Gotham Gazette Thu, 02 Jul 2020 17:16:31 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) 4 Things to Watch as Mayor and City Council Finalize New Budget city budget negotiations council de blasio johnson

The Mayor and City Council discuss the budget (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

New York City’s next fiscal year begins Wednesday, July 1, and there is no clear picture of the city’s fiscal future. The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has been catastrophic for the city’s economy, gutting revenue streams and necessitating major cuts in planned city government spending, along with tapping into billions of dollars in reserves.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council are engaged in intense negotiations as they seek to fill a large budget gap and try to prevent significant cuts to services and avoid mass layoffs while coming to a budget agreement by Tuesday night.

In his Executive Budget plan released in April, de Blasio had cut proposed spending by $6 billion from his January, pre-pandemic Preliminary Budget, from $95.3 billion to $89.3 billion. This was done through $2.7 billion in savings, largely reductions in planned city agency spending, and drawing $4 billion from reserves to attempt to minimize the city’s budget gap. But as tax revenue has continued to plummet that gap has continued to grow and the administration still has to find another $1 billion to balance the budget.

Yet the City Council was not in agreement with de Blasio’s Executive Budget and the two sides have had different priorities heading into final budget negotiations, most notably the goal set by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and dozens of the Council’s 51 members to slash the police department’s $5.9 billion operating budget by $1 billion.

Meanwhile, hanging over the city budget picture have been two possible ways to close the immense gap that are out of the control of the mayor and Council: a federal “bailout,” which looks virtually impossible before the June 30 city deadline (thanks to Republicans in Washington), and permission from the state for the city to borrow billions of dollars to cover operating expenses, which appears unlikely to be granted in the next few days (thanks to Democrats in Albany).

Here are four things to watch in the city budget:

How will the city balance the budget?
Mayor de Blasio said at a press briefing on Friday that the city could have to lay off as many as 22,000 employees by October 1 if it cannot fill the $1 billion gap that remains.

Along with persistently but unsuccessfully lobbying for federal funds, de Blasio has been pushing the state Legislature to allow the city to borrow funds to cover those operational costs, a move that was prohibited after the practice in part pushed the city to the brink when it faced insolvency in the 1970s and the state came to the rescue. The resulting legislation after that fiscal crisis created an oversight body, the state Financial Control Board (FCB), and required that the city only spend as much revenue as it has on hand. 

The mayor said his borrowing plan has been amended and instead of seeking authorization to borrow $7 billion, the city will ask for $5 billion over two years. “We hope to borrow none, if we actually got the kind of federal stimulus support we deserve,” he said. “Maybe that will come, but we need the fallback of borrowing.” He said the process would be closely monitored by the FCB.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature have been reluctant to approve any operational borrowing by the city but have yet to give definitive answers on the mayor’s latest proposal.

“Borrowing for operating expenses is a risky proposition, and it has to be done with caution, if at all,” Cuomo said at a press briefing on Thursday. “Because now you’re really rolling the dice on future revenues. We went through this situation in the ′70s, where New York City was basically bankrupt and the state had to step in.”

“If there is a plan, we will review it,” said Caitlin Girouard, a Cuomo spokesperson, in an email on Friday. “That said, the existing financial control board is in the best position to review any plans for New York City to issue long-term debt to pay for current operating costs.”

On Saturday, State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat, issued a statement indicating the Senate Democratic Conference is not there yet on supporting borrowing by the city.

“New York City is the economic engine for our nation and our state, and so it is a priority for the Senate that it remains economically strong and viable,” Stewart-Cousins said. “Prudence requires the development of a plan not rushed through before action is actually necessary, especially when the possibility of additional federal aid remains unresolved. Mayor de Blasio has made it clear we have several months before drastic measures like layoffs would occur and other city leaders have sent mixed signals about the wisdom and efficacy of the current request. The Senate will work with our partners in Government including the Mayor, the City Comptroller, the City Council, the Assembly, and the Governor to help New York City. We are open to approving limited loan authorization but more work needs to be done to develop a consensus around a sound approach.”

In response, mayoral spokesperson Freddi Goldstein said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, “Waiting to see what will come from Washington has never been a viable option. It wasn't during the crisis, and it’s not in its aftermath. We need money to restart our city, keep New Yorkers working, and deliver the services they need most as they rebuild their lives. Now is the time to act. We’re disappointed the State Senate doesn’t see that.”

A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said the Assembly will review any proposals.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson came out against the proposal to borrow $7 billion in May, instead pushing the administration to cut between 5 and 7% of city agency budgets. At the time, he said borrowing should be a “last resort” for the city. But at the Thursday briefing, Johnson said he wasn’t outright against it and that it may be required if federal stimulus funds aren’t delivered. “I am open to a responsible borrowing plan if we are at the same time focusing on meaningful cuts to city agencies without jeopardizing our social safety net,” he said. “We can’t just borrow to avoid looking hard at our budget and net agency spending. There are long-term implications to borrowing and if we do it, it must be done carefully and we can’t do it to supplement the entire city budget.”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has supported a long-term borrowing plan, insisting that cuts to services and layoffs would affect the very communities that have already borne the disproportionate brunt of the pandemic.

Comptroller Scott Stringer has cautioned against the burden that borrowing could place on the city, estimating that a $7 billion debt would need $11 billion in repayments over 20 years or $12.5 billion over 30 years. “While it's too soon to rule out any specific budget action, New Yorkers should know that under the Mayor’s proposal our children could be paying over $500 million a year for the next 20 years. I urge extreme caution,” he said in at the start of the month.  

The four Democratic candidates running for Comptroller in 2021 have taken somewhat divergent views. Council Member Helen Rosenthal has called for borrowing. Council Member Brad Lander, State Senator Brian Benjamin and Assemblymember David Weprin, however, have warned against it.

