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New York City Should Have a Comprehensive Plan


mayorsofficesi

(Photo: Spencer T Tucker/Mayor's office)


The 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission is deliberating whether to propose to voters in November that a requirement for a comprehensive city plan be added to the charter.

Should New York City have a comprehensive, well-considered plan?
Yes.

A comprehensive, well considered, plan should be good for everyone. It would involve all of us in the creation and maintenance of a shared vision for our city and its neighborhoods. It would provide predictability for communities, property owners, developers, elected officials, and municipal and state agencies.  

It would provide an agreed plan on which to base the expeditious adoption of regulations such as zoning. It would make it easier to base actions on the intention, and not just the words, of a regulation, such as zoning.

It would promote coordination among agencies at neighborhood, community, borough, city, and regional levels. It would allow for more rapid approval of projects and proposals consistent with the plan.

Is the Zoning Resolution New York City’s comprehensive, well-considered plan?
Yes and No.  

New York State law requires New York City to base its land use regulations on a comprehensive plan. However, the law allows two versions of a comprehensive plan: statutory and common law.  (See Zoning and the Comprehensive Plan for a discussion of the distinction between the two approaches.)

The statutory approach calls for the adoption of a defined comprehensive plan on which zoning is based; the common law approach accepts the existing regulations and their history as the comprehensive plan. The latter approach allows the City to treat the zoning resolution as its comprehensive plan.

Using the Zoning Resolution as a comprehensive plan is, therefore, legally permissible but fundamentally wrong. Why?

First, zoning is but one tool in a regulatory regime intended to implement a common vision for our urban environment. Other tools include the City Map, the building code, the State Multiple Dwelling Law, street design standards, park design standards, landmark designations, development incentives such as J51 and 421a, inclusionary housing programs, industrial retention programs, measures to deal with residential displacement, the capital budget, and more.

Second, the Zoning Resolution addresses only a portion of our urban environment and is therefore not comprehensive. It deals only with land use and building density and form. It does not address matters outside of zoning, such as providing schools or parks or subways. A comprehensive plan would address much more than the Zoning Resolution does.  

What might a comprehensive plan for New York City look like?
In 1969, during the Lindsay administration, New York City’s Department of City Planning published Plan for New York City.

The plan was in six volumes: the first volume addressed the general vision for the city and the following five volumes spoke to what was happening in each of the five boroughs. The borough volumes had a chapter for each community district and additional chapters for special planning and urban design projects. The document was part vision and part inventory. (See CityLand for a discussion of the creation of the plan with former CPC chair Don Elliott.)

More recently the Bloomberg administration published PlaNYC and the de Blasio administration publishes OneNYC. Both offer a counterpart to the vision volume of the 1969 document without offering counterparts for the community chapters.

A comprehensive plan for New York City should include both a city-wide vision and community-centric plans. The city-wide vision rightly comes from the administration after consultation with all. The community-centric plans are provided for by section 197a of the City Charter, which encourages local groups, including community boards and borough presidents, to offer plans.

A comprehensive plan needs to comprise at least three dimensions:

One, it needs to address the full range of issues that concern a location.

Two, it needs to address the issues at the appropriate geographical levels – community, county, city, region.

And three, it needs to address the issues as they evolve over time.

(See Planning One Great City for All.)

For example?
Supertall residential towers, using gerrymandered zoning lots, mechanical voids, and stilts to increase their heights (see San Gimignano), have raised questions about the intention of our zoning regulations.

Currently one looks to the Zoning Resolution and reads that mechanical space does not count as zoning floor area. This suggests that a mechanical space in a building, no matter the height of the space, does not count as zoning floor area; which allows even tower-on-a-base buildings to loft the expensive apartments to extraordinary heights. However, if one reads the City Planning Commission reports on tower-on-a-base development or the Special Lincoln Square District one sees that the buildings were intended to be no more than approximately 33 floors and approximately 330 feet tall.

If one were to treat these City Planning Commission reports, rather than the text of the Zoning Resolution, as the comprehensive plan there would be a basis to disapprove a building under tower-on-a-base or Special Lincoln Square District rules taller than approximately 330 feet.

Therefore, a well-considered comprehensive plan would be a better basis than the text of an actual regulation to understand what the regulation was intended to accomplish.

Is a comprehensive plan too difficult for New York City?
Maybe.  

The 1969 Plan for New York City was not submitted to the Board of Estimate or City Council for approval and neither PlaNYC nor OneNYC were submitted to the City Council for approval, as required by the statutory approach to establishing a comprehensive plan.

One anticipates that preparing and adopting such a plan would be contentious and procedurally difficult. However, one hopes that the process would be constructive for all involved, fostering democratic deliberation and giving citizens, municipal employees, and elected officials experience with better governance. One also hopes that achieving a shared vision for the future of our city would facilitate the implementation of the plan and expedite the review of projects consistent with it.

Should New York City’s Charter be amended to require a real comprehensive plan?
Yes.  

The 2019 Charter Revision Commission should recommend to voters this November that the City Charter be amended to create and maintain a living comprehensive plan. This should include provisions that:

The city-wide parts of the plan be prepared by the mayoral administration in consultation with all interested parties and that the community-centric parts of the plan be prepared jointly by the applicable community board, borough president, and the city administration.

The plan should be revised frequently to keep it current with evolving conditions and goals.

Zoning and other regulations be amended to be consistent with the plan.

Agency actions be consistent with the plan.

Actions that are consistent with the plan qualify for expedited approval including abbreviated land use review (ULURP) and community/environmental impact (CEQR).

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John P. West III has 49 years of professional experience in urban design, city planning, and real estate development, mostly in New York City, and is head of the City Club's Urban Design Committee, a consultant to BFJ Planning, and a member of the MAS Planning Committee and the AIANY Urban Design and Planning Committee, among other roles. In the past, he was on the Zoning Committee of REBNY, chair of the Development Committee of the Long Island City Development Corporation, now the LIC Partnership, and a member of Manhattan Community Board Six for 40 years, among other roles.

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Take Down Cuomo’s Creeping Cameras


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


For nearly a year, activists have raised alarm-bells about how New York is creating the digital equivalent of widespread “stop & frisk” -- expansive new surveillance systems. One of the latest missteps comes from Governor Andrew Cuomo, who last July launched an MTA facial recognition program to scan drivers as they cross bridges and tunnels. For months, simply commuting to work may have involved a criminal background check for countless New Yorkers.

New reports show that the program might not just have been invasive, but also ineffective. So far, the pricey pilot project hasn’t matched a single driver’s face, according to the Wall Street Journal. But that may actually be good news. When the program launched, the governor was quick to tout its benefits, but reluctant to share some of the most basic information – where are the photos stored, who has access, how do we prevent abuse? Even without a response, we have a pretty good guess at the answer; the truth is that we’ve been down this road before.

