a tremendous step in the right direction. But PBMs continue to hurt patients, taxpayers, and independent pharmacies.

The good news for New Yorkers — potentially excellent, game-changing news — is that the New York Senate and Assembly recently passed legislation that at last would impose common-sense requirements on PBMs aimed at fostering greater transparency. 

These new regulations, which await Governor Cuomo’s signature to become law, have been described as the toughest PBM legislation in America, offering significant, critical protections to patients, taxpayers, and neighborhood pharmacy owners — and a roadmap for the rest of America to follow.

In short, the regulations would further curtail spread pricing beyond Medicaid managed care, require PBMs to disclose previously confidential information, and give pharmacies the mechanisms they need to seek recourse for abusive PBM practices.

We know that deep-pocketed PBMs — which only care about their profits — have an array of lobbyists trying to water down, if not outright kill these regulations. We cannot afford to be bullied and manipulated by PBMs any longer. It is time to end this abusive system that preys on citizens. 

Other states are taking action, too. Ohio recently dumped PBMs for billing Medicaid $244 million more than they paid pharmacies, awarded $100 million to independent pharmacies for their losses, and introduced a new state program, transparent in nature and defined as a pass-through PBM. We applaud that action, too. But New York has an opportunity to take a major step forward here. 

That is why we stand behind Governor Cuomo, who time and again has proven that he fights for New Yorkers and is one of America’s most progressive leaders.

PBMs are destroying our healthcare system. We need to reign in their ability to control the medications physicians prescribe. Let me ask: Who do you think should be dictating healthcare strategies? Soulless PBMs, who are not in the healthcare business, but the money-making business, or our doctors and pharmacists, trained and licensed professionals dedicated to keeping us healthy?

PBMs are not going away. But we are on the verge of a historic moment, not just for New Yorkers, but for all Americans. And when Governor Cuomo signs these regulations into law, we will be there to celebrate.

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Yuriy Davydov, Pharm D., is the Founder & CEO of Zero Copay Program (ZCP), a pass-through PBM. On Twitter @ZCP_Inc.

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

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Reining in the Maleficent Middlemen: Governor Cuomo Should Sign America’s Toughest Prescription Drug Legislation Sun, 29 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of Fusion Voting in New York https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8817-max-murphy-podcast-the-future-of-fusion-voting-in-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8817-max-murphy-podcast-the-future-of-fusion-voting-in-new-york fusion voting 600

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


September 25, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of Fusion Voting in New York

stan fritz wbaiA commission established by Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature is designing a system of public campaign financing for New York, and also considering whether to try to end the practice of fusion voting. Its binding recommendations are due by December 1, but everything is complicated. Stanley Fritz of Citizen Action New York, which is part of the Working Families Party, joined the show to discuss the governor's push to end fusion voting, why he and others from the WFP and beyond are fighting to save it, and what comes next.

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The Future of Fusion Voting in New York Wed, 25 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
An Unsigned Piece of New York’s Decarceration Puzzle https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8796-an-unsigned-piece-of-new-york-s-decarceration-puzzle https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8796-an-unsigned-piece-of-new-york-s-decarceration-puzzle dannemora cuomo

(photo: the governor's office)


Where is Assembly Bill 6980? It updates New York’s Charitable Bail Fund Act to allow approved organizations to bond more people out of jail. The bill passed the Assembly on June 17 and the Senate on June 19, but it hasn’t been sent to Governor Andrew Cuomo, or requested by the governor for his signature, and it’s not clear why.

Bail reform activists finally had their day this year when the New York Legislature passed a comprehensive law that more than overhauled -- it essentially overturned -- the state’s money bail system. It didn’t eliminate the way people pay cash for freedom when they’re legally innocent, but it came close. Of the almost 205,000 criminal cases arraigned in New York City in 2018, only 10 percent of defendants would have needed money for bail if the new law had been in effect.

The new law wasn’t enough for some, though. Carl Heastie, the speaker of the Assembly, admitted that the bail reform law “didn’t go as far as we had liked.”

And that’s exactly why Assembly Bill 6980’s stall-out is both puzzling and problematic. A full and fair reform of the state’s money bail system can’t be realized without it being codified, which members of the Legislature recognized by passing it in June.

Even with the new bail reform law in effect, approximately 20,000 people in New York City alone stand to have their lives uprooted if they’re picked up by police, arrested and subjected to monetary release requirements. Thousands more outside the city face the same risk.

If a judge decides to set a monetary bail amount over $2,000 for a defendant charged with a felony, that person lands in the same situation as before: if he can’t afford to bond out, his freedom will be snatched from him when he’s still presumed innocent and while he can best help his attorneys with a defense. Currently, no bail bond fund can touch him; the law caps the allowable amount at $2,000 and limits assistance to those charged only with misdemeanors.