[2021 Comptroller Candidates Offer Different Ideas for Addressing City's Fiscal Woes]

De Blasio is urging labor unions to help find enough savings in labor contracts to help the city avoid the layoffs. “The layoffs would not begin until October 1, so, there's time to find the resources,” he said Friday on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show. “But if I don't have borrowing and I don't have stimulus, I'm just out of options. We would still say to labor, help us find a different kind of savings, and we wouldn't do layoffs. But we need them to come to the table and work with us.”

Citizens Budget Commission, a fiscal watchdog group, has recommended several “hard choices with difficult consequences” that the city could undertake to find almost $1.7 billion for the next fiscal year and reduce gaps down the line without layoffs or borrowing. It recommends cutting spending by $1.6 billion through improved efficiencies, renegotiating labor contracts, and cutting 9,000 employees from the 340,000-strong full-time workforce through attrition. They also called for a two-year property tax increase of 2%, selling city assets and freeing up another $750 million from the $1 billion general reserve fund.

“If the City’s leaders are willing to make the right and reasonable hard choices, they can balance the budget without asking future generations to pay for today’s bills or resorting to layoffs,” said CBC President Andrew Rein, in a statement.

Cuts to the NYPD
One of the major sticking points between the Council and the mayor is the push to cut $1 billion from the NYPD’s nearly $6 billion budget (which doesn’t include billions in other annual NYPD-related expenses) and to fund youth and social services that otherwise face cuts under the mayor’s proposal. The Council has been pushing for that reallocation for weeks but pressure has only increased after the recent protests of police brutality and racism as activists have taken up a call to “Defund the NYPD” and have even camped out next to City Hall for days to press their demands.

The Council proposed cutting the $1 billion by taking certain responsibilities from the police department, including shifting school safety, which cost $327 million this year, to the Department of Education, cutting the department’s headcount through attrition and a hiring freeze, and limiting overtime costs.

Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in a news conference on Thursday that the mayor’s executive budget proposal “is not a budget that the Council accepts, not a budget that would get the votes to pass,” citing cuts to education and the city’s social safety net while the NYPD emerged relatively unscathed. “This moment in our country and in our city calls for appropriately cutting funding for police and making sure that we are making structural changes to policing, re-envisioning what public safety looks like, and investing that money into communities of color and vulnerable communities. What was outlined in the executive budget doesn't do that.”

Though de Blasio has agreed to shift some funding away from the police department and said he is finding some agreement with the Council, he had said the $1 billion demand is too large. “We don't have a final dollar figure, but we're going to do something very, very substantial,” he said Friday on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. “We'll know more in the next few days. Yes, money will come out of the NYPD. Yes, money will go to youth programs.”

The mayor has also pushed back and is reportedly considering cutting the Council’s discretionary funding, according to the New York Daily News.

But on Monday de Blasio announced that he had put forward a plan to shift $1 billion in NYPD operating budget funds away from the department and another $500 million in capital dollars. While a deal with the City Council has not been reached, the two sides appear closer to an agreement on "defunding" the NYPD by the $1 billion, though some advocates and elected officials say that too much of the cut is really just moving functions and employees from the police department to other city agencies, like school safety to the Department of Education. The details of the proposals put forth by the mayor and the Council show some overlap, but also some key distinctions, especially when it comes to NYPD headcount.

Comptroller Scott Stringer has pushed for a $1.1 billion reduction to the NYPD over four years, achieved through a reduced headcount by attrition, cutting overtime, and other miscellaneous costs. 

Summer Youth Employment and Other Programs
The City Council took particular issue with the mayor’s executive budget proposal, noting that it only reduced the NYPD budget by less than 1% while slashing the budget of the Department of Youth and Community Development by 32%. That cut meant that the city was zeroing out the $124-million Summer Youth Employment Program, which provides summer jobs to young people between the ages of 14 and 24. The city allocated funds for 75,000 jobs last year, many of which went to youth from low-income communities of color.

Though after major blowback de Blasio promised an alternative plan, details have yet to be released. De Blasio recently said the program will take shape soon, albeit late this year, and include a mix of outdoor and virtual opportunities.

[Amid Blowback Over Planned Suspension, De Blasio Administration Explores Alternative Summer Youth Employment Program]

Summer youth employment is one of many relatively smaller budget items, whether full or partial, that have been on the chopping block as de Blasio has sought to close the budget gap. But those very programs are often ones that Council members don't want to see cut, so the end result of how agency spending is trimmed will be full of details of great interest to many stakeholders inside and especially outside of government, including, for example, the many nonprofits that the city contracts with to perform vital services as well as CUNY, the city's public university system, and more.

Also in this larger category are city funding for individual schools, which supports not only teachers' salaries but guidance counselors, nurses, and more.

Capital Budget
The mayor’s executive budget also made major changes to the four-year, $67.2 billion capital plan, which funds long-term infrastructure investments around the city, from building and repairing schools to the city’s vehicle fleet and much more. Most capital projects were delayed to future years, when de Blasio will no longer be in office.

The capital budget is funded through long-term borrowing, but billions of dollars in debt service is paid each year through the city operating budget, so de Blasio’s plan is aimed at reducing some of those annual costs in the near-term.

Notably, the mayor cut significantly from planned upcoming investments in affordable housing, new schools, and the plan to build four new borough-based jail facilities to replace the Rikers Island jail complex which is slated for closure.

[Jails, Affordable Housing and Other Capital Projects Delayed as City Grapples with Cash Crunch]

Budget watchdogs have emphasized that the city should continue funding routine maintenance and repair work, which are essential to the city’s quality of life and its eventual recovery. Others like City Council Member Brad Lander have urged the mayor to invest more funds in capital projects as a means to not only ensure the long term prosperity of the city but to also put New Yorkers back to work at a time of record unemployment.

