Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1380 Thu, 03 Dec 2020 13:22:18 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 2021 Borough President Election Set to Unfold Amid Dramatic Shift in Bronx Politics https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9664-2021-bronx-borough-president-election-amid-dramatic-borough-politics https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9664-2021-bronx-borough-president-election-amid-dramatic-borough-politics Bronx Democrats Crespo Diaz Jr

Bronx Democrats (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


The Bronx’s political landscape is undergoing major shifts, full of electoral upsets and unexpected political departures. While Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie remains one of the most powerful elected officials in the state, the borough’s Democratic County Party that he has been leading, in essence, for many years is faltering amid election losses and retirements from politics, all setting the stage for what will be an immensely important 2021 New York City election cycle with a great deal at stake both within the borough and across the city.

Several longtime Bronx figures in city and state politics have exited or are about to exit the political arena, most prominent among them being Ruben Diaz Jr., the borough president for over a decade who surprised many by opting out of the 2021 mayoral race. City Council Member Ruben Diaz Sr. announced after losing in a recent congressional primary that he will be retiring at the end of his current term in 2021, and Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, a longtime ally of the Diazes and Heastie abruptly resigned his Assembly seat and his post as chair of the county Democratic Party earlier this year for a private sector job.

This wave of retirements marks the end of an era in Bronx politics, as David Cruz recently wrote in Gothamist, with the Bronx Democratic political machine apparently reaching its zenith in 2015, when Heastie was elected Assembly Speaker. Where it was supposed to be gearing up to try to elect Diaz Jr. as mayor next year, the party is now facing the need to reinvent itself, and refocus its priorities on finding common ground with insurgents, winning local races, like those to replace both Diaz Jr. and Sr., and influencing the mayoral race in other ways.

The race to replace the term-limited Diaz Jr. -- who has held the position since he won a 2009 special election -- as borough president is shaping up to be one of the most interesting races in the borough. Two City Council members are already running to replace him and more current Bronx elected officials are expected to join them, among other candidates in what will likely be a crowded, competitive Democratic primary. That election will take place in June 2021 and is all but certain to determine the next officeholder in the very heavily Democratic borough.

With the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including mass unemployment, among other long-standing issues in the Bronx, the next borough president will have their hands full, even in what is a position with limited powers. Whoever takes office in January 2022 will also have big shoes to fill after Diaz Jr.’s nearly 13-year tenure, in which the borough’s unemployment rate fell from 14.1% in January 2010 to 4.6% in February 2020, an all-time low for the borough, then shot up to 24.7% as of this June given the shutdown of the local economy.

Essential to the role of borough president are making community board appointments, allocating capital funding for local projects and initiatives, weighing in on land use matters, being a cheerleader for the borough and using the office to set an overarching vision for the borough, and taking on special projects that can range widely depending on the office-holder’s priorities.

Declared Candidates & Initial Fundraising
There are currently three declared candidates running to be the next Bronx Borough President: City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, City Council Member Vanessa Gibson, and Victor Gutierrez, who does not seem to be running much of a campaign.

Gibson was interviewed for this story, while Gutierrez did not respond to Gotham Gazette interview requests, and Cabrera was unavailable for several days, a spokesperson said, due to a family health emergency outside of the city.

Out of the declared candidates, Cabrera leads the field in fundraising, with $50,493 raised so far and $40,406 currently in his campaign account. Gibson has raised $20,692 thus far and has an estimated campaign balance of -$9,430 at the moment (her campaign has spent almost $30,000 so far). Roughly 58% of Cabrera’s contributions and 51% of Gibson’s came before this year. Guitierrez has raised $175, including a $100 contribution from himself, and has not spent any of his campaign funds as of the most recent disclosure filing.

Cabrera is the Council’s majority whip and chair of the Government Operations Committee. He is a pastor who was registered as a Republican until 2009. After his party switch, he was first elected to the City Council, defeating incumbent Maria Baez with the backing of the Bronx County Democratic Party in the primary in that same year. Baez had been an ally of onetime Bronx County Party Chair Assemblymember Jose Rivera, but became a target of the new county party leadership, under Heastie, when the latter dethroned the former in 2008.

Cabrera challenged State Senator Gustavo Rivera, who is not an ally of the party machine, twice in Democratic primaries, in 2014 and 2016, losing by 20 and 25 points, respectively. In his 2017 reelection to the Council, Cabrera received 55% of the vote in his district primary. Last year, he briefly launched a primary challenge to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez before switching to the Borough President race.

In his campaign announcement video, Cabrera touts metrics that have improved in his district over his tenure, before the pandemic hit, including the unemployment rate (down from 23.5% to 5.7%) and crime (down 66%). Recently, he sponsored legislation to legalize e-bikes and scooters in the city. He also touts his sponsorship of the Cure Violence initiative, which allocated $27 million to gu violence reduction, and the Tenant Bill of Rights in 2014 among his top accomplishments.

Gibson chairs the Council’s Capital Budget Subcommittee and co-chairs the Council’s Women’s Caucus. Last Council term she chaired the Public Safety Committee. She previously served for four years in the State Assembly, then moved to the Council by winning a 2013 primary by 27 points, and ran unopposed in her 2017 primary.

Both Cabrera and Gibson are term-limited from running again for their current seats.

Potential Candidates
Gibson and others expect more candidates to jump into the Borough President race within the next few months and quite a few Bronx elected officials have been rumored to be weighing whether or not to throw their hats in the ring.

A senior Bronx political strategist with ties to Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez says that she is “seriously considering” and “exploring” a run for the borough presidency. Fernandez, who represents the Alterton, Pelham Gardens, and Morris Park neighborhoods of the Bronx in the 80th Assembly District, served as chief of staff to then-Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj and then as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s liaison to the Bronx before winning a special election for Gjonaj’s Assembly seat upon his election to the City Council.

State Senator Luis Sepúlveda, who represents the southwest Bronx in Senate District 32, told Gotham Gazette on August 5 that he is “considering” a campaign for the borough presidency and expects to make a decision “within the next three weeks.” Sepúlveda has been in the Senate since 2018 after winning a special election to replace Ruben Diaz Sr., who’d made the jump to City Council, and before that was elected three times to the Assembly.

Several sources familiar with Bronx politics named City Council Member Andrew Cohen, who represents the northwest Bronx in Council District 11, as a possible candidate. A spokesperson for Cohen replied to a Gotham Gazette inquiry that Cohen “does not plan to make a definitive decision regarding a run for Bronx Borough President until after the November election.” Cohen is himself term-limited from seeking reelection in 2021.

Declined and Unlikely Candidates
Another Bronx Council Member, Rafael Salamanca Jr., who represents the southeast Bronx primarily along the East River in the 17th Council District, is eligible to run for reelection in 2021, but has also been named by people familiar with Bronx politics as a potential candidate for the borough presidency. His office did not respond to requests for comment for this piece. Salamanca, who chairs the powerful Council Land Use Committee, is also seen as a potential candidate to seek becoming the next Speaker of the City Council if reelected to his Council post.

Council Member Gjonaj is running for reelection to the Council in 2021, according to his Chief of Staff Reginald Johnson.

State Senator Gustavo Rivera and Assemblymembers Michael Blake, Latoya Joyner, and Karines Reyes all told Gotham Gazette that they will not be seeking the Borough President position.

While there has been speculation over whether the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America will field a far left candidate for the Bronx Borough President race, Chi Anunwa, who co-chairs the group’s steering committee, told Gotham Gazette, “as a chapter, we’re probably going to focus on Council races. In terms of city races, we are prioritizing two demands, defunding the police and housing, so going forward we are trying to endorse candidates who can advance our demands in those areas.”

According to Anunwa, Borough President races are not a priority for the group, compared to Council races, at this time.

Vanessa Gibson
“I love what I do, being a public official,” Council Member Gibson told Gotham Gazette in an interview. “It comes with so many challenges, but a lot of rewards. I would really love the opportunity to expand on what I’ve learned on the Council and from being a state legislator, putting all of that together and really being the leader of the borough.”

“Being the president of a borough is really about being the champion of that borough and its constituents, about elevating the voices of those who have felt voiceless and powerless, and that’s never been more apparent that in the response to COVID-19,” Gibson continued.

“I’m really looking at this opportunity as a way to take the Bronx to the next level to continue a lot of the great investments through this [Diaz Jr.] administration, but also the work that lies ahead and what the next leadership of the Bronx and the entire city is going to look like,” Gibson said.