Assembly Bill 6890 will help fix that. It raises the amount that a charitable bail fund can post to $10,000 and imposes no restrictions on the nature of the charges of the beneficiary of the bail fund, the person who gets bonded out.

Charitable bail funds aren’t new. The first in New York, Bronx Freedom Fund, started in 2008. But it was far from welcomed; a judge sought to shut it down, saying it was illegal. But because it addressed a real need in a state that couldn’t solve the problem of a pretrial detention system that disproportionately pens poor people of color, New York State licensed charitable bail funds in 2012 through the Charitable Bail Fund Act, the law that currently constrains their ability to more fully do what they’re designed to do.

New York City started its own bail fund in 2017 -- the Liberty Fund -- precisely because the city doesn’t control state law, and uprooting the monetized scheme that we call pretrial release wasn’t something the city could accomplish on its own. Charitable bail funds are safety valves when the law doesn’t provide sufficient justice.

It would seem like New York bail funds will have limited utility after the bail reform package goes into effect on January 1, 2020. After all, if money isn’t an issue for 90% of the arrested population, then what can these organizations do?

The short answer is: a lot. In New York City alone, only 43 percent of the almost 5,000 pretrial detainees on April 1, 2019 would have been released under the new legislation. That means that 57% of detainees may remain in custody, even under this revolutionary reform. A study from the Center for Court Innovation found that almost half of all defendants were incapable of paying their bonds immediately after arraignment.

And the likelihood that they will plead guilty, even to crimes they didn’t commit, is about four times higher than if they were kept from confinement while they’re prosecuted. Pretrial release increases the chance that a defendant will be found guilty by about 14.8%. The fact that people enter guilty pleas simply to get out of custody accounts for much of that increase.

While a good number of these people will benefit from and be freed by the new reform law, failing to send this revision of the Charitable Bail Fund Act on to the governor for the final step suggests that lawmakers might have a tad too much confidence in their accomplishments.

Several states have proven that things don’t go exactly as planned when they try to jettison money bail. In California, the bail reform statute never reached fruition even though it was signed by the governor; opposition to SB 10 prevented its implementation.

Even when legislative efforts succeed and laws go into effect, the results can fail. In Illinois, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans implemented new rules designed to stop judges from setting unaffordable bond amounts. Initially, it looked like the new rules were working, until judges started setting bonds in untenable numbers to keep people they deemed dangerous incarcerated during the pendency of their cases. The dollar of money baiI set in 30% of cases in Cook County was unaffordable. In Maryland, the system overhaul backfired and ended up causing more people to be remanded to custody than before.

New York legislators had the advantage of knowing about these miscarriages as they drafted their bail reform bill, so they sidestepped many potential pitfalls. They had on their side the fact that New York is the only state to prohibit judges from considering a defendant’s alleged dangerousness in deciding pretrial release conditions. And, luckily, judges in New York City had unofficially decided to lean more towards releasing the people appearing before them prior to the bill’s passage.

But they can’t ignore the opposition to the new bail law that exists and the unfortunate reality that judges will do what they please. If reform does go haywire in New York, poor defendants need a back-up plan. A necessary part of that plan is charitable bail funds being able to fulfill their mission.

The New York Assembly should send 6980 over to Governor Cuomo post-haste. 

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Chandra Bozelko writes The Outlaw column for GateHouse Media and was a 2018 Pretrial Justice Innovator with the Pretrial Justice Institute.

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

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An Unsigned Piece of New York’s Decarceration Puzzle Tue, 17 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum - Part II: Partisanship, Patronage & Potential Fixes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8786-new-york-s-election-administration-accountability-vacuum-part-ii-partisanship-patronage-potential-fixes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8786-new-york-s-election-administration-accountability-vacuum-part-ii-partisanship-patronage-potential-fixes mayor bdb voting

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one: New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum: ‘Bad Choices at Every Step'

New York City’s Board of Elections, the maligned ten-member commission responsible for overseeing the administration of voting in the five boroughs, has been the subject of criticism for decades owing to inefficiency and ineffectiveness that often characterize its operations. At the root of the many problems the Board of Elections has in managing voter rolls, poll sites, and other aspects of its domain, are partisanship, patronage, and, as some put it, collusion between the two major parties in order to protect the politically powerful at the expense of regular voters.

The commissioners of the board are appointed by the City Council, but only from selections made by Democratic and Republican party leaders in each borough, giving the major parties ultimate control over election administration and limiting public accountability.

Michael Ryan, the board’s executive director since 2013, receives the harshest censure from elected officials and voters who are frustrated by recurring election failures, but he is accountable almost exclusively to the commissioners who hired and alone can fire him. Nevertheless, he answers questions before the City Council and State Legislature in oversight hearings following each election cycle, where he alternately apologizes for unforeseen circumstances or asserts the limits of his authority to address them.