Citizens Budget Commission, however, recommends reducing the five-year capital plan by a total of $6.7 billion – $2.4 billion in planned school construction and $4.3 billion in other expansion projects.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with news of de Blasio's Monday announcement about NYPD funding.

4 Things to Watch as Mayor and City Council Finalize New Budget Sun, 28 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Teen Activists Pledge Protests If Mayor Doesn't Soon Announce Summer Youth Employment Program 3 activists pledge

Mayor de Blasio makes a summer youth employment announcement (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Teens Take Charge, a youth advocacy group, held a town hall Tuesday where its members demanded Mayor Bill de Blasio announce his decision regarding the Summer Youth Employment Program by Friday, June 26, or they will take to the streets to protest. 

“We’ve been screaming this message at the mayor for the past two-plus months,” said Kai-Lin Kwek-Rupp, one of the hosts of the town hall and leaders of Teens Take Charge, about the importance of SYEP and a clear plan from the mayor. “We need to make sure that we have constant pressure up until June 26, the last day of school, so that we really do get a commitment from him, and providers can start planning SYEP, and participants can start planning their summers.”

Amid the coronavirus shutdown and severe budget crunch, the mayor announced in April the cancellation of SYEP, which last summer offered 75,000 summer job placements at partner organizations for young adults across the city. City Department of Youth and Community Development Commissioner Bill Chong wrote a letter to nonprofits citing the uncertainty of COVID-19 as the main reason for the cancellation, while the mayor also cited the city’s cratering tax revenue based on mandated economic closures.

Since the mayor’s announcement, advocacy groups like Teens Take Charge and a variety of elected officials and others have criticized the decision and organized to reinstate SYEP for this summer. Teens Take Charge has held forums, including one with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, written op-eds, interviewed with various media outlets, and pushed their supporters on social media to demand funding for SYEP. Along with the public advocate, more than half the City Council and over 100 SYEP providers have supported their cause, according to Teens Take Charge’s online tracker.

The significant blowback de Blasio received plus the eventually improving public health crisis led the mayor to say he was reconsidering SYEP and that his administration was in discussions about how to have a version of it in the age of social distancing and with many offices still mostly using a work-from-home model. 

“This is a particularly important initiative to people all over the city. The City Council has raised important ideas, proposals, ways of addressing how we revitalize the Summer Youth Employment Program in the context of this pandemic,” said de Blasio during a June 11 press conference. “That is an ongoing conversation with the City Council. That will be part of our budget decision making with the City Council over the next two weeks or so.”

With many arguing that some version of SYEP could take place and de Blasio saying it might be possible, Teens Take Charge also developed a proposal with HERE to HERE, ExpandED Schools, and dozens of SYEP providers on how to conduct a remote youth employment program. Their initiative, which they named the Youth Empowerment Summer, or YES, would combine public and private funding to provide 40,000 digital internships, with stipends ranging from $700 to $1,000, according to the proposal. They are looking to raise a total of almost $2.9 million in private investments and secure a little less than $50 million from the city in SYEP funding. The city projected to save about $124 million from cancelling SYEP, according to the executive budget de Blasio released in April.

With the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence, members of the City Council and Public Advocate Williams have called to move $1 billion from the police department’s $6 billion annual budget to youth and social services in the new city budget. SYEP has positively impacted Black communities, advocates and elected officials point out -- last year, almost half of SYEP participants identified as Black, according to DYCD’s numbers, which means more than 30,000 Black youth received work, wages, and growth opportunities.

De Blasio promised in early June to work with the City Council to move some funds from the NYPD towards youth and social services, but did not provide a target amount or any other specifics, instead saying he would be negotiating with the Council in crafting the new city budget due by July 1. 

During Tuesday’s town hall, Teens Take Charge invited former SYEP participants and organizations to speak on the importance of the program for youth development and organization capacity. The teens cited financial independence, skill-building, and career exploration as some of the benefits of the program. Nonprofits such as City Growers and Faith in New York said they base their summer programs on the inclusion of youth employees, and without them the programs cannot operate the same way.

Brooklyn State Senator Julie Salazar and City Council Member Carlos Menchacha, both Democrats, as is de Blasio, also attended the town hall to show their support.

“Budgets are a reflection of our priorities, it’s already been said, and it’s so true,” said Salazar. “Mayor de Blasio, show us that you care about young people. Show us that you care about their education, their future, and investing in them by continuing to fully fund SYEP.”

The town hall hosts, teens Carmen Lopez Villamil and Kwek-Rupp, saved their demand for the mayor until the end of the event. Lopez Villamil said if de Blasio fails to make an SYEP decision by Friday, Teens Take Charge will plan a protest near Gracie Mansion. She said this protest would most likely happen on Monday, June 29.

As of now, de Blasio and Deputy Mayor Phil Thompson have released the Neighborhood Opportunity Network Summer, or NeON Summer, as a summer youth employment alternative. The program offers six-week, paid learning opportunities to young people in certain low-income neighborhoods, youth on probation, and those who reside in the hardest-hit COVID-19 communities. However, Teens Take Charge noted that NeON Summer only serves a fraction of  New York City youth, with just 2,700 total slots.

The City Council also held a hearing Tuesday that included leadership of the Council’s Committee on Youth Services advocating for the reinstatement of SYEP. During her opening remarks, Council Member Deborah Rose, a Staten Island Democrat who serves as the chair of the committee, stressed the importance of the employment program and that the Council would keep putting pressure on de Blasio for New York City youth. 

