Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/516 Mon, 30 Mar 2020 17:25:04 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: The City Council's Plan to Reduce Homelessness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9136-max-murphy-podcast-city-council-plan-to-reduce-homelessness-levin https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9136-max-murphy-podcast-city-council-plan-to-reduce-homelessness-levin spk co jo ste lev

Council Member Steve Levin & Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


February 12, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The City Council's Plan to Reduce Homelessness

ste levin wbaiCity Council Member Stephen Levin joined the show to discuss the City Council's new report and plan to reduce homelessness in New York City. Levin, chair of the Council committee with oversight of homelessness, was involved in crafting the report and its many recommendations.

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The City Council's Plan to Reduce Homelessness Wed, 12 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Council Moves Legislation Requiring City to Enroll More Eligible Seniors in Food Assistance https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9126-council-moves-legislation-requiring-city-to-enroll-more-eligible-seniors-in-food-assistance https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9126-council-moves-legislation-requiring-city-to-enroll-more-eligible-seniors-in-food-assistance jumaane williams alan maisel attend

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The City Council is set to pass legislation requiring two city agencies to collaborate on a plan to ensure more older New Yorkers who are eligible for food assistance are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps.

It is one of four bills related to food access passed by the Council’s Committee on the General Welfare during a Monday hearing, just ahead of the full Council meeting on Tuesday where the legislation is expected to be voted through and sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The bill (Intro. 1659-A) focused on enrolling eligible seniors into SNAP, a federally run program that provides nutrition benefits to low-income families and individuals, seeks to address a significant problem of hunger among the city’s older residents. The bill would require the city’s Department of Social Services (DSS) and Department for the Aging (DFTA) to “develop a plan to identify and enroll seniors who are eligible” for SNAP benefits, according to the bill summary.

“While DFTA and Meals on Wheels do help screen elderly hometown New Yorkers for SNAP benefits, many seniors aren’t connected to the benefits and are unaware of the program,” said Council Member Stephen Levin, the general welfare committee chair, when discussing the bill, the prime sponsor of which is Council Member Margaret Chin.

The senior population in New York City is booming, with all five boroughs seeing huge increases in older populations. Manhattan saw a 33% increase in the number of older adults between 2007 and 2017, according to a 2019 report from the Center for an Urban Future. Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx saw 22%, 18%, 27%, and 26% increases, respectively. The same report details how there has been declining numbers of people under 65 across the five boroughs. This disparity highlights the need for substantive senior services and increasing access to and enrollment in public benefits.

A 2017 report from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s Office identified that over the last decade there had been a 19% increase in seniors in New York City, hitting 1.1 million, making up 13% of the city’s population. The report says the group was expected to continue to grow.

Last month, the Center for an Urban Future released a list of 63 policy recommendations to improve older adult services in the city. One policy recommendation urges the city to “undertake a citywide campaign to enroll older New Yorkers in benefits programs for which they are eligible,” using SNAP as an example.

“Fewer than half of the older adults eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are receiving nutrition benefits,” the recommendation reads. “DFTA should partner with NYC Opportunity, the Human Resources Administration (HRA), and the Department of Finance (DOF) to launch an extensive marketing and outreach campaign designed to call attention to the benefits programs available to older adults and to help them enroll.”

The bill passed by committee on Monday heads in that direction.

“I look forward to the bill’s implementation and certainly focusing on seniors and their eligibility for nutritional benefits, and SNAP is always a great thing because many seniors do not apply,” Council Member Vanessa Gibson said in support of the bill at Monday’s hearing.

The bill also requires comprehensive reporting. The Department of Social Services and Department for the Aging are required to annually submit a report that provides information on activities with respect to SNAP, the number of seniors enrolled and recertified in the program over the course of the previous year, a comparison of the rate of enrolment versus the number of seniors who the departments estimate are eligible for SNAP, identification of barriers to enrollment and recertification for seniors, and a plan to overcome the barriers.

The bill emphasizes the need to identify and address barriers related to “seniors who are unable to travel senior centers, whether due to physical limitation on lack of access to transportation or other reasons, and seniors who are not receiving other social services.”

The law would take effect immediately after adoption, either by the mayor signing it or it aging into law, while the reporting component is set to begin in April 2021.

The other bills passed by the committee on Monday were Intro. 1650, which mandates that the Human Resources Administration provides information about Health Bucks and farmers markets to participants of the SNAP program and two non-binding resolutions (1024 and 1025) that seek to expand SNAP to public college students and allow SNAP participants access to hot meals from participating delis, restaurants, and grocery stores. The resolutions are aimed at encouraging the federal government to adopt such regulations for SNAP.

Levin said “the proposed bills will make critical strides not only on hunger, but on the much needed improvements in the city's practices on planning, distribution, and data collection related to food.”

The four pieces of legislation are part of a larger food equity package moving through the Council this week and previously outlined in a speech and presentation last year by Council Speaker Corey Johnson. Other bills include codification of the Mayor's Office of Food Policy and the requirement that said office creates a long-term city food plan.

The bills are expected to be approved by the full City Council on Tuesday and have support from the de Blasio administration. Kate MacKenzie, the new director of the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette that “the Administration strongly supports these bills and the broader food equity vision outlined by the Speaker. I look forward to working with the Council and advocates in creating and formalizing a robust food policy plan for the City of New York.”

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by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

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Council Moves Legislation Requiring City to Enroll More Eligible Seniors in Food Assistance Mon, 10 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Johnson Unveils ‘Holistic, Long-Term’ Plan to Tackle City Homelessness Crisis https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9092-johnson-unveils-holistic-long-term-plan-to-tackle-city-homelessness-crisis https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9092-johnson-unveils-holistic-long-term-plan-to-tackle-city-homelessness-crisis cojo adv

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on Thursday released a plan that he said takes a “smarter, more strategic, holistic, long-term” approach to addressing the city’s homelessness crisis, seeking to end what he called the siloed policies of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and calling for more funding from the city and state to both help homeless individuals find permanent housing and prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

“This is, without exaggeration, a humanitarian crisis in the wealthiest city in the United States of America, and the time has come for urgent action,” Johnson said at the steps of City Hall, standing with advocates from non-profit organizations that provide services to the homeless and Council Member Stephen Levin, who chairs the Council’s General Welfare Committee with oversight of homelessness.

There are roughly 80,000 individuals living in New York City homeless shelters or on the street, while tens of thousands of others are living doubled up with friends or relatives. Of that number, about 20,000 are children under the age of 18. De Blasio has released various homelessness plans and instituted many relevant programs, but the issue remains one of his main challenges. While the administration has been successful in slowing the growth of homelessness through rental subsidies, eviction protections, and new housing, over more than six years it has not been able to reduce the city’s homeless population.

“We know what we need to do. We know the policies that need to happen to make sure that we are doing the historic work to bring down our shelter census, to reduce the length of stay [in a shelter],” Levin said, noting that the average length of stay is 400 days.

