Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/510 Fri, 20 Sep 2019 08:03:45 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 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. 

***
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.]

***
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.”

***
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
An Old, Unfair System: New York City’s Property Tax Conundrum - Part II - Deep and Complex Inequities https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8713-old-unfair-system-new-york-city-property-tax-conundrum-part-ii-classes https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8713-old-unfair-system-new-york-city-property-tax-conundrum-part-ii-classes maybdb rem

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


This is part two of a three-part series. Read part one - Taking on the Difficult Task - here. (Skip to part three - The City's Bottom Line - here.)

Elected officials and their critics alike have decried the complexity and inequality of the state’s property tax system. They say it is layered and non-transparent, and produces disproportionate tax burdens for various populations because of technical factors that are difficult for taxpayers to understand. These can lead owners of similarly valued properties in different parts of the city to pay drastically different annual property taxes.

The rising value of a homeowner’s property can belie the struggle they may face to stay afloat and keep their homes when property tax payments also climb. For those who own rental property, when the tax burden goes up it is often passed on to renters in the form of higher rents and fees on apartments that are not rent-regulated.

The Advisory Commission on Property Tax Reform was emplaneled by Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, both Democrats, in 2018 to examine these issues and develop recommendations to reform the system, which could implicate both city and state policy, without reducing the city’s largest revenue stream.

On the table are aspects like the way different properties are classified and assessed by the state, how statutory restrictions on tax rate growth interact with market forces, and how the city sets the tax rate. These factors have had consequences for communities of color, low-income New Yorkers, seniors, and residents in some, but not all, boroughs.

As it was in 1981, when the current system was wrought out of practices that extend to the early days of the American republic, the issue today is a political flashpoint. Property taxation affects every resident in the state, and members from nearly every interest group and political party have called for its overhaul. But some of the most outspoken critics of the system, especially certain homeowners who see their taxes go up every year, may end up responsible for an even greater share of the levy if changes are made.

Four decades ago, in Hellerstein v. Assessor, Islip, the courts found New York’s property value assessment methods, which had been in practice for roughly 200 years, to be in violation of state law. Homes were being assessed with great variability on a fraction of their sales price, while business owners were footing a much larger bill for their commercial properties. Rather than adjusting practices to assess the full value of homes, lawmakers in Albany changed the rules to allow government assessors to continue favoring certain types of property over others.

Reflecting the old order, the current system divides properties into four classes, each to be assessed and taxed differently. Statutory caps are in place to ensure property taxes payments remain stable even if market values jump. To help account for variables like income, location, and the condition of housing, tax abatements and rebates are available. As a result of the classification regime’s disparate assessment methods, discrepancies exist among residential properties, with cooperatives and condominiums greatly undervalued for tax purposes compared to other homes despite at times being worth far more.

One- to three-family homes are in Class 1 and are assessed based on comparable sales prices; in Class 2, apartment buildings, as well as co-ops and condos, are taxed based on a market value derived from the annual income earned in rent by similar, nearby units, which is usually lower than the market value based on sales price, according to property tax experts. Even within the classes, statutory caps on assessed value growth have led, more recently, to uneven tax burdens across the five boroughs because of the way the housing market has exploded in some neighborhoods more than others.

An Unfair System
Attempts have been made to address property tax inequities in New York City since the current system was adopted nearly 40 years ago, but they have failed to produce transformative results. The most notable review was led by Mayor David Dinkins in 1993.

Dinkins, a Democrat, empaneled a commission to study the issue, which released a report just days before his term ended. Its most salient recommendation was to bring the treatment of co-ops and condos closer to Class 1 properties, but years of negotiations under his Republican successor, Rudy Giuliani, led only to a temporary tax abatement for apartment owners, according to an Independent Budget Office report. (A piece in the New York Times from 1994 provides an alternative account in which the Dinkins commission made no recommendations because it could not come to a “consensus on objectives,” using the words of one of the commissioners.)

The issue has become a recurring political motif. De Blasio discussed it during his first campaign for mayor and a year later, in 2014, his Commissioner of Finance, Jacques Jiha, said he would undertake a comprehensive analysis before making recommendations to the state for change. Yet it appears the Advisory Commission empaneled in 2018 is conducting the first such review of the mayor’s tenure.

“Fairness” is at the core of the commission’s mission, largely a response to a number of related policy consequences that have become apparent over the years.

>>Property Tax Classes
Legislators in 1981 created a system that would benefit small home owners by placing them in Class 1, maintaining the relatively low assessment rates they had enjoyed for so long, while leaving commercial properties, including apartment buildings, in Class 2 with a larger share of the levy.

At the time, co-op conversions, which started in New York City in the 1920s, had begun to take place at a very rapid rate; between 1978 and 1988, roughly 242,000 rental apartments in more than 3,000 buildings had been turned into tenant-owned cooperatives, according to a New York Times report published in 1988. In order to prevent assessors from considering the value of apartments if they were to be converted, lawmakers placed co-ops and condos into Class 2 and inserted language into the state law requiring they be assessed on the net income they would earn as rentals, as opposed to their sales value.

More recently, however, in an era of acute gentrification and concentrated market value growth, the low rates on co-ops and condos has become a new variation on the unequal assessment theme that sparked the Hellerstein case. As the price of homes in booming neighborhoods has skyrocketed, taxes assessed on co-ops and condos have become an increasingly smaller proportion of their sales value.

Tax Equity Now New York, a coalition of homeowners, renters, and business groups, led by former city Department of Finance Commissioner Martha Stark, filed a lawsuit in 2017 challenging the state laws that lead to disproportionate rent burden. The group claims the neighborhoods with the greatest burdens are less affluent and more likely to be the home of large populations of people of color.

By state law, taxes for homes in Class 1 are assessed on 6 percent of what assessors believe to be their market value, while co-ops and condos in Class 2 are assessed at a rate of 45 percent of potential rental income. But the way the city Department of Finance (which is responsible for calculating market value based on formulas set by the state) arrives at that value for the two property types is not consistent.

For Class 2, city finance officials compare co-op values to the income of nearby rental properties, vastly undervaluing what the property would be worth if sold. Because of the age and location of many co-ops, their taxes are often assessed based on comparisons to rent-regulated buildings, exacerbating the value discrepancy. 

Ana Champeny of Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), the fiscal watchdog, gave an example: “You look at the value that [Department of Finance] determined based on state law and it’ll be something like...$600,000, but when you look at how much the person paid when they bought that unit, they would have paid something like $3 million.”

To help address this inequity, CBC argued when it testified before the Advisory Commission in November, simply put condos and co-ops in Class 1 where they belong, and assess them based on sales prices. This would also help New Yorkers understand the system’s complex arithmetic and the outcomes it produces. Because now-distant beginnings created the fractional assessment practices established by the property classification system, the particular tax-related burdens New Yorkers face often feel arbitrary.

“I think that creates a lot more mistrust, too, in the system. Which is why we said you really should put all these homes into one class and you should value them based on sales,” Champeny told Gotham Gazette.

There were a number of bills in the Legislature related to condos and co-ops that lawmakers were apprehensive about taking up because of uncertainty about changes to the classification system, according to Assemblymember Galef.

“We want to see where the commission comes out on that one so those bills won’t be addressed this year,” Galef told Gotham Gazette in May before the legislative session ended. (The Legislature passed, and the governor has yet to sign, a two-year extension of a property tax abatement program for co-ops and condos, but nothing to address the structure of the real property class system.)