“We know SYEP and other employment programs uplift impoverished youth who historically struggle to access the labor market,” said Rose. “Tragically these are the very youth whose communities have been ravaged the most by COVID-19, and whose futures we as a city must be investing in more than ever.

by Melissa Lent, Gotham Gazette
@melmollyrose @GothamGazette

Teen Activists Pledge Protests If Mayor Doesn't Soon Announce Summer Youth Employment Program Wed, 24 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Amid Blowback Over Planned Suspension, De Blasio Administration Explores Alternative Summer Youth Employment Program debi rose joins

Council Member Debi Rose with youth workers (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

With New York City facing a massive budget gap and severe social restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio made the unpopular decision to suspend the Summer Youth Employment Program, which in past years gave tens of thousands of young people jobs over the summer. But as de Blasio faced swift and sweeping criticism for the move, administration officials testified before the City Council that an alternate plan is in the works and will be unveiled soon.

Over the last few years, at the urging of activists and elected officials, the de Blasio administration has significantly expanded SYEP, which gives summer jobs to youth between the ages of 14 and 24, many from low-income communities and communities of color. Last year, the city funded 75,000 slots in the program, and about twice as many youth applied for those jobs, which include placements in government, nonprofits, and businesses.

Facing a dire budget situation given the coronavirus shutdown and a projected $7.4 billion in lost revenue by the end of the 2021 fiscal year next June, de Blasio made the program one of the first victims of budget cuts. Suspending SYEP this year is expected to save the city $124 million, according to the mayor’s executive budget plan, which is now the subject of hearings and negotiations with the City Council.

De Blasio hasn’t completely ruled out a version of the program that can still be implemented if social distancing restrictions are still in place over the summer. “The Council cares deeply about SYEP. I care about it too. It's expanded greatly during my administration,” he said at his daily coronavirus briefing on May 5. “I've said, one, we don't have money right now. Two, we don't have a logistical framework to make it work because people can't gather and it is wholly dependent on people gathering in the same place. So I don't see a way to do it right now, but I'm always going to have an open door to the Council and budget adoption is not until the middle of June or later June. Things could change by then so don't see it now, but the conversation is open.”

The mayor’s decision was quickly greeted with outrage, especially from City Council Members who questioned the rationale behind cuts he made to various agency budgets. As several of them pointed out at a May 6 hearing on the mayor’s executive budget proposal, while the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) saw almost all youth programs eliminated, the NYPD, with its nearly $6 billion budget, saw minimal reductions in planned spending.

[Read: City Council Questions De Blasio's Priorities at First Executive Budget Hearing]

Council members and advocates for SYEP have repeatedly noted that de Blasio’s characterization of the program requiring “people gathering in the same place” is not necessarily accurate, given that with so many workplaces going remote amid the city’s near-shutdown, so could these summer jobs, not to mention other safe opportunities for employment like outdoor, socially-distanced work.

At the May 6 hearing, Melanie Hartzog, director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, went further than the mayor and said that DYCD and the Department of Education are actively exploring how to move forward with a remote program. “DYCD and the Department of Education are working in partnership for that and looking at different opportunities, on which there'll be more to come in the coming weeks,” she promised.

Later in the hearing, she addressed the larger spate of youth programs. “There are a number of remote learning opportunities that we're looking at as well as providing direct supports. So those plans are forthcoming. You will be hearing more from both agencies on what they intend to do,” she said.

The mayor’s office has offered little in the way of details. Siobhan Dingwall, a mayoral spokesperson, said in an email, “We are facing an unprecedented health crisis and the loss of $7.4 billion in tax revenue. Suspending SYEP this summer was a painful, but necessary, choice as we prioritize saving lives and the health and safety of New Yorkers. We will continue to work with our providers and the young people they serve to alleviate the effects of this suspension.”

The Staten Island Advance reported last month that Council Member Debi Rose, who chairs the Committee on Youth Services, was presenting the mayor and Council with her own proposal for a remote youth jobs program, funded at the same levels as the mayor’s initial budget proposal. Calls to Rose’s office for this story went unanswered.

On April 10 Rose reacted to de Blasio's "abrupt announcement" of SYEP suspension in a newsletter to constituents, saying the "program has a decades-long history of uplifting impoverished youth who would otherwise struggle to access the labor market, while providing an economic lifeline to their families" and that it would be a "devastating blow" to the students and their families, as well as the host organizations.

"Even in the midst of this crisis, this is unacceptable," Rose went on to say. She added that she had already asked de Blasio to "work with providers to explore new and creative ways to engage youth — and provide SYEP participants with some form of a paycheck. During this crisis that is magnifying glaring disparities in our city, it is even more imperative that we provide a safety net for these young people before they fall even farther behind."

Rose’s committee is holding a remote executive budget hearing on Wednesday where DYCD officials are expected to testify, though it’s unclear if they will present any plans for a remote jobs program. Dingwall, the mayoral spokesperson, did not respond when asked if those plans would be in place by the time the hearing is held.

A spokesperson for City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in an email, “Speaker Johnson and the Council are very concerned about the proposed cuts to the SYEP and other youth programs. The Council has provided the administration with feedback on these cuts and looks forward to hearing their alternative proposals.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Amid Blowback Over Planned Suspension, De Blasio Administration Explores Alternative Summer Youth Employment Program Mon, 18 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Questions De Blasio's Priorities at First Executive Budget Hearing covid19 mayor

Mayor de Blasio & Speaker Johnson (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

With the city facing a severe budget crunch because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s executive budget proposal released last month cut $6 billion in planned spending, tapped $4 billion from reserves and delayed major capital investments to future years when another mayor will be in office. On Wednesday, about eight weeks before a deal must be reached between the two sides, the City Council held a virtual hearing on the mayor’s spending plan. Council members questioned de Blasio administration budget officials on the mayor’s decisions, why he chose to prioritize certain city agencies and programs over others, and whether they have any contingencies now that the city’s reserves have been all but depleted and tax revenue projections continue to slide. 