He added, “Just think for a second about what it's like to be a three-year-old child, spending half of your life living in a hotel room without a refrigerator, without a kitchen, no place to do your homework, no place for recreation, limited opportunities for after school or any types of enrichment. What kind of stress that has on that child, what kind of stress that has on that family. Multiply that by 20,000. That’s what we’re facing.”

The Council’s plan released on Thursday is a 200-plus page document that has been in the works for 18 months, Johnson said, and would fundamentally rework the city’s current approach to homelessness that has shown limited results despite a massive increase in city spending.

The plan is extensive, with 90 policy recommendations under six umbrellas – preventing homelessness, increasing access to permanent affordable housing, increasing support for unsheltered homeless people, improving services for the sheltered population, consolidating housing and homelessness policy, and creating a long-term approach to the issue instead of “lurching from crisis to crisis,” Johnson said.

De Blasio has released different iterations of plans to fight homelessness. Most recently, in 2017, he announced a plan to build 90 new homeless shelters while closing down troubled cluster sites and inadequate hotels contracted by the city to temporarily house homeless people. In December 2019, he announced a new plan to end long-term street homelessness by enhancing outreach, opening more “safe haven” beds, and dedicating more city-subsidized apartments to those coming out of homelessness. 

But while he gave the mayor some credit, Johnson critiqued the de Blasio administration for effectively siloing homelessness from housing and not offering an overall plan to meet the real needs of the city’s most vulnerable. “That makes no sense,” he said, emphasizing that housing and homelessness are two sides of the same coin and proposing that the city create a new position of deputy mayor for homelessness and affordable housing (there is currently a deputy mayor for housing and economic development while the deputy mayor for health and human services oversees much of the approach to addressing homelessness).

“All of us know what ultimately solves homelessness is simple. It is housing,” said Nathylin Flowers, a homeless activist who said she will turn 74 in March and will have spent five years living in shelter. Flowers famously confronted de Blasio over his housing policies in 2018 while he was working out at the Prospect Park Y.M.C.A., to which he was dismissive. “That's all we need, housing,” she said.

Johnson noted that the city has massively increased spending on homelessness – the first budget passed under Mayor de Blasio spent $954 million on the Department of Homeless Services, while the mayor’s latest budget proposal for the 2021 fiscal year allocates more than $2.1 billion towards the agency. “Blind spending will not solve the homelessness crisis,” Johnson said.

One of the major steps Johnson said would immediately reduce the homeless population would be to increase the value of rental subsidy vouchers for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness from the current maximum of $1,580 to a fair market rate of up to $1,951. He largely placed responsibility for this measure on the state, calling on the Legislature to establish the Home Stability Support program proposed by Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi of Queens. The program would create a new statewide rental subsidy, but has so far been opposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

But Johnson also said the city should pitch in more funding if the state fails to act. According to estimates from the Council, increasing rental subsidies to fair market rate would cost about $236 million over five years, but simultaneously would help reduce spending on cluster sites and commercial hotels by about $400 million.

Johnson also said the city should prioritize increasing the number of safe haven beds and supportive housing for the chronically street homeless. “These are not just aspirational goals that are in this 200-plus page report,” Johnson said. “These are feasible policies that will work to help prevent homelessness, increase pathways to permanent housing, and support our neighbors who are currently experiencing homelessness.”

In response to Johnson's press conference and plan, de Blasio's office noted that the mayor still has two years left to address the homelessness crisis and that while he has admitted he should have done more earlier in his term, he has put a lot in place over the last few years. “Through unprecedented investments in legal services and housing resources, we’ve helped more than 140,000 New Yorkers secure permanent affordable homes, all while driving down evictions by over a third and overhauling our shelter system," said Avery Cohen, a de Blasio spokesperson, in a statement. "With our Journey Home Plan, we’ll be taking this progress even further—pledging to bring every last person experiencing long-term homelessness off our streets over the next five years. We look forward to continuing our collaboration with the Council as we do everything we can to bring more people home.”

Advocates and organizers heaped praise on the Council report at the news conference on Thursday. “It's not going to be one thing, and if it was, we would have solved it. It's many things done to scale that will help turn this crisis around,” said Catherine Trapani, executive director of Homeless Services United. “And that's what this report calls for.”

Johnson said at the press conference that the Council is also working on a housing plan, which will work in tandem with the homelessness plan to accomplish what the speaker stressed as an essential combination. It didn’t go unnoticed that Johnson’s announcement came the day after his likely 2021 Democratic mayoral primary opponent Comptroller Scott Stringer released a new affordable housing plan, which also assailed de Blasio for how he has approached that issue. Johnson stressed that, like Stringer’s, his was a government announcement, and that the Council had been working on the plan for well over a year, but also said that he expects housing and homelessness to be key pieces of the conversation in the mayoral race.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note - this article has been updated with comment from Council Member Levin and from de Blasio's office.

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Johnson Unveils ‘Holistic, Long-Term’ Plan to Tackle City Homelessness Crisis Thu, 30 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Council Examines Gaps in City Shelter Services for Domestic Violence Survivors https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8812-council-examines-gaps-in-city-shelter-services-for-domestic-violence-survivors https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8812-council-examines-gaps-in-city-shelter-services-for-domestic-violence-survivors mmv attends brides

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


Domestic violence continues to be a leading cause of homelessness in New York City and ahead of Domestic Violence Awareness month, the New York City Council sought to examine how Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has provided services to survivors of domestic violence who rely on the city’s shelter system. 

Under state law, counties are required to provide shelter and services to domestic violence survivors. In New York City, that responsibility falls to the Human Resources Administration (HRA), which administers the largest domestic violence shelter system in the United States, comprised of 55 confidential facilities across the city that house 2,514 emergency beds. Those 55 sites include nine “Domestic Violence Tier II transitional shelter facilities,” with a total of 362 units where survivors are placed once they are stabilized in the emergency system.

According to HRA data, in fiscal year 2019, ending June 30, the city’s domestic violence shelter system served 10,983 individuals, including 355 single adults and 3,877 families.

But there remain several challenges for survivors and Council members attempted to address them at a joint hearing on Tuesday of the Committee on General Welfare and the Committee on Women and Gender Equity. The hearing was largely dedicated to oversight of the system, but also focused on two bills and a resolution under consideration by the committees.

In 2018, the NYPD responded to 250,447 domestic incident reports, about 8% more than the national average, according to the committee’s report from Tuesday’s hearing. According to NYPD data, felony assault complaints related to domestic violence increased from 7,800 in 2017 to 8,200 in 2018.