For years, the NYPD has maintained automated license plate readers across New York City’s bridges and tunnels -- hi-tech cameras that capture dozens of plates every minute. The photos are run through optical character recognition software like what is found on many home and office scanners, creating a digital database entry for each car. There is nothing inherently wrong with license-plate readers, but the question is the same as for Cuomo’s cameras: who has the data?

In 2015, we found out the answer for license plate readers, and it came as a shock. Under a contract with Vigilant Solutions, a shadowy private corporation, police departments all across the country would have access to the information from New York’s readers. A lot of security hawks said it was no big deal at the time; that it was even a good thing to share New Yorkers’ private data more widely. But in January of last year came the wake-up call: ICE (federal immigration and customs enforcement) signed a contract with Vigilant Solutions and would get the license plate data too.

That’s right, for more than a year, NYPD data has potentially been used for immigration enforcement under the Trump regime, making a lie of the promise of a “sanctuary city.” What was the political response: nothing. Now, the situation could easily get worse.

License plate readers track just one thing: the car. But Cuomo’s cameras have the potential to track everyone in the vehicle, even children. This combination can multiply the risks to immigrant New Yorkers. Under this policy, simply sitting in the passenger seat may be enough to reveal someone’s location to ICE. And that’s just the danger when these expensive boondoggles work as designed. All too often, they get it completely wrong.

Reading license plates is child’s play compared to facial recognition. A license plate is designed to be read from far away; a short string of letters and numbers in high-contrast paint. You couldn’t have an easier target, and yet the software still makes mistakes. We’ve seen it with our home and office scanners, like the “1” that becomes an “L” or spaces that disappear.

When scanner errors happen at home or the office, it’s frustrating. When it happens with license plate readers, it means being stopped by the police, or worse. People have had guns pointed at them, had their door broken-down, and more, just because of faulty license plate readers.

If these systems have problems recognizing plates, how are they going to recognize faces? A license plate never cuts its hair or grows a beard. It never puts on makeup or a disguise. Given all the ways that appearances change, Cuomo’s cameras will inevitably get it wrong, and it will have tragic consequences for some. Sadly, for immigrant families, some will also face tragic consequences when the cameras get it right.

Until Governor Cuomo implements the privacy safeguards needed to keep New Yorkers safe, facial recognition surveillance has no place in our state.

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Albert Fox Cahn is the executive director of The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a New York–based civil rights and police accountability organization. On Twitter @cahnlawny.

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The Devilish Details of Albany’s MTA Budget Package


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(photo: governor's office)


My organization, Reinvent Albany, applauds Governor Cuomo and the legislature for passing congestion pricing in the state budget. Yet we are concerned about it being undermined by boundless exemptions for politically powerful interest groups, and a proliferation of other new structures and requirements for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) that passed along with the tolling program.

Paradoxically, the MTA legislative “reform” package also included a deal for the Legislature to approve new CEO/Chair Pat Foye without the extensive confirmation hearings and scrutiny expected for the head of the MTA—a behemoth that is the biggest unit of state government, with a $17 billion operating budget and 75,000 staff.

We believe the net effect of the changes made to the MTA further confuse decision-making and aggravate the lack of public accountability.

We will be living with the details of the “MTA Reform and Traffic Mobility Act” for years, so it is worth taking a detailed look. Below is a summary of the various provisions and our brief analysis. (Those interested in reading the 30+ pages of law that makes up the package can read Part ZZZ -- yes, ZZZ -- of the state budget's Revenue Bill).

1. Congestion Pricing
Congestion pricing is officially known in law as the “Central Business District Tolling Program.” The program will be designed and implemented by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (known as MTA Bridges and Tunnels or informally as B&T), with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) laying out the details of how B&T will coordinate with the New York City Department of Transportation to get the program up and running. The law also gives B&T enforcement officers the power to issue notices of violations for transit infractions around B&T facilities, including the new tolling infrastructure.

The Central Business District is defined as 60th Street and south in Manhattan, but for FDR Drive, the West Side Highway, and the underpass to the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel (formerly the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel).

Tolls will be charged to vehicles entering the Central Business District by the B&T, with the amount of the tolls to be determined and approved by a majority of the MTA Board, as well as any exemptions. This will be informed by a new Traffic Mobility Review Board (TMRB). The CEO/Chair gets an additional vote if there is a tie.

The TMRB is to be appointed by the MTA Board. The TMRB’s plans must ensure that the recommendation would at a minimum raise $15 billion for the 2020-2024 capital plan, including costs of operating the program. The TMRB also is given the authority to “review” MTA capital plans, though what this will entail is unclear. It will have six members total, including a chair, with one member recommended by the Mayor of New York City, one member residing in the Metro North Railroad (MNR) region, and one residing in the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) region.

Some exemptions to the toll are listed in the law, such as for emergency vehicles and  “qualifying vehicles transporting a person with disabilities.” The TMRB will make additional recommendations for credits, discounts, or exemptions. This will include consideration of credits or discounts for the current fee imposed on for-hire vehicles that was passed as part of last year’s state budget. A separate tax credit was created for residents in the congestion pricing zone earning less than $60,000 annually, provided they aren’t using their vehicle for business purposes.

Revenue from the tolls will go into a “central business district tolling capital lockbox.” Funds are to only be used for the costs of implementing the program and for the MTA’s 2020-2024 capital plan. Funds will be split 80-10-10: 80% of funds are to be for capital costs for New York City Transit (NYCT), with priority to the subways, accessibility, buses, and expanding transit in outer boroughs; and 10% of funds for both LIRR and MNR, with priority given to parking, rolling stock, capacity enhancement, accessibility and expanding transit in areas with limited transit.

Annual reports are due from B&T to state and city government officials as well as the public on receipts and expenditures, to be posted on the MTA website. Another report is due from B&T due on success of program in terms of traffic congestion, air quality, transit ridership, and bus speeds after one year, and then every two years. NYC DOT is to conduct a separate study on parking around the central business district 18 months after congestion tolls go into effect.

The TMRB will make its recommendation to the MTA Board on exemptions no earlier than November 15, 2020, or no later than 30 days before a tolling program is initiated. The program will be in operation no earlier than Dec 31, 2020. There will be a 30-day testing period where no tolls are collected, and then another 60 days where only tolls are collected, but not other charges and fines.

2. MTA Reorganization
The budget requires the MTA to develop a reorganization plan by June 30, 2019. This will be informed by a separate “independent forensic audit.” The plan will require approval of the MTA Board by majority vote; Chair gets 2 votes in event of tie. The reorganization cannot result in dissolution or merger of the authority and its subsidiaries. The legislation also allows the MTA and its subsidiaries and affiliates to share employees within and between entities, provided the employee will be doing a similar function. The law states that employee sharing will not impede or infringe upon collective bargaining agreements currently in place.