The mayor’s $89.3 billion executive budget proposal was crafted with much uncertainty. The city has received far less than it has asked for in federal stimulus funds. The state shifted as much as $800 million in costs onto the city. Cash flows have been interrupted as the annual tax deadline was postponed. It could be months before the economy can be rebooted, with no certainty around what that reboot will look like given the contraction taking place. And the city continues its daily struggle against the coronavirus, with the administration spending $950 million by April 21 on its pandemic response, according to the mayor's office, with those costs only increasing by the day. 

Projections for the future also look bleak. By city budget office projections, the city will lose as much as $7.4 billion in revenue by the end of the next fiscal year in June 2021. It is now facing budget gaps of $4.5 billion to $5 billion in three upcoming fiscal years. To balance the budget, de Blasio decided to identify $2.1 billion in savings through a program to eliminate the gap (PEG), which mandated cuts at city agencies, and found another $600 million in reduced spending on citywide needs. Federal aid worth $2 billion provided some relief but de Blasio has said the city needs the full $7.4 billion it isn't pulling in from taxes in order to avoid the worst possible scenario, which would involve layoffs and furloughs for municipal workers.

“Every one of us has to start looking at that possibility if we don't have any money,” he said at his daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday morning, pressed for more detail after he had floated the possibility of furloughs and layoffs of essential workers during a Wednesday morning appearance on CNN, in an apparent effort to lobby federal officials. “We have a budget coming up in June. I'm not here to project anything while we're in the middle of fighting for the stimulus funding, because that's what would get us out of this mess, and that's what New York City deserves. That's what every city and state that's suffering deserves, is stimulus funding that makes us whole, that replaces all the lost revenue, that allows us to retain our full workforce, ensure that public services are being provided, basic services so we can get on with a restart and recovery.”

Council Speaker Corey Johnson struck a different tune at Wednesday’s hearing. “[E]ven with our limited resource pool, we still have options,” he said in his opening statement. “And the choices that we make can make the difference between success or defeat for so many of our city’s residents and businesses.” He worried that should the federal government fail to provide further relief, the city budget could face “draconian, drastic and unprecedented cuts.” 

The Council itself has not offered a unified vision for either raising more revenue or avoiding budget cuts. In a statement last month, after the executive budget was released, Johnson, along with finance committee chair Council Member Daniel Dromm and capital budget subcommittee chair Council Member Vanessa Gibson conceded that tough decisions will have to be made. “Our guiding principal will be to ensure that the most vulnerable New Yorkers are protected and that we keep providing critical social services,” they said. 

At the hearing, Dromm emphasized that the executive budget lacks a clear plan to protect the city’s social safety net. “We must also ensure that cuts are targeted without depriving the most vulnerable New Yorkers of vital services. The financial plan proposes many types that would be extremely painful to endure,” he said, citing cuts to the Department of Youth and Community Development, and the Departments of Education, Sanitation, and Parks and Recreation. “We must find a way to preserve the critical investments championed by the Council to promote access to food, protect older adults, align shelter and housing conditions with recommended health policies for coronavirus, stabilize the small business community, and support human service providers,” he said. 

As chair of the subcommittee on the capital budget, Gibson said the city should not take its eye off long-term projects. She noted, for instance, that the latest capital commitment plan, which lays out four years of capital spending, includes a $513 million reduction in spending on affordable housing programs and delays $472 million for the borough-based jails plan, which is necessary for the closure of Rikers Island jails, to later years. “Now more than ever before, is the time for the City Council and the administration to work together to ensure that the path to rebuilding our city remains a priority,” she said.

The Council did not treat the administration with a light touch at the hearing. Council members seemed mostly frustrated with the mayor’s budget proposal. Some questioned why summer youth programs had been practically eliminated, while the NYPD’s budget remains nearly flat. Others advocated for greater aid for populations particularly vulnerable during this outbreak – seniors whose health is at risk, undocumented immigrants who have lost their livelihoods and cannot access government benefits, renters who could face eviction once a state-imposed moratorium on housing court proceedings is lifted. Others pushed for cuts to signature de Blasio programs like ThriveNYC, the oft-maligned mental health initiative led by First Lady Chirlane McCray that has struggled to show effectiveness and spends over $200 million per year.   

Council members also argued for more capital spending, not less, so that the city can continue pursuing its long-term goals for more affordable housing, new schools, and to close Rikers jails.

Melanie Hartzog, director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, was blunt at the hearing about the city’s prospects in the months ahead. By the end of September, the city will lose more than half a million jobs, she said. By the end of 2020, she projected that the city will have spent $3.5 billion just to fight the pandemic.

“Our priority was to maintain funding for health and safety for the COVID-19 response,” she said of budget planning. “This meant very difficult choices. Many programs that cannot operate during this time of crisis were reduced or scaled back, and some new initiatives have delayed start dates.”

Hartzog also expressed concern that the city could see further budget cuts if the state adjusts its own budget in the upcoming months to respond to lost revenue. Governor Andrew Cuomo has indicated that the state will have to make drastic cuts, including $8 billion less to localities, which would likely affect education and Medicaid spending. “New York City stands to lose an alarming level of funding needed to educate our children and care for at-risk residents,” Hartzog said. Like the city, the state continues to call for billions in federal “bailout” funding to replace lost tax revenue and sustain government spending and services.

Speaker Johnson was disappointed that the mayor’s budget plan doesn’t include more funding to maintain the social safety net, with no major programmatic increases in the budget for the Human Resources Administration and Department of Social Services. “Why doesn't the fiscal 2021 budget reflect the growing demands for food pantries, for senior home-delivered meals for homeless shelters, for isolation hotels, for street homeless New Yorkers, for eviction prevention, etc.?”

Hartzog said the city has already allocated $170 million to emergency food security programs as the administration ramps up the goal of providing a million free meals to New Yorkers each day. But she also insisted that costs are in flux for all types of needs and will be adjusted over time. “Yes, it doesn't reflect it at this moment, but as we assess the needs, and they are growing, we will be adding that funding,” she said.