One bill on the docket at Tuesday’s hearing, sponsored by Council Member Stephen Levin (chair of the general welfare committee), would require HRA to report monthly disaggregated statistics on families with children living in shelter, while the second bill, sponsored by Council Member Helen Rosenthal (chair of the women and gender equity committee), calls for reports on services provided to transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) individuals in domestic violence shelters. The resolution, put forward by Council Member Farah Louis, calls on the state Legislature to authorize domestic violence shelters to be reimbursed for the payment differential for housing a single individual in a room intended for double occupancy.

Council Member Levin noted in his opening remarks that state law only allows survivors to remain in shelter for 180 consecutive days, after which they have few options at hand if they have failed to find permanent housing. Many end up trying to find shelter in the larger Department of Homeless Services (DHS) system, which doesn’t provide the same services that would be available to them in the domestic violence shelter system. Another choice they often face after the 180-day period is to return to their abusers.

Levin noted that in 2016, among families with children entering the DHS system every month, an average of 31% had a history of domestic violence. “This is a reality that we must change and that we have an obligation to as the city address with every resource that we have,” he said.

Rosenthal pointed out a dire problem. Citing a 2017 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, she noted that just 13% of intimate partner violence survivors attempted to access shelter; and about 43% of those who did seek shelter were denied and one-third of those were rejected based on gender identity.

She estimated that between 40 and 50 survivors were likely being turned away from domestic violence shelters in New York City each year because of their gender identity. “These numbers are clear. The TGNC community in New York is underserved,” she said, pointing out that the domestic violence shelter system favors cisgender individuals and that no beds are specifically available for TGNC survivors.

Rosenthal said the city should not only be providing more training to ensure TNGC individuals do not face discrimination but called on the Mayor's Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence (ENDGBV) to audit the work of domestic violence shelters to ensure equal compliance.

Testifying before the committees, officials from the de Blasio administration laid out a long string of efforts taken in the last few years to improve the city’s domestic violence shelters.

Annette Holm, HRA’s Chief Special Services Officer, said contracts for 300 additional emergency beds, announced by the mayor in 2015, had been awarded; a new shelter for families with pets opened last week; and 295 of 400 Tier II transitional units also announced in 2015 had been awarded. Three more Tier II shelters will open in 2020, she said.

“HRA addresses the scourge of domestic violence, a major driver of poverty and homelessness, by ensuring survivors and their families have access to a safe living environment and trauma-informed services, both within the shelter systems and as they transition back into communities,” Holm said. The agency also collaborates with several other mayoral offices and agencies to provide mental health, economic empowerment, legal and social services to domestic violence survivors, she noted, and has conducted trainings to ensure shelters are more inclusive to LGBTQI and TNGC populations.

Holm said the administration would work with the Council to achieve the goals of the bills at hand but raised some concerns, “namely about ensuring that collection of such information about transgender and non-binary people does not create barriers to access, raise privacy concerns, and/or further traumatize a client in an already vulnerable situation.”

She also noted that Levin’s bill could run up against the strict confidentiality requirements under the law and that the city would require consent from sheltered individuals before collecting their information.

Some of the issues raised by the Council members were echoed by survivors who testified as well. Alida Tchicamboud, a survivor leader at Sanctuary for Families, a domestic violence survivor service provider, emphasized how the city’s shelter system saved her life. But there were hurdles along the way, she explained. “It seems like the system works against survivors, especially for single women with dependent minor children, by forcing them to go back into the cycle of lifetime public assistance,” she said.

She said the limit on stays should be extended to a year, and that the rental assistance vouchers provided to survivors to find permanent housing were insufficient. She urged the city to provide more trauma-informed services, to enhance prosecutions of landlords who often illegally refuse to accept rental assistance vouchers, and to build permanent housing that prioritizes domestic violence survivors.

Rosenthal raised several complaints brought by service providers and advocates about both HRA’s processes and services. She urged HRA to ease the process of documenting attendance of survivors in shelter. Holm said that was already underway, with a new electronic attendance system that has been piloted in seven shelters and will be rolled out across the entire system in six months.

Rosenthal also called on HRA to share its annual reviews of shelter operational plans with ENDGBV, to ensure that shelters are providing adequate services for TGNC individuals. She also pushed HRA to be more flexible with paying service providers, and called on the administration to conduct greater outreach to domestic violence shelter and service providers who currently do not receive any government funding.

Levin encouraged HRA to increase access to mental health and financial literacy services, insisting that he wants to see some strides on those fronts before his City Council term expires in two years. 

On one area, there seemed to be some disagreement. Holm insisted she had never heard of the shelter system turning away any individuals based on their gender identity. “We don’t make a distinction. We treat them all the same. If they come in and we have an available bed and they meet the criteria, they will be housed,” she said.

Elizabeth Dank, ENDGBV’s deputy commissioner and general counsel, said her office conducts regular trainings for other agencies and service providers, particularly for screening and reception staff, to ensure they are sensitive to all domestic violence survivors, regardless of identity. 

But Rosenthal echoed advocates who said it is a real problem.

Catherine Shugrue dos Santos, deputy executive director for programs at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which contracts with the city, said that “there are precious few, if any, beds in New York City available at any time for survivors who do not identify as straight cisgender women with dependent children...Our clients regularly report being turned away from shelters and having nowhere to stay, thereby putting them at risk of further, potentially deadly violence.” She supported Rosenthal’s reporting bill and additionally called on the city to provide more funding for space to accommodate individuals across the sexual orientation and gender identity spectrum and more training for shelter providers.  

Jimmy Meagher, policy director of Safe Horizon, reiterated the point: “TGNCB survivors face all of the same obstacles and challenges that many cisgender survivors do – trauma, confusing and controlling systems, economic insecurity, the herculean task of finding affordable permanent housing, etc. But they also face discrimination, hate, and additional forms of violence.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Council Examines Gaps in City Shelter Services for Domestic Violence Survivors Tue, 24 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
As Early Childhood Educators Consider Strike, New York City Must Achieve Pay Parity https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8454-as-early-childhood-educators-consider-strike-new-york-city-must-achieve-pay-parity https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8454-as-early-childhood-educators-consider-strike-new-york-city-must-achieve-pay-parity mayor firstday

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


We know now, more than ever, just how malleable the mind of a young child is, and we understand that the earlier we begin engaging a child’s mind, the better off that child will be. Early childhood education can positively impact the academic, social, and emotional development of children, while providing much-needed financial relief for our city’s low-income families with children, for whom child care is a major expense.

Our city recognizes the significance early childhood education has, both for children and families. Mayor de Blasio’s commitment to investing in and expanding his Universal Pre-K and 3-K initiatives is proof of that, and we wholeheartedly support these programs because they help level the playing field for some of our city’s most vulnerable families.

Yet it is unconscionable that while the programs continue to grow, City Hall has failed to address a significant inequity that threatens the very success of the initiatives – the fair pay of teachers. Our children deserve the best opportunities we can give them, and in order for that to happen, we need to fairly compensate those who dedicate themselves to caring for our children and providing that critical, quality early education.