When asked about her relationship with the county party, Gibson asked voters to “judge me by my record. There’s nothing wrong with having relationships if they’re going to help your districts, but I also work with candidates who didn’t get county’s backing. I just try to work with officials who are trying to do right by their constituents. You don’t necessarily need the county’s support to do your work as a legislator.”

Gibson said “great partnerships and relationships” are integral to the job of a borough president, saying “you cannot do this work by yourself.” She named key challenges of the next borough president as attracting public and private investment to the borough, particularly for infrastructure projects, and supporting the Bronx’s City Council delegation, most of whom will be new members given turnover in part spurred by term limits.

Food access, stable housing, healthcare access, and sustainable jobs are four issues that Gibson believes are the biggest challenges facing the Bronx in the next few years, saying “the next administration needs a very keen focus on recovery, healing, and rebuilding from COVID-19.”

“Many of the residents who lost their battles to covid, had underlying health conditions and those diseases are preventable. We have to find a way to focus on better food in our communities and too many residents are uninsured and underinsured without access to primary care,” Gibson said.

She proposes that the Bronx commit more to urban agriculture programs, particularly in Hunts Point, and community gardens as a way to bridge gaps in access to healthy food options for Bronxites. At the same time, she says “there’s no way you can talk about healthy options and wellness without stable housing.”

Gibson praised Diaz Jr.’s record on employment, helping take the borough’s unemployment rate from an all-time high when he took office to under 4% in the months before the pandemic. She said job growth in the borough should be “self-sustaining, union, prevailing wage jobs in industries like tech and construction.”

“I’m not a fan of the trash and the waste industry, how the South Bronx is one of three neighborhoods that absorbs most of the city’s trash,” Gibson said. “That’s unacceptable. We can’t be the dumping ground for the rest of New York City. Everybody should take care of their own damn garbage.”

“Because I know how the budget process works, I absolutely would have a very close partnership with the Council and State Legislature delegations, because the delegations are critical to carrying the voice of the Bronx to the broader bodies of government,” Gibson said, when asked about the historic underfunding of the Bronx she noted. As part of the Bronx Council delegation for the past seven years, she said she has steered funding towards Bronx projects such as the Hip-Hop Museum, Orchard Beach, and the Bronx’s CUNY colleges.

“Over the years, I acknowledge things have gotten a lot better, but I still think we have a lot of challenges that remain and the next administration is going to have to have a very aggressive plan to attack the Bronx’s historic challenges,” Gibson said.

Land Use
On land use, one of the key focus areas for all borough presidents as mandated by the position’s few set powers, Gibson said, “I’m a very big fan of engagement and partnerships,” pointing to her experience with the Jerome Avenue Rezoning in which she engaged, along with Cabrera, with working groups and advisory boards to get community buy-in for the rezoning. She promised if elected borough president to “formulate an advisory board composed of the community boards and their land use point-people so that the whole borough is at the table.”

“Parts of the Bronx are less dense than others, with more open lands, vacancies, and opportunities but the goal is mutual balance and common goals and compromise. We don’t always get it right,” Gibson conceded.

“Land use applications are controversial because they’re always perceived as a form of displacement and gentrification,” Gibson said. “The land use application process and ULURP both have to be fundamentally shifted and revamped a little bit, because the recommendations of the community boards are just recommendations. They don’t have a real foothold in making a final decision like the Council members and Borough Presidents do.”

“As housing continues to change and as rents are going up, we have to find a way as the government to put a control mechanism in place on things that we can control,” Gibson said.

“People have to want to vote for someone. If you don’t ask, you don’t receive, so I will be very much in the streets, talking to voters,” Gibson said. “You have to have a say in who your leaders are. More candidates will emerge with their records of accomplishment, but I’m excited. I’m worried and disturbed by what I’m seeing, but I’m also optimistic.”

[Note: when Council Member Cabrera is available for an interview about the borough president race, Gotham Gazette will add his comments to this article]

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

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2021 Borough President Election Set to Unfold Amid Dramatic Shift in Bronx Politics Fri, 07 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Staving Off an Eviction Nightmare by Expanding New Yorkers' Right to Counsel https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9519-staving-off-eviction-nightmare-right-to-counsel-housing-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9519-staving-off-eviction-nightmare-right-to-counsel-housing-new-york eviction nightmare expanding

An eviction nightmare looms as housing court reopens (Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


A new threat is looming for the very Black and brown communities in New York City that have been hit the hardest by the dual pandemics of coronavirus and racism in policy: a massive wave of evictions. 

That’s because phase 1 of New York “reopening” didn’t just apply to construction and curbside retail. It also applied to housing courts. This could have disastrous consequences for tenants. Housing court personnel have already started reporting back to their workplaces. This Monday the courts are scheduled to begin hearing eviction proceedings again. We join tenants rights activists in urgently calling for this date to be pushed back. 

We also need to act now to prevent an avalanche of evictions no matter when housing court cases resume. We can do that by smartly leveraging the landmark law that established right to counsel in New York City.

Eviction cases that were suspended before the pandemic will be resumed, and there likely will be an onslaught of new cases -- the gubernatorial order pushing back evictions to August 20 does little to stop landlords from filing for new evictions.

The reopening of housing courts will also create a massive public health problem. New York City’s housing courts on a normal day are incredibly overcrowded, with tenants, lawyers, and staff crammed into hallways, waiting areas, and small courtrooms. Pre-covid, there were 2,000 people in the Bronx housing court alone, every day. Anything like a normal docket of cases will make it impossible to keep safe social distancing -- and we know that coronavirus spreads most easily in crowded, indoor settings.

There is a simple way to prevent both the massive wave of evictions and unsafe conditions in housing courts: only allow eviction cases to proceed if tenants have access to a lawyer.

In 2017 New York City enacted a landmark, first-in-the-nation law establishing right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction. The law is being phased in zip code-by-zip code over five years, but has already dramatically increased the portion of tenants citywide with representation, from less than 5% to now approximately 30%. It’s proven to be spectacularly successful: 84% of tenants receiving legal representation have been able to remain in their homes. No surprise that cities around the nation are enacting policies based on New York City’s example.

Now we need to head off the looming eviction crisis by immediately taking right to counsel citywide -- to every zip code. We are drafting legislation now to put this into effect immediately.

Recognizing that we are in a financial crisis, this could be done in a revenue neutral way, by simply altering existing contracts with legal providers to spread their attorneys out over all zip codes. 

New York City’s housing courts have routinely adjourned cases so tenants can secure representation. In fact, after right to counsel was implemented, a Bronx judge even cancelled a judgment against a tenant because they weren’t provided a lawyer.  

So if tenants in all zip codes have a right to counsel, this will slow the daily volume of cases that can move forward in accordance with the number of right to counsel attorneys available -- in practice significantly slowing the pace of evictions.

The substantial reduction in the number of people in courts will also be a win for public health, since it will make room to implement social distancing policies that otherwise would be impossible.

Over the longer-term we need to expand the scope of New York City’s right to counsel law, including through legislation we have sponsored that would raise the income cutoff. This will be critical to achieving a fair recovery for our city in the years ahead.

But right now we need to take action fast to head off a crisis that would inflict additional pain on the low-income New Yorkers who have already suffered so much during the pandemic.

Right to counsel for tenants has already proven to bring more justice to housing court. Now it can be a powerful tool to ensure health, safety, and stability at this time of unprecedented crisis. 

***
City Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa L. Gibson represent parts of Manhattan and the Bronx, respectively, and co-sponsored the city’s landmark right to counsel law. On Twitter @MarkeLevineNYC and @Vanessalgibson.

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

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Staving Off an Eviction Nightmare by Expanding New Yorkers' Right to Counsel Sun, 21 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Breaks with His Police Department as Council Passes Surveillance Transparency Bill https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9512-city-council-passes-nypd-surveillance-transparency-bill-mayor-breaks-with-police-department-post-act https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9512-city-council-passes-nypd-surveillance-transparency-bill-mayor-breaks-with-police-department-post-act de Blasio NYPD

Another chapter between Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


A long-stalled bill meant to shed light on the surveillance equipment used by the NYPD has suddenly moved through the City Council with the support of Mayor Bill de Blasio, despite being virtually unchanged since the mayor and NYPD leaders raised dire alarms about it in recent years. Now de Blasio is breaking with his own police department, which he has maintained has been on board with a slew of recent changes to NYPD oversight and discipline in the wake of national unrest.

The Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act would require the police department to report what monitoring equipment it has and the rules governing its use, which is almost entirely unknown outside of the NYPD. The City Council, which passed the bill 44-6 Thursday, says it will provide much needed transparency on how spy tech is used on members of the public, but the mayor and NYPD have for years said it would pose a threat to officers' safety and that decades of progress thwarting terrorist plotters would be lost. Department officials continued to speak out against the act as it was being passed.

Yet on Wednesday, in response to questions from a reporter about whether he would sign the bill, de Blasio said that he does indeed support it. "I've looked at [it] carefully and, as I think I said to you, my concern was to balance transparency with our ability to deal with profound safety concerns, including terrorism, which unfortunately still is a part of our lives. But I am convinced that the wording of the act is appropriate, is balanced, so I'm comfortable supporting it," he told Jillian Jonas of WBAI radio at a press briefing, who asked him about the fact that Council leaders had announced plans to pass the bill, which was first introduced in 2017 during the last Council class and de Blasio's first term.

The bill now awaits the mayor's signature.

The legislation has not changed substantially since it was first introduced in June 2017 and the NYPD still strongly opposes it. In a statement to Gotham Gazette Thursday, shortly before the POST Act was passed, NYPD spokesperson Detective Sophia Mason wrote: "With a minor change, this bill would achieve both transparency and public safety and safety for our most vulnerable officers, our undercover police officers. Unfortunately, the version being voted on today does not achieve these goals."

"To be clear, the bill, as currently proposed would literally require the NYPD to advertise on its website the covert means and equipment used by undercover officers who risk their lives every day. No reasonable citizen of New York City would ever support that," she wrote. Mason did not specify what the "minor change" was that NYPD had sought.

The POST Act mandates the NYPD publish the "description and capabilities, rules, processes and guidelines, and any safeguards and security measures designed to protect the information collected," according to the Council's plain language summary of the bill. It also requires the department to solicit public feedback on usage policies before finalizing them.

NYPD officials have maintained that revealing how surveillance technology is used would give terrorists and organized crime a step-by-step guide to avoiding the department's eyes and ears and could endanger undercover operatives and witnesses.

Last fall, the police department had roughly 2,000 members working in its intelligence and counterterrorism units, according to Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller, speaking on the Max and Murphy podcast. In the two decades since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the city's Joint Terrorism Task Force expanded from a dozen detectives to over 100, Miller said. During that time, the NYPD has purchased military grade surveillance equipment, from cell phone monitoring devices, and X-ray vans, according to a statement from Council Speaker Corey Johnson, to thousands of security cameras and license plate readers. How exactly those technologies are used and interact with the new frontier of artificial intelligence, like facial and speech recognition, is not known.

Over the same period, the nature of terrorist threats in New York City has changed almost entirely from large-scale attacks made by complex terrorist organizations, like Al Qaeda, to lone-wolf rampages by radicalized individuals, Miller said. The police have been using surveillance since well before the NYPD had a counter-terrorism office, and Miller frequently noted the POST Act could also endanger narcotics operations, raising questions about the extent of public surveillance within and beyond the scope of counter-terrorism.

The assertion that the POST Act could jeopardize officer or public safety is "plainly wrong because we are only requiring a privacy policy associated with new technology," said one the bill's original sponsors, former Council Member Dan Garodnick, in an interview. "This equipment today is bought in secret, used in secret, and there is absolutely nobody outside the NYPD who could attest to the fact that New Yorkers' privacy is being protected."

"Today, NYPD surveillance often is no better than digitized stop-and-frisk. These programs are biased, broken, and deeply damaging to a democratic society," wrote Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, which advocated for the legislation.

Garodnick and NYPD officials had several tense back-and-forths after the bill was introduced.

In June 2017, de Blasio said he opposed the bill because privacy protections were "baked in" to police practices and that "real checks and balances" were already in place, AMNY reported. Last week, the mayor told reporters, "I would have to see the language," before he could support the legislation.

The language is largely unchanged, except for a provision requiring the impact and use policies include an analysis of potential disparate impacts on any protected group defined in the city's Human Rights Law, according to Michael Sisitzky, lead policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union, which supports the bill. "Otherwise, there’s just some technical things like renumbering of sections," he said.

After co-sponsoring it last session, Council Member Vanessa Gibson reintroduced the bill this session (Garodnick was term-limited out of office after 2017), and there have been similar exchanges between members of the Council and the NYPD at hearings where the bill has been considered. Earlier this week, Johnson, Gibson, and other Council members decided to advance the bill along with a package of other police reforms against the backdrop of weeks of protest.

The mayor's newfound support for the bill is part of a slew of about-faces he has taken on police issues in recent days in response to massive protests demanding changes to police practices -- and widespread criticism that he has aligned with the NYPD over demonstrators despite fashioning himself as a police reformer. The mayor's office did not answer questions about how he has come to support the bill after long siding with his police department.

Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, who had been a regular fixture of the mayor's daily briefings, has been absent in recent days as the mayor has announced significant changes to NYPD transparency and discipline.

Along with the two public hearings, the NYPD met with the bill sponsors to share concerns several times since it was first introduced.

Last fall, Deputy Commissioner Miller said on Max & Murphy, "We said if you made these changes this bill could work for both causes. Both transparency but not so much transparency that we would either be letting criminals get away or putting police officers or witnesses or victims in danger -- and they took copious notes." But Garodnick returned with the same bill, Miller said, having addressed none of the department's concerns.

"Despite these reasonable discussions, the council has repeatedly introduced the same bill with no changes," wrote Detective Mason, the NYPD spokesperson, Thursday. "The NYPD cannot support a law that seems to be designed to help criminals and terrorists thwart efforts to stop them and endanger brave officers."

"It became clear to me that they did not want to have a serious conversation about how to address any concerns they might have," Garodnick said Thursday. "They just wanted to kill the bill. I can't even say that I could articulate what their specific [requests were] -- and I was always willing to have that conversation."

In an op-ed published in the Daily News Thursday, Felicia Richards and Larry Fuchs, presidents of the NYPD's Guardian Association and Hispanic Society, respectively, wrote that an additional sentence in the bill could go far to protect undercover officers and informants: “The Police Commissioner will have the authority to exempt from this reporting any device(s) used by officers acting in an undercover capacity, or individuals acting at their direction (informants or cooperating witnesses) if the description of the technology or device and public disclosure of same would endanger the lives of police officers or others.”

It’s unclear why the officials waited until the bill was being passed to provide that sentence publicly.

Asked why she thought the bill was moving ahead now, Gibson told Gotham Gazette, "Today’s vote would not be possible without the Speaker’s leadership on this issue and the persistent push from several of our civil rights and civil liberties groups that have been by our side from the beginning."

"The decision to move forward with a vote on the POST Act is a tremendous win for us and all of the amazing advocates that have supported this bill since its conception," she wrote in an email.

"This is an important transparency initiative to protect the privacy rights of New Yorkers and to provide real oversight of the NYPD," Garodnick said. "That's what it was then and that's what it is now. The difference is that there is now a will to get it done."

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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De Blasio Breaks with His Police Department as Council Passes Surveillance Transparency Bill Thu, 18 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Questions De Blasio's Priorities at First Executive Budget Hearing https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9374-city-council-questions-de-blasio-priorities-first-executive-budget-hearing-coronavirus-cuts https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9374-city-council-questions-de-blasio-priorities-first-executive-budget-hearing-coronavirus-cuts 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.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note - this article has been updated.

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City Council Questions De Blasio's Priorities at First Executive Budget Hearing Wed, 06 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
As NYCHA Teeters, Calls for More Funding in City and State Budgets https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9216-calls-more-nycha-funding-in-city-state-budgets-new-york-public-housing https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9216-calls-more-nycha-funding-in-city-state-budgets-new-york-public-housing comm center marcy

NYCHA is on the brink (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Despite significant attention from Mayor Bill de Blasio and some from Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York City Housing Authority, public housing home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers, continues to crumble. While both the mayor and governor, as well as many others, point to federal disinvestment in NYCHA, dissatisfied elected officials say that initial drafts of next fiscal year’s state and city budgets aren’t sufficiently addressing the problem.

As they push for more funding to a public housing authority with well more than $30 billion in estimated physical needs to enter a state of good repair, some have even threatened to vote against any budget that does not include a massive infusion of funds for NYCHA.

A growing chorus calling for more state and city money for NYCHA has been somewhat muted, at least temporarily, by the coronavirus outbreak, which is sure to bedevil the ongoing budget discussions. A new state budget is due by April 1; a city budget by July 1.   