The same was the case for funding for the direct response to the coronavirus. As Johnson pointed out, the executive budget does not include allocations for disease detectives and contact tracers, increased public health services, or hotels to isolate people who contract the virus.

“The pandemic is very dynamic and challenging for us to project and as things are moving on the ground, we're just reacting and moving as quickly as we can on the budget side,” Hartzog said. “But again, it does not prohibit the spending that needs to happen to ramp up.” She noted that as COVID-19 testing increases across the city, so will spending on isolation beds, with $250 million expected for spending on hotels. The mayor also announced the hiring of 1,000 contact tracers at a cost of $100 million, of which between 300 and 400 are already in the pipeline, she said. 

A major point of contention for several Council members was the cuts to summer youth programs. Both the Summer Youth Employment Program for more than 70,000 youth and the COMPASS, Beacon, and SoNYC afterschool programs were eliminated in the mayor’s latest budget plan. Council members juxtaposed it with relatively minimal changes in spending on the NYPD at a time when crime is mostly very low and people are sheltered at home. The contrast has been particularly jarring in the context of several videos showing NYPD officers violently arresting young New Yorkers of color while enforcing social distancing regulations. The NYPD has also been directed to remove homeless individuals from the city’s subways. Both roles, many Council members said, should not fall to the police. 

“We had one in six police officers out sick, whether they were sick, COVID-positive, and we had a time where we were actually ramping up on social distancing and needed enforcement. And so from that perspective, making reductions was not something that made sense to us,” Hartzog told Dromm. 

But her explanation was not sufficient for Council members. “The challenge that I see is the administration's response seems to be that we're going to utilize the NYPD to police our young people,” said Council Member Laurie Cumbo. “What we're going to see again is what happened with the Eric Garner situation where this is going to create a dynamic where young people are going to be arrested, brutalized throughout the summer, and communities of color are going to have to organize and galvanize and focus all of their energies around the NYPD, when in reality, they should be focusing on stimulus money, getting their businesses back up to speed. This is going to be devastating.”

Council Member Adrienne Adams echoed Cumbo. “I don't understand a formula that would create such a disparity between youth services and the NYPD,” Adams said. 

Hartzog did say that DYCD is working with the DOE to possibly provide for remote youth jobs and learning programs. “Those plans are forthcoming,” she said.  

Later in the hearing, after Hartzog had to leave, Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the public safety committee, even suggested that the city could save about $25 million by canceling an incoming class of NYPD officers, which was already delayed, particularly since there is little need for crime enforcement in the current times. “We're talking about all the essential things we need to get through this crisis. Why aren't we looking at cancelling a class that would serve no real reason right now as crime continues to decrease, as we see during this pandemic?” he wondered. “Is policing the priority of the administration?”

Ken Godiner, first deputy budget director, responded, “We obviously have to balance all the priorities that we have including public safety...The mayor has said that health and safety are our North Star. And [the NYPD] has taken $90 million in savings already between the preliminary and [executive budget].”

There were several members who criticized the de Blasio administration for having increased spending by $20 billion since 2014, only to have to make drastic cuts now. “This administration is about to leave us with no reserves, and raid the retirement trust fund,” said Council Member Mark Gjonaj, referring to the $4.7 billion Retiree Health Benefits Trust, which formed a part of the city’s nearly $6 billion in reserves before this budget. The administration drew $2.6 billion from the trust to balance the budget (though it is balanced against potentially too rosy of a tax revenue picture). 

“This is a time that we're supposed to be thinking out of the box and making sure every dollar gets spent wisely. I’m not hearing that from this administration,” he said, insisting that the administration’s actions would leave the next administration with a tougher budget to manage. 

Hartzog pushed back against the suggestion. “I do not think that we're leaving future administrations with any more challenges. I think in fact, we have increased reserves and continued to have record levels of savings. And we'll continue to do so, including the fact that we've negotiated labor contracts, which has provided a lot of stability and planning forward for this city's budget,” Hartzog responded. 

There were several other priorities that Council members expressed over the nearly four hours that budget officials testified. Council Member Keith Powers pushed the administration on relief for small businesses and rental assistance for tenants that are out of work. Council Member Margaret Chin called for more. Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer urged Hartzog to ensure libraries and cultural institutions continue to be adequately funded. Council Member Ben Kallos called for cuts to wasteful contracts and consultants that make up the $16 billion contract budget. Council Member Carlos Menchaca implored the administration to help undocumented immigrants, who were left out of the federal stimulus package approved by Congress.  

The Council will continue hearings on specific agency budgets over the next few weeks before it moves to closed negotiations with the administration. The budget for the next fiscal year is due by July 1.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated.

City Council Questions De Blasio's Priorities at First Executive Budget Hearing Wed, 06 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Mayor De Blasio: Restore Funding to Summer Youth Employment for Teens Who Need It, Like Me hold ty rally

Tens of thousands of young New Yorkers rely on SYEP (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

When I first heard of the New York City Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) two years ago, I had just turned 14. I was so excited because that Fall I would enter high school and my family needed money to help pay for my uniform, school supplies, and books. Like a lot of New York families, money was already tight, so the prospect of getting a job where I could help my parents even just a little was an incredible opportunity.

Over the last two summers, SYEP has been a great experience that not only helped me make some money, but also helped prepare me for a better future. Before Mayor de Blasio announced he would be cutting SYEP funding this year as a result of coronavirus, I was already accepted for the summer of 2020, an opportunity I no longer have unless the city undoes that budget cut.

Before SYEP, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to pursue in college and possibly beyond. Then, last summer, I worked at State Farm, which helped me realize how much passion I had for business, finally giving me an idea of what I wanted to study. Through SYEP, I also entered the Work Learn Grow program, which gave me my start working in a social work environment -- a shelter, which completely changed my perspective on life, work, and society.