Most of the children who are currently enrolled in the Universal Pre-K program attend programs offered by community-based organizations (CBOs), where early childhood educators are rightfully fighting for wage parity that can help level the playing field for them and their families, as well. CBO-based pre-K teachers with bachelor’s degrees earn significantly less than their counterparts with the Department of Education (DOE) -- and often work more hours for a longer school year.

A CBO-based certified teacher with five years of experience makes approximately $42,000, while DOE counterparts with the same credentials earn closer to $60,000. The gap in salary widens over time — nearly doubling at 10 years of experience. A DOE pre-K teacher with a master’s degree and 20 years of experience can earn as much as $91,000 annually, while a CBO-based teacher with identical credentials can max out at approximately $50,000.

The same job responsibilities, the same experience, and the same qualifications for significantly less money. It’s not right, and it isn’t fair.

It’s no surprise that many CBO-based early childhood programs struggle to hold on to quality educators. Wage disparity demoralizes educators at CBOs -- many of whom are women of color -- and puts them in the unfair position of having to choose between the work they have passionately dedicated their lives to and caring for their own families. How can we expect our children to be properly educated and cared for if those tasked with that responsibility aren’t provided with the resources to do the same for their own?

Many of these educators are forced to look elsewhere for employment as a result, and that frequent turnover can have a destabilizing effect on the development of a young child’s mind. The longer we continue to drastically underpay non-DOE early childhood educators, the likelier it becomes that more and more of the early childhood programs that so many of our city’s families rely on will be forced to close their doors.

In the City Council, we pushed for funding for pay parity to be a part of the fiscal year 2019 budget, following a summer hearing on the Early Learn transition to DOE. At the hearing, we made it clear that pay parity needed to be addressed, but the de Blasio administration failed to see the same urgency, instead promising that the issue will be resolved during contract negotiations. That still has not happened and the mayor is out of time.

When the administration released a new round of contracts for early childhood services, it failed to include the increased funding that community providers were looking for, making clear that there is a lack of urgency or interest in addressing this problem. We need real solutions, not gestures.

The City Council just released its response to the mayor’s fiscal year 2020 preliminary budget proposal, and under the leadership of Speaker Corey Johnson, we are specifically calling on the mayor to include an $89 million investment that would close the wage gap. Securing this funding in the budget would create stability for these educators, as well as the program and the community-based organizations that provide many of these services. It's the right thing to do.

Teacher strikes have picked up momentum across the country for better pay and improved classroom conditions; and now, early childhood educators are deciding whether to strike here in New York City. We stand with teachers in calling for wage parity for early childhood educators and know that this decision does not come lightly. It is only after years of underpayment and efforts toward a resolution.

At a time when the mayor and his administration rightfully strive for the need for a school system that provides ‘equity and excellence for all,’ what sort of message are we sending by so drastically underpaying the teachers who primarily care for and educate children from low-income families? We’re not just shortchanging these educators; we’re shortchanging the students they teach, their families, and our city’s communities.

We want a school system that gives every single student in our city the same opportunities to succeed – that simply cannot happen if the system itself is unstable. A teacher’s salary should not depend on the type of contract they have with the city, but too often, it does. It is time that we correct the inequities of our system and support professionals who work hard to ensure that every child is getting the proper head start on development they deserve.

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Mark Treyger is the chair of the City Council’s Committee on Education. Stephen Levin chairs the City Council’s Committee on General Welfare. On Twitter @MarkTreyger718 & @StephenLevin33.

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

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As Early Childhood Educators Consider Strike, New York City Must Achieve Pay Parity Tue, 16 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Passes Legislation Authorizing Electeds to Create Legal Defense Funds https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8224-city-council-set-to-pass-legislation-authorizing-legal-defense-funds https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8224-city-council-set-to-pass-legislation-authorizing-legal-defense-funds mayorcouncilfisacl

(Photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


Update: This article was published on Wednesday and the City Council passed this legislation on Thursday afternoon with a 42-5 vote. Council Members Joe Borelli,  Chaim Deutsch, Steven Matteo, Carlos Menchaca and Eric ulrich voted against the bill. Council Member Jumaane Williams abstained from the vote. 

A bill that would allow elected officials to set up trusts to raise money from private sources to cover legal fees is set to be approved by the New York City Council on Thursday.

The legislation, sponsored by City Council Member Stephen Levin, would allow city officials to raise as much as $5,000 from individual donors through trusts, to pay for legal fees arising from criminal or civil investigations that are unrelated to their governmental duties, such as those involving campaign activity (legal fees related to government duties can be covered by public funds).

The trusts would have to file detailed quarterly reports on fundraising and spending with the city Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB), and would be prohibited from taking donations from lobbyists, corporations, LLCs, and people doing business with the city. The reports will be posted publicly online.

Levin’s bill is meant to fill a gap in the city’s legal framework that allows elected officials to use taxpayer funds to cover their defense in investigations arising from their official duties, but not in the case of non-governmental activity. Mayor Bill de Blasio found that out the hard way after facing dual state and federal probes into his fundraising activities through outside nonprofit groups and, in one, related government actions, which eventually led to no charges being filed but left the mayor with hefty legal fees running into the hundreds of thousands, even after he reversed course to utilize public funds to cover the bulk of over $2 million in fees related to the federal inquiry of whether he directed government favors based on campaign donations.

The mayor initially sought to use a legal defense fund to cover the costs but the COIB issued an advisory opinion limiting any donations to a mere $50, viewing them as gifts to an elected official which are severely limited by law. The mayor then used public funds to pay for the costs related to his government duties -- about $2.6 million -- but said he could not cover a separate bill that related to his non-governmental activity. De Blasio is not the only elected official who has had significant legal bills to deal with related to their official or non-governmental activity, he and others have pointed out.

The legislation is scheduled for a vote at a hearing of the City Council’s Governmental Operations Committee on Thursday morning, in what seems to be a rushed vote -- the bill was introduced on January 9 and the committee held an initial hearing on it last Monday, at which several questions were raised by COIB representatives and Council members. Spokespeople for Levin and for Council Speaker Corey Johnson said the bill is expected to pass through the committee and to be approved at a meeting of the full Council in the afternoon. It is very rare for any legislation at the City Council to move so quickly from introduction to passage.

The government reform community is split in its opinion on the legislation. Groups like Common Cause New York and Reinvent Albany have supported the effort to create a framework around legal defense funds, while another reform group, Citizens Union, disagrees with the very concept. In a letter of opposition sent to the Council on Wednesday, Citizens Union argued that the bill “creates the risk or appearance of corruption and undue influence, and will necessitate a complex regulatory scheme to mitigate.” The group urged the Council to, at minimum, tweak the legislation to bring donation limits in line with the lower limits that apply to campaign contributions.