When everyone is a stakeholder, though, upsetting the long held fractional assessments would mean some people will have to pay more, and that is likely to include the high value co-ops and condos now enjoying low rates. As in the past, this will inevitably be a difficult pill to swallow.  In a letter to the Advisory Commission in May, City Council Members Steven Matteo, Joe Borelli, and Justin Brannan -- who represent parts of southern Brooklyn and Staten Island -- urged, “First, do no harm to Class 1 and 2 homeowners.”

Responding to a co-op owner who worries about rising taxes year after year, Mayor de Blasio said, “I want to be...really honest with everyone that we cannot end up with a system that reduces our revenue substantially, unless people want to see a change in the services provided by city.”

>>Renters
For residents, the weight of New York’s property classification system is harder to bear the further you are away from the mitigating effects of ownership, which can put serious pressure on renters who can’t cash in or pass on tax burdens to tenants. In a class-action lawsuit filed in 2014 on behalf of African-American and Hispanic renters, the real estate law firm Newman Ferrara claimed that the way the state classifies different types of property has resulted in a disproportionate tax burden being passed on to renters in large residential buildings.

According to a CBC analysis, as of December 2016 one- to three-family homes made up roughly 48 percent of the total market value of New York City property, but were taxed only about 15 percent of the total levy. By contrast, Class 2 properties -- apartment buildings, co-ops, and condos -- made up approximately 25 percent of the market, but were taxed significantly more: nearly 38 percent of the total.

Most of that burden falls on apartment buildings because owners of co-ops and condos often pay such a small percentage of their property value in taxes. To maintain their profit margin, landlords often redistribute the tax burden to tenants (the same is true for commercial tenants, which can put a strain on small business). The 2014 suit alleged, since large apartment buildings are predominantly occupied by African-American and Hispanic tenants, the uneven tax burden they experience is a violation of the Fair Housing Act.

The property tax burden on one- to three-family home owners can be mitigated by the lower share they pay on the property’s value; the tax burden on co-ops and condos is not great because they are assessed on a fraction of their sales price; and much of the tax burden of big landlords can be passed on to tenants. But renters, who make up two-thirds of all occupied units, according to 2017 U.S. Census data, have no outlet to spread their burden.

(Homeowners who pay a significant portion of their income in property taxes and cannot immediately benefit from the rising value of their homes without selling them, are also put in a precarious situation as taxes rise annually and the costs of maintaining aging housing stack up. The city’s Third Party Transfer program, which seizes buildings from landlords who are behind on taxes and other fees, has recently come under fire for taking the homes of lower-income, minority property owners.)

The 2014 Newman Ferrara suit was dismissed by a state Supreme Court, which rejected the notion that property taxes could be shared more equitably among the classes as “speculative.”

Short of revamping the city’s entire property tax system, the push to improve conditions for many tenants was a major point of contention in Albany this year, as state rent regulations affecting the city and surrounding suburbs approached their expiration date in June. A concerted push under the new Democratic governing reality resulted in a landmark package of tenant reforms aimed at strengthening protections and closing loopholes in rent regulations like reforming the major capital improvement program, ending vacancy decontrol, and eliminating the vacancy bonus, among others. These regulations affect roughly 2 million tenants in 1 million apartments.

“We made a commitment that the new Senate Democratic Majority would help pass the strongest tenant protections in history,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in a statement after the package passed both houses of the Legislature. “The legislation we passed today achieves that commitment and will help millions of New Yorkers throughout our state.”

>>Income
While statutory caps were put in place to keep homeowners’ property taxes from rising too quickly, they have still tended to outpace the growth in household incomes, creating a disparity in tax burden across income levels. A report by the city Comptroller’s Office from September found that between 2005 and 2016 annual property tax revenue grew an average of 6.4 percent a year, while the household incomes of small home, co-op and condo owners rose only 2 percent per year. As a result, the share of income that goes to pay property taxes on those types of homes has risen significantly and is most pronounced among the lowest earners.

The comptroller’s report shows that households making less than $50,000 -- largely retirees whose incomes had been higher when the homes were purchased -- had property tax payments increase from 6.6 percent of household income in 2005 to nearly 13 percent in 2016 (the study does not take into account social security earnings and other non-taxable income for seniors, meaning its findings for this group may be higher than seniors’ true property tax burdens).

“For households at this income level, where there is little or no discretionary income, these increases impose significant constraints and sacrifices on household budgets,” the report reads. By contrast, homeowners with income between $250,000 and $500,000 paid only 2.9 percent of their income in property taxes.

Some advocates have proposed what are known as “circuit breakers” to deal with property tax burdens on lower-income New Yorkers.

A circuit breaker essentially provides a tax rebate for lower-income property owners by reducing state income taxes if property taxes exceed a certain proportion of income, or simply by capping property taxes as a percentage of income. Hellerstein was a proponent of implementing circuit breakers, as was Governor Carey, who included them in his own 1981 proposal, which failed. In November, the CBC testified about the benefits of circuit breakers before the city’s Advisory Commission.

But mechanisms like circuit breakers, which create indirect relief through income tax reductions -- as well as various other kinds of exemptions, abatements, and rate limitations -- when piled on to triage the discrete consequences of New York’s property tax system (exacerbated by the city’s complex housing portfolio), also contribute to the opacity of the system -- one of the main problems the Commission aims to address.

“Homestead exemptions, or elderly or disabled or veterans exemptions...tax abatements and rate limitations and assessment limitations and assessment increase limitations -- it becomes a very complex system and ultimately non-transparent,” John Anderson of the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy noted before the Advisory Commission in February.

But exemptions and other forms of relief are popular among property owners in distress and are something that can be enacted by the city, making them attractive to local politicians trying to court voters. (Borelli introduced a bill to the City Council in 2018 that would give a tax exemption to veterans of Cold War conflicts.)

Disparities exist despite tax credits and other programs intended to ease the burden on lower-income New Yorkers, and they are likely to get worse.

The increase in tax burden identified in the Comptroller’s report was tempered by the rising value of property assets and declining interest rates over the past 20 years, which kept mortgage payments low, according to its authors. But the report notes interest and mortgage payments have begun to rise while property value growth has subsided in many neighborhoods, and phase-ins on co-ops and condos (like statutory caps on small homes) mean that property taxes can continue to rise even after the market stabilizes.

Changes in state and local tax deductions from Washington, D.C. last year mean taxpayers who itemize their deductions may no longer be able to deduct the amount of their property taxes from their federal taxes.

>>Geography
Last September, Citizens Budget Commission released an analysis showing that homeowners on Staten Island and in the Bronx have a higher effective tax rate than the rest of the city, meaning they pay a higher percentage of their property’s market value in taxes despite owning homes that are worth less.

This, the report notes, is the result of statutory caps set in state law on the rate by which assessed values can grow. There are different caps for different categories of property; for small homes the cap is set at 6 percent annually, or 20 percent over five years.

The growth rate cap, intended to insulate homeowners experiencing rapid market growth from dramatic property tax increases, has the effect of shifting the tax burden from booming neighborhoods to ones with more stable housing markets, regardless of the overall value of the homes. The CBC analysis finds only 5 percent of the city’s single-family homes are assessed at the 6 percent target ratio because the caps keep most assessments lower. But Staten Island and Bronx homeowners do not seem to be the beneficiaries of this dynamic.