Through Work Learn Grow, I started working at Praxis Enterprise. Having small parties and celebrations for families living in the shelter brought me joy. Coming into work every day and hearing “Hi Leny! I missed you! Is there after school today?” made me happy. I could have had a bad day but knowing how much I can brighten someone's day - -even through their hardships -- was motivating in a whole new way.

It’s no secret that life for us all under quarantine has been difficult. Not being able to go outside, see my friends, or even go to school has taken a toll on me. I feel for those who have depression like me. I feel for those who are struggling to make ends meet. Sadly, I know I’m not alone. All of which is why I can’t help but think of the tens of thousands of teens just like me who would benefit from having the SYEP now more than ever, especially those whose family members have lost work because of the virus.

For the thousands of parents who don’t have a job, their children could help to fill the void of onerous expenses. Countless families could be saved using SYEP as a way to bring food to the table, transportation money, and to contribute to rent or other household needs.  

But SYEP is about so much more than just a summer paycheck. It’s about getting the opportunity for real-world work experience so many thousands of us teens wouldn’t otherwise get. Being in SYEP helped me build my resume, which will help me for years to come as I apply to college and pursue other opportunities. SYEP, even if conducted remotely, still has the enormous potential to help teens like me far into our futures, beyond this summer. Without it, we risk falling much further behind our peers throughout the city.

If our school system of more than 1 million students could convert to remote learning in just a week, then surely there is a way to convert SYEP to provide remote jobs as well. Most students in New York City have electronic devices they can work on, many more so now that the city has been distributing devices for school purposes. This opportunity would be a huge help to the families who lost their main sources of income because of this pandemic.

I hope the mayor and City Council reverse course to help the youth of this city who were counting on summer employment opportunities even before this hard time set in, and need SYEP even more now. We depend on these jobs not just for this summer, but for our futures. Now is not the time to cut SYEP, now is when we need it most.

Karleny Ramos is a junior at the High School for Teaching and Professions in the Bronx and a member of Teens Take Charge. On Twitter @TeensTakeCharge.

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Mayor De Blasio: Restore Funding to Summer Youth Employment for Teens Who Need It, Like Me Mon, 04 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Upstate Summer Camps for City Kids: Start Planning Now enrichment act

Students enjoying enrichment activities at a Fresh Air Fund Camp (photo: Fresh Air Fund)

The crisis in New York City apartments and neighborhoods grows by the day. Social distance saves lives, but the effects of long-term isolation on families and children will be felt for years unless creative action is taken now.

New York State needs to plan and develop a system of large sleep-away summer camps upstate for city kids who are otherwise facing many months of life in overcrowded apartments. As the temperature rises, and school reopening is delayed, so will family frustration. Shuttered playgrounds and Mayor de Blasio’s massive cuts to the summer youth employment program will only worsen the situation come the summer months.

Where could such extensive summer camps be developed? The upstate campuses of State University of New York (SUNY) and private colleges that have shifted to online learning through the summer can be rapidly developed into such camps. The closure of colleges has left empty dorms (with space for many thousands of kids), classrooms, cafeterias, gyms, and quadrangles that could be refashioned in the coming weeks, for a June 1 start date, as enrichment camps for K-12 students.

Such a plan for campuses, of course, assumes that they will not be needed for medical use thanks to social distancing. So far, thankfully, Governor Cuomo’s successful PAUSE program has forestalled the transformation of campuses into hospitals. We should, therefore, find creative uses for such amazing facilities in a time of social crisis. If the Javits Center can become a hospital, then college campuses can become summer camps.

campus atlantic(The scale of the SUNY system, and the large number of residential dorms, offers opportunities for extensive summer camp programs. Private campuses could also be utilized.)

Why send the students to camp? All kids need regular sociability with children their own age for mental health; X-Box, group chats, and Netflix are not going to sustain healthy child development. Campuses also have lots of fields, athletic facilities, and natural surroundings that can inspire students and help them stay fit. Campuses also have plentiful opportunities for educational enrichment. The remarkable facilities on many campuses, such as museums, instructional science labs, computer labs, libraries, and more could help make learning fun for many students. The success of the Fresh Air Fund camps can be a model for program quality.

Who would attend summer camps? Participation in the program, to be sponsored by New York State, would be free and based on voluntary parental permission. Many parents will eagerly embrace such a summer opportunity for their children. In particular, city parents with essential and dangerous jobs desperately need quality child care so that they can continue to run the trains, hospitals, sanitation, and other services the city needs. 

Why sleep-away? Students who attend programs in the city and live at home can bring disease back to their apartments and vulnerable older relatives. This is one reason the mayor has cut funding for youth summer employment. At summer camp, however, asymptomatic children would not pose a risk to their parents or grandparents, especially those living in close quarters. Sleep-away camp is a way to practice social distancing while children get enrichment. Time away from families may also help reduce stress in households. 

Who would staff the schools? Camp counselors will be college-age students or recent graduates. This demographic has a low viral risk factor and could work and live with children safely. Upstate counties can benefit when their young local residents get jobs in the summer as camp counselors, food service workers, nurses, custodial staff, and program administrators. Community non-profits, with extensive experience in youth programming, could run the camps. Specialty summer camps in arts or sports currently offered on upstate campuses could also be subsidized to scale up for city kids. The key to making this work is social distance. Staff and teachers must be required to live on campus away from their families and nearby towns to minimize the risk of disease. 

Given the massive unemployment numbers, such an opportunity is likely to attract well-educated counselors and talented program administrators. It goes without saying that all employees in such a program, as with any youth program, must be carefully vetted. Think of this as an updated version of the successful Civilian Conservation Corp that rebuilt our parks during the Great Depression while reducing unemployment among the young.