The Campaign Finance Board, which monitors campaign fundraising and expenditure in municipal elections, also raised concerns about the bill. Executive Director Amy Loprest noted in her testimony before the governmental operations committee on January 14 that the legislation seems to allow officials to use trusts to pay for fines incurred from campaign finance violations. Officials can already cover those costs from their campaign accounts, which are subject to stricter fundraising limits.

“By providing certain candidates, i.e. those who are elected officials or public servants, with an additional vehicle to raise funds, Int. No. 1325 creates a path for those candidates to solicit and accept contributions from individuals that aggregate well over the existing contribution limits,” Loprest said in her testimony, urging that the bill be amended. “A clear majority of voters in last November’s Charter referendum voted to reduce these limits by more than half, with reducing the risk of corruption as the main rationale.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Passes Legislation Authorizing Electeds to Create Legal Defense Funds Wed, 23 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
With De Blasio in Debt, City Council Considers Bill to Allow ‘Legal Defense Trusts’ https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8218-with-de-blasio-in-debt-city-council-considers-bill-to-allow-legal-defense-trusts https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8218-with-de-blasio-in-debt-city-council-considers-bill-to-allow-legal-defense-trusts nycczerohearingsl

City Council Member Stephen Levin (photo via New York City Council)


Mayor Bill de Blasio owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawyers who helped him during legal investigations that ultimately resulted in no criminal charges against the mayor, but left him with bills to pay even after he reversed course and decided to use public funds to cover the portion of his legal expenses related to his government work. The remaining balance, for work related to campaign activity de Blasio was involved with that was the subject of part of the inquiries, has left de Blasio looking for a new way to pay off his debts: a legal defense fund whereby he raises money from donors willing to help him.

But, there’s been a key catch: the city does not have a legal framework for allowing public officials to create such accounts, and the advice the mayor got from the city’s Conflict of Interest Board limited him to receiving very small gifts from prospective benefactors.

Spotlighting this perceived gap in the city’s legal and campaign finance framework, de Blasio’s situation, as well as others before him, has spurred action, and the City Council has begun to consider a new law to create “legal defense trusts.”

On Monday, January 14, the Council’s Committee on Government Operations held a hearing on a bill proposed by Council Member Stephen Levin, a Brooklyn Democrat, that would allow city officials to establish such trusts for fees incurred during an investigation or trial. The bill sets a donation limit at $5,000 per donor, which is more than double the $2,000 limit for campaign contributions, with no limit on how much an official can raise in such a fund. As written, the bill bans lobbyists, persons doing business with the city, corporations, and LLCs from contributing to legal defense trusts. Additionally, any legal defense trusts would be required to make quarterly reports to the Conflict of Interest Board on their donations, which would then be made public and posted online, in a manner similar to the Campaign Finance Board’s reporting of political donations. No campaign funds could be used for a legal defense trust or vice versa and each trust will be overseen by an independent trustee.

Levin said that his bill “would bring transparency and regulation to a system that is in need of improvement.” Under the current law, city officials in civil and some criminal cases are entitled to a legal defense paid for by the city, as long as the cases relate to their public duties. However, offenses unrelated to an official’s public duties (such as political campaigns, issue advocacy, and certain administrative issues) are not paid for by the city.

Council Member Fernando Cabrera, a Bronx Democrat and the chair of the Government Operations Committee, explained it as a problem because “public officials are not highly paid and rarely independently wealthy,” and “defending against allegations and investigations for alleged wrongdoing can be financially devastating for someone of average means.”

While there have been past instances to raise the issue, the bill and committee hearing were spurred by a March 2017 advisory opinion from the city’s Conflict of Interest Board, which stated that because there was no law specifically addressing the issue, donations to a public official’s legal defense fund are considered gifts under current law and therefore limited to $50 per person. The advisory opinion came after Mayor de Blasio planned to create a legal defense fund to cover fees from state and federal investigations into his fundraising activities.

De Blasio, a second-term Democrat, was never mentioned by name during the hearing, but was frequently referred to as a “public official in the headlines,” when the advisory opinion was brought up during testimony provided by representatives of the Conflict of Interest Board.

At a press conference on January 8, de Blasio reiterated his assertion that a new legal framework was necessary. “I believe there is a need in a democratic society for this kind of mechanism, a legal defense fund is a very well established idea,” he said. He added the caveat that the bill had not gone through the legislative process, so he didn’t know the final wording. When asked if he would disclose his donors if the bill passed, he replied “absolutely” (it may be required).

While de Blasio has been earning the salaries afforded to elected officials for many years, he also owns two houses in Park Slope, Brooklyn, making him fairly wealthy. He has indicated he does not have the means to pay his legal bills, not acknowledging the possibility of leveraging his property, or at least its value. He has pointed to the larger case for legal defense funds that goes beyond his situation, something it appears City Council members and others are in agreement about. De Blasio has claimed that law enforcement investigations are part of being in political office.

At the hearing, the bill appeared to have the support of the Council members who spoke, although some had suggestions for improving it. The Conflict of Interest Board, represented at the hearing by its executive director, Carolyn Lisa Miller, and general counsel, Ethan Carrier, also expressed general support. However, Miller said there are some reservations about a section of the proposed bill that would ban the use of a defense fund from paying legal fines, but allows a fund to pay civil and administrative fines, such as Campaign Finance Board fines. Council Member Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat who expressed support for the concept of the bill but is undecided about its current form, asked about this section, but it was unclear if the provision would be changed.

Miller stated the COIB already does not have enough resources to do its mandated work and would require additional funds to fulfill the requirements of the bill. She estimated that an online reporting portal would cost $40,000 to set up and a few thousand each year afterwards for licensing. The bill requires quarterly reporting for defense funds and each audit would cost between $5,000 and $10,000, according to Miller’s estimate based on information from other city agencies. When asked about the number of defense funds that would be registered, she said she did not know. If the section allowing defense funds to pay campaign finance violation fines were to be included in a final bill, she estimated that as many as 50 defense funds could be established. Without that provision, she said there were only be a few, if any, per year. Many candidates for office wind up incurring some amount of fines from the Campaign Finance Board, often ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.

Council Member Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat, said he supports the concept behind the bill, but thinks that the specifics could be improved. He questioned why the Campaign Finance Board would not allow COIB to use its reporting portal or certified auditors, which he said would save taxpayers money. According to Miller, the CFB’s portal is proprietary to that agency and cannot be used by COIB. Near the end of the hearing, Cabrera proposed that the CFB could administer the bill’s requirements instead of the COIB. Both Levin and Treyger were against this proposal, but Yeger reaffirmed that he would like a mandate included in the bill for the CFB and COIB to share resources.

While not at the hearing, watchdog group Common Cause supports the bill. In a July 2017 statement in support of legal defense trusts, Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause/NY,  said that “there must and should be a process for public officials to raise funds to pay for legal bills” and “we need a policy in place to give public officials a workable solution and avoid ad hoc improvisation.” Common Cause commissioned a study of legal defense fund laws across the country and made recommendations to cover New York City’s perceived “policy gap.” Levin’s bill includes many of Common Cause’s recommendations.