3. Design-Build
The budget adds to the mission and purpose of the MTA, stating that design-build is to be used in all projects over $25 million; however, it allows for a waiver from this streamlined bidding-design-construction requirement to be issued by the Director of the New York State Division of the Budget (currently Robert Mujica), who is appointed by the Governor.

4. MTA Board Appointments
The budget makes the terms of appointees to the MTA Board coterminous with their appointers. It also limits the amount of time that MTA Board members can serve in “holdover” status to 60 days (several MTA Board members were ousted as a result of this change, with new nominations made by the Governor during the budget weekend). The law also puts in place a process for an acting CEO/Chair to be in place not more than six months unless the Senate has not acted on a nomination from the Governor to fill the position. Any candidate filling the vacancy requires advice and consent of the Senate, as for regular appointments.

5. Independent Forensic Audit and “Reviews” of Waste, Fraud and Abuse
A provision retained from the Senate’s one-house bill requires the MTA to hire a certified public accounting firm to conduct an “independent forensic audit” that will review the MTA capital program, among other items. The firm cannot have done business with MTA in the last five years, or employ a former MTA employee who moved over in the past three years. The forensic audit is to be completed by January 1, 2020, and will be posted on the MTA website 30 days after submission to the MTA Board.

It also requires the MTA to hire a financial advisory firm with a national practice to review waste, fraud, abuse, and conflicts of interest; duplication of functions; cost efficiencies; the 2015-2019 capital plan; the MTA’s performance metrics; and cash flow and accounting of expenditures. The firm will submit its “reviews” by July 31, 2019 to the MTA Board, which will be posted on the MTA’s website.

6. Major Construction Review Unit
The MTA is now required to create a Construction Review Unit within the authority, which will consist of a panel of “internal and external experts” appointed by the MTA Board. It will review all “large scale projects” (this is not defined). It is given specific authority to review plans involving signal upgrades, including Communications Based Train Control (CBTC), the current industry standard, and ultra-wideband technology before they are implemented. Ultra-wideband is one component of CBTC, the radio technology for potential use as the “communications” part of CBTC. Its review of any project must be completed within 30 days of submission by MTA staff.

7. Capital Program Review Board
Members of the Capital Program Review Board, which is made up of four voting members, one each from the Governor, Senate and Assembly majorities, and New York City Mayor, are now required to provide a written explanation if a member rejects the MTA’s capital plan or any amendments the Board is considering. The written explanation must include specific areas of concerns and steps to address these concerns. The MTA may provide a response to the rejection, and after 10 days the disapproving member can withdraw the disapproval.

8. Debarment of Contractors
The budget authorizes the MTA to develop a debarment process for contractors to prevent bidding on future contracts for a five-year period. Any regulations developed must ensure notice and an opportunity to be heard. Debarment is to only be provided for situations involving: failure to substantially complete work within time frame of contract, or in a subsequent change order by more than 10% of the contract term; or where disputed work exceeds 10% of the contract cost and claimed costs are deemed invalid.

9. Fare Evasion Plan
The MTA is required to establish a plan to combat fare evasion, in consultation with the Governor, Mayor, and District Attorneys within New York City by June 30, 2019. The details of this consultation are not defined, and presumably will be dependent on the interest of the official identified as being participants.

10. East Side Access
The budget requires that the “L Train independent review team” (the Deans of Columbia and Cornell University who provided an alternate plan for the L Train shutdown), will evaluate the East Side Access project, and make recommendations to accelerate its completion. The project is currently at $11.3 billion in total costs, up from a projected $4.3 billion in 2006, where it was projected to be finished in 2009. It now expected that service will start running in December 2022.

11. Capital Plan Legislative Funds
The budget gives the Legislature a pot of funding that is set aside from the 2020-2024 capital plan for transportation improvements for the subways, buses and commuter railroads, subject to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). These types of agreements have been used in the past for other pots of funds, and are not required to be made public. They have not been voted on publicly by the members of the Legislature, so the public in the past has not known which members are requesting individual projects.

This MOU is to be entered into by the Senate Finance Committee Chair (currently Senator Liz Krueger), Assembly Ways and Means Chair (currently Helene Weinstein) and Director of the Budget (the Director of the Division of the Budget - currently Robert Mujica). The MOU is to be approved not more than 90 days after approval of the capital plan by the Capital Plan Review Board.  It should be noted that last year’s budget created a separate $50 million outerborough transit fund, to be used annually by the Legislature for individual projects.

12. Procurement
The budget legislation made a number of changes to procurement at the MTA, relating to both how it selects contractors and who reviews any contracts before they are executed. It extends until 2023 requirements regarding the selection of lowest possible bidder, where possible. It also raises the threshold for requiring use of lowest possible bidder to contracts of $1 million or more from $100,000, and raises the threshold for MTA Board approval of contracts not awarded to the lowest possible bidder or conducted under formal competitive process to $1 million or more.

Where the State Comptroller has existing pre-audit authority for NYCT and MTA contracts (the ability to review noncompetitive contracts over $1 million or those involving state funds, and not making them enforceable until approved), the Comptroller must provide a determination within 30 days receiving the contract from the MTA.

13. Performance Metrics
Another component remaining from the Senate’s one-house bill is a requirement for the MTA to use specific performance metrics, largely borrowed from Transport for London, which are defined in law, including:

-Additional platform time
-Additional train time
-Customer journey time and excess journey time
-Elevator and escalator availability
-Major incidents metrics
-Staff hours lost to accidents
-Terminal on time-performance

On-time performance is defined as arriving within two minutes of scheduled time. Note that two minutes for the subway is very different than for Metro North and Long Island Rail Road, which are required to use the same standard though the frequency and length in terms of mileage of service are very different.

The new law also requires the MTA to publish weekly performance reports for NYCT, LIRR, and MNR, as well as release of an annual report with international benchmarking on costs per mile for operating and maintenance, as well as staff and contractor hours for passenger journeys, and staff hours lost to accidents. Lastly, the law requires release of an annual implementation report for the Legislature and Governor by December 31 every year, which will be posted on the MTA website.

14. Twenty-Year Capital Needs Assessment
The last component remaining from the Senate’s one-house bill requires for the next capital plan (2025-2029) that the MTA submit to the Legislature a 20-year capital needs assessment before October 1, 2023, and every five years after for future plans. Its last 20-year capital needs assessment was released in 2013 prior to the finalization of the current 2015-2019 capital plan.