Council Members Borelli and Matteo, who represent districts on Staten Island, in a 2016 press release said, “Staten Islander’s [sic] on average pay [property taxes on] 98.5% of their actual market values, while average Brooklyn and Manhattan class-1 homeowners pay 88.5% and 87.2% respectively.”

Politicians from Staten Island have been among the most vocal proponents of property tax reform. The borough has a large aging population on fixed income and roughly 70 percent of residents own their homes, according to Census data.

In 2016 Borelli and Matteo, both Republicans, called for a bipartisan commission to look at the economic burdens on one- and two-family homes, including the caps issue. They also called for the Department of Finance to use actual assessors, not statistical models, in order to account for a property’s actual condition (on Staten Island only a tenth of homes were built in the last 20 years). Assembly Member Nicole Malliotakis, also a Republican, joined Borelli in calling for a property tax commission when she ran for mayor against de Blasio in 2017. (Property tax reform and relief was also a central pillar of Republican gubernatorial candidate and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro’s 2018 campaign against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who this year pushed through a permanent 2 percent cap on annual property tax growth, which applies everywhere outside New York City.)

To address the tax burden inequities, Borelli has called for the Legislature to at least change the law so that caps reset when a house changes hands. Borelli was the prime sponsor of a resolution, co-sponsored by 13 others in the 51-seat Council, calling for the change in January 2018, but it has not been adopted.

He repeated the proposal to the Advisory Commission in September, saying, “The cap is attached to the property, not the owner, and the result creates vast disparities between the city’s wealthy and middle-class homeowners, and among wealthy homeowners themselves depending on when their homes were built and the characteristics of the market.”

>>Race
Tax Equity Now New York, the coalition led by former city finance commissioner Martha Stark, has highlighted some of these inequities in its lawsuit filed against the city and state in 2017. The lawsuit, filed after long-running frustration with elected officials’ apparent unwillingness to act on property tax reform, alleges New York’s property tax system has a disproportionate negative impact on homeowners and renters in less affluent neighborhoods with large populations of people of color.

In a study conducted by the group, higher tax burdens, especially those identified in the Citizens Budget Commission analysis, were shown to have a disproportionate impact on neighborhoods where racial minorities make up a majority of the population.

At the crux of the issue is the claim that property tax assessments have not reflected true market values, resulting in neighborhoods predominantly of color being assessed 19 percent more than predominantly white ones, the group alleges. Tax Equity Now is seeking changes to the law, not compensation, but has not specified what those changes should be. The suit survived the city’s motion to dismiss in September but is now stayed, pending appeal.

This is part two of a three-part series. Read part three - The City's Bottom Line - here. (Find part one - Taking on the Difficult Task - here.)

***
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 II - Deep and Complex Inequities Thu, 01 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
An Old, Unfair System: New York City’s Property Tax Conundrum - Part I - Taking on the Difficult Task https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8712-an-old-unfair-system-new-york-city-s-property-tax-conundrum-part-i https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8712-an-old-unfair-system-new-york-city-s-property-tax-conundrum-part-i mayor deblasio clears

Mayor de Blasio shovels snow outside one of his two Brooklyn houses (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)


This is part one of a three-part series. Skip to part two - Deep and Complex Inequities - here.

In May 2018, after years of criticism that New York City’s property tax system lacks equity, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced they would empanel a commission of “blue chip” experts to explore the issue. Its tasks are to examine everything from the way different property values are assessed to relief for vulnerable homeowners, solicit input from the public and specialists, and make recommendations for reform.

Because of the laws and practices governing New York property taxes, the recommendations will inevitably include some changes that can be enacted by the city and others that would require action in Albany, both of which would upset a longstanding and largely unchallenged system. Even coming up with recommendations has proven fraught.

The commission was tasked with an important constraint: make recommendations to overhaul a complicated, decades-old tax system without changing the city’s bottom line -- in other words, to make sure that a new property tax system would continue to provide city government with its single largest revenue stream, good for roughly $27.8 billion last fiscal year.

More than a year later, with the 2019 legislative session in Albany well over, the panel has conducted ten public hearings and meetings but has produced no report nor indicated what consensus is emerging on a path forward. Asked about it repeatedly, de Blasio, who was criticized for punting on the issue until his second and final term, has said he expects recommendations by the end of this year.

The property tax system impacts homeowners and renters, landlords and developers -- virtually every one of the city’s 8.5 million residents. Problems with the system are myriad in New York, where real estate dominates and nearly a third of the city’s annual revenue comes from real property levies.

Critics have contended that the property tax system is overly complex and opaque, that property assessments are not reflective of true market values, and that classifications and caps aimed at mitigating rapid property tax increases contribute to disproportionate tax burdens across many populations.

Twelve months before the commission was announced, a coalition led by a former city finance commissioner filed a lawsuit alleging the Byzantine tax structure creates vast inequities and that those disparities are felt most severely by low-income New Yorkers and people of color.

One of the central problems is the vast under-assessment of many owner-occupied cooperatives and condominiums, which have experienced sweeping growth in property values over the past two decades, but are taxed instead based not on their sales value but on the much lower income they would likely make if they were rentals. Homeowners, in general, pay a lower effective tax rate (taxes as a percent of sales prices) than commercial and residential rental property owners, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, a fiscal watchdog.

Another problem is the labyrinth of abatements, rebates, caps, and phase-ins that obscure the causes of rising property taxes, making them hard for residents to trace and understand.

As property values ratchet up in gentrifying neighborhoods, so do the taxes assessed on them, which can put a strain on lower-, middle-, and fixed-income homeowners struggling to keep up with bills and maintenance fees. At the same time, homeowners in places with slower real estate market growth, like Staten Island and the Bronx, see their taxes rise higher relative to home sales prices because of caps that keep tax hikes low when the housing market unexpectedly leaps.

The symptoms of unequal assessment and taxation land harder on different populations of New Yorkers. The coalition behind the lawsuit says these factors lead to higher tax assessments in communities of color than in majority-white neighborhoods. Others over the years have asserted that when landlords’ tax burdens increase, they may be passed on to tenants in the form of higher rent, especially in large apartment buildings with sizable black and Latino populations, critics say.

The most expensive home sold in United States history is a Midtown Manhattan condo that went for $238 million earlier this year to Ken Griffin, the hedge fund manager ranked the 45th richest American by Forbes. Griffin pays taxes on a property valuation of just $9.4 million, or .22 percent of the sales price, according to the Wall Street Journal. By contrast, the owner of a two-family home in the northeast Bronx that sold for $439,000 in the most recent fiscal year pays 1.16 percent of the price tag in property taxes, according to an Independent Budget Office analysis provided to Gotham Gazette.

Yet the owners of both these types of homes -- owned by some of the wealthiest New Yorkers, as well as lower- and middle-income residents -- often say they feel pressure from rising property taxes year after year and are seeking relief. One of the barriers to property tax reform is that virtually all homeowners, whether they are likely under-assessed or not, believe they are getting squeezed by property taxes, which for small homes rose an average of 7.7 percent annually between 2001 and 2017, according to a Citizens Budget Commission analysis. (New York City has been repeatedly exempted from a state cap of 2 percent on annual property tax growth that applies everywhere else.)