Reform advocates say the board’s accountability problems stem from its bipartisan structure and a lack of professionalized staff and management. State law requires an even number of commissioners from each of the two parties earning the most votes serve on the board, each checking the actions of the other. In New York City, the board is balanced with a Democrat and Republican from each borough.

While the bipartisanship was intended as a reform to keep election administration fair over a century ago, many say it has led to the entrenchment of political parties and allows the board to operate as a patronage mill, awarding party loyalty over competence, with little concern for achieving the most inclusive and effective democracy possible. The results are administrative blunders -- failing ballot scanners, purged voter rolls, a lack of interpreters and signage at poll sites -- that can deter and even disenfranchise voters.

When Ryan attends oversight hearings at City Hall and in state hearing rooms he has the opportunity to explain these failures but is not otherwise compelled to fix them.

Partisan, or Non-Partisan, Election Administration
The idea of partisan representation in voting administration as a safeguard to the democratic process is highly disputed. One of the biggest criticisms is that power is concentrated in the hands of too few, and leaves unaffiliated voters, so-called third parties, and even rank-and-file major-party voters without a voice in election administration.

Over one million registered voters in New York City -- about one in five -- are not affiliated with either the Republican or Democratic parties. Statewide, nearly 3.5 million registered voters, roughly a third of the total, are not affiliated with either major party.

“If you’re going to have partisans run elections, then you should account for the actual partisanship of the electorate, which is not limited to the two major parties,” Benjamin noted, adding that he is opposed partisan election administration.

Jessica Thurston, communications director of New Kings Democrats, a reform-focused Democratic club in Brooklyn, believes the problem has less to do with partisanship and more to do with county party leaders controlling appointments. The process, she told Gotham Gazette, should be more inclusive of rank-and-file members with the goal of being “representative of the [Democratic] electorate, in as great a proxy as we can summon.”

There are alternative forms of election administration, but they carry their own risks. Thirty-four states have a single administrator -- often called the secretary of state -- who is either elected, appointed by the governor, or selected by the legislature to run elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

“I have never been persuaded that there’s an easy solution to this because...there have been multiple instances of politicized secretary of states’ offices around election administration,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at the good government group Reinvent Albany.

“In 2000, during the controversial Bush v. Gore election, Katherine Harris was the secretary of state in Florida and her name became infamous with politicization of the recount process,” he added. More recently, then-secretary of state for Georgia, Republican Brian Kemp, was accused of suppressing minority voters leading up to his 2018 election as governor over Democrat Stacey Abrams, who has still refused to formally concede the race.

Patronage
The city Board of Elections is one of a few places where “old style political party control of appointments and resources” -- the type used by party machines to influence voting in the era of Tammany Hall -- still thrives in New York, according to Ester Fuchs of Columbia University, a former Bloomberg administration official. “It’s sort of ironic that it’s concentrated in the Board of Elections, where you want ‘nonpartisanship’ and ‘professionalism’ to be the bywords, not ‘party control.’”

‘Professionalism’ is a common refrain for modern reformers who are wary of a patronage system that rewards party loyalty and connections over qualifications.

“Why is it because you’re a political leader that you can’t pick somebody very competent,” asked Frank Seddio, the leader of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. “Who would decide who those nonpartisan people should be that get hired?”

“What method would he choose?,” he asked of a hypothetical nonpartisan appointment authority.

One solution reformers have proposed is for commissioners and the staff they hire to be professional civil servants like at other city agencies -- subject to competitive hiring and screening by the city -- with the hiring entity also held responsible by other parts of government and the public.

“A lot of times the county election commissioners are the county party chairs, or their wives, or their cousins. So it turns out it’s used as a way for giving financial support to a person who spends most of their time on partisan activities,” according to Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz.

Some feel the bigger problem is the patronage concentrated in the lower ranks of the elections bureaucracy, like the coordinators and part-time employees needed to certify the voter rolls and manage polling locations in the lead-up to and on election days.

“It’s a patronage mill particularly for the people at the bottom who are probably getting minimum wage or very slightly above,” said Esmeralda Simmons, a veteran election lawyer and founder of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.

State law gives Ryan the discretion to hire the staff of the city Board of Elections under the supervision of the commissioners, with deference to the two-party split, which the board interprets as extending throughout the agency’s ranks. The lack of accountability “arises out of a particular portion of the law that gives the board absolute, unreviewable discretion regarding who to hire,” according to Lerner. “Now that’s clearly designed to protect patronage.”

Ryan told Gotham Gazette in 2017 that the BOE, according to state law, cannot question the credentials of workers forwarded by district leaders. “It’s up to the local party’s discretion who they want to designate and it’s not for us to question,” he said.

The hiring procedures based on party affiliation and the low pay means the board is often hiring under-qualified candidates who have limited employment options. “They only got the job because a district leader or the county leader asked for them to be hired, otherwise they never would be there,” according to Simmons.

“It has nothing to do with intelligence, but it does have a lot to do with where you can get a job,” she added.