The Council committee hearing on the bill only included a statement from Council Member Levin, its lead sponsor, and the representatives from COIB. The Council now has to decide whether to amend Levin’s bill and if more hearings are required to address the issues raised at the January 14 hearing. The Council will also have to decide to vote on the bill or put it on indefinite hold. If it passes committee, it will go to the full 51-member Council. Meanwhile, it is unclear when exactly Mayor de Blasio’s legal bills are due, the debt has been outstanding for quite some time now.

In response to a tweet about the bill from Politico reporter Sally Goldenberg, former City Council Member Sal Albanese, a 2013 and 2017 Democratic primary opponent of de Blasio, said that Levin and the bill’s other sponsors “should be held accountable for introducing this self serving corruption hazard” and called them “Bill de Blasio sycophants.” Levin replied to Albanese, stating that “I never spoke to [the Mayor’s Office] before introing this bill” and that “the bill itself is specifically designed to eliminate a corruption hazard.”

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note: after initially mistaking Council Member Yeger for Treyger, this article has been corrected. It has also been updated to clarify Council Member Powers' stance on the bill.

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With De Blasio in Debt, City Council Considers Bill to Allow ‘Legal Defense Trusts’ Mon, 21 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Proposed Changes to ‘Public Charge’ and Access to City Benefits: What To Know https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8190-proposed-changes-to-public-charge-and-access-to-city-benefits-what-to-know https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8190-proposed-changes-to-public-charge-and-access-to-city-benefits-what-to-know 24128710992 658f50cdcf z

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


New Yorkers know that it is the city government’s job to make sure that they’re taken care of. We fill potholes, pick up the trash, clean the streets, clear the drains, prune the trees - you name it.

But that’s not all we do. And while we faced many challenges as a city and as a nation in 2018, New Yorkers continue to step up and help their neighbors in need.

Through our public health facilities, tens of thousands of dedicated professionals help their fellow New Yorkers put food on the table, help expectant mothers get access to critical health care, help seniors make ends meet, and so much more. We even helped non-English speaking eligible voters participate in our democracy, by expanding our poll-site interpretation program. We work to serve New Yorkers every day because that’s our number one job. It’s why we’re here.

Back in October, the Trump administration announced a proposal concerning “public charge,” a complex aspect of immigration law. If implemented, the proposal would make it easier for immigration officials to prevent an otherwise eligible person from getting a green card or certain kinds of visas. They could make that life-changing decision just because one day, the applicant could find herself or himself down on their luck and in need of important public resources.

Over 200,000 public comments were submitted to the federal register – a truly remarkable display of civic participation and responsiveness from residents of all walks of life. We thank you, and every single New Yorker who took the time to make their voice heard on this issue.

We can all agree that in this country – in this city – of immigrants, no one should have to choose between relying on the help for which they’re legally eligible and pursuing the American Dream.

In the past few months, we’ve heard from folks across the five boroughs, some scared or confused, and even more who want to know how to help their fellow New Yorkers.

So let’s get some facts straight.

First: the public charge proposal is not in effect, and nothing about eligibility for benefits has changed. New York City’s doors remain open to those in need. The Department of Social Services is continuing to accept applications from all New Yorkers for benefits, and is continuing to deliver benefits and services to all who are eligible. The same is true for all of the public hospitals and community clinics operated by NYC Health + Hospitals. If you’re in need of health care, you’ll be able to find it there.

Second: many immigrants would not be impacted by this proposal. If you are a naturalized citizen, a refugee, an asylee, or a green card holder thinking about renewing or becoming a U.S. citizen, this proposal would not apply to you. This is also true for many other categories of immigrants.

That leads us to the next – and very important – point.

Third: If you are concerned about this proposal’s possible impacts on you or your family, don’t make any decisions without getting safe and trusted legal advice first.

You can get help in many languages by calling the Office of New Americans hotline, operated by Catholic Charities, at 1-800-566-7636. You can also call the city’s 311 and say “ActionNYC” to schedule a free consultation with a trusted immigration legal services provider, funded by the City of New York.

If New Yorkers begin to disenroll from health care, nutrition, or housing programs for which they’re eligible, the consequences could be dire. We could face a public health crisis and lose hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity annually.

As public servants, our job is to serve you. And in the fairest big city in America, no one should struggle alone. We’ve got your back.

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Bitta Mostofi is the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs; Steven Banks is the Commissioner of the Department of Social Services, City Council Member Carlos Menchaca is chair of the Immigration Committee, City Council Member Mark Levine is chair of the Health Committee, City Council Member Stephen Levin is chair of the General Welfare Committee.

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

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Proposed Changes to ‘Public Charge’ and Access to City Benefits: What To Know Wed, 09 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
As We Close Rikers, Criminal Justice Reformers are Ready for Full Partnership in Albany https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8143-as-we-close-rikers-criminal-justice-reformers-are-ready-for-full-partnership-in-albany https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8143-as-we-close-rikers-criminal-justice-reformers-are-ready-for-full-partnership-in-albany guards rikers

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Riding high on the crest of a Democratic blue wave powered by grassroots progressives, New York Democrats finally took back the state Senate for the first time in nearly a decade. With this accomplishment comes a responsibility to finally act upon a long list of priorities that have been stymied by the Republican-controlled upper chamber of the Legislature in Albany.  

Chief among these priorities is criminal justice reform, a topic that the New York City Council has been tackling aggressively for some time. Perhaps the Council’s most ambitious effort in this sphere has been to close all jails on Rikers Island. The decrepit jails on this island embody human misery and tragedy and it is our moral imperative to close them forever.

Any realistic effort to close these jails requires reducing the pretrial detention population, as close to 90 percent of those housed on Rikers are merely accused and not convicted of crimes. While the city has managed to take several bold steps in this area, state action will be required to make the dream of closing Rikers a reality. Over the past few years, our efforts at state reform have been hamstrung by an uncooperative state Senate. Throughout the process, our progressive allies in the Assembly majority and Senate minority voiced support for progressive criminal justice reform but were unable to move key bills to fruition.

Their inability to move legislation through the Senate did not stop some state elected officials from crafting bills that would greatly improve our criminal justice system. This legislation now stands a strong chance of passing once the new Democratic majority sits for the 2019 legislative session.

agenda19v2 aFirst and foremost, bail and speedy trial reform must be prioritized. Both efforts would go a long way towards a more equitable criminal justice system writ large, while lowering the detainee population on Rikers Island. While we here on the City Council have done much to make our bail system fairer, only Albany can implement the deep and systemic reform necessary to make our pretrial detention system truly fair and just. There are a number of bills in the Assembly and Senate that either significantly restrict or eliminate cash bail, encourage the use of monitored release in lieu of detention, and help ensure that pretrial detention is reserved for only the most severe cases. Any of this legislation would go a long way towards fixing what is a fundamentally broken and unfair bail system.