There is broad agreement that the New York City property tax system produces inequality, that it hurts a wide range of communities from senior homeowners to renters of color to (some) outer-borough residents. Democrats, Republicans, and others across the political spectrum have called for change. But while the debate over the city’s property taxes crosses partisan lines, efforts to make an unequal system more equal means upsetting some stakeholders.

The complexities in the system have cut out a difficult task for members of the commission launched by de Blasio and Johnson, commissioners who were originally given only a year to produce results. But, as with other attempts to rethink the city’s relationship to its most essential resources, the task of unpacking the property tax system reveals a tangle of practical and political factors that have led to the status quo and make change so challenging.

Hope quickly faded that the commission would put forth recommendations to be taken up before the June end of this year’s state legislative session. During a May interview, Marc V. Shaw, one of two commission co-chairs, told Gotham Gazette that for lawmakers to deal with complicated concepts at the end of the legislative session, “there just would not be time...even if we were prepared. But we haven’t reached the point of making even the recommendations. We’re still sort of in an analysis phase.”

A Difficult Task
“I think all of us that have been working on the commission, knew from the beginning that that was a time schedule that was going to be pretty...difficult to attain...so from our perspective we’re looking at trying to put together a series of recommendations to be available for discussion and debate in the next legislative session,” Shaw said in May. Legislators will return to Albany in January, but the mayor and City Council can evaluate the commission’s work throughout the rest of this year, pending a report.

Shaw, a former first deputy mayor under Michael Bloomberg, is the interim chief operating officer for CUNY. He has been the Advisory Commission’s single (co-)chair since its other, Vicki Been, stepped down when she was appointed Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development in April. The body is made up of fiscal policy experts, business leaders, and city planning specialists, almost all of whom have served in city government in the past.

Spokespeople for both the mayor and City Council told Gotham Gazette the Advisory Commission is now planning to release a preliminary report in the coming months and hold another round of public hearings in the fall to solicit feedback. In a July 19 WNYC radio interview, Mayor de Blasio said the commission would produce a final report by the end of the calendar year, in time to be taken up in the next state legislative session.

City Council Member Keith Powers, a Democrat who represents a Manhattan district with a mix of property, is concerned the timeline doesn’t allow for much flexibility to work in Albany’s tight calendar. The timeline “puts you rolling right into January’s legislative session,” and just before state budget negotiations begin, he told Gotham Gazette. “You just may lose a little steam if you don’t have a bill early next year, and you know agencies miss deadlines all the time.”

In the meantime, the Legislature is waiting to hear from the commission. “It just kept coming up where we may be modifying some bills, or not doing some bills, because of the commission and not knowing what their positions are going to be,” Sandy Galef, chair of the Assembly’s real property tax committee, told Gotham Gazette at the end of May. “So yes, I would say it’s holding back some ideas.”

It appears important that the city has its ducks in a row before the January to June state session begins, giving a report and decisions by the mayor and Council enough time to work their way through Albany’s political corridors. Complicating matters further is the fact that 2020 is an election year for the entire state Legislature. Albany lawmakers sometimes try to get around dealing with especially thorny issues in conspicuous ways by packing them into state budget bills, which are due by the April 1 start of the new fiscal year.

Many of the reforms will focus on the state Real Property Tax Law, which sets standards for property tax assessment, among other things, and will require the state Legislature and governor to act. Once the commission produces its final report and city leaders make their opinions known, proposals will have to be negotiated in Albany, which in the past has proven fatal to serious property tax reform.

“We’re involved but at this point I view it as local home rule,” Galef said in May before the legislative session ended. Much if not all of what the city will ask of the state will come through the City Council, even if some of it is through non-binding measures.

Some tax programs were set to expire this year, like tax relief for property owners who install green roofs, which the Legislature extended and the governor signed notwithstanding the city property tax commission’s progress. “Even if the commission does the report at the end of the year, by the time they get authority from the state, there may be a lot of time in between,” Galef said.

That prospect does not sit well with Powers. “I think that any commission or body that’s working on this needs to understand that there are real people who are waiting for this relief,” he said, noting he has heard from constituents who are anticipating the commission’s recommendations.

The Status Quo
The complexities the commission is now grappling with are the result of a system with antique origins, one which has not been comprehensively updated and seldom reviewed over the past four decades. New York State’s current property tax apparatus is the outcome of a judicial ruling that shook up the prior system in the mid-1970s, and subsequent legislative action that mostly put it back into place in the early ‘80s.

In 1975, the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest tribunal, sided in favor of Jerome Hellerstein, an Upper West Side lawyer representing his wife, Pauline, who had sued the Town of Islip for assessing the property value of the family’s Fire Island vacation home -- and every other property on its roll -- at only a fraction of its market value, in violation of state statute (and, apparently, in their own interests). The law, at the time section 306 of the Real Property Tax Law, stated, “All real property in each assessing unit shall be assessed at the full value thereof.”

hellerstein fire island houseThe Hellerstein Fire Island home (image courtesy of Walter Hellerstein)

For nearly 200 years prior, however, property taxes for homeowners in New York State were assessed on only a fraction of the “full value,” based on what assessors “deemed proper,” “not ‘according to their best information and belief, of its value,’ ‘but according to the usual way of assessing,’” an 1852 Court of Appeals decision reads. The decision, in 1852, noted, “the usual method is to estimate property at less than half its value.”

The discretion given to assessors meant commercial and apartment building owners in 1975 paid taxes on a much larger fraction of the market value of their property than homeowners. According to an account published by the city’s Independent Budget Office, reports at the time of the Hellerstein court decision found even the tax burden from similar homes in different neighborhoods could vary, with homeowners in New York City’s lower-income communities paying more than homeowners in more affluent ones.

The Hellerstein decision upended centuries of property tax assessment practices and sent New York’s political world into a spin. For six years, officials in Albany battled over the implications of the decision with some, like Democratic Assembly Speaker Stanley Fink, arguing for the fractional assessment practice to be codified into law, fearing the effects homeowners would feel if their property taxes were to rise rapidly.

There was panic that “fiscal chaos” would ensue if wholesale changes were made to the way the properties of people and businesses were assessed across the board, according to Judge Solomon Wachtler who wrote the majority opinion in the Hellerstein case. A report from the New York Times during that period quotes Edwin Margolis, counsel to the Assembly majority, saying, “The goal is not to shift the burden from residential to industrial or commercial, but simply to keep the status quo.”

The Legislature achieved that goal in 1981 after overriding a veto by Governor Hugh Carey, a Democrat. Instead of meaningfully changing assessment practices, the new legislation removed the “full value” language from the law and established a system in New York City that separated properties into four different categories, each to be taxed on a different portion of the full market value, mirroring the de facto practices assessors had been using all along.

The system placed one- to three-family homes into Class 1; apartment buildings, co-ops, and condos into Class 2; utilities into Class 3; and commercial properties into Class 4.

“The law was set up in such a way that each class of property would continue to pay roughly the same share of the levy” as they did at the time the law was passed, according to Ana Champeny, a property tax expert at the Citizens Budget Commission.

This “is the property tax system that we essentially currently operate under,” said Shaw, the commission chair. “That just gives you a sense that it’s always been a complicated system from the beginning.”