The 20-year needs assessment will include broad long-term capital investments to be made, and establish a non-binding basis for planning of strategic investments involving capital elements of five-year capital plans. The assessment does not require the MTA Board or CPRB approval, and is for information purposes only, though it is required to be certified by the MTA CEO/Chair and entered into the formal records of the minutes of the CPRB.

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Rachael Fauss is Senior Policy Analyst at Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @RachaelFauss & @ReinventAlbany.

 

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Federal Tax Reform is Shaking Up New York’s Finances But Flow of Bank Settlement Money is Bailing Out the State Budget


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(photo: governor's office)


The federal tax law overhaul enacted at the end of 2017 capped state and local income and property tax deductions on federal income tax returns at $10,000, damaging millions of New Yorkers’(and tens of millions of other Americans’) ability to itemize deductions on their federal tax returns. The change also resulted in sudden shifts in New Yorkers’ behavior toward their own New York tax payments. Over the past two budget cycles the changes have destabilized New York State’s tax revenue collection patterns and caused considerable uncertainty in the state’s budget and funding for the services New Yorkers rely upon.

A recent report by Moody’s Investors Service indicates the fears of Governor Cuomo and other New York leaders that the federal tax deductions cap will cause New Yorkers to flee the State may be exaggerated. But that report only reviewed New York outmigration patterns through 2017 -- this analysis focuses on immediate changes in New Yorkers’ behavior as New York taxpayers and how those changes have affected the past two budgets and the one just adopted. How many New Yorkers will leave the state remains unknown.

In December 2017, following Congress and Trump’s tax reform, the state government experienced a sudden spike in tax payments as New Yorkers chose to make tax payments in 2017 rather than 2018 so they could still deduct in excess of $10,000 in New York taxes from their federal returns, and avoid, at least briefly, the coming limits on deductions to the extent that they could.

According to a 2018 State Comptroller report, the State Division of the Budget estimated that $1.9 billion came into the New York treasury that represented an acceleration of 2018 tax payments into 2017 to take final advantage of full state and local tax (SALT) deductibility. As a result, New York’s tax revenue rose more than 6% in 2017-18 over 2016-17. But, of course, it was anticipated that these 2017 payments would affect 2018 payments and that tax collections would correspondingly fall in 2018. At the time of budget adoption in 2018, the state predicted tax revenue would fall 2% in 2018.

In December 2018 and January 2019, however, tax collections fell precipitously, resulting in a $3 billion drop below estimates made at the time of the April 2018 budget enactment, for a total drop of $ 4.4 billion, or 6.4% below the 2017-2018 budget, not 2%.

Many wealthier taxpayers, with large incomes from capital gains, pay significant portions of their New York State taxes in quarterly estimated payments, including a regular January quarterly payment, rather than in withholding taxes, which are usually related to wages and salaries. Before the federal tax overhaul, New York taxpayers had an incentive to make their January estimated payment in December to assure they could take their tax deductions for that year on their next federal return. But with itemization nearly wiped out, the incentive to make the estimated tax quarterly payment early disappeared. The loss of this incentive is believed to be the main factor in the dramatic revenue declines this past December and January.

The State Division of the Budget believes that some of the money might be recouped in estimated payments in the first quarter of this year following January, but since the state adopted its budget for the April 1 start of the fiscal year, there was no way to know yet how much of the money might be recouped. So the governor and the Legislature chose caution and limited spending increases this year.

New York is not going broke, and the economy and tax revenue are still anticipated to grow, but the shock from the billions in lower revenue informed a cautious approach. The 2018 stock market decline also affected New York’s tax revenue from capital gains. For the first time in many years the governor and the Legislature added to the rainy-day reserve funds rather than add a lot of new spending.

Shoring up the state’s financial situation has been an extraordinarily fortunate additional development over the past few years. Litigation against the financial industry for wrongdoing that occurred during the Great Recession has resulted in many banks and financial companies agreeing to settle lawsuits for fraud and other problems with New York State for almost $12 billion(!) since 2015. New York spent much of the first of these settlement dollars on economic development to help the stagnant economy in Upstate New York , but in 2017 and 2018 $2 billion more has come in from new financial settlements, and the state has simply used the money to bail out the state budget and fund the MTA.

In the 2018 fiscal year the state put $461 million from over $800 million in new settlement funds that year into the state budget, and set aside $155 million to cover future labor contract increases. In the adopted fiscal year 2019 budget (for the fiscal year beginning April 1, 2018), the state put another $383 million from financial settlement into the budget, and took $194 million of additional settlement funds to help pay for the one-time 2018 cost of the MTA Subway Action Plan (2019 and beyond was covered from a tax).

But as 2018 progressed, an extra $1.2 billion more in financial settlement funds came into the state treasury that had not been booked by the state in the April budget adoption! In the budget just adopted a week ago, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature took $336 million of the new money to cover the early 2019 winter shortfalls related to apparent taxpayer behavior changes, and have set aside more than $600 million from the financial settlement funds in reserves to reduce future risks in the case of economic downturn, federal cutbacks, or other problems.

The combination of rainy-day funds and financial settlement reserves now totals $5 billion for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, which began April 1 and has a total state budget of $175.5 billion.

In an important revenue action, the state again renewed the higher rate for taxpayers with incomes over $2.2 million at 8.82%, yielding $770 million this year and an extra $4 billion next year, for five full years.

School aid was increased 3.7% (New York City got 3.4% more). The Legislature restored $550 million for the Medicaid program that the governor tried to cut after the shortfalls appeared.

The minimum wage increase that took place on December 31 to $15 per hour for New York City necessitated $700 million in additional Medicaid spending to cover the cost of raising the pay of workers in hospitals, nursing homes, and home care agencies who made less than $15 an hour in the city, as well as somewhat lower raises outside the city.

The state anticipates tax revenue will recover from the decline this past December and January, although overall it will be lower than had been hoped last year.

The challenges to fund the MTA will continue, since the tax and fee increases to assure $25 billion for its 2020-24 Capital Plan don’t approach the $40 billion estimated to be needed for that plan or the $7 billion for the current 2-15-2019 plan that remains unfunded. But don’t expect more tax increases for the MTA in an election year in 2020.

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

 

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How to Make New York’s New Criminal Justice Reforms Really Work


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Change swept through Albany as lawmakers passed a suite of reforms aimed at reducing the harms inflicted by the criminal justice system. These changes, which include significant limitations on the use of bail and incarceration, will go a long way towards making our justice system less biased and more responsive to the needs of low-income New Yorkers and, in particular, people of color.

The next challenge that confronts us is how to move beyond simply avoiding harms and toward the creation of a positive vision of what justice should look like. If confinement can have lasting traumatic effects, and criminal records can create lifelong direct and collateral consequences, how should our law enforcement and justice system respond when people break the law? When someone commits a crime, what is the fair result? What makes a just outcome?