Experts say the patronage leads to inefficiencies and limits the capacity of the city Board of Elections. “These are not professional civil servants that can be easily removed…[nor is there] any kind of broad based accountability to somebody who is elected, like a mayor or even a member of the City Council,” said Fuchs.

The outcome is a system that is antiquated and resistant to change, she said, and inefficiencies contribute to mishaps in election processes, especially at the polls.

Inefficiencies
At the city Board of Elections operations are largely paper-based, a surprise to many observers who have seen government agencies across the board embrace digital technologies. While acknowledging the importance of paper ballots to protect the integrity of elections against cybersecurity threats, reform advocates have pushed for a process of fully online voter registration.

The State Legislature passed a law earlier this year to allow the use of electronic poll books, rather than cumbersome and limited paper books, which many view as essential to implementing the new early voting process that was also approved.

Another commonly cited problem is that poll workers are overworked and under-trained leading to disorganization and misinformation on election days. Poll workers navigating large poll books by hand is often cited as a contributor to long lines and confusion at poll sites. But there are new concerns about whether poll workers will be trained well enough in the use of electronic books for the new technology to be as effective as intended.

Ryan has asked for, and Council Speaker Johnson and Mayor de Blasio have expressed openness toward, a municipal poll worker program to help recruit the tens of thousands of vetted employees needed to staff poll sites on election days. The program would require a partnership with city agencies and raises collective bargaining questions, which it appears the city has not tackled.

Since the State Legislature passed a series of voting reforms this year, like early voting and voter registration transfers, reformers and administrators alike have been concerned about the board’s capacity to roll these out effectively.

“I don’t think [the Board of Elections is] really trying to adversely impact elections,” said Fuchs. “They can’t roll out the whole thing more efficiently than they are proposing because they don’t have the capacity and they don’t want to let go of control,” she said referring to the BOE’s plan to open just 38 early voting sites despite the city’s offer to fund 100 locations.

For Simmons, it comes down to a “basic question: If the operations don’t work, how are the elections working? They are not...Let’s see how they do with all of these great good government improvements still within the same system.”

There is a feeling among reformers that, if the board is not required to act by law, it will not implement changes to improve the voter experience. Attempts have been made to encourage the city Board of Elections to improve poll worker staffing, increase accessibility, and conduct more comprehensive voter outreach. Mayor de Blasio and the City Council have offered the board significant additional city funding to implement some of these, which it has turned down.

A major issue for advocates is language access. Simmons’ center, along with other groups, has been pushing the Board of Elections to provide non-English materials at poll sites. “The only time the Board of Elections would translate materials is when the Justice Department required them to do it -- this is real, this is still happening -- even if they knew there was a large population that did not speak English,” she said, referring to events within the last decade.

An Agency of the City?
What makes failed attempts for accountability and improvement so frustrating to reformers is that the city Board of Elections appears to be a city agency in many senses, yet it operates largely beyond the influence of the mayor and City Council.

The city funds the board’s budget almost entirely, according to Bernard O’Brien, a senior budget analyst at the Independent Budget Office; and the City Council technically appoints its commissioners (though it doesn’t ‘select’ them). An informal opinion issued by the state attorney general in 1989 determined “the Board is a local agency.”

But boards of elections are ultimately given their authority by state law. “Any powers the city enjoys are really delegated powers,” said Joseph Viteritti, chair of the Urban Policy and Planning Department at Hunter College.

While state law outlines its general format and obligations, it gives considerable authority to localities. The election law is structured so that local laws still apply unless they are explicitly prohibited by the state. There are also provisions of the municipal home rule law that give the city authority to deal with aspects of voting and elections.

For example, lower and appellate courts have upheld the city’s campaign finance law as a valid exercise of the city’s home rule powers, according to Rick Schaffer, chair of the city Campaign Finance Board, which is nonpartisan. (The city campaign finance system is more robust and extensive than the state’s regulations, which were established in the same provision that created the State Board of Elections as an oversight body in 1974.)

The same process that established the city’s campaign finance system -- a charter revision commission -- will place a new voting system known as ranked-choice voting on the ballot this November. If voters approve it, the city charter will be amended and the Board of Elections will have to implement the changes.

Yet, despite the city’s enormous political and fiduciary interest in election administration, many argue city elected officials have limited tools with which to compel action. Short of offering funding in exchange for certain obligations, deputizing the (new) chief democracy officer to work with the board, or empanelling a charter revision commission, the city has few options. “This mayor and this Council I think have done a lot, particularly the mayor, to try to encourage the board [of elections] to perform better,” Camarda of Reinvent Albany told Gotham Gazette.

Not everyone agrees. Some advocates feel that one of those tools -- the city’s budget authority, and the use of binding terms and conditions -- is not being employed effectively to direct the actions of the board. “Other counties use the budget to rein in or prohibit the board from doing unacceptable things. Our city does not,” according to Lerner. “And I think again it’s because of the political nature of the body.”