For decades, public housing has been underfunded by the federal government, leaving the state and city to pick up the slack. But successive administrations showed little indication of taking the issue seriously, which left a ticking time bomb that exploded on de Blasio’s watch. While public housing is largely governed by federal law, the mayor appoints the leadership of the authority and is responsible for its day-to-day operations and conditions.

The latest federal budget proposed by the Trump administration would also slash funding for public housing further, including completely eliminating capital funding (which is currently about $582 million), $5 billion in cuts to Section 8 rental vouchers (the city would lose about 6,300 vouchers), and a 10% cut to operating funds for public housing agencies across the country (which would equate to about $100 million for the city).

NYCHA has had a few victories and mostly setbacks under the de Blasio administration. The administration was able to bring NYCHA’s operating expenses under control and has also put into place NYCHA 2.0, a plan to raise $24 billion in capital funds for repairs and maintenance at housing developments. But those funds are not only a long way from being realized, they are also eclipsed by the agency’s $32 billion capital need, which could rise to as much as $68 billion by 2028, noted Council Member Vanessa Gibson, at a NYCHA budget hearing on Friday, March 13. (Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, who chairs the public housing committee, was absent and Gibson, who chairs the capital budget subcommittee, chaired the hearing in her stead.)

Early in the hearing, Gibson raised the red flag about NYCHA’s worrying funding gaps for critical capital repair and maintenance. “While NYCHA 2.0 is a big and bold plan, it still leaves about $9 billion in unfunded capital needs across its portfolio and does not account for the fact that NYCHA’s capital need could as much as double by the end of the ten-year plan,” she said.

NYCHA is also currently under the purview of a federal monitor, Bart Schwartz, installed last year in agreement with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, after the authority was found to have falsified lead abatement reports for years. Lead and mold at housing developments continue to plague the city, which is undertaking a concerted effort to remediate those conditions. Heat and hot water outages have become all too common in the winter, though emergency measures and a milder winter have meant fewer outages this year. Adding to the authority’s woes is the coronavirus outbreak, which has affected the operations of the entire city government.

NYCHA’s budget cycle begins in January, as opposed to the city’s, which begins in July. Its 2020 budget was adopted in December. The agency has a $3.75 billion annual operating budget, and was projecting a surplus of $91 million in revenues at the end of the year.

At the budget hearing, Greg Russ, chair and CEO of NYCHA, detailed the authority’s various efforts to meet its obligations under the federal agreement, including putting $2.2 billion in city funding towards capital repairs over the next ten years. “Mayor de Blasio has committed an unprecedented level of resources to the authority,” he stressed in his opening remarks, “a total of $6.4 billion, including $1.3 billion to repair nearly 1,000 roofs and $200 million to replace boilers and upgrade heating systems.”

He also previewed several other measures the agency is taking to improve operations and conditions at housing developments. An additional $100 million in state capital funds will go to fulfilling the federal agreement, after a spending plan for the allocated money was approved by the state. He promised that a new organizational plan for the authority will be released this summer.

NYCHA is also creating a small projects management team for capital projects as well as a new staff position to act as a liaison with the City Council to oversee current and future capital projects funded by the city. The agency’s lead action plan is being submitted to the federal monitor for his approval. 

Even as NYCHA contends with a capital needs gap, the proposed federal cuts “would completely spin us in the wrong direction in terms of the investment that we have to make,” Russ said. “These are significant cuts that the President and the administration have proposed and they're unconscionable.”

He did say he did not expect federal capital funding to be zeroed out, putting faith in the Congress to push back against the cuts. And he said the authority could continue to manage day-to-day operations even if operating funds were reduced.

Russ also testified about aspects of the NYCHA 2.0 plan that are underway to raise funds for the authority’s housing stock and renovate and repair 62,000 apartments by 2028. Those particularly involve utilizing the Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) program and federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. Under PACT, the housing authority partners with private entities to maintain and repair developments, with housing units transferred to the Section 8 housing program. Through the program, Russ said the city has so far addressed $1.1 billion in capital needs by converting almost 7,800 apartments in 30 housing developments to Section 8 funding. He said 21,000 apartments would be “in the conversion pipeline” by this spring. Just last month, the authority selected five development teams to convert 5,908 apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn to the program, agreements expected to cover $1.5 billion in critical capital needs.  

There was, however, little discussion of other parts of the plan, including the sale of air rights and allowing private developers to build mixed-income housing on NYCHA land, also known as infill development. Infill projects were aimed at raising as much as $2 billion for the agency over ten years but have failed to move forward so far. Some air rights sales have been completed, though. 

On March 19, the New York State Assembly's Manhattan delegation released a report that highlighted conditions at NYCHA developments and tenant needs. Among several recommendations, the delegation urged the state to find a dedicated funding stream for the ailing agency as well as to provide more transparency around existing funding and how it is utilized. "Written prior to the COVID-19 State of Emergency, the pandemic further highlights that, for over 400,000 NYCHA tenants in substandard housing, the public housing crisis is a public health crisis,” said Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, dean and Chair of the delegation, in a statement. "New York State can act now with serious funding commitments and lead the way towards the restoration of NYCHA."

Though the City Council in its initial response to the mayor’s preliminary budget pledged to advocate for more funding for housing, there was no particular mention of NYCHA. It’s unclear what additional commitments the Council may request in its official response, which was due after budget hearings that have since been suspended amid the coronavirus outbreak.

But it’s clear that Council Speaker Corey Johnson is looking to Albany for additional funding from the state government. “The city can’t do it on our own,” Johnson said at a rally in early February outside City Hall, according to a New York Daily News report. He called for $2 billion more from the state. “We put up a lot of money — we should put up more money — but we need a state partner to put up money with us.”

Advocates and elected officials have also been critical of the state for its slow support for NYCHA. It was only in November that the state released $450 million in funds appropriated for NYCHA in 2017 and 2018. The funding was repeatedly put on hold as the city contended with the lead testing lawsuit and the subsequent negotiation over the federal agreement. Governor Cuomo eventually said he would not release the funds until an independent monitor was appointed to oversee its disbursement.

“For years the New York City Housing Authority was underfunded by the Federal government and its administrators, and to help, New York State stepped up and made an unprecedented commitment to NYCHA for reliable heat, safe elevators and a better quality of life,” said Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of Budget. “In all,” he said,” the executive budget Cuomo released in January that forms the basis for budget negotiations with the Legislature, “includes $650 million in ongoing support for NYCHA projects so that their 400,000 residents will finally see results.”

“Is there always a need for more funding for public housing? Absolutely,” said Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake, a legislator who has repeatedly called for more NYCHA funding, in a phone interview. He said the state’s first priority should be to release $100 million for NYCHA that was allocated by the state Legislature last year, atop the $450 million that had already been set aside for the agency. And he called for an urgent response to ensure public housing residents are protected during the coronavirus pandemic without having to forego day-to-day maintenance.

“We have to make sure that we don't have a scenario where the funding that we're going for that is needed for the everyday repairs comes at the risk of the present emergency upon us,” he said. “While, yes, coronavirus is an emergency, so is a lead paint crisis.”

Other elected officials at the state and city level have already declared that they wouldn’t support any spending plans that don’t substantially increase NYCHA funding, though it is worth noting those promises came before coronavirus seemingly changed everything.

“I repeat. I will not vote for a budget without funding for our public housing,” tweeted Manhattan Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou.

Manhattan Assemblymember Harvey Epstein echoed the sentiment. “I am with you @yuhline I will NOT vote for a budget without a substantial investment in public housing!” he tweeted.

New York City Council Member Carlina Rivera of Manhattan wants to see the city cough up more funding. “The City and State must step up this year and contribute billions more dollars in their own budgets, and we will be calling on our colleagues in the Council and State Legislature to fight for this as well,” Rivera wrote in a joint op-ed with congressional Rep. Nydia Velazquez in Gotham Gazette.

The Legal Aid Society, a member of the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance which is behind the Housing Justice for All campaign, released data last week showing that between October 1 and December 31, 2019, there were 1,246 heat and hot water outages at NYCHA complexes, affecting about 178,267 apartments that are home to 391,661 residents.

“NYCHA is clearly still unable to ensure that utility systems seamlessly provide for residents, and these numbers confirm what we hear from our clients on a regular basis,” said Lucy Newman, Staff Attorney with the Civil Law Reform Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “These outages could be meaningfully addressed with the right resources. As Albany continues to negotiate the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, we demand that lawmakers allocate $2 billion to NYCHA to help the Housing Authority address these and other outstanding issues that still plague tenants.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with a reference to a new report released by the New York State Assembly's Manhattan delegation. 