The answer to these questions depends upon the crime, of course. But we know that the standard response doesn’t work for victims, communities, or, most certainly, defendants. That’s why it is important to build new responses to the full range of offenses, from minor misbehavior to serious wrongdoing. And that’s exactly what New York City is doing. Three examples:

With the lowest-level crimes, we should try to divert as many people as possible out of the criminal justice system, minimizing the damage that a criminal record or jail can wreak on individuals, their families, and entire communities. But divert them to what?

Prosecutors in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, and the NYPD have an answer with Project Reset. People charged with low-level misdemeanors, such as shoplifting, can participate in a restorative justice group, arts-based workshop, or counseling session. If the participant completes the obligation -- and 98% do -- the district attorney declines to prosecute the case, the case is sealed, and the person never even has to show up to court.

Participants, who overwhelmingly describe the outcomes as fair, are less likely to reoffend when compared with a control group. The net effect is to create a proportionate, meaningful response to minor offending. By increasing the use of tickets instead of holding people in custody after arrest, the new state law opens the door even wider to Project Reset’s measured response to minor offending.

Supervised release -- an alternative to cash bail -- is another way that the justice system has calibrated its response to offending while minimizing negative effects. People held on bail make up a large portion of the Rikers Island population. They also are more likely to accept a conviction as part of a guilty plea than someone released to the public. Supervised release has enabled judges to safely release thousands of defendants to supervision monitored by non-profits, instead of holding them on bail.

Again, the system is finding a way to address a criminal event constructively, without defaulting to confinement, and in the process reducing the likelihood of a criminal record and the lifelong stigma that can follow. Now that New York’s new criminal justice laws will reduce reliance on money bail, supervised release may become an even more important bridge for closing the gap between release and detention when it comes to higher-risk individuals.

Finally, 18- to 24-year-olds make up roughly 25% of the criminal justice population. As we now know from brain science, the prefrontal cortex -- the part of the brain that governs executive function and impulse control -- may not be fully formed until a person’s mid-twenties, meaning that some adolescents and young adults are physiologically more likely to commit crime. While many of these individuals will literally age out of offending as their brains mature, if the system responds with confinement and conviction, their youthful crimes may make it harder for them to complete education, find jobs, and secure housing. So, how should the system respond?

The Brooklyn DA’s office has worked with the court system and defense advocates to provide 18- to 24-year-olds with community-based social services like mental health counseling and job training, instead of traditional punitive responses. Brooklyn’s young adult court, one of the city’s busiest courtrooms, has significantly reduced jail sentences and criminal convictions. And surveyed participants have overwhelmingly described the results as fair. Again, the system is responding with meaningful and constructive outcomes.

Project Reset, supervised release, and Brooklyn’s young adult court are just three of many new efforts to reduce the justice system’s dependence on confinement and redress historic inequities based on race and socioeconomic status, while ensuring public safety. In essence, New York City has begun to eliminate the unacceptable and, at the same time, lay the foundation for a justice system that responds to criminal behavior proportionately, meaningfully, and appropriately, with just outcomes. Albany’s new legislative reforms should enable the city to build on its current progress and further advance a new vision of criminal justice for New York. 

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Adam Mansky is Director, Criminal Justice, at the Center for Court Innovation. On Twitter @urbansdad & @courtinnovation.

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Industry City and the Police Power of Zoning


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Council Member Menchaca and constituents (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


In the past week, the New York Post and New York Daily News published editorials criticizing New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca’s March 6 request to delay the certification of a consortium of major real estate investors and developers’ application for a special permit to build two hotels and rezone Industry City for retail, office, and academic uses. The accusatory language in both newspaper editorials exhibits a deep contempt for the necessary public review of private development proposals.

This massive rezoning would greatly increase the density of commercial uses and allow three new buildings with 1.27 million square feet of market-rate, destination retail, hotel, and academic office space, and more importantly, will fundamentally and irrevocably alter the industrial working waterfront.

Menchaca and Community Board 7 requested more time for community review because “ULURP has historically failed to address the most urgent concerns voiced by the Sunset Park community.” A spokesperson was quoted in the RealDeal that Industry City “intend(s) to make our case” through the ULURP process but ultimately agreed to a postponement after Congressional Representatives Nydia Velázquez and Jerry Nadler, and State Senator Zellnor Myrie intervened with a letter to City Planning Director and Chair Marisa Lago.

The Post described Menchaca’s request as “holding Industry City hostage” in order to “blackmail” the developers for a “payoff to the activists.” The Daily News demanded that City Council members cease their “corrupting power on land-use matters” by pointing to Amazon’s February announcement of the withdrawal of a plan to build a massive campus in Queens. In concert with the Post, the Daily News similarly admonished Menchaca’s “meddling” and “extortion,” and demanded that he “must relent” and “the Council must end this craziness.”

I teach an introductory urban planning class and we spend weeks on the complicated topic of zoning. One of the first things we learn is that the legitimacy of zoning is based on the legal concept of municipal police power which refers to the right of the community to regulate the activities of private parties to protect the interests of the public. Menchaca requested a postponement in the certification of Industry City’s rezoning application in order to provide more time for a full vetting of public interests and concerns. This is not an unreasonable request especially as Menchaca’s letter notes displacement and gentrification concerns, and specifically requests Industry City to explain “how its rezoning proposal will mitigate displacement, gentrification, rising rents, congestion, and the effects of climate change.”

Despite indisputable evidence of Sunset Park gentrification including a NYU Furman Center study, the Post editorial repeated Industry City’s delusional claim that since its rezoning does not involve residential development, “it’s irrelevant to gentrification.” Industry City CEO Andrew Kimball’s letter stated that in order to have “modern manufacturing and making at Industry City,” the Special Sunset Park Innovation District rezoning must include “a mixture of uses that allow for a higher return.” And as page 6 of the Draft Scope of Work makes clear, Industry City needs the rezoning for “upscale” hotels, expanded destination retail, and new academic uses because without these city actions, it will not be able to raise $638 million in capital investment. Although Kimball argues that Industry City provides an antidote to gentrification through job creation, he has yet to specify the numbers, types, and wages of “high-quality” innovation district jobs that would be available to Sunset Park’s working age adults (of whom nearly one in two lack a high school diploma).

Industry City’s rezoning is essential to “generating the economic returns necessary to finance additional capital investment in the portfolio” in order to enhance and maximize property value and rent revenues (i.e., high-rent tenants).

As currently proposed, this rezoning will diminish one of New York City’s last remaining industrial waterfront neighborhoods, and as UPROSE Executive Director Elizabeth Yeampierre notes, it also represents a lost opportunity for a frontline community to advance innovation, inclusion, and resilience in the face of climate change. For these reasons and the right of Sunset Park’s Latinx-Asian working class to remain in the neighborhood, we must end the craziness of zoning in the service of the private market and enrichment of real estate developers rather than its intended purpose to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

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Tarry Hum is a professor at The City University of New York (CUNY) and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood. On Twitter @TarryHum.