What about the threat of disease to upstate communities, teachers, and individuals? These threats could be limited through restrictions of the children and young staff to the campuses. At traditional sleep-away camps everyone lives on campus, including the nurse, and it works. SUNY campuses are ideal because so many are on large and isolated forest and field parcels. Other private campuses are often isolated as well from the main residential areas of town or are located in areas that are primarily rural. 

We all hope that a rapid medical solution to the new coronavirus can be found, but there are medium-term steps that can be taken to improve children’s physical and mental health, provide them enrichment, relieve families, and offer other benefits. New York State has invested billions in developing a magnificent system of university campuses. We should be looking at creative options for making best use of these resources during the crisis. The planning needs to start now.

Nicholas Dagen Bloom is Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College and author of How States Shaped Postwar America: State Government and Urban Policy (Chicago, 2019) among other works.

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Upstate Summer Camps for City Kids: Start Planning Now Sun, 12 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Armed with New Report, Supporters to Push De Blasio on Summer Youth Employment cm eugene

Council Member Eugene & advocates for youth summer camps (photo: @CAMBAInc)

When the City Council held its first hearing on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Executive Budget for fiscal year 2017, Council members made it clear that they weren’t satisfied with the level of investment in the city’s youth, one of the top priorities identified in their prior response to the mayor’s preliminary budget.

On Tuesday morning, members of the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, which has 24 members including Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and advocacy groups will band together outside City Hall to rally for one particular aspect of youth investment: the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). The rally will be accompanied by the Tuesday morning release of a report by the Campaign for Summer Jobs, a coalition of more than 100 community-based organizations, that outlines a plan to expand SYEP while making key programmatic changes.

SYEP provides up to six weeks of paid work to youth between 14 and 24 years old and it received 120,000 applications last year but only served 54,000 young people. This year, Council members and advocates want the city to increase that number to 60,000. “We’re trying to create a roadmap to get to 100,000 spots by Fiscal 2019,” said Andrea Bowen, policy analyst at United Neighborhood Houses and co-chair of the Campaign for Summer Jobs along with Justin Hardy, policy fellow at the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition. “This is achievable and possible and necessary,” Bowen said in a Monday interview.

The Campaign for Summer Jobs report, which Gotham Gazette reviewed before its public release, calls for baselining increased funding for the SYEP over the next few years. Adjusting for increases in the minimum wage and accounting for program changes, the report proposes $75 million in city funding in fiscal 2017 for 60,000 summer youth jobs, increasing to $178 million in Fiscal 2018 for 80,000 jobs, $257 million in Fiscal 2019 for the ultimate goal of 100,000 jobs and $288 million in Fiscal 2020.

So far, the de Blasio administration has allocated $36.5 million in city funds for fiscal 2017, which begins July 1 of this year, with an expected state contribution of $15.6 million, for a total of about $52 million. This would fund about 35,000 jobs this summer.

Some of the report’s key proposals include implementing earlier application, enrollment, and orientation dates; earlier release of funding to service providers; recruiting more providers to the program; increasing base funding for providers; and creating an SYEP Expansion and Improvement Fund. With the ultimate goal of reaching 100,000 summer job slots, “funding levels for the next few years need to be known in advance,” said Bowen.

Much of what’s in the report dovetails with the City Council’s priorities. “The issue that we have is that year to year, we have to negotiate for this funding,” said Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who is leading the budget process as the Council’s finance committee chair. “We want it baselined so agencies can properly plan and young people can be informed that they have a job in the summer.”

She stressed that the underinvestment in youth in the executive budget was of “great concern” to the Council and that members will continue to push the administration “aggressively” for more funding. “We want to take an opportunity to overhaul and do an evaluation of SYEP, figure out what works,” Ferreras-Copeland said on Monday, insisting that this was necessary for expanding the program to 100,000 slots. “Using the strategy that we’re using currently, going year by year, we’re not going to get there,” she added.

The de Blasio administration sent a statement to Gotham Gazette that echoed what the mayor has said when asked about the issue: “As announced in May 2015, last year’s additional seats for summer programming were for one year only. We gave parents and providers a year’s notice to plan ahead for this summer. The Department of Youth and Community Development runs the largest summer youth jobs program in the nation, and we increased seats to ensure that more New York City youth have the opportunity to gain valuable exposure and workforce skills over the summer months. We have also extended hours at Cornerstone Community Centers, so both young people and adults can have a safe and supportive environment to be active, learn and develop their skills throughout the summer months.”

A cacophony of voices have been raised in favor of improving the summer youth employment program. Last week, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and New York Congressional Rep. Hakeem Jeffries held a press conference where they called on the mayor to increase SYEP funding. On Monday, Speaker Mark-Viverito, Council members, advocates, and others congregated at City Hall to release a new report by the Young Women's Initiative, a $20-million City Council campaign that promotes services for young women, particularly women of color. One of its recommendations is an expansion of the SYEP. Hours later, Council Member Mathieu Eugene, chair of the youth services committee, brought together his colleagues and community advocates to the same spot to push for a related cause, increased funding for youth summer camp programs. He called on all those present to return for Tuesday’s rally.

Eugene chairs the Council’s youth services committee, which will hold its executive budget hearing on Tuesday morning, right after the City Hall rally calling for more SYEP funding. Council members will question de Blasio administration officials about their funding decisions.

“Those young people that are looking for a job are begging to do positive things,” Eugene told Gotham Gazette shortly after Monday’s summer camp rally. “They want an opportunity and I believe it is our moral obligation as elected officials, as people who serve New York City, to provide them with the opportunities that they are looking for.”

[Related: First Executive Budget Hearing Sets Stage for Final Negotiations]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note: this story has been updated with comment from the de Blasio administration.

Armed with New Report, Supporters to Push De Blasio on Summer Youth Employment Mon, 16 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000