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As NYCHA Teeters, Calls for More Funding in City and State Budgets Mon, 16 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
More Savings, Better Planning: City Council Begins Examination of Mayor's $95.3 Billion Budget https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9180-city-council-begins-examination-of-de-blasio-95-billion-budget https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9180-city-council-begins-examination-of-de-blasio-95-billion-budget council cojo hearing

Council Members Dromm & Gibson with Speaker Johnson in between (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The City Council held its first hearing on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $95.3 billion preliminary budget on Monday, calling on the administration to find more agency efficiencies and savings and to fund the Council’s own priorities, while also asking for a contingency plan should potential state budget cuts and cost-shifts go through this year.

The mayor’s budget proposal this year increases spending by $2.5 billion over last year’s adopted budget, and reflects a $20 billion increase since he took office six years ago. Though the mayor did not include many new initiatives when he released his budget proposal in January, he has since announced several that could add hundreds of millions in spending.

This year’s budget is expected to be particularly challenging for the city as the administration faces $1.4 billion in cuts, cost-shifts, and unfunded mandates from the state, the highest in the last six years. Most of the potential cost-shifts stem from a proposed Medicaid overhaul that Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed in his executive budget, though state budget officials have argued that the mayor’s estimates are overblown and much is to be determined as the state’s Medicaid Redesign Team does its work and the governor and legislators negotiate the new state budget due by April 1. The next city budget is due by July 1.

Economic growth has also begun to slow and as the novel coronavirus roils the financial markets, it could threaten the city’s economy, particularly if it hurts tourism.

On Monday, City Council members and de Blasio administration officials seemed to acknowledge that they would not be able to beat back all of what Cuomo has outlined. “What we need to hear from the administration today is a plan,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson to de Blasio budget director Melanie Hartzog. “We need the mayor to reassure us that if these shortfalls materialize, then the city is prepared to absorb them into our budget with minimal impact to crucial city services.”

But Hartzog, director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, said the city may have to make tough decisions. She reiterated at Monday’s hearing the de Blasio prediction that Cuomo’s Medicaid shifts would be “devastating,” particularly to NYC Health + Hospitals, the municipal health system. “We cannot absorb that level of cuts,” she said, noting that it would necessitate possible reductions in social services and after-school programs. “Unfortunately, everything is on the table,” she said.

Hartzog noted that the city has already spent roughly $3.8 million in repsonse to the coronavirus outbreak and while she could not be sure what the overall cost to the city might be, said that the city spent about $20 million on the Ebola scare of a few years ago, which might be a good initial benchmark to think about.

Council Member Daniel Dromm, who chairs the Council’s finance committee, said there are certain risks “that are inexplicably not addressed by the mayor’s preliminary budget even though they are predictable and necessary to continue to meet the needs and priorities of New York City.”

That includes underbudgetting certain costs. He noted, for instance, that the city has spent an average of 28% more than it budgets on overtime since 2015, but hasn’t taken steps to correct the gap. Projected spending on so-called Carter Cases, private school placements for students with special education needs, was also lower than should be expected, he pointed out – the Department of Education’s fiscal year 2021 budget includes $405.6 million for Carter Cases, he noted, which is about $134 million less than the budget for the current fiscal year. The budget also does not include a needed $64 million for pupil transportation and leaves out $75 million that the Board of Elections needed to implement early voting last year, he said.

As Dromm pointed out, the mayor in his State of the City speech announced several initiatives that would require more funding including the expansion of 3-K, a home visit program for new parents (expected to cost $43 million next fiscal year, an amount that wasn’t in the mayor’s preliminary budget), and ignored the City Council’s discretionary priorities, which cost about $450 million in the current fiscal year. The budget also does not provide funding for $215.7 million in one-time funding that the Council fought for last year, Dromm said.

On a promising note for the administration, Council Member Vanessa Gibson, who chairs the Council’s capital budget subcommittee, praised efforts to make the city’s capital budget process more transparent and to improve how funds are spent on capital projects over the course of the four-year, $85.5 billion capital commitment plan. She noted that the administration has started reporting on projects that are funded in the out-years after the plan, aligning more closely with the city’s ten-year capital strategy.   

Over the course of three hours, Council members questioned the administration on a myriad of issues including homelessness spending, nonprofit contracting, and funding for senior services, cultural affairs, public housing, overdose prevention, special education, and more.

Johnson was particularly focused on the city’s spending on homelessness. He cited the recent release of the Council’s comprehensive strategy to end the homelessness crisis, asking why the de Blasio administration could not act to increase the value of rental vouchers to fair market rates to help people stay in their homes and out of shelter and whether the city’s massive increase in shelter spending was money being spent in the right ways.

Hartzog said the administration agrees with the goal but could not act on its own. “We can’t without risking losing state and federal funding,” she said. She also pushed back on Johnson’s suggestion that a single deputy mayor oversee housing and homelessness.

Though the city faces major threats to its budget, the mayor did not institute a Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG), which he did last year to mandate targeted savings at specific agencies. Budget watchdogs have long said the administration needs to find more actual agency efficiencies rather than savings through re-estimates in spending and accruals (not hiring for positions that are budgeted). Johnson questioned whether the mayor was planning a PEG as he looks toward his April executive budget plan.  “Can’t rule it out at this point,” Hartzog replied. 

Following the administration’s testimony, the Council heard from Comptroller Scott Stringer and experts from the Independent Budget Office, a city-funded fiscal watchdog. Stringer released his analysis of the mayor’s preliminary budget last week, and called for the administration to increase the ratio of reserves to total annual spending – the budget cushion – to 15%. The cushion was 11% in the current fiscal year, which Stringer has repeatedly said would be insufficient in the event of a recession. Stringer also highlighted his recent addition of the office of ThriveNYC to his "agency watch list," which already included the city's department of education, correction, and homeless services, and fielded questions on the subject. He explained that the mental health care office led by First Lady Chirlane McCray has not provided a detailed, transparent budget and has not shown sufficient indication that its spending, roughly $200 million per year, is producing results.

Over the next month, the Council will continue to delve into the budget, examining spending plans at agency-specific hearings. After the Council presents its response to the mayor, he will issue his executive budget, which will be the subject of another round of hearings before the final budget is agreed to in closed-door negotiations.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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More Savings, Better Planning: City Council Begins Examination of Mayor's $95.3 Billion Budget Mon, 02 Mar 2020 05:00:00 +0000
City to Codify Office of Food Policy and Require 10-Year Food Plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9127-city-council-to-codify-office-of-food-policy-and-require-10-year-food-plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9127-city-council-to-codify-office-of-food-policy-and-require-10-year-food-plan corey jphnson participate

Council Speaker Johnson at a food pantry (photo: John McCarten/CityCouncil)


The City Council is expected to pass a package of food policy legislation on Tuesday, central components of an agenda laid out by Speaker Corey Johnson last August to strengthen relevant governance and food policy planning, while combating inequality and waste in the food supply chain.

One bill, sponsored by Council Member Vanessa Gibson, would require the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy to develop a ten-year plan to address food access and build a sustainable and economically viable agricultural landscape serving New York City. The second bill, carried by Council Member Ben Kallos and co-sponsored by Johnson, would codify the Office of Food Policy in the City Charter as a permanent office responsible for coordinating food-related initiatives across multiple city agencies, with an emphasis on promoting nutrition in communities with limited access to healthy food because of “economic, racial, or environmental factors.”

Both bills passed out of the Committee on Economic Development on Monday and will be up for a vote by the full City Council on Tuesday, where they are expected to pass.

“Food is a human right, and in one of the richest cities in the world, it is completely unacceptable that one million New Yorkers are food insecure and that many communities have inequitable access to healthy food,” a Council spokesperson for Johnson said in a statement. “The Council’s food equity legislative package is part of Speaker Johnson’s vision to promote food justice in this City, and we are thankful to all the Council Members and staff for working hard on these bills as we move closer to ending the food equity gap.”

Johnson’s platform, first proposed in a report entitled, “Growing Food Equity in New York City,” takes aim at rampant food insecurity, including in low-income communities and communities of color, and the structural inequities that contribute to that problem and others, including inconsistencies in access to healthy food. It comprises a number of provisions, many of which were contained in a package of fourteen bills and two resolutions heard in Council committees last September, including several being voted on Tuesday (several other pieces of the package were passed through the Council’s general welfare committee on Monday).

In addition to the food policy office and ten-year plan bills, Johnson’s full agenda includes legislation to enhance food metric reporting, expand public assistance like food pantries and SNAP benefits, targeted support for seniors and students, farm-to-city programs, and food procurement reforms.