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The Power to Prevent New Infections is In Our Hands


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Brooklyn BP Eric Adams, the author (photo: Erica Sherman/Brooklyn BP's Office)


The world of medicine has advanced significantly in the battle against many chronic diseases, including the discovery of the polio vaccine and reversing the effects of diabetes and heart disease. However, one battle continues to be fought in research labs and on the ground in communities across America and around the world — the fight to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

While New York State has been a fearless leader on a national level in the effort to end this disease, Brooklyn remains the epicenter of a persistent health crisis. To tackle this head-on, the State set an ambitious goal of ending the epidemic by 2020. Thanks to the diligent work of advocates, community-based organizations, and health care providers, the target is within reach.

Yet statistics reveal a disturbing trend that must be addressed to complete the mission. Data from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) reveals that 2017 HIV diagnoses were down to a record low of 2,157 citywide. Though this progress is encouraging, the rate of reduction is slowing, from an 8.6% decline in new diagnoses in 2016 to 5.4% in 2017. Brooklyn bears a disproportionate burden of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with more than 30,000 of our neighbors living with HIV.

In 2017, our borough experienced 640 new HIV diagnoses, representing a 10.15% increase in new diagnoses from the previous year — making Brooklyn the only borough with an increase. Most alarmingly, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights are the hardest-hit neighborhoods citywide, accounting for a quarter of new diagnoses in our borough.

Today -- Wednesday, April 10 -- we recognize National Youth HIV and AIDS Awareness Day. I continue to be concerned that each year since 2013 Brooklyn has more HIV diagnoses among youth aged 13-29 than any other borough. We owe it to our community’s young people to allow them to live in a world without AIDS.  

We cannot let the promise of an end to HIV miss the mark by neglecting our most susceptible communities that have already been neglected through generational poverty, institutional racism, and unequal access to quality health care. We have tools at our disposal to end this epidemic, particularly by expanding Medicaid Special Needs Health Plans (SNPs), which are designed to address the needs of individuals living with or at higher risk for HIV. These specialized health plans help members access treatment so that the virus becomes suppressed or “undetectable,” meaning they are unable to transmit HIV to others.

The more people we help achieve undetectable status, the closer we are to a society without HIV and AIDS. SNPs also have the expertise to connect HIV-negative individuals with effective prevention methods such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) so they can remain negative, saving $1 billion in state Medicaid costs for every 2,000 new infections.

The sectors of the population most at risk for contracting the virus are certainly those who will benefit most from an expansion of this crucial program. The State’s “Blueprint to End the HIV/AIDS Epidemic by 2020” lists include men who have sex with men (MSM), people of transgender experience, women of color, HIV-negative partners in couples in which one person is HIV negative and the other is HIV positive, and people who are intravenous drug users as populations at higher risk for HIV.

To reduce the rate of HIV in Brooklyn and reach the 2020 eradication target, we must reach these vulnerable populations and ensure they receive the culturally competent services needed to remain HIV negative. At present, of the populations identified by the State as being at higher risk, only HIV-negative transgender individuals are currently eligible to enroll in SNPs. To reach the end of this epidemic, this must change. 

Consider the clear scientific evidence that PrEP is more than 90 percent effective in preventing HIV transmission, yet the largest portion of New York State Medicaid recipients taking PrEP – 37% – are white gay and bisexual men despite black and Latino gay and bisexual men being hardest hit by the epidemic. We need to expand SNP eligibility and outreach to communities of color in the hardest-hit parts of our city to connect them to the services they need to get tested, treated, and enrolled.

We have the tools at our disposal to revolutionize the way we combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The power to prevent new infections is in our hands.

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Eric L. Adams is the Brooklyn borough president. On Twitter @BPEricAdams.

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Students for School Safety: Solutions Not Suspensions, Counselors Not Cops


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(photo: Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)


Recently, many news outlets have sensationalized the declining use of suspensions in New York City, framing young people negatively and attempting to discredit the progress that has been made. These stories discount the needs of students most impacted by punitive discipline, who have been very clear about the urgency around redefining what school safety really means.

And while suspensions are down across the city, too many schools still use ineffective tactics, choosing to exclude students rather than seeking to better understand them. Relying on tactics like suspensions, or even metal detectors, handcuffs, surveillance cameras, installing gates on windows, and hiring more school safety and police officers only fosters feelings of turmoil.

As two students currently enrolled in Brooklyn high schools, we understand the circumstances and we understand the impact of suspensions and policing on young people. We must end the school to prison pipeline for the sake of ensuring a better future for the next generation of children.

On March 20, we testified before the New York City Council to draw attention to both the financial and social cost of criminalizing young people in school. Last year the city adopted a budget that was going to spend $373 million on the School Safety Division of the NYPD. The mayor’s new preliminary budget shows a $30 million increase in that funding, now expected to reach $403 million. This would be the most that the city has ever spent on school policing. This isn’t a step in the right direction. This is a crisis.

The city needs to redirect funds toward positive and healing alternatives that work, such as more guidance counselors, clinical social workers, school psychologists, and access to restorative justice that all can boost the morale of students across campuses and increase the academic engagement of students to help them graduate.

The Department of Education recently released its 2019 data report on the number of guidance counselors and social workers in all New York City schools. According to that report, across 913 school sites covering grades 6 through 12, there are 449 schools listed that do not have a single social worker, and 40 school sites that do not have a single guidance counselor. Schools are too ready to push towards more desperate, punishing measures when it would be more positive and transformative in the long run to invest in what helps students feel whole.

Funneling public money towards ensuring students are policed in schools is not safety. Ensuring a future where people respond to problems with criminalization is not the answer.

We’ve both been to Albany to advocate for the Safe and Supportive Schools Bill that would encourage schools across all of New York State to shift away from punitive practices. We are both committed to helping build the schools people need to thrive. Supportive, respectful schools where students are treated with dignity is what will bring us safety.

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Gary Edwards is a high school senior and Khushayah Morris is a high school sophomore. Both students are education justice advocates with the Children’s Defense Fund - New York, and members of the Dignity in Schools Campaign of New York.

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Keeping the Lights On Off-Broadway: How the City Must Step Up


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(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


Seeing an Off-Broadway play may have saved my life. Joseph Papp gave me my first acting job in 1985, in Shakespeare in the Park, and offered the cast free tickets to Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” running at The Public, which showed the devastation AIDS wrought on a community forsaken by governments and the press, and its fight to save itself. Seeing the play as a 22-year-old gay man, it scared me into celibacy for a few years, until safer sex guidelines were ingrained in our culture.