Ryan’s arrival in City Hall after the general election provided reformers a tiny foothold on which to seek accountability, even from the Council. “If there is a problem, if the Council has passed a law that the Board of Elections is not following, and the Board of Elections refuses to follow it after negotiations and various requests, frankly, the city is going to have to sue because otherwise the law is useless,” Lerner told the Council members assembled.

"What we have is a showgame,” she said in an interview with Gotham Gazette, “where elected officials are more than happy to criticize the board publicly, but are not doing anything effective to rein it in."

[This is part two of a two-part series. Revisit part one here.]

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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New York's Election Administration Accountability Vacuum - Part II: Partisanship, Patronage & Potential Fixes Tue, 10 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York Must Pass the 'Rape is Rape' Bill https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8783-new-york-must-pass-the-rape-is-rape-bill https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8783-new-york-must-pass-the-rape-is-rape-bill gov andcuomo doc

(photo: the governor's office)


At the end of August, NBC New York ran a story about a young woman who was raped after going out to a Manhattan bar. Despite the fact that she came forward, wanting justice to be done, the Manhattan District Attorney refused to prosecute the case.

When a reporter questioned his decision not to pursue charges, DA Cyrus Vance’s staff shared a letter he wrote to Governor Andrew Cuomo insisting that he cannot bring forth rape charges in cases in which victims were voluntarily intoxicated. In other words, if you go out in Manhattan, get drunk, and end up being raped, there is nothing the Manhattan DA can do for you.

It’s a disingenuous claim.

The idea that “prosecutors cannot bring sex crime charges in cases where the victim becomes voluntarily intoxicated and was unable to consent” is simply untrue. We know it’s untrue because the Manhattan DA himself brought charges in a similar case: People v. Johnson.

In that case the Manhattan DA secured a Rape 1 indictment where the victim was voluntarily intoxicated. The Appellate Court ultimately vacated the conviction, but only because DA Vance’s office botched the plea deal. 

This is not the first time DA Vance has declined to press charges in a sexual assault investigation, and he’s not the only one with a follow-through problem. Time and time again, law enforcement fails survivors of sexual assault. It’s not a problem unique to DA Vance or New York City but a nationwide “epidemic of disbelief” as Atlantic writer Barbara Bradley Hagerty put it.

Survivors of rape are regularly met with skepticism. Though it’s the police who investigate and DAs who secure convictions, the state Legislature cannot be absolved of responsibility.

Currently, under New York state law, only forced vaginal penetration is considered rape while forced oral and anal contact are labeled criminal sexual acts. Not only is this definition restrictive, it is archaic. There are consequences to this omission: refusing to call rape by its name reduces the perceived severity of the crime.

The Rape is Rape bill (A00794C) would amend the penal code to redefine rape to include forced anal and oral contact, and eliminate the penetration element that is legally necessary to establish that a vaginal rape has occurred.

At first glance, the bill appears an easy sell. Who would disagree that forced anal or oral sex should be considered rape? Equally important is the underlying question. Who would argue that the law shouldn’t recognize that a man has been raped? Well, the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, for one. The lobbying arm of the state’s DA association has proved a major hindrance to any sort of progressive reform and in 2013, then-DAASNY President Cy Vance wrote to the Assembly opposing the bill on bogus claims that it would reduce penalties for sex crimes. 

A similar reluctance to evolve has pervaded the NYPD’s approach. Up until this year, the NYPD was undercounting rape in New York City by as much as 38%, excluding reports of forced oral and anal contact in its official reporting system despite a state mandate to include these crimes in its statistics. Following the Newsy report, we called on the NYPD to immediately bring its system up to federal standards, and the department did.

While the NYPD works to implement a “victim-centered” approach – a result of a scathing city Department of Investigation inquiry that found the Special Victims Division was undertrained and understaffed – the Legislature must do its part and pass the Rape is Rape bill in January, when the next legislative session begins.

And our work does not end there.

We must also elect District Attorneys who will be thoughtful in their prosecutions of sex crimes and take all rape cases seriously, not just the ones they think they can win.

It is especially important that we have DAs who understand that the Penal Code should not only be used to prosecute crimes, but to inform the public of what is acceptable behavior. When we call a rape—whether it is vaginal, oral, or anal—anything but rape, we delegitimize the crime and invalidate the survivor’s experience.

Perhaps the Me Too movement is the cultural awakening this country needs to take sexual violence seriously. That being said, these cultural changes will not happen overnight and in the meantime, we implore the NYPD, New York’s District Attorneys, and the state Legislature to do better.

Everywhere we look our institutions, designated to protect, serve, and deliver justice, are failing survivors. We must take responsibility for these failures and adopt survivor-centered policies while we work to change society.