The number of New Yorkers living with food insecurity -- defined as lacking adequate access to affordable and nutritious food -- between 2015 and 2017 was 1.09 million, according to a report by Hunger Free America and cited in the Council’s report. While constituting a 22 percent drop in food insecurity from the 2012-2014 period, the figure also represents a 22 percent rise since the pre-recession period from 2005 to 2007, according to the Hunger Free America report. The number of children who experienced food insecurity between 2015 and 2017, 324,432, improved at a slower rate (16 percent) than the overall population from the previous three-year period.

A particular emphasis is on food justice and ameliorating the disparate access to healthy foods in predominantly low-income neighborhoods. The expected passage of the bills comes shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled as constitutional the Trump administration’s public charge rule, making it harder for immigrants to obtain a green card when they receive public benefits like food stamps.

“The City of New York is responsible for feeding a large portion of our population, whether it’s 1.1 million public school students who are entitled to free breakfast and free lunch, or it’s people in our senior centers...or people in our shelter system who we’re feeding, or just the countless New Yorkers who rely on food assistance in the form of SNAP,” Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, told Gotham Gazette.

The city has a tremendous amount of sway over food policy and can have meaningful impact by utilizing it, according to Nevin Cohen, research director at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute. “Agencies procure food for various purposes, they control land that food can be grown on, they provide resources for business like food manufacturing business. So food spans the gamut of city agencies and having an office that can coordinate food related policies is really essential,” Cohen said in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

The two bills passed by the economic development committee are a package that work in tandem, one establishing the food policy office in the City Charter and one requiring it to develop a ten-year plan. The bills are written to go into effect simultaneously.

Under Gibson’s bill, the Office of Food Policy would be required to draft a comprehensive ten-year plan -- coordinating among myriad agencies, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders -- that would bring the city’s approaches to governing food production, sale, and supplemental assistance under one umbrella. The plan would be required to make recommendations on “reducing hunger, improving nutrition, increasing access to healthy food, reducing food waste, developing and improving food and farm economies, and increasing urban agriculture and sustainability.”

“There has been no shortage of food policy ideas and strategic documents and recommendations from different parts of city government, but there hasn’t yet been a cohesive food plan for the city of New York,” Cohen said. “That’s been a major gap that this bill will fill.”

The ten-year plan would include strategies for successful implementation with benchmarks and the Office of Food Policy would be required to give progress reports to the mayor and Council speaker.

“I believe this legislation will have a tremendous impact on thousands of families that deserve access to healthier high quality food options. However, we must continue to work together as legislators with community advocates and stakeholders to ensure we establish concrete goals to reduce hunger,” wrote Gibson, a Bronx Democrat, in an email. The Hunger Free America report called the Bronx the “hungriest borough,” with one in four residents experiencing food insecurity.

Kallos’ bill, in codifying the Office of Food Policy, outlines the powers and duties of the director in the City Charter. Currently, the role of Director of Food Policy is housed within the mayor’s office and exists at the mayor’s discretion. After former Director of Food Policy Barbara Turk stepped down in March 2019, the position went vacant for six months until a new director, Kate MacKenzie, was appointed by Mayor de Blasio this past October. Under the legislation, the office could be established either directly within the mayor’s office or in another mayoral department, with the director appointed either by the mayor or the department head.

Supporters say codifying the office will bring a degree of accountability over the city’s food policy efforts, which are currently controlled largely through executive action. The bill establishes four official responsibilities of the office: make recommendations to the mayor; coordinate interagency initiatives; conduct outreach to key stakeholders; and promote efforts designed to increase equitable access to nutritious food.

“I think the fact that [the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy] was vacant for so long explains why it needs to be codified in the law: so that it is something that we can hold accountable. I am very glad Mayor de Blasio appointed a director, one who has been empowered to do so much, but the mayor could have just as easily eliminated the position,” Kallos said.

The mayor’s office says it supports the bills.

“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,” MacKenzie wrote in an email.

Kallos believes codifying the office’s general responsibilities will also give it leverage in negotiating among city agencies, which often operate as independent fiefdoms.

“When I was chair of Governmental Operations I had oversight over half a dozen agencies and it is incredibly difficult to force agencies to work together. By giving the food policy director this power in the Charter, it means there is something they can point to when they are trying to force people to the table who otherwise might not want to work together,” he said.

To some extent, codifying the office is a statement about how much city resources should be expended on comprehensive food policy.

“I think a really important need is for the city to adequately fund the Office of Food Policy. Since its inception the office has really had only one or two staff people, and for a city the size of New York that’s just not enough,” Cohen said.

Kallos’ bill does not appropriate city funds for the office or say how many staff members it must have, but Cohen believes the legislation can still be a boon.

“Local laws generally don’t have specific appropriations of funding attached to them, but my feeling is that by putting the office in the City Charter it adds significant importance to the office and it will enable advocates both inside and outside of city government to advocate for sufficient funding,” he said.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City to Codify Office of Food Policy and Require 10-Year Food Plan Mon, 10 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Campaigning for Congress, Torres Touts City Funding Secured for Development Outside Council District https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8672-campaigning-for-congress-torres-touts-city-funding-secured-for-development-outside-council-district https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8672-campaigning-for-congress-torres-touts-city-funding-secured-for-development-outside-council-district 1 cm r torres lib

Council Member Ritchie Torres (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)


Bronx City Council Member Ritchie Torres is touting $3 million in city funding he secured for a residential complex that falls outside the Council district he represents, but within the Congressional district where he’s seeking votes.

The money will go to Concourse Village, Inc., a nearly 1,900-unit housing cooperative located in the south Bronx, over a mile away from the border of Torres’ district. The second-term Democratic Council member is running for Congress in the primary that will be held in June of next year.

Torres sent a campaign text message announcing the “great news,” using the funding allocation he secured as a member of the City Council to advance his congressional campaign, apparently targeting voters in Concourse Village.

"This is Council Member Ritchie Torres, running to be your next Congressman,” read a text message shared with Gotham Gazette. “GREAT NEWS: In the latest NYC budget, I secured $3 MILLION for Concourse Village.” The message went on to tell the recipient not to hesitate to reach out to Torres, providing a phone number, and concluded, “You can always count on me to fight for the Bronx. - Ritchie".

The youngest member of the City Council and the first openly gay elected official from the Bronx, Torres officially announced his candidacy for Congress on Monday, though he has been exploring a run for months. He joins several other Democrats vying for the seat opened by incumbent Representative José E. Serrano, who announced in March he would not seek reelection because of health concerns related to Parkinson’s disease. Representing the district in Congress since 1990, Serrano’s current term will end at the end of next year. Torres, who has been representing the 15th Council District since 2014, is not eligible to run for reelection in 2021 because of two-term limits. (Serrano’s Congressional district also happens to be the 15th.)

Others in the race include City Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr. and Assemblymember Michael Blake.

Taking advantage of the authority and influence of elected office to secure popular measures that can later be used as campaign fodder is commonplace in New York, where local politics is often a stepping stone to higher office. But the grey area around promoting public interest and political aspirations becomes less ambiguous when the sway of an elected office goes to benefit another district entirely, with electoral goals at play.

"How do you rationalize using campaign funds to communicate with people outside your district to tell them that you got them money blatantly for the purpose of trying to curry political favor?" said Blake, whose district includes Concourse Village.

Torres says the budget allocation for what he calls the largest concentration of cooperative housing in the South Bronx is consistent with his focus on affordable housing, especially for African-Americans. So is the political campaigning that followed.

“I have been an advocate for affordable housing not only in my district but throughout the city,” Torres told Gotham Gazette. Concourse Village “has an outsized presence in the housing stock of the South Bronx, which is keeping with my record and reputation for advocating for affordable housing.”

“I think of cooperative housing like Concourse Village as the bedrock of the African-American middle class, you know, whether it’s Co-op City in the East Bronx or Concourse Village in the South Bronx,” Torres, who is black and Latino, said. Black voters in the 15th Congressional District are expected to be an important part of the primary vote. Blake is African-American and Torres is African-American and Latino.

Concourse Village, Inc. is subsidized under the Mitchell-Lama housing program, which offers income-restricted rentals and below-market value buy-in for co-ops, a boon for affordable housing.

The neighborhoods comprising the South Bronx are home to some of the worst poverty in the country and also have some of the highest rates of rent burden in the city. In the community district that includes Concourse Village, more than half of households are rent burdened, meaning they spend more than 35 percent of income on rent, according to the Department of City Planning.