Meanwhile, speedy trial reform is arguably even more important in reducing pretrial detention. Given that close to 90 percent of the jail population is pretrial detainees, cutting the speed with which cases are resolved has a direct and massive impact on the jail population: a 25 percent faster system would mean close to a 25 percent reduction in the jail population. Much like our state’s bail laws, our speedy trial laws are outdated and ineffective, lagging far behind the federal system and other states. As they say, justice delayed is justice denied, so resolving criminal prosecutions faster not only reduces our jail population, it also helps our criminal justice system as a whole. While Senate Democrats tried to push for some minor reforms to our broken speedy trial laws in recent years, our new Senate leaders must be aggressive in tackling this issue.

There are also lesser-discussed issues that could be enormously transformative, such as parole reform. Approximately 16 percent of the population of Rikers Island jails is incarcerated for parole violations, and the state controls this issue in its entirety. According to a report issued by Columbia University’s Justice Lab, the state parolee population is the only jail group that saw an increase in its size over the past four years. Thankfully, Albany is aware of the issue, evident in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State speech, in which he touched on the importance of parole reform. When the new state Legislature convenes in January, it can move to shorten parole terms, incentivize good behavior, and require speedier hearings on these issues.

Though its impact on our jail population may not immediately be apparent, discovery reform should also prove critical in helping the city to run a more just criminal justice system and to close Rikers Island jails. Discovery is the process by which the prosecution provides its evidence to the defense. New York State has among the most restrictive discovery laws in the country. While the issue may seem complex, it is actually fairly simple: since well over 95 percent of criminal prosecutions result in a plea or dismissal, the faster the defense is able to assess the strength of the prosecution’s case, the faster a plea or dismissal can be reached. Luckily, there is already legislation in Albany to ameliorate the situation, and our new leaders should embrace these progressive reforms.  

Over the past several years, we here at the City Council worked hard to bring our criminal justice system into the 21st century. However, there has always been a limit to what we can accomplish without willing partners in Albany. In early January, when our fellow Democrats in the state Senate take their seats as the new majority and work with the Democratic majority in the Assembly, the possibilities for progressive criminal justice reform will widen tremendously.

The progressive activists who helped make Democratic victories a reality in November will be watching the new Legislature closely. It is imperative that our state elected officials finally act to create a criminal justice system in New York that reflects our values as a state and a city.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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Diana Ayala, Margaret Chin, and Stephen Levin are members of the New York City Council, representing parts of the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, and members of the Council’s Progressive Caucus. Their districts are all slated to be home to new or larger jails as Rikers Island facilities are closed. On Twitter @DianaAyalaNYC & @CM_MargaretChin & @StephenLevin33.

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

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As We Close Rikers, Criminal Justice Reformers are Ready for Full Partnership in Albany Sun, 16 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Added Scrutiny of City’s Delinquent Contracting Practices https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7748-added-scrutiny-of-city-s-delinquent-contracting-practices https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7748-added-scrutiny-of-city-s-delinquent-contracting-practices cm stephlevin ant reynoso

Council Member Levin (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The new city budget does not do enough to address the tremendous backlog of city contracts with nonprofit groups that have been left languishing by city agencies, the groups say. This comes after a recent report from the city comptroller that shows 81 percent of new and renewed contracts were registered retroactively, meaning after their start date, last fiscal year. Human services were the most affected, with more than 90 percent of contracts in this category submitted retroactively to the comptroller’s office by city agencies, half of them late by six months or more.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council recently agreed to a $89.2 billion operating budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Though it continues to increase spending at various city agencies that rely on human services nonprofits, there is no accompanying deal to address the rampant contracting delays across city agencies.

The problem of contract delays affects cash flow and services to the public, and also compounds other issues, such as contracts not accounting enough for overhead expenses, that together contribute to a financial crisis for many organizations that the city contracts with to provide vital services from homeless shelters to after school programs.

“It needs to be a priority of this administration to fix the backlog in contract registration and also the significant amount of contract amendments that are pending from investments the city made last year: money that was announced on July 1 of 2017 that providers still have not gotten in June of 2018,” said Michelle Jackson, spokesperson for the Human Services Advancement Strategy Group (HSASG), in an interview last week. The group, which consists of nine associations and represents some 2,000 human services provider organizations in New York City, will be testifying at a City Council oversight hearing on the issue at City Hall this Thursday, June 21. “There really needs to be a focus on getting all of those amendments and registrations up to date,” Jackson added.

The delay in the city’s procurement process means vendors -- predominately nonprofits in the human services sector -- are forced to either fund their own work while they wait for the city to register and approve their contracts, or delay starting operations entirely. For providers waiting to have their contracts renewed, Jackson said, “they have to just keep operating the service because you don’t just send all the kids home, you don’t kick everyone out of the shelter. It’s not like a construction project where you can just wait to get all your documents signed…Nonprofits are taking a real fiscal and legal liability by waiting for these contracts.”

It’s a system in “dire need of reform,” according to Comptroller Scott Stringer’s report. In a statement to Gotham Gazette last week, Stringer’s spokesperson added: “One of city government’s most important jobs is delivering services to New Yorkers in need – that’s why fixing the city procurement process is urgent and essential. Providing services to our most vulnerable residents depends on our ability to execute social service contracts expediently.”

The next step in addressing the issue is this week’s hearing of the City Council Committees on Contracts and General Welfare at City Hall, which will be co-chaired by Brooklyn Council Members Justin Brannan and Stephen Levin, the respective chairs of those committees. The “process has to be sped up,” Levin said.

“These providers are operating at significant deficit and often we engage with providers that are doing a lot of the work that we would like to see providers do, and they are doing it on their own fundraising,” Levin told Gotham Gazette.

The backlog is also putting pressure on the city’s Returnable Grant Fund, a revolving fund providing interest-free loans to nonprofits. February testimony from Acting Chair of the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, Dan Symon, to the City Council was referenced in the comptroller’s report, claiming the Fund processed 751 loans for nonprofits in fiscal year 2017 as a “direct result of delayed contract awards.” The combined total of these loans was $149.9 million.

“We need to make sure we are providing services equitably across the board,” Levin said. “That when you go to shelter you’re not just lucking out in getting into a good provider or a provider that’s has the ability to raise significant money versus a provider that can’t. That’s not an equitable system.”

Mayor de Blasio and his administration were widely criticized following the release of Stringer’s report, with questions raised about the progressive mayor’s commitment to human services organizations and their clients. The issues raised by the comptroller’s report are longstanding and nonprofits groups and their supporters have been lobbying city government to improve the process for sometime.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette last week, a City Hall spokesperson said the mayor’s office has been working to reduce contracting backlogs and that model budgets -- a system introduced this year designed to increase rates for providers funded below what is considered the ‘model’ to deliver appropriate service -- will help these departments fulfil their administrative duties to outside contractors.  