***
Dan Quart & Aravella Simotas are members of the New York State Assembly representing parts of Manhattan and Queens, respectively. On Twitter @amdanquart & @AravellaSimotas. (Quart is also a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney.)

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

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New York Must Pass the 'Rape is Rape' Bill Mon, 09 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
In Opioid Fight, City Expands Access to Crucial Medication-Assisted Treatment https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8777-in-opioid-fight-city-expands-access-to-crucial-medication-assisted-treatment https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8777-in-opioid-fight-city-expands-access-to-crucial-medication-assisted-treatment New York City opioid treatment

(photo: Edwin Torres/Mayor's Office)


New York City is showing modest progress in the fight to curb the explosion in drug overdoses, with the health department reporting 38 fewer deaths last year compared to 2017, after a concerted $60-million effort focused on substance abuse prevention, treatment, and education, especially with regard to opioids.

One aspect of that fight has been the expansion of access to medication-assisted treatment, which experts and activists say is a crucial element in preventing overdoses, curbing addiction, and helping those suffering from substance abuse disorders to reclaim their lives. The city has continued some advancement on that front, training thousands of more prescribers, while a state bill that could help that effort, which passed the Legislature this year, languishes unsigned by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Medication-assisted treatment involves prescribing and administering drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine, which help mitigate the symptoms of withdrawal and curb cravings.

Methadone is itself an opioid, albeit a relatively weaker one, that can help those suffering from addiction wean off stronger narcotics. Buprenorphine acts similarly and is an even more effective treatment drug since its effects level out no matter the size of the dosage. Both, however, are stringently regulated.

Methadone treatment programs are subject to oversight by numerous federal agencies, and the drug must be administered to patients on site under observation. For buprenorphine, doctors must receive waivers to prescribe the drug after undergoing an eight-hour training. In the United States, compared to other countries, the treatment remains vastly underutilized.

“Medication-assisted Treatment (MAT) is a standard of care for opioid use disorder and it is critical for treating addiction, and also is a protective factor against overdose,” said Dr. Denise Paone, Director of Research and Surveillance at the city Health Department’s Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Use. “So we've invested a lot of effort into the expansion, particularly of buprenorphine, because as you know, methadone is federally regulated.”

Since the March 2017 launch of HealingNYC, the city’s multi-faceted strategy to combat the opioid crisis, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has trained 1,800 new buprenorphine prescribers, surpassing the original goal of 1,500. The aim of the program has been to increase buprenorphine prescriptions by 20,000 by 2022.

There has already been some success, with prescriptions up from 115,167 in 2017 to 126,002 in 2018.

Besides training new prescribers, the city has also expanded a Nurse Care Manager program – where registered nurses coordinate treatment for patients and with providers – to 26 primary care clinics around the city, and is funding 9 of 14 syringe service programs to provide on-site buprenorphine.

“In actual clinical practice, we are providing funding to these federally qualified health centers that serve those that are underinsured or not insured. And we provide support so that these primary care clinics can provide on-site buprenorphine,” Paone noted.

It’s hard to draw a through line from the investments in buprenorphine access to the reduction in overdose deaths, Paone said, because of the many elements of HealingNYC that work in concert. “But buprenorphine obviously plays a major role,” she said.

There are still numerous challenges as the city attempts to increase the number of doctors prescribing the life-saving drug. The first is the required physician waiver. “There is an effort across the country, supported by a lot of attorneys general, as well as health departments to work at the federal policy level to have this waiver removed,” Paone said, citing a letter sent by several attorneys general to congressional leadership, calling for eliminating the waiver. But that effort has seen little movement. 

In New York State, buprenorphine prescribers are also required to get prior authorization from insurance companies. A bill sponsored by Assemblymember Dan Quart and State Senator Pete Harckham passed the Legislature earlier this year and would do away with that requirement but it has yet to be signed by Cuomo. “The bill is under review,” said Caitlin Girouard, a Cuomo spokesperson, in an email. 

“From social stigma to regulatory barriers, people seeking treatment for substance use disorders are faced with significant obstacles,” Quart said in a statement. “While this bill won’t remove all existing roadblocks, it will cut red tape and wait times, guaranteeing New Yorkers faster access to lifesaving treatment. The opioid epidemic has devastated communities across the state and I encourage the Governor to sign my bill into law, and ensure those seeking treatment have swift access to the care they need.”

Harckham, a Democrat representing parts of Westchester and the Hudson Valley, chairs the Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse and is also co-chair of Joint Senate Task Force on Opioids, Addiction & Overdose Prevention, which was created earlier this year and held its first hearing last month.

“We want to find out what's working, what the gaps are, what we need to do from a legislative standpoint, what we need to do from a regulatory standpoint,” he said in a phone interview. “And certainly we have to break down any barriers we can to medication-assisted treatment because evidence shows, that's what saves lives.” Harckham expects that next year, the Legislature will pursue a robust package of bills to fight the opioid crisis based off the task force’s work. 