Torres, who grew up in NYCHA public housing and chaired the Committee on Public Housing during his first term, has made the living conditions of the city’s most underserved residents a signature priority.

He notes the $3 million allocation did not come from the capital funding dedicated to his Council district, but from the city-wide pool controlled by Speaker Corey Johnson. Torres told Gotham Gazette, “if it had come from the Council District 15 pot then there is cause for controversy, but there is nothing unusual about funding for Concourse Village from a city-wide pot.”

“And since I had a role in securing the funds, it’s natural for me to take credit,” he added.

Each fiscal year the City Council is given a capital budget from which Council members may apply to allocate funds, according to Jonathan Rosenberg of the Independent Budget Office. Individual members can apply for district-specific projects, and borough delegations can sponsor projects that span multiple districts. The Council speaker ultimately decides how that money is disbursed and can also allocate it to city-wide projects.

In recent years, speakers have designated an equal amount of capital funding, $5 million, to each of the 51 Council members with the remainder of the now $655 million capital budget going to a city fund. City-wide allocations are controlled by the speaker and might go toward large or expansive projects like street reconstruction, according to Rosenberg, and members are able to put in requests.

“This money was funded by the City Council Speaker at the request of Council Member Torres,” said a Council spokesperson. The spokesperson said it’s not unprecedented for members to seek funding for a project outside their district, adding that the money is from the city capital funding, not the money set aside for Torres’ Council District 15.

Torres has also secured funding for cooperative housing in his district using the money designated specifically for that purpose by the Council leadership. This year, he put roughly $1 million of the $5 million towards renovationing a Mitchell-Lama co-op, known as Dennis Lane Apartments, in the heart of District 15.

Concourse Village is located south of Torres’ district off of Morris Ave. within the borders of Council District 16, represented by Vanessa Gibson. Gibson, a Democrat, is not listed among the sponsors of the $3 million Concourse Village, Inc. allocation, despite the project falling into her district. “I actually was not even made aware of this allocation until the day of adoption,” she said in a phone interview.

“I did not have the opportunity to work with the speaker nor Ritchie on this. It was something that Ritchie had done on his own, but I am grateful for the attention Concourse Village is getting in the budget,” she said.

“I get the strategic way that Ritchie is obviously looking at the future. This was a development that came up among the priorities within the district, and I truly believe that that was the logic behind it,” she added.

But Blake called foul on that strategic approach. “It is difficult to say that you want to be a fresh voice in Congress when you are directly trying to communicate to people that you want to pay for their vote," he said.

“I’m proud of the role that I played in securing the funds. Concourse Village is one of the most important housing developments in the Bronx and in the city,” Torres said. “And it’s been a stabilizing force for communities of color, for middle-class communities of color. That’s why I felt so strongly about it.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Campaigning for Congress, Torres Touts City Funding Secured for Development Outside Council District Mon, 15 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Pushes Its Priorities at First Hearing on De Blasio's Executive Budget https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8504-city-council-pushes-its-priorities-at-first-hearing-on-de-blasio-s-executive-budget https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8504-city-council-pushes-its-priorities-at-first-hearing-on-de-blasio-s-executive-budget spk co jo exec bud

Council Member Dromm and Speaker Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The New York City Council and budget officials from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration engaged in a familiar push-and-pull on Monday, at the first hearing on the $92.5 billion executive budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year that begins July 1.

The Council, disappointed that many of its priorities were not included in the latest spending plan presented by the mayor, pushed for more funding and pointed to hundreds of millions in revenue available to the city, but officials from the Office of Management and Budget urged restraint as they emphasized the dangers of a slowing economy and insisted the Council’s revenue estimate was far rosier than their own.

De Blasio presented his executive budget last month with $300 million more in proposed spending than his preliminary plan released in February. The $92.5 billion proposal would mark yet another record high in city spending, up nearly $3.4 billion from the current fiscal year and about $20 billion from the budget that de Blasio inherited from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The budget included, for the first time under de Blasio, a PEG (Program to Eliminate the Gap) that identified $629 million in savings in agency spending.

But the executive budget excludes funding for most of the items that the City Council had listed in its response, issued last month, to de Blasio’s preliminary budget plan, and Council members made their frustration clear at Monday’s hearing.

The Council found the executive budget “incredibly insulting,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in his opening remarks. The Council had called for pay parity and wage equity for several categories of city-funded workers (including nonprofit human service providers, assistant district attorneys, indigent defense attorneys, and daycare workers), investments in a variety of social service and local programs, $250 million more in reserves, more transparency across the budget, and 100 percent “Fair Student Funding” to aid local schools.

Johnson noted that though most of the Council’s priorities were ignored, “The Administration saw fit to implement our ideas from the response for how to save money, and then took those savings to fund even more of the mayor’s priorities.”

Even requests that would have cost nothing -- for instance, more transparency for multi-agency programs such as ThriveNYC, and spending on the new ferry system -- were rejected, Johnson said.

He did, however, point to a bright spot in the negotiations with the administration. The Council had called for continuing $155 million in “one-shot” funding that is in the current fiscal year budget for various purposes -- adult literacy programs, summer youth employment, post-arrest diversion programs, social workers for homeless students, and more. After the Council’s push, the city added $77 million to restore some of those programs, but Johnson indicated that negotiations would be tough regardless.

“Typically, we try to get this budget adopted by the first week of June. I doubt that’s possible and I’m willing to wait until just before July 1,” Johnson said, referring to the start of the next fiscal year and the deadline for approving the budget. “This needs to be done the right way,” he added. Over the next few weeks, the Council will continue to examine the budget at agency-specific hearings where administration officials will testify, while public rallies are held and op-eds are written advocating for certain expenditures and private negotiations continue among stakeholders.

A central dispute of the hearing was over the amount of revenue available to the city from personal income tax collections, which came in higher than earlier projections. Through April, the city received $474 million more than initially estimated, which the Council repeatedly said should be put to use to fund their demands. But OMB Director Melanie Hartzog repeatedly pointed out that other tax revenue came in lower, and that actual revenues only increased by about $200 million.

“We continue to face uncertainty related to economic conditions at home and abroad,” Hartzog said in her opening remarks, pointing to a weak housing market and slowing consumption. She emphasized that much of the new spending in the budget was required because of $300 million in unfunded mandates and cost shifts from the state, and about $150 million in additional needs that were not factored in to the preliminary budget.

Council Member Daniel Dromm, chair of the finance committee, didn’t hold back in criticizing the executive budget’s approach towards the Council, pointing out that the Council had urged the administration for years to rein in costs, increase reserves, and find agency efficiencies. He noted that the PEG made cuts in areas where the Council wanted more spending, including cultural institutions, youth services, and senior centers.

“The PEG was couched in the context of a potentially worsening economic position for the city and the need for us all to tighten our belts in anticipation,” he added. “So what is truly baffling is that in light of this sentiment, the administration has chosen not to add even a single dollar towards our reserves.” That increases the likelihood, he said, that the administration will have to slash services when an economic downturn hits in earnest.

“It was a challenging budget,” Hartzog said, a position she had to repeatedly rely on as Council members pressed her on a slew of specific priorities, whether funding for social workers and guidance counsellors in schools, or support services for youth in the foster care system. She did however promise to work with the Council in finding more savings and to address their individual issues.

And the issues were many. Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, chair of the cultural affairs committee, said $6 million in proposed cuts to cultural institutions were “disrespectful to this body.” Hartzog said they were “relatively modest,” noting that the overall budget for those institutions is about $139 million and that the administration wanted to avoid cuts in library service. 

Council Member Mark Treyger, chair of the education committee, lambasted the lack of funding for pay parity for universal pre-kindergarten teachers, Title IX coordinators, for busing for foster care students, for new school counsellors, to baseline Teacher’s Choice funding, and more education-related programs. “How can you say this is a schools-not-jails budget?,” he wondered, with apparent reference to the fact that the mayor’s updated capital budget plan, $117 billion over 10 years, includes billions in funding for jail construction as the city moves off of Rikers Island.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal noted that nonprofit service providers need at least $250 million more from the city or they risk fiscal insolvency. Hartzog, in response, noted that the de Blasio administration previously gave nonprofit providers cost-of-living-raises for the first time in years and that the administration is negotiating issues with the nonprofit sector. 

Council Member Barry Grodenchik, chair of the parks committee, said the parks and recreation budget “continues to go sideways,” and called for modest and targeted investments in parks infrastructure.