Before the 1981 law codified the current system, a number of other proposals had been floated and a bipartisan commission was even set up, the Temporary State Commission on the Real Property Tax, to review the state’s practices. That commission suggested that as an alternative to moving toward assessment by class, the state could mitigate the shift in tax burden from businesses to homeowners by implementing homeowner assistance programs.

But the political might of homeowners won out over the interests of commercial property owners, as well as over the will of the governor and a sizable minority in the Assembly. As part of the 1981 legislation, lawmakers enacted caps on the amount assessments could increase annually and over a five-year period, further protecting homeowners against rapid rises in property taxes in the event they be more accurately assessed going forward.

The resulting system, in a nutshell, is one where one- to three-family homes, which are more often occupied by their owner, are assessed based on the comparable sales prices of the property, while commercial and rental properties are assessed based on the income those businesses could generate.

One catch to this, which has been a recurring sticking point in perennial calls for property tax equity, is that co-ops and condos like Griffin’s are assessed on the income that would be made if they were rental apartments, rather than the sales prices of owner-occupied homes most observers say they more closely resemble. Another has been the caps on how much the assessed value of a home can increase, which more recently has led to owners of homes in booming neighborhoods paying relatively low property taxes compared to other homeowners in more economically stagnant parts of the city.

“What we’re facing is looking at how to do a reset of the property tax, given all of those problems, to make it a fairer system now,” said Shaw.

This is part one of a three-part series on the property tax system in New York City and potential for changes to it that may be on the horizon. 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 I - Taking on the Difficult Task Wed, 31 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
As Cuomo and Heastie Trade Comments on Anti-Poverty Efforts, a Closer Look at What They've Done https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8693-as-cuomo-and-heastie-trade-comments-on-anti-poverty-efforts-a-closer-look-at-what-they-ve-done https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8693-as-cuomo-and-heastie-trade-comments-on-anti-poverty-efforts-a-closer-look-at-what-they-ve-done albany gov cuomo carl heastie

Speaker Heastie & Governor Cuomo (photo: the governor's office)


Despite previously lauding the 2019 state legislative session as the “most productive session in modern political history,” Governor Andrew Cuomo went on to call the session “not progressive enough,” citing a need “to do more on poverty.”

At his celebratory, mostly upbeat end-of-session press conference on June 21, Cuomo was asked about what did not get done, and cited three issues he said he would work on next year: legalizing adult-use marijuana and paid gestational surrogacy, and expanding prevailing wage requirements on construction projects that receive state incentives. He did not mention poverty.

But just three days later during a radio appearance, Cuomo questioned whether the legislative session was “progresive enough,” and rhetorically asked WAMC’s The Roundtable host Alan Chartock, “what happened, doctor, to discussion of poverty and civil rights and the minority community?”

It was an apparently off-hand comment that seemed to catch many people by surprise, especially Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat whose district is in the Bronx, which is home to some of the highest poverty rates in the country.

While Cuomo has made significant strides with anti-poverty policies in the past, most notably the minimum wage hike he ushered through a split Legislature in 2016, the third-term Democratic governor did not push any landmark anti-poverty legislation or initiatives this session, which featured a long list of other progressive accomplishments with Democrats in control of both legislative houses for the first time in many years.

Soon after Cuomo’s comment about the session lacking a focus on poverty, Heastie was asked about it.

“If we’re talking about things like poverty, that necessitates putting more money in the budget,” Heastie said on June 25, appearing on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom with host Susan Arbetter. “If that’s the governor’s sentiment, next year we should see a robust poverty agenda in the executive budget,” he said.

When asked about the Assembly’s anti-poverty efforts, Heastie mentioned boosting community college enrollment and said such schooling can serve as a key stepping stone to the workforce.

“Every place has a different type of industry, and community colleges can put together training linked with local businesses,” Heastie said on Capitol Pressroom.

In New York, 2,908,471 people live in poverty, according to the New York State Community Action Association in its 2019 annual poverty report. That’s about 15% of the state’s 19.8 million residents; a rate just above the U.S. poverty rate of 14.6%. For white New Yorkers, the poverty rate is 11%, while it jumps to 22.5% for black New Yorkers and 24.4% for Hispanic New Yorkers. Of the 1.8 million adult New Yorkers with no high school diploma, 29% live in poverty.

Though they give both Cuomo and Heastie’s Assembly majority credit for significant steps toward fighting poverty in New York, advocates and other experts believe both have indeed been lacking in moving a number of anti-poverty measures.

Several proposed anti-poverty bills have stalled in the Assembly, and those that have passed the Assembly have not been signed into law by Cuomo, in part due to a lack of support by the governor, who was friendly with the Republican Senate majority that ruled the upper legislative chamber for all of the governor’s first two terms.

As Heastie indicated, some see the need for more state spending on anti-poverty measures, which may only be possible through tax increases, which Cuomo generally opposes. Some say a significant roadblock to many anti-poverty programs is the 2 percent cap on annual state spending increases that Cuomo has insisted on, though he has repeatedly broken that pledge. Still, Cuomo has largely kept state agency operational spending flat year over year and is loathe to add new expensive programs to the budget, especially those that don’t fit his carefully crafted agenda.

But while he has not supported key policies that advocates say would help fight poverty in New York, Cuomo has moved several significant anti-poverty measures, from the minimum wage hike to the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI), which provides state grants to localities to fund anti-poverty efforts, to the creation of the Child Care Availability Task Force, which is currently studying how to make childcare more affordable in New York.

Heastie said on Capitol Pressroom that the Assembly focuses on high poverty communities and tries to find ways to revitalize them, including through working with Cuomo to add localities to the ESPRI. Most parties point to the state’s high levels of local education funding as evidence of efforts to fight poverty through educational investments, but that focus has been criticized, even by Assembly Democrats, who believe the state owes billions in funding to poor schools, and Cuomo, who recently started saying he wants more state funding to go to poorer schools without corresponding increases to wealthier schools.

During Heastie’s four years as speaker thus far, the Assembly has pushed anti-poverty efforts, including as a key force behind the minimum wage increase and the paid family leave program that also passed the same year. But there are also some question marks.

In January 2016, Heastie announced an “Anti-Poverty Work Group,” with the goal of finding “ways to break the vicious cycle that forces people to focus on getting by and never allows them to focus on getting ahead,” he said in the press release. The work group consisted of 13 Assembly members, and was specifically tasked with coming up with ideas to improve nutrition, literacy, supportive housing, shelters, rental assistance, fair labor practices, and job training, and increase access to quality child care and health care.

However, little came of the work group -- there’s no other record of its existence in Assembly press release archives or on the Assembly website more broadly.

The work group was organized with the goal of breaking “down the silos we deal with in the Assembly,” Queens Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi, who served on the work group and has chaired the chamber’s social services committee, said in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

According to Hevesi, when former Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle left the Assembly at the end of 2018, the work group “fell off the top of everybody’s radar.” But even that would have been nearly three years after the group’s creation, and Morelle did not serve as its chair. Hevesi said the group had only a “couple of meetings.”

Anti-Poverty Initiatives Left on the Table
There are a variety of anti-poverty measures that could be considered by the Legislature and Cuomo. For example, a proposed bill aimed at reducing homelessness would have created a homeless housing task force by each social services district in the state to “develop a ten-year homeless housing plan addressing short-term and long-term housing for homeless persons,” according to the bill. The bill has not moved in the Assembly social services committee.