“We’ve invested more than a quarter-billion new dollars annually in our shelter provider partners to address decades of disinvestment and reform outdated rates they were paid for many years,” the spokesperson said. “We have also been working closely with these vital partners to resolve inherited contracting backlogs, implement model budgets for the first time ever, and address any outstanding challenges they may have to ensure they can deliver the services our neighbors in need deserve as they get back on their feet.”

 

Due to this work in resolving contracting issues, the City Hall spokesperson said this year is the first time in recent memory that providers will be operating with registered current contracts. As of May 2018, 97 percent of fiscal year 2018 contracts are registered and active, with only one contract still at the comptroller’s office and another contract pending provider budget submission.

According to the comptroller’s report, the seven city agencies that contract for the majority of human service programs are: the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), Department of Education (DOE), Department of Youth & Community Development (DYCD), Department for the Aging (DFTA), Department of Homeless Services (DHS), Human Resources Administration (HRA), and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).

All of these departments submitted more than half of their registration and renewal contracts retroactively to the comptroller’s office last year. DHS and HRA submitted 100 percent of these contracts retroactively, and the DOE was at 99.8 percent of registration and renewal contracts submitted after their start date. In HRA’s case, more than 60 percent of retroactive contracts were submitted to the comptroller’s office more than six months after the contract was due to start.

Despite the backlog, some departments are set to receive less funding in fiscal year 2019 than in the current, soon-to-end fiscal year, according to the city budget that was released on Monday June 12.

DYCD, for example, is receiving about $121 million less in funding via the city budget this financial year, yet of 859 registered or renewed contracts it received last year, 795 (92.5 percent) were submitted retroactively, according to the comptroller’s report. Similarly, DOHMH is allocated $112 million less in fiscal 2019 than it was in 2018, and of 314 new and renewed contracts it handled last fiscal year, 265 (or 84.4 percent) were submitted after their start date.

When asked if the budget has allocated enough resources to these city agencies that are struggling with contracting, Council Member Brannan said: “This is something we intend to discuss at the hearing on the 21st, both from the administration side as well as what the providers think. I am committed to working with the Speaker, Administration, as well as the Comptroller, to ensure we are processing contracts in as swift a manner as possible so that vital services are not being jeopardized due to procedural snafus that can be remedied.”

“I hope that through our hearing we can shed light on the administration’s progress implementing model budgeting across different agencies as well as seeing how the providers are faring with model budgeting,” Brannan added.  

DHS and the DOE, which respectively submitted 100 percent and 99.8 percent of contracts retroactively to the comptroller’s office last year, are both receiving an increase in funding for the upcoming fiscal year. According to the city’s preliminary budget, DHS is receiving more than $183 million in additional funding compared to the current fiscal year and DOE is budgeted an additional $1.2 billion.

Speaking to Gotham Gazette, Council Member Levin said the Council’s preliminary budget hearing with DHS dealt largely with where the increased funding is going and he is confident the additional funding will help the agency in improving contract delays.

“In our preliminary budget hearing with DHS, we did talk a lot about where a lot of the increased funding is going and they spoke a lot about the model budget contract,” Levin said. “So we’re expecting that it should be able to be covered in the significant increases in budget year-over-year in DHS. I have every expectation that they’ll be able to be covered it for sure. And if they’re not, there’s opportunities to do budget modifications.”

“We need a system that’s set up that can afford the services that we need to provide for over 60,000 people in shelter ...” Levin continued. “We need to make sure that the providers are funded enough so that they can provide adequate services.”

Comptroller Stringer's report makes two recommendations for improving the processing of contracts within city agencies: to stipulate deadlines for every agency that handles contract applications and to implement a transparent tracking system for vendors to follow their applications through the process. But the report also describes an extremely cumbersome system, weighed down in bureaucracy, in which up to five departments sometimes will handle a contract before it reaches the comptroller’s office -- the only agency with a deadline, which is 30 days -- where it is ultimately approved or kicked back to city agencies for more processing.

“What we’re looking at now is 100 percent late registration [from some departments] and what’s going to happen today and tomorrow to get that fixed?” Jackson, of the Human Services Advancement Strategy Group, said, adding that while she “absolutely agrees” with the comptroller’s recommendations, “a tracking system and a timeline are not going to fix the backlog” already in existence.

The HSASG is calling for a “SWAT Team” to immediately help clear the backlog, as well as allocation and recognition of this in the budget. Jackson said the group is asking for an additional $200 million to human services, not only to fix the contracting delays, but to also go to areas such as benefits, insurance, and occupancy costs.

“A lot of these contracts don’t have cost escalators, and obviously in New York City rent goes up every year (a lot of expenses go up), and there’s not a way to capture that,” Jackson said. “Of course we were disappointed to not see further investment in the sector but we appreciate it’s a long-term investment that needs to be made.”

Brannan said he “supports the recommendations” laid out in the comptroller’s report and that he is “working with the Comptroller’s office to come up with potential legislative fixes that would provide for agencies to process city contracts within a much more reasonable period of time.” He said he’s spoken to the Mayor's Office of Contract Services about next phases in rolling out the city’s Procurement and Sourcing Solutions Portal (PASSPort), saying it “in theory should significantly reduce procurement delays.”

The spokesperson from City Hall also said the planned updates to PASSport will “make it easier for agencies to order and pay for goods off centralized contracts.” The system, which was initially launched in August 2017, will be updated with “phase two” in 2019 and “phase three” will launch approximately one year later to “enable online bidding and invoice management for all agencies,” the spokesperson said.  

New York City isn’t the first city to require urgent and comprehensive procurement reform. A 2005 report by the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) on fixing that city’s similarly “slow and burdensome” contracting system provided the administration with a range of recommendations that might be applicable in New York City today. These included, not only fixed deadlines for every department and a transparent tracking system, but also recommendations to increase public information and awareness of the city’s contracting system; allow simultaneous review by agencies; develop clear and explicit procedures for fast-tracking contracts; and use a post-audit approach to test compliance by departments, instead of every single contract moving through the comptroller’s office.

There is no indication of any other measures being taken to address the contracting backlog in New York City, though the City Hall spokesperson said: “We are continuously looking to improve our practices to also realize timely procurement.”

More ideas will likely be raised at Thursday’s Council hearing, but for those in the nonprofit sector, the fiscal year 2019 budget was the perfect place for the city to demonstrate its understanding of, and commitment to solving, the problem. “We would have liked to see it in the budget, even if it was just a statement about how to get all this money out the door,” Jackson said. “I think there needs to be a real recognition that this is a priority to fix the registration process and it needs to happen right away.”

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by Caitlin Bishop, Gotham Gazette
@caitybishop  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

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Added Scrutiny of City’s Delinquent Contracting Practices Tue, 19 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000