Council Members Carlina Rivera and Carlos Menchaca, co-chairs of the Council’s census task force, called for more funding for 2020 Census outreach, insisting that the $26 million over two years that the administration is funding is inadequate compared to the Council’s $40 million request. Hartzog said the amount was sufficient -- $8 million will go to community-based organizations, $10 million to a media outreach campaign and the rest to staffing needs -- particularly in tandem with $20 million in overall state funding, but said the administration was open to adding more funding if needed down the line.

Hartzog told Council Member Mark Levine that funding for so-called safe injection sites wasn’t included because the city was waiting for approval from the state health department.

The OMB director did agree to providing a measure of more transparency in the budget, and said her office had identified 34 new units of appropriation at the Council’s urging.

Hartzog similarly said the administration had made new “Capital Detail Data Reports” available online, in response to a request from Council Member Vanessa Gibson, who chairs the subcommittee on the capital budget. Gibson and others have critiqued the city’s ten-year capital planning process, insisting that it frontloads investments in early years and underfunds them in the second half of the plan. The ten-year capital plan reached $116.9 billion in the executive budget, of which 78% is planned for the first five years, Gibson noted.

But Hartzog said the city was working to distribute capital spending more evenly, with $3.9 billion redistributed from fiscal years 2019-2021 into later years. The administration has also proposed rescinding $2.3 billion pledged in previous capital budgets, she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Pushes Its Priorities at First Hearing on De Blasio's Executive Budget Mon, 06 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Preliminary Budget Hearings End with City Council Clamor for More Detail on Agency Cuts https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8410-preliminary-city-budget-hearings-end-with-council-clamor-for-more-detail-on-agency-cuts https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8410-preliminary-city-budget-hearings-end-with-council-clamor-for-more-detail-on-agency-cuts council holds prelim

OMB Director Hartzog testifies (photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council)


As usual, the City Council’s March agenda was mostly dominated by preliminary budget hearings, evaluating the mayor’s initial spending plan for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. This stage of the city budget process started and finished with a general hearing held by the Council’s Finance Committee, along with its Capital Budget Subcommittee, with a series of more specific agency- and service-related hearings in between.

The preliminary budget hearings finished where they began, with Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, and other Council members looking for more details about cuts and efficiencies the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to make across city agencies. When he presented a $92.2 billion preliminary budget in early February, de Blasio said he was instituting a $750 million PEG (program to eliminate the (budget) gap), the first PEG of de Blasio’s tenure, during which a very healthy economy has allowed the mayor and Council to increase spending very quickly, while also keeping reserves fairly high.

But where will that $750 million come from? De Blasio and his top budget officials said they would give each agency, from the NYPD to the Department of Education, targets to meet and there would be more detail by the mayor’s executive budget, which is due toward the end of April. Yet City Council members want more detail now.

The PEG was brought on, the mayor said, because the city’s recent revenue collections have not met the Office of Management and Budget’s growth projections. The city collected $46.5 billion in revenue for the previous fiscal year, which was a 1.2% increase from the year before. However, OMB had forecasted a 2.6% growth rate.

At the City Council’s final preliminary budget hearing, Jacques Jiha, the commissioner of the Department of Finance (DOF), attributed this to the “weakness” in personal income tax collection (especially senior payments) and the “softness” of unincorporated business tax collection. Jiha also noted the recent inversion of the bond yield curve, which could signal a potential recession, as another sign that “the budget should be approached with caution.”

City budget director Melanie Hartzog later echoed Jiha’s cautionary tone, highlighting three “economic risks” that led to the PEG. She clarified -- and repeatedly stressed -- that OMB and economists are forecasting an “economic slow-down,” not a recession, amid a national economy that has appeared vulnerable in recent years. Still, she called such a slow-down “a substantial threat to the budget.” Second, she also attributed the slowing of city revenue growth to a decline in income tax collections, noting recent changes to the federal tax code.

Finally, Hartzog also discussed OMB’s expectations that state and federal contributions to the city budget would decline. According to Hartzog, the mayor’s executive budget will include cuts to health care and education programs unless the city can secure additional funding from the state. Also, while President Trump’s budget proposal would be detrimental to the city, OMB does not believe that it will pass through Congress. Hartzog said OMB would work with the city’s congressional representatives to secure federal funding.

Council Finance Chair Danny Dromm, a Queens Democrat, said that he hoped Hartzog’s testimony would answer questions that came up in previous budget hearings over the past month. Speaker Johnson summarized the previous month’s hearings by saying that “most agency heads were unwilling or unable” to discuss what would be affected by the city’s $750 million PEG. When Hartzog said that these details would appear in de Blasio’s executive budget, Johnson said that he was “incredibly frustrated to be stonewalled.”

Many questions that Council members had at the first preliminary budget hearing still went unanswered at the final preliminary budget hearing. Hartzog said that it was “too early in the process” for the Council to be given details about what particular cuts will be made at each agency. Agencies have submitted their preliminary drafts for savings, but the OMB still has to review those proposals. Similarly, Hartzog could not yet answer what percentage of the cuts would affect services and programs.

Dromm said that cuts to programs such as summer employment for students and adult literacy “will be a non-starter.” Johnson agreed that the Council would not support cuts that would affect “vulnerable New Yorkers.” He warned Hartzog, “I don’t want a level of game-playing” over cuts and said that it would “be a big waste of time.” Hartzog said that “neither I nor the mayor want to play that budget dance.”

When asked if she was confident that the city’s reserves would be able to prevent budget cuts to programs during a potential recession, Hartzog reiterated that economists were forecasting an economic slow-down not an economic recession and that she had confidence in the city “weathering an economic slow down” without programmatic cuts.

Hartzog appeared less concerned about the potential for a recession than Johnson. Like Jiha previously stated, Johnson noted that an inversion of the bond yield curve is usually an indicator of an approaching recession. Hartzog conceded that a recession was “certainly possible,” but said that economists were forecasting a slow down, which would not be as severe. She also took the opportunity to state that the city has “built up our reserves and continued to have savings plans” during economic growth periods.

Johnson brought up a Citizens Budget Commission report, which said that a recession could cause revenue shortfalls of $15-20 billion over three years. This would use up the entirety of the city’s reserves. When asked if the administration thought that more should be added to the reserves, Hartzog reiterated that the reserves were sufficient to weather an economic slow down and said that the city was planning to add to the reserves moving forward.

Johnson also called out a New York Post article that claimed the city “is careening closer to all-out financial bankruptcy.” Johnson called the article “irresponsible” and Hartzog concurred. “We think there does need to be a level of improvement in transparency,” Johnson said, suggesting that OMB should provide “best estimates” of future revenue reserves because of OMB’s tendency towards conservative estimates. Hartzog said she does not believe that would be necessary.

Between the testimonies of Jiha and Hartzog, Lorraine Grillo made her first appearance before a City Council committee as commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction (DDC). Grillo has also retained her role as head of the School Construction Authority (SCA), therefore leading the two main city agencies responsible for construction projects. Council Member Vanessa Gibson, a Bronx Democrat and chair of the Capital Budget Subcommittee, praised the SCA under Grillo’s leadership for its “strong capital delivery.”

Grillo told the committee that the varied scale of projects, which include everything from sewers to playgrounds, presented a challenge for the DDC, which she said “should not neglect smaller projects,” because many affect New Yorkers’ quality of life. She also expressed frustration that the state has not granted “blanket design-build authority” for the city’s capital projects, saying that it would streamline the capital delivery process.

Jamie Torres-Springer, the first deputy DDC Commissioner, said that the state’s granting of design-build authority for the construction of four community-based jails, which are planned to replace the Rikers Island jails is “a really important opportunity for the city “to demonstrate the effectiveness” of design-build. Grillo added, “but imagine if we could use it for all projects?”

Grillo also noted that there are “layers of policy and red tape” at DDC that SCA does not have. She has ordered an agency-wide review. She also pointed to the DDC’s Strategic Blueprint, which she labeled a “far-reaching plan” and “broad outline of improvements” with “common-sense fixes.” One area of improvement that she highlighted was front-end planning. The DDC has expanded its front-end planning unit and now works with agencies before they submit their project initiation requests. According to Grillo, “we are beginning to see a difference.”

With preliminary budget hearings over, the next steps in the city budget process are seeing the results of the new state budget, due by April 1, followed by the City Council releasing its formal preliminary budget response. Soon after, the mayor will release his executive budget plan, setting off another round of Council hearings as well as public and private negotiations.

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

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Preliminary Budget Hearings End with City Council Clamor for More Detail on Agency Cuts Fri, 29 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000