Removing the stigma around buprenorphine and methadone also remains a priority for the city, and the Health Department has sought to fight it with a $2.8-million mass media and advertising campaign called “Living Proof” displaying real stories of individuals who have benefited from treatment.

The ads ran on local television (2,141 times), newspapers, online, in social media, and on the subway system. Besides the millions that saw the ads on the subways and ferries, the health department provided data that social media ads led to 2 million online video views and over 80,000 visits to NYC Health’s “Opioid Addiction Treatment with Buprenorphine and Methadone” web page. “It was actually quite powerful, and then we're in the process of doing an evaluation of that campaign,” Paone said. 

“Expanding access to medication treatment is really probably the most critical response right now to the opioid epidemic,” said Dr. Chinazo Cunningham, professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center, which has trained several hundred buprenorphine prescribers. “But what we also know from research is only about half of the people who are trained, actually go on to prescribe it and actually treat addiction and so we need to do more than just train people,” she added.

Besides that, Cunningham said the city needs to invest more in nurse care managers and that service providers need more support for mentoring and education in addiction treatment. “I think that the issue is there's not one thing to turn this epidemic around,” she said. “But all of these approaches are based in evidence to show that these are what the barriers are and these are the kinds of supports that are needed for providers to take this on and to provide treatment.”

Jasmine Budnella, drug policy coordinator at VOCAL-NY, an activist group, was among dozens who protested outside the governor’s New York City office last month, calling on him to take more action towards fighting the overdose epidemic. She said the prior-authorization bill is an important step to increase access to buprenorphine. “For low-income New Yorkers, that was the only bill that we were able to pass this last session that we know has proven evidence will work in reducing the overdose crisis,” she said in a phone interview.

Budnella believes the city’s approach to medication-assisted treatment needs to be more holistic and expanded past the areas where overdose deaths have been highest. She noted, for instance, that overdoses are a leading cause of death in homeless shelters.

“We need to continue expansion, but not just in areas of high need,” she said. “We need to make sure that we're extending to all people.” She urged the mayor to provide more funding to the health department and to the Department of Social Services, to ensure that the city tackles the nexus of the overdose and homelessness crises, particularly by investing in supportive housing for those who require addiction-treatment services.

“We need to make sure that we have wraparound services for folks,” she said. “We also need to make sure that the criminal justice system is not the first to get employed for people who use drugs…What we really need is infrastructure where we have social workers and public health experts who are the ones employed to go help people with substance use disorder or mental health issues, so that the police don't have to police poverty.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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In Opioid Fight, City Expands Access to Crucial Medication-Assisted Treatment Thu, 05 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Senate Deputy Leader Gianaris on Gun Control, Queens Politics & More https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8724-max-murphy-podcast-senate-deputy-leader-gianaris-on-gun-control-queens-politics-more https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8724-max-murphy-podcast-senate-deputy-leader-gianaris-on-gun-control-queens-politics-more gianaris sen mda wbai px

Senator Gianaris with activists (photo: @SenGianaris)


August 7, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Senate Deputy Leader Gianaris on Gun Control, Queens Politics & More

mike gianaris wbai inset pxState Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris of Queens joined the show to discuss gun control laws that have been passed in New York, what is ahead for state government in the next legislative session, Queens political dynamics including the result of the District Attorney primary, and more.

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Senate Deputy Leader Gianaris on Gun Control, Queens Politics & More Wed, 07 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
An Old, Unfair System: New York City's Property Tax Conundrum - Part III - The City's Bottom Line https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8716-old-unfair-system-new-york-city-property-tax-conundrum-part-iii-revenue-city-budget https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8716-old-unfair-system-new-york-city-property-tax-conundrum-part-iii-revenue-city-budget gov and may deb pro

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor Bill de Blasio


This is the third and final part of a three-part series on New York City's antiquated and unfair property tax system, its complications and inequities, the underway task of reforming it, and prospects for the future.

Read part one - Taking on the Difficult Task - here.

Read part two - Deep and Complex Inequities - here.

**********

When Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced the creation of an advisory commission to come up with reforms to the city’s antiquated property tax system (much of which is controlled by state law), they said their focus would be on fairness while maintaining the city’s largest revenue stream.

The revenue from New York City property taxes was a whopping $27.8 billion last year, roughly a third of the city budget, and it helps fund everything from basic government administration and social services to the mayor’s signature initiatives like universal pre-kindergarten, including the salaries and benefits of hundreds of thousands of municipal workers.

Property owners see their taxes rise every year, squeezing nearly everyone -- though not evenly or fairly. Elected officials across the board have expressed interest in changing the system. But to make a more rational property tax system and still fund extensive city services at or near their current levels, officials will have to navigate the murky waters between the public interest and that of each individual taxpayer.

How skillfully that is done will dictate the political consequences that follow, and whether promised soon-to-be-proposed reforms to the property tax system actually have a chance to pass through the New York City Council and State Legislature.