Anti-poverty measures can be bipartisan. Republican Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb is the lead sponsor on a bill to raise the state earned income tax credit (EITC) from 30 percent to 45 percent of the federal level. Currently, a family with three or more children can earn a maximum of $8,682 in their EITC, and a filer without children can earn a maximum of $701 in their EITC, including state, city, and federal credits, according to the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. Another Assembly bill would expand the EITC to include workers who are 18-24 years old, a demographic that is currently not eligible for the EITC. The state EITC was last raised by Republican Governor George Pataki in 2003.

Neither the Assembly nor the Senate took up state EITC expansion this year.

That Assembly Republicans are leading the fight to raise the EITC is “both ironic and shameful,” said Ron Deutsch, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “For the Assembly minority to be to the left of the governor on an issue like this really speaks to the fact that the governor is far more fiscally conservative than he paints himself,” he said.

According to data from the Fiscal Policy Institute, 85,345 young adult workers in the state that would be eligible for the childless EITC are currently excluded because they cannot be claimed as a dependent. These workers earn less than $15,270 as single filers or less than $20,900 as married filers.

Another proposed anti-poverty bill, championed by Hevesi, is known as Home Stability Support (HSS) and would increase rent supplements to families at risk of eviction, homelessness, or loss of housing due to domestic violence or hazardous living conditions. While the Assembly has pushed HSS for several years, it has not made it into the state budget, apparently due to Cuomo’s opposition.

HSS is widely seen as a way to prevent homelessness, and has many backers in both city and state government, as well as the advocacy community. According to data from the Assembly Committee on Social Services’ annual report, each year about 250,000 New Yorkers experience homelessness, and three of five homeless New Yorkers are school-aged children. In 2018, 23,000 more people became homeless, the report says. The number of homeless school-aged children has grown by 69% since 2011 (Cuomo’s first year as governor).

According to data from city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office, over 10 years HSS could reduce the shelter population in New York City by 80 percent among families with children, 60 percent among adult families, and 40 percent among single adults. As Hevesi and others regularly point out, the cost of HSS subsidies are projected to be recouped in savings where governments spend less on shelters and other aspects of the social safety net.

HSS is projected to cost $9,865 per year for an individual in New York City, $7,320 per year for an individual in Westchester County, and $2,784 per year for an individual in Monroe County, according to data from the proposed plan. HSS advocates argue that the legislation would save the state money, as it would keep individuals and families out of shelters, which cost significantly more per individual per year to maintain. Providing an individual with temporary housing, or shelters, costs $25,925 per year in New York City,  $36,000 per year in Westchester County, and $10,950 in Monroe County, according to data from the plan.

The legislation has had support in both houses, but not enough to move it through both and to the governor. Neither majority appeared to make it a priority this year as the Legislature moved a long agenda of progressive bills.

“Home Stability Support will be a lifeline for thousands of New Yorkers to avoid falling into the cycle of homelessness, and it will also save millions of dollars for towns, counties and cities throughout the state,” State Senator Liz Krueger said in a press release supporting HSS.

Hevesi said that the reason the bill has never been passed is that Cuomo is against it. However, Hevesi said he is confident that the bill will get passed eventually, either legislatively or in the budget.

“It was in the Assembly one-house budget, Senate one-house budget, and the governor unilaterally stopped it,” Hevesi told Gotham Gazette.

HSS has been supported by a number of advocacy groups fighting poverty and homelessness in the state. Still, there was no clear, concerted effort by the Assembly and Senate majorities to push HSS over the finish line and into the state budget before it was voted through on April 1.

“Unfortunately over the past several years, in our advocacy to pass HSS, the governor has been one of the primary roadblocks,” said Helen Strom, a benefits unit supervisor at Urban Justice Center (UJC), an advocacy organization and think tank focused on bringing people out of poverty.

Hevesi accused Cuomo of profiting off of homeless shelters via Help USA, a nonprofit providing shelter that Cuomo founded many years ago and is now led by the governor’s sister.

“I don’t think he’s fighting homelessness,” Hevesi said. “I think he’s making money off of homelessness. Every policymaker in the state is for stopping the growth of the crisis except for him,” he said.

Via a spokesperson, Cuomo’s office pushed back against Hevesi’s accusation, calling it an “irresponsible lie” in a statement to Gotham Gazette, and saying the governor makes no money from Help USA.

Another issue some advocates and lawmakers raise around fighting poverty is health care, and while the state has very high rates of health care insurance coverage -- roughly 95% of New Yorkers are enrolled, in part due to robust government programming -- costs are still high for many. The Assembly majority had for several years passed the New York Health Act, which would create a universal, single-payer health care system in New York, but did not push the policy, which is opposed by Cuomo, this year, when it actually had a chance of passage in the newly-Democratic Senate. While most of the senators in the new majority had either co-sponsored the New York Health Act last year or expressed support for it during last year's campaigns, the legislation did not move in either house this year. Cuomo has said he believes single-payer health care is the best goal, but that it should be done nationally, that to do it in New York would be unrealistic given how much it upheaval it would require, including raising taxes on many New Yorkers and roughly doubling the state budget.

While advocacy groups agree in their criticism of Cuomo, “no one,” including Cuomo and the Assembly, has made anti-poverty measures “a real priority,” Deutsch said. “We can’t continue down this path any longer.”

Assembly Accomplishments
According to the Assembly majority, in March 2016, it successfully added municipalities to the governor’s Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI), though it does not appear this was a direct result of the anti-poverty work group given it had just been assembled and seems to have done little overall.

ESPRI invests money directly into 16 communities with high poverty rates. Among communities introduced by the Assembly to the initiative are Troy, Hempstead, Buffalo, Oneonta, Albany, Rochester, and Broome County. Upon being added, these communities became eligible to receive ESPRI funding, which began with a $25 million investment in 2015 and received $4.5 million in the 2020 budget.

ESPRI funding supports programs including financial literacy, job training, mental health and substance abuse counseling, and more.

While advocacy groups agreed that no substantial, explicit anti-poverty measures passed this legislative session, some programs that did move are likely to help fight poverty.

“Despite the state’s fiscal constraints, the Assembly ensured this year’s state budget invested in services for families struggling with the costs of housing, child care and after-school programs while restoring critical cuts to Medicaid and education,” Speaker Heastie said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The Assembly Majority remains focused on advancing our Families First Agenda, which includes identifying ways to lift New Yorkers out of poverty,” he said.

The state approved a program to end cash bail in most instances, allowing most people accused of a non-violent crime to remain out of jail while awaiting a court date. In pushing for major limits on cash bail, one central argument was that the use of it criminalized poverty, essentially making it that poor people who can’t afford a few hundred dollars in bail would sit in jail, and risk losing their jobs and other community ties.

In Schenectady County, those arrested spend an average of 40 days in jail before they are charged, with some let go without being charged at all, according to Citizen Action State Organizing and Training Director Jamaica Miles.

“The people most likely to be sitting in jail are those that cannot afford to pay the bail or bond to get out,” Miles said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “You’ve made their lives more difficult before convicting them of a crime,” she said, if they are ever convicted at all.

Additionally, the state’s newly approved rent regulations, highly favorable to rent-regulated tenants, are expected to be beneficial to many low-income families.