Off-Broadway, more than any other facet of New York’s cultural scene, shines a light on underserved communities.

It puts the city’s rich demographics on stage. Jose Llana, who played Ferdinand Marcos in David Byrne’s musical “Here Lies Love” at The Public, said, ”I’ve learned that, as an actor of color, the most daring work, where people tend to hire people who look like me, is Off-Broadway.” Off-Broadway is also an economic engine for the city. Recent Tony-winning musicals like “The Band’s Visit,” “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” and “Fun Home,” all originated or transferred from Off-Broadway, and those hits helped Broadway generate huge revenues, with almost $2 billion in ticket sales last year and contributing many billions more to the city’s economy each year. In the 2007-08 season—the last year a study was done, though another is expected soon —Off-Broadway itself enriched the local economy by almost half a billion dollars. But that success isn’t reflected in Off-Broadway wages.

Ironically, as Off-Broadway theaters become more inclusive in the stories they present and the artists they use to tell them, those from underserved communities are shut out from careers in the arts. Low wages hit early-career artists from working class and working poor backgrounds the hardest, barring entry for those who are disproportionately from communities of color and rural communities. A life in the theater is really available only to those who can afford it. Almost every Off-Broadway artist can tell a story of chronic economic distress: Nick Westrate was a recent Juilliard graduate when he enjoyed a continuous year of employment Off-Broadway, earning a special Drama Desk Award for his work in four different plays; three days before the ceremony, attended in a borrowed suit, he declared bankruptcy.

After two years of working exclusively Off-Broadway, two-time Tony-nominee Johanna Day lost her apartment of 14 years because she couldn’t afford it; she then painted houses in Virginia to supplement the income for her next Off-Broadway play, and still ended up losing money.

Obie-winner François Battiste, after working full-time at Lincoln Center while keeping his day job caring for homeless youth at Covenant House, and with a second child on the way, departed for more affordable Sacramento.

200 of these stories were the force behind our Fair Wage OnStage campaign in 2016, during negotiations between Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union of theatrical stage managers and actors, and the League of Off-Broadway Theaters and Producers. Our group of activists organized over 1,700 Equity members and agitated for higher wages with grassroots actions, taking to social media to tell of the hardships brought by substandard wages. Without resorting to a strike, Equity won wage gains of 14% to 81% over the five-year life of the contract.

While proud of this success, we have further to go. In a 2016 Equity survey, Off-Broadway workers reported needing $815 net per week on average, or $1129 before taxes, just to pay their basic expenses.

Only one non-Broadway, non-profit space in the five boroughs, The Public’s Newman Theater, pays actors just over $1,100 per week. Twenty-six theaters pay actors anywhere from $650 to $950 per week. Over 30 fall below $650 per week, with many paying little more than minimum wage. Trump’s tax cuts make things even worse, eliminating protections for performing artists built into the old tax code. Actors incur many unreimbursed employee expenses. The new law eliminates itemization, and expenses often go well past the new, higher standard deduction, as much as quadrupling our tax burdens, according to Sandra Karas, Equity’s treasurer and a tax lawyer who’s prepared thousands of performers’ returns. New York City can help. New York City gives more money to cultural institutions and programs than any city in the country: last year’s Department of Cultural Affairs budget was $143.8 million, outpacing the arts funding of San Francisco, our nearest rival, by over $60 million. But 70% of the city Department of Cultural Affairs budget is reserved for 31 institutions in the Cultural Institutions Group, leaving over 1,000 other organizations to clamor for the rest. These august giants soak up most of the funds, so that very little reaches the people who make up the floor of our cultural ecosystem, the artists and the small companies that nurture them. We believe New York City can do better.

We propose the Fair Wage OnStage Fund, a concentrated allocation of money within the Department of Cultural Affairs budget, to subsidize professional stage managers and actors while they are employed in New York’s non-Broadway, nonprofit theaters, making up the difference between established union minimums and what we actually need to survive. Nonprofit theaters within the five boroughs using contracted Equity workers at minimums that fall below the necessary weekly gross salary—$1,129 per week, adjusted annually for inflation—would be eligible for the fund. Theaters would be responsible for raising the money to pay established minimum salaries and benefits, and could only use the fund to pay the difference between what the artists get and what they need. As an annual allocation, the FWOS Fund would have a built-in, yearly sunset provision, so it won’t interfere with union negotiations.

By our rough estimate, just over 1,500 contracted, Equity stage managers and actors worked in non-Broadway nonprofits in the five boroughs during the previous theatrical season, grossing an average of $646 per week. To fill the gap between this and the necessary wage, the FWOS Fund would subsidize these workers with, on average, around $483 per week. A nonprofit theater contract is usually nine weeks long. The fund would pay, on average, $4,347 per contract. For 1,500 contracts over a season, the fund would disburse roughly $6.52 million, less than a hundredth of a percent of New York City’s $90-plus billion budget.

New York can afford the Fair Wage OnStage Fund.

Unlike Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Houston, San Francisco, Long Beach, and the State of Minnesota, New York City has no revenue stream dedicated specifically to the arts. If the city seeks an untapped source, a tax of a fraction of a dollar on a Broadway ticket—with 13.79 million tickets sold last season—would pay for the fund and then some. Or, since the city’s lack of affordability affects so many of us, a proposed tax on unoccupied luxury apartments, which inflate housing prices all over the city, would be a just source of revenue to support the city’s artists.

Like other Department of Cultural Affairs initiatives regarding cultural institutions—studying the demographic makeup of staff; free admissions for public school students and for undocumented immigrants with city ID cards—the FWOS Fund would encourage cultural equity. In a city whose enormous wealth drives artistic workers further to the margins (or out of the city completely), where the rising cost of living keeps many from even getting in the door, the FWOS Fund would act as a stimulus package for the artistic workers who help generate wealth, but see little in return. As City Comptroller Scott Stringer put it in his report “Culture Shock: The Importance of National Arts Funding to New York City’s Cultural Landscape,” “A robust and healthy cultural sector supports a robust and healthy democracy and economy.” The FWOS Fund will cultivate a more robust, healthier Off-Broadway, helping New York retain its artists and attain its rightful status as an example for the rest of the nation in properly valuing its artistic workers and creating equal opportunity for all.

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Robert Stanton for Fair Wage OnStage. On Twitter @FairWageOnStage.

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It’s Time to Get Big Money Out of the Climate Change Fight


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(photo: John McCarten/NY City Council)


The window for meaningful action on climate change is narrowing. Every year, as more climate impacts become “locked-in,” changes we have to make to save the planet become even harder to implement. Right now, fossil fuel industry campaign contributions to politicians are holding back the solutions we need.  