‘A Substantial Constraint’
“One of the hard things about the whole property tax system: changing things is always going to impact someone else. If you move things for one tax class -- because we’re trying to stay revenue neutral -- it inevitably means changes for a different tax class,” Marcy Miranda, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, told Gotham Gazette.

Some experts have asked why, if the commission’s purpose is to create a more fair and equitable system, is it constrained by the mandate to leave the city’s revenue untouched?

“It is definitely a substantial constraint. And I think that is being driven more by city fiscal concerns than it is by questions of how to structure the tax and what is the best tax,” Ana Champeny of Citizens Budget Commission told Gotham Gazette.

Roughly two-thirds of the city’s revenue comes from taxes, a little under half of which is property taxes. During a panel discussion about economic growth in New York City in May, former Commissioner of City Planning Carl Weisbrod said the city’s vast provision of social services and recent changes in federal tax policy mean, “increasingly, we are dependent on our own ability to generate revenue.”

Mark Shaw, co-chair of the city’s property tax commission, the initial recommendations from which are expected soon, views the revenue mandate as a gesture to those anxious about the prospect of reforming a system so integral to private and public life in New York.

“The veil of revenue neutrality over the debates for the commission is actually a way of making it clear to any of the interested parties of the public that this is not a back door way of trying to increase property taxes,” Shaw told Gotham Gazette.

But the mayor’s executive order establishing the commission, which reflected an agreement with the City Council, does not mention revenue neutrality, exactly. It only says the commission’s recommendations “shall not result in a reduction of revenue.”

The Frozen Tax Rate
State law sets the property tax classes, along with the assessment standards and growth caps, but the city -- the City Council with the mayor’s approval -- controls the tax rate. Since fiscal year 2009, the mayor (Bloomberg, then de Blasio) and City Council have agreed to keep the overall tax rate frozen. Because of very strong growth in the city’s real estate market, however, property taxes have continued to rise and generate more and more revenue.

This has allowed the city budget to grow significantly over the past two decades. Spending under Mayor Michael Bloomberg reportedly rose 31.6 percent above inflation during his three terms in office. Since de Blasio took office, the city budget has grown by more than $20 billion overall, up to the $92.8 billion expense budget for the current fiscal year. 

“If the tax commission came up with reforms that adjusted the assessed values, the Council and the mayor could set a tax rate that didn’t have a revenue implication for the city, but it might raise the rate,” said Champeny of CBC.

Given how sensitive the subject of taxation is in New York City, raising the tax rate could come with political fallout. “Obviously that would be pretty unpopular if someone were to come in and make that change,” said Miranda from the mayor’s office.

The rates the city sets on the assessed value of the property in each class, known as the “class shares,” are supposed to adjust each year to reflect changes in the market but growth caps set by the state limit how much a class share can increase, according to Champeny. The city has the discretion to redistribute any increases above the cap to other tax classes.

In most years recently, the City Council has requested lawmakers in Albany lower the cap for homeowners, shifting increases onto commercial and utility properties. “The class shares protect [homeowners] slightly but also there’s been sort of this political choice by elected officials in the Council and the state Legislature -- and the mayor to some extent because they don’t oppose it -- to make sure that the levy growth does not fall too much on Class 1,” Champeny said, referring to one- to three-family homes.

“Each annual adjustment doesn’t necessarily shift a lot, but over ten, twenty years, it does accumulate,” she added.

Balancing the Equation
The purpose of the Advisory Commission on Property Tax Reform is to weigh all of these factors -- equity, rationality, what the state controls and what the city can do, the unintended consequences for owners and renters, transparency in the system -- and come up with recommendations for improvement. The result could be the kind of fundamental, planned restructuring of New York taxation that some had hoped would happen following the Hellerstein case in 1975; or piece-meal, band-aide solutions like the ones New York ended up with in the years after.

“We're going to...go at the heart of the property tax problem and have a commission, working closely with the Council, to try and reform fundamentally the property tax to be more fair for everyone,” Mayor de Blasio said in April 2018 when he released the executive budget that year. 

In 1975, Judge Solomon Wachtler, writing the majority opinion, was concerned with the “remarkable powers of endurance” of the practices that prompted the Hellerstein case. Their survival depended largely on the machinations of politicians and officials servicing particular constituencies, factors “none of which are particularly commendable,” he noted in his decision. Over the years, those factors have multiplied and become more interconnected. Any changes of substance now will implicate the entire system, and any balance struck toward making it “more fair for everyone,” as de Blasio said, may not be what everyone wants.

This is the third and final part of a three-part series on New York City's antiquated and unfair property tax system. Read part one - Taking on the Difficult Task - here. Read part two - Deep and Complex Inequities - here.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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An Old, Unfair System: New York City's Property Tax Conundrum - Part III - The City's Bottom Line Sun, 04 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000