“The hope is they won’t be evicted as easily as they are being evicted now,” Deutsch said.

Looking ahead, the Assembly will be re-introducing a package of bills that “overhauls” the public assistance system, Hevesi said.

With the current public assistance system, many low-wage workers can earn enough to work themselves out of the benefit and lose their vouchers, but when they lose public assistance they can no longer afford to live where they’re living, Strom said.

To remedy the system, the state can raise the eligibility income levels for public assistance or create a different income level for housing vouchers, so those receiving public assistance can retain their vouchers while they transition to being off of benefits and on an employment income, Strom said.

“As it’s currently structured it’s a trap. Once people are on public assistance they are trapped in perpetuity. We have an opportunity to break that system up and give people the incentives they need to get off public assistance,” Hevesi said.

The Assembly had a hearing on the overhaul set for the end of the previous legislative session, but it didn’t come together in time, Hevesi said. The bills have veto proof support in the Assembly, including backing of Minority Leader Brian Kolb, and are over the 32 vote threshold to have a majority in the Senate, but still do not have the support of the governor, Hevesi said. 

The Assembly also pushed the governor for the creation of 20,000 units of supportive housing for the chronically homeless, Hevesi said.

“After a several-year battle [Cuomo] agreed, but then stalled again when we had to force him two years ago to release $1 billion to get the first 6,000 units,” Hevesi said.

Cuomo’s Efforts
Until his June comments on WAMC radio, just after the end of the budget and legislative session in Albany, Cuomo had said very little directly about poverty in 2019.

He did not explicitly discuss “poverty” in any of his three major speeches (a December “First 100 Days” address, his January 1 inaugural remarks, and his State of the State speech later in January) that set the stage for this year in Albany, the first under full and functional Democratic control of both the governor’s office and Legislature in several decades.

Cuomo did mention several programs, both already passed and on his 2019 agenda, that relate to poverty, though, including the minimum wage hike, which has seen the wage hit $15 per hour in New York City, with other increases around the state.

In his December 2018 speech outlining his agenda for the “first 100 days” of his third term, Cuomo called the lack of affordable housing “a crisis,” and promoted what he says is the state’s largest ever investment in affordable housing, which appears to have meant continuation of an ongoing $20 billion program that requires new budget investments each year.

He also called for renewed rent regulations that would improve certain tenants’ rights, which ultimately passed in the Legislature and were signed by the governor to much acclaim by activists, advocates, and lawmakers.

In his inaugural address, Cuomo again avoided the issue of poverty directly, but touted the state’s accomplishments and agenda related to fighting climate change, ending cash bail, legalizing marijuana (which failed to pass during the legislative session), and investment in affordable housing.

In his State of the State address, Cuomo again did not explicitly discuss poverty, but he put forth budgetary and legislative proposals to alleviate burdens for those in or near poverty. Cuomo’s executive budget plan proposed providing more state aid to poorer schools and school districts, while moving ahead with planned funding for affordable housing and to fight homelessness, among other measures that stand to help people living in or near poverty, like cash bail reform and green economics.

In his State of the State policy book, Cuomo did include a short section on “Combating Poverty,” with two planks: one, further supporting the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI) and establishing ESPRI representation on Regional Economic Development Council workforce development committees; and two, “reduce hunger and food insecurity.” Cuomo would “establish a goal to reduce household food insecurity in New York State by 10 percent by 2024,” the policy book reads, and will do so by “directing the following actions: create a food and anti-hunger policy coordinator; simplify access to SNAP for older and disabled adults; enhanced resources and referrals in clinical settings; participate in SNAP online purchasing pilot; and expand food access in Central Brooklyn.”

Asked about the governor’s anti-poverty record in light of his comments and Heastie’s response, the governor’s office highlighted a number of programs.

“New York State is leading the fight against poverty through a holistic approach, including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and a $20 billion plan to combat homelessness and create or preserve more than 100,000 affordable homes and 6,000 providing supportive services,” Cuomo Press Secretary Caitlin Girouard said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

According to the Governor’s office, Cuomo’s poverty reduction programs include 2013’s anti-hunger task force, 2015’s $25 million ESPRI to address regional pockets of poverty across the state, and the $15 per hour minimum wage program that he ushered through in 2016, which is phased in over several years and sets different wages in different regions of the state.

According to data from the “Unheard Third,” a regular opinion poll of low-income households conducted by the nonprofit Community Service Society, half of low-income hourly workers in New York City say that the recent increases in the state minimum wage is making them better off.

The percentage of New Yorkers in poverty decreased every year from 2013 to 2017, from 16 percent of New Yorkers living below the poverty line in 2013 to 14.1 percent in 2017, according to data from Talk Poverty, an organization that tracks poverty levels in every state. Since the minimum wage has passed, 247,775 fewer New Yorkers are living below the poverty line, according according to data from Talk Poverty. (The aforementioned New York State Community Action Association in its 2019 annual poverty report estimates 15% of New Yorkers living in poverty, using recent Census data from 2013-2017.)

Moving ahead, Cuomo has said he wants to continue to invest in education, but with aid directed disproportionately toward poorer K-12 schools. When the new state budget passed in April, education funding increased to $27.9 billion, with over 70% of the increased funding going to schools in poorer districts, according to the budget.

The state has increased funding for higher education, too, which has a distinct budget of $7.6 billion, by $1.6 billion, or 27 percent, since 2012 (Cuomo took office in 2011), according to data from the Governor’s office. Still, Cuomo has faced criticism related to funding for CUNY and SUNY public higher education institutions, and how his signature Excelsior Scholarship program is working.

In December of last year, Cuomo announced the Child Care Availability Task Force, a group of experts assembled to develop solutions that will improve access to affordable child care. The task force examined “access to affordable child care, the availability of child care for parents with non-traditional work hours, statutory and regulatory changes that could promote or enhance access to child care, business incentives to increase child care access, and the impact on tax credits and deductions relating to child care,” according to a press release announcing its creation.

"We want to ensure that working families are provided with the resources for safe, accessible and affordable child care. By promoting and investing in child care, we know it can improve women's participation in the workforce and narrow the gender wage gap,” said Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, who is a co-chair of the Child Care Availability Task Force, in the press release. Hochul has said she expects its initial recommendations to help inform the Cuomo administration’s 2020 agenda.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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As Cuomo and Heastie Trade Comments on Anti-Poverty Efforts, a Closer Look at What They've Done Wed, 24 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York Builds on Its Extensive Climate Leadership https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8688-new-york-builds-on-its-extensive-climate-leadership https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8688-new-york-builds-on-its-extensive-climate-leadership offshore wind gov

(photo: offshore-wind-govMike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


New York Already has the Lowest Greenhouse Gas Emissions Per Capita of Any State in the Nation and is Moving Forward

New York State has just enacted a plan to bring its planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to 15% of its 1990 levels by 2050 and provide enough “carbon-emission offsets“ like forestation and wetlands reclamation to bring total carbon-emissions to “net-zero“ by that same year. These goals put New York at the forefront of the United States in addressing climate change.

Governor Cuomo had submitted a similar proposal in his executive budget in January of this year, entitled the Climate Leadership Act, but the Legislature did not adopt it in the April budget. Instead, it reformulated the proposal to provide a more highly developed and detailed planning process to implement the transition to a carbon-neutral society and economy by the goal year of 2050.