If we want to pass climate policies that could actually help reverse the climate crisis, then we also need to fix our democratic system that gives too much power to wealthy donors and big polluters. In New York, a state where wealthy donors contribute an outsized proportion of funds to campaigns, we have the opportunity to build a public campaign financing system that can address this imbalance. These two crises are interconnected.

Nationally, the fossil fuel industry has tightened its stranglehold on American politics. In the 2018 election cycle alone, $89 million in campaign contributions came from the oil, gas, and coal industry with the vast majority going to Republicans. Contributions from the fossil fuels sector put a stop to ballot initiatives that would have created landmark state climate and energy legislation here in New York—and across the nation.

In the battle over fracked gas development in New York, oil, gas, and fracking support industries spent $10.7 million on contributions and $33.5 million on lobbying from 2007 to 2013, stalling several fracking restriction measures. While grassroots activists eventually succeeded in pushing Governor Cuomo to take executive action to ban fracking, this influx of pro-fracking cash signals potentially bigger battles ahead as the state considers a 100% renewable energy target.

In 2018 in Washington state, $31.5 million was pumped mostly from mostly out-of-state oil and gas industry into a campaign that ultimately defeated a carbon tax measure that would create revenue for renewable energy and vulnerable communities. And a proposition that would have set restrictions on gas fracking in Colorado was defeated after oil and gas spent over $26 million in the state.

That is why a growing chorus of environmental advocates is calling for public financing of elections — which expands the contributions of small donors through public matching programs. With a fair elections system, elected officials would be more responsive to the electorate, an overwhelming majority of which believes we need bold policies to address climate change.

One of our best hopes today is here in New York, where lawmakers are on the cusp of passing groundbreaking climate policy and the state budget has just included a commission mandated to develop a public financing system for the state.

Public financing of elections would fundamentally change how Albany works, and amplify the power of working people and people of color. In the long term, fair elections mean that our elected officials will be more engaged with constituents in their districts and responsive to public concerns and needs.

To implement an effective fair elections program, legislators and Governor Cuomo must appoint commissioners committed to expanding access to our democracy. A robust program would also include a 6-to-1 contribution match for low-dollar sums, lower contribution limits, and an independent agency to administer the program. In order to limit the influence of big donors who seek to block effective climate policy and other urgent reforms, the commission must act quickly and decisively. Kicking the can down the road is not an option.

Simultaneously we can pass the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) to put New York on a path to 100% renewable energy economy-wide. The CCPA is ground-up policy, with a coalition of over 160 groups from across the state backing the proposal. The bill puts in place requirements for energy investments to go to disadvantaged communities, and working groups that include community group representatives to oversee implementation of state energy plans. This means more people could be part of shaping an equitable energy transition for New York.

The impacts of climate change are not felt equally by all. We need to ensure a more inclusive political process to address everyone’s needs, especially those most vulnerable to climate impacts and pollution, and communities that have been historically excluded from political decision-making.

We have the technology we need to begin a rapid transition to a renewable energy economy. Our ability to implement climate solutions is, therefore, a political question. With the majority of New Yorkers in support of government action to curb climate change, a legislature that is more responsive to the electorate could usher the ambitious climate policies we need. Public financing and bold climate measures like the CCPA can reorient our politics to expand who is heard and who is at the table.

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Bill Lipton is the New York State Director of the Working Families Party. Adrien Salazar is a Campaign Strategist with Dēmos and one of the 2019 Grist 50 Fixers. On Twitter @BillLipton of @NYWFP & @adrien4ej of @Demos_Org.

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Invest in City Parks to Improve Our Public Spaces and Save the Environment


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(photo: @RiversideParkNY)


Parks are an essential part of any city’s infrastructure. Getting into nature at an urban park lowers stress, eases depression, and fosters happiness. Parks help build community - people get out and meet each other, kids play together, mothers talk, residents meet neighbors.

Parks are particularly invaluable in New York City, the nation’s most densely populated city. And we are fortunate to have so many parks to enjoy! More than 81% of New Yorkers are within walking distance of public green space. New Yorkers are visiting city parks in unprecedented numbers. The city’s parks get more than 100 million visitors a year.

More than just places to commune and recreate, these greenspaces are also one of the city’s most valuable environmental assets. They provide clean air, help mitigate climate change, connect residents with nature, and provide habitat for wildlife.

Parks are a major source of the city’s urban tree canopy. That canopy removes 1,300 tons of pollutants from the atmosphere and stores 1.2 million tons of carbon per year. Trees are vital for mitigating the urban heat island effect and can lower air temperatures by up to nine degrees, cut air conditioning use by 30%, and reduce heating energy use by a further 20-50% -- all of which help decrease climate-changing emissions.

The city’s parks and trees also contribute to our resiliency, capturing almost 2 billion gallons of stormwater runoff each year.

The New York City Parks Department manages 30,000 acres of land, about 14% of the city. Sadly, Parks receives less than 1% of the total city budget, leaving our greenspaces at risk.

This is shameful. While New York spends $178 per capita on its parks. Minneapolis spends $233, and Washington D.C. spends $270.

The average city park has not seen a major renovation for more than 20 years. According to a Center for an Urban Future report, there are cracks in virtually every retaining wall in city parks, deteriorating bridges, toilets that flush directly into waterways, drainage systems that can’t handle the runoff from even a gentle rainfall, and myriad other problems. Managers can’t do any kind of systematic planning and major infrastructure projects are often put on hold for years.

Inadequate funding for proper maintenance has also led to a rise of invasive species in parks. Just over a year ago, invasive beetles were found in Prospect Park that cut off the supply of water and essential nutrients to trees.

The great irony of all of this is that New York’s parks are iconic. Central Park and Prospect Park are routinely found on top parks lists.

That’s why NYLCV has joined the Play Fair coalition with New Yorkers for Parks, DC 37, and more than 100 other groups. Play Fair is a multi-year advocacy campaign for parks and this year, we are calling for increasing the Parks Department budget by $100 million for better maintenance.

This investment could ensure that the city’s natural forests will begin to receive the proactive care they need to remain healthy and resilient in our changing climate. Maintenance workers would have the resources they need to protect our trees from invasive species and maintain the trees we need to absorb carbon and air pollution.

It would go a long way towards fulfilling the goals of the 25-year Forest Management Framework for the restoration and conservation of the city’s hard-working natural forests, for which NYLCV has been advocating.

Investing in maintaining our parks will make New York City more sustainable, improve resiliency, and conserve nature. It’s time we Play Fair for our parks.

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Julie Tighe is President of the New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV), the only non-partisan, statewide environmental organization in New York that takes a pragmatic approach to fighting for clean water, healthy air, renewable energy, and open space. On Twitter @julietighe17 & @nylcv.

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