To be sure, the governor deserves great credit for already moving New York in this direction, using the state’s powers to usher in substantial increases in wind and solar power over the past several years and repeatedly enunciate and affirm goals of increasing renewable energy and setting a policy of achieving 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

In June, the state Legislature passed a bill -- The New York State Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act -- at the end of its 2019 legislative session, which Governor Cuomo just signed into law, creating a broadly inclusive public participation process along with a step-by-step planning and regulatory decision-making structure for the energy transformation.

A Climate Action Council is created consisting of 12 New York State agency heads and 10 non-governmental individuals who will spend several years scoping out a plan to implement the transition and vote to present their recommendations to state government leadership by 2022.

In 2023 the state agencies will then incorporate the recommendations into ongoing regulatory actions to bring the residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, and electricity-generation sectors of New York’s economy toward the greenhouse gas emission reductions needed to reach the goals.

The legislation also mandates that disadvantaged communities, which have borne the brunt of pollution and climate change, share in the benefits of the transformation in a major way, to receive a goal of 40% of the benefits and a legal minimum of 35% of the benefits.

By 2030 New York’s goal will be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% below its 1990 levels, including achieving electricity generation from 70% renewable sources of energy, and a carbon-neutral electricity-generation sector by 2040. The State Public Service Commission (PSC), regulator of the state’s electric utilities, is directed to a more expedited schedule for the electric generation renewable goals since 2030 is in fact not really so far away for this important sector of the state’s economy.

The goals are far from unrealistic, because in part we are much closer to them than many people realize. New York’s greenhouse gas emissions are already nearly 20% below its 1990 levels, according to the 2019 State Energy Patterns and Trends published by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. 

 

GHG Emissions by Sector (in million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent)

               

Year

Residential

Commercial

Industrial

Transportation

Electric

ElecImports

Total

1990

34.3

26.5

20

59.4

63

1.7

205

2016

30.9

20.7

10.2

73.7

27.7

3.8

167

% Change

-9.8%

-22.2%

-48.9%

24.20%

-56%

120%

--18.5

1990-2016

           

 

New York’s electricity-generation system is already in an advanced stage of transformation from a fossil-fuel based system. Coal is nearly gone; only 1% of New York’s electric generation came from coal in 2018, and the last coal-fired plants will be deactivated in 2020.

Only 37% of New York’s electricity use now comes directly from fossil fuels consumed in New York. 16% of New York’s electricity use is imported from Canada and other parts of the United States. There is some fossil fuel use in that mix but it also includes hydroelectric and nuclear power. 26% of New York’s electricity comes from nuclear power, and nearly 20% comes from renewables, primarily hydroelectric power.

The Transmission System Needs Extra Capacity
Although New York’s electricity grid has made major progress shifting from fossil fuels, its transmission infrastructure needs upgrades and new investments to keep up the pace of bringing in more renewable power, according to the Independent System Operator (ISO), manager of the state’s electric grid.

Some wind power produced in Upstate New York has to be curtailed off the grid now because it can’t be economically transmitted downstate due to capacity limitations; the same goes for some Canadian power generation and even some of New York’s own hydroelectric generation. The ISO and the PSC have moved to permit several new transmission-line upgrades to bring power around the state more effectively, from Canada, from western New York to Eastern New York, and from Upstate to Downstate.

The Cuomo administration foresees offshore wind power around New York City and Long Island as major new sources of renewable power, and, once again, the transmission systems need to be upgraded to absorb that wind energy production. When he signed the bill on Thursday, the governor also announced the two winners of a procurement process to add 1,700 MegaWatts of offshore wind power, which may eventually produce about 5% of New York's electric power. It may realistically be 2035 before New York can get to 70% renewable power, but the Public Service Commission is authorized to modify the timetable in the CLCPA to get there.

Several of New York’s nuclear power plants will be deactivated by that time, but several nuclear plants will still be in operation in 2040 and the legislation permits that power to be counted as part of the carbon-neutral goal for the electricity-generation system.

The Independent System Operators’ most recent analysis of New York’s electric grid, Power Trends 2019, even forecasts New York will have the ability to absorb increasing use of the grid by electric vehicles, and that energy storage systems, energy efficiency measures, and demand control systems can manage the electric system’s gradual transition to renewables, along with the investments in new transmission capacity.

New York Energy Use and Renewable Transition
Although there is plenty of attention, and credit for the environmentally-beneficial progress of New York’s electric grid, greater challenges will remain for transportation, industrial, and building energy use. That’s because fossil fuel use in New York’s electricity-generation system is now only 20% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. The non-electricity-generation sectors, namely transportation, industry, and buildings in the commercial and residential sectors, emit 80% of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Even if New York eliminated fossil fuel use from its electric generation and electricity import sectors, its greenhouse gas emissions would still be at 66% of its 1990 levels. According to its energy profiles from the United States Energy Information Administration, New York’s current baseline already has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the nation among the 50 states, at only 50% of  the national average! New York has the second lowest energy consumption per capita of the 50 states already (Rhode Island is first). 

New York’s efficiencies in large measure predate the big renewable push of recent years and are merely the general characteristics of New York’s economy. Transportation accounts for 44% of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions but it is still cleaner than the rest of the country. The New York City metropolitan area mass transit system carries millions to their destinations using much less energy per capita than the rest of America. New York is 6.1% of the U.S. population but uses only 4% of the energy consumed in the transportation sector of the U.S. (per USEIA, State Energy Data 2016). 

One of President Trump’s chief environmental lunacies is the rollback of President Obama’s fuel efficiency standards for the American automobile industry. But the industry itself is highly resistant to the rollback, as are many states and foreign markets, as well as foreign producers, and progress will continue there.

As the vehicle fleet in New York turns over, efficiency improvements will continue and greenhouse gas emissions will decline. The state government and municipalities will need to promote the transition to electric vehicles and powering them from renewable energy, continue to invest in public transportation -- not just in the New York City metropolitan area but the state’s other communities as well -- and promote alternative methods of transportation.

New York has little in the way of heavy industry and its industrial sector uses only 1% of the energy used in the industrial sector in the United States. But its commercial and residential sectors use energy in closer proportions to New York’s share of the U.S. population. The residential sector uses less electricity than normal because of the high proportion of small apartments in New York City, but overall household energy use is still 15% greater than the average household because of New York’s colder weather and the fuel needed for space heating and hot water. 

Improving energy efficiency in New York’s commercial and residential buildings presents serious challenges. Conservation investments for many homeowners may be too costly because they are of modest means and they will need help and subsidies to improve efficiencies. Commercial and apartment building owners may also find energy investments costly and may need tax incentives to stimulate those investments. But there is time for the residential and commercial building sectors to change.

New York’s new law directs the Climate Action Council to hold public hearings for several years throughout the state as it develops its plans, and the Council must establish advisory panels from different sectors of society, including labor and industry, to examine how to go forward. It must also work with environmental justice and just transition groups with plans for fair treatment and beneficial participation of disadvantaged communities.

New York’s state and local governments will need these inclusive processes to establish buy-in from sectors of society that may be fearful or skeptical of what a transition will look like or how they could be affected. The goals can be achieved, or New York can come very close, with the collaborative process the state has outlined for carbon-neutrality by 2050.

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Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

 

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New York Builds on Its Extensive Climate Leadership Sun, 21 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000