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Inside the Campaign Finance Filings of NYC's 'Big Four'


de blasio stringer james mark-viverito

The city's 'big four' (photo: @NYCCouncil)


Mid-way through 2015, the latest campaign finance filings are in and the raise and spend activity of New York City's top four elected officials can be analyzed through their principal campaign committees. Mayor Bill de Blasio, Public Advocate Letitia James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, all Democrats, maintain active committees during their current terms in office.

While it is presumed that de Blasio, James, and Stringer will each seek re-election to city-wide office, Mark-Viverito is term-limited out of the Council at the end of 2017 and her future plans are unclear. It is well-documented that Mark-Viverito continues to raise money, readying, perhaps, for a mayoral run somewhere down the line. Both James and Stringer continue to raise funds too, with the comptroller outpacing his colleagues.

Mayor de Blasio has not been fundraising for his re-election campaign, though the account shows quite a bit of spending - instead it appears that the mayor is directing donations toward either the non-profit that he is closely aligned with, Campaign for One New York, and the city's Mayor's Fund for New York City.

All four candidates are subject to New York City Campaign Finance Board rules when it comes to their official campaign accounts. Information about the CFB program and its rules may be found on the CFB website, but one key concept is the contribution limit - a specific donor (individual or institution) may commit to a single politician. Though the limit varies per office, for all four of these officials, that effective limit is $4,950 per donor. When a donor has given this amount, they have "maxed out."

All of the data and charts below include the accumulated filings of July, 2015, for activity from January 1, 2014 through the July filing cut-off date of July 15, 2015. De Blasio has raised no money into his principal campaign account during his time as mayor, and he spends from a "war chest." The other three officials - James, Stringer, and Mark-Viverito - have sought out funds during this term. Popularly elected to citywide positions and assumed mayoral aspirants, Public Advocate James and Comptroller Stringer are both raising money at a significant pace, though Stringer has raised more thus far:

Stringer James 1

While James and Stringer appear to push their own fundraising performance around the January and July filings, Mark-Viverito had her big month in April (it was reported that she held a birthday fundraiser on April 20):

MMV 1

In terms of where the money comes from, James has enjoyed city-wide political financial support since January 2014, but has relatively few links to the Bronx:

James contribs

Stringer is heavily reliant on the Upper East Side and his home-turf in the Upper West Side since January 2014:

stringer contribs

Mark-Viverito's fundraising is Manhattan-centric; though less than $5,000 is from her district - which spans parts of Manhattan and the Bronx - since January 2014:

Viverito contribs

For each of the three (James, Stringer, Mark-Viverito), the share comprised by "maxed-out donors" (everyone who gave $4,950) as part of overall fundraising shows differences in those largest donors. Stringer's fundraising outpaces both of his colleagues by quite a bit, and the portion of his haul made up of max donors is largest. Stringer has about 50% of his raise from max contributors, whereas James is at about 35%, and Mark-Viverito about 20%.

MMV James Stringer bars

In raw numbers, the maxed-out donors to each of the three - sums and headcount for each segment are shown:

max raise james stringer mmv chart

All three officials count a common basket of labor institutions in their max-out club. All three also are in receipt of $4,950 from Greenberg Traurig, LLP as well.

A few individual donors have maxed out for two of these officials:

  • Kate Engelbrecht for James and Stringer
  • Alexander Rovt for James and Stringer
  • Roger Sherman for Stringer and Mark-Viverito
  • William Zeckendorf for James and Stringer

Campaign finance filings also require disclosure of spending. While the mayor is reticent to raise to his campaign account, he has spent from it. Stringer and James are both spending as well.

james stringer mmv spending

Mark-Viverito's biggest expenditure is on legal services, likely due to combatting allegations regarding her use of a consultancy during the speaker's race.

MMV spending

The top expenditures for each campaign - every relationship worth $1,000 or more entered into by these campaigns since January 2014 and through the July 2015 filing - show the bulk of expenditure is directed towards one or two firms that provide consulting and/or legal advice.

De Blasio has Hilltop Public Solutions and Genova Burns; James has Bedford Grove and Mirram Group; Stringer has Tucker Green Consulting and Genova Burns; while Mark-Viverito has Pitta Bishop Del Giorno Giblin and Nashban Mansur LLC. Mark-Viverito's very large payments to Ballard Spahr, meanwhile, are said to be related to the ongoing Conflicts of Interest Board investigation into her speaker's race.

Beneath that, the campaigns pay a small handful of staffers, handle some housekeeping, and some have funded their fund-raising operations to varying degrees. De Blasio's campaign is making substantial payroll payments, including various forms of insurance and taxes as well. In the "count" column we are displaying how many checks each vendor is receiving from its respective campaign, and the "average" column simply performs the division to provide a general sense of the ongoing relationships at play.

de blasio spending

tish james spend

stringer spend

mark-viverito spend

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by Jon Reznick for Gotham Gazette
Data analysis performed using FTMSQL2 by Competitive Advantage Research, LLC

Note: The author has provided paid photo, prior to their current terms, to Stringer and Mark-Viverito, and in-kind photo to James.

Black, Hispanic & Asian Caucus Faces Growing Pains, Tense Relationship with Cuomo


Cuomo Schneiderman presser

At the special prosecutor announcement (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)


Gov. Andrew Cuomo was beaming. Touting the historical significance of the executive order he had just signed to give Attorney General Eric Schneiderman the authority to act as a special prosecutor in cases where police kill unarmed civilians, Cuomo smiled for photos. Often rivals, Cuomo and Schneiderman, who are both white, sat smiling at the July 7 press conference. They were surrounded first by a group of mothers who had lost their black and Hispanic sons to police violence, then by a group of legislators, all people of color. The cameras snapped and then the smiles faded.

It was indeed momentous, real movement after years of work by advocates and legislators pushing for a special prosecutor to investigate such police shootings. But, the order by the governor, aimed at what he called a "crisis of confidence in the criminal justice system," does not wipe away another trust divide. Despite support for and appreciation of the special prosecutor mandate, Cuomo himself faces a crisis of trust from many members of the state legislature's Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus.

Many advocates and legislators say it was a gargantuan effort to keep up enough pressure to make it politically impossible for Cuomo not to sign the order after there was no legislative deal before lawmakers ended their spring session in Albany. Just the day before the order-signing, victims' families had met with Cuomo to express concerns that the order would not go far enough.

While many give intense gratitude to Cuomo for taking the action, they also resent that it took so much time and energy to get him there when the issue has been such a prominent one for years.

Members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus - 33 in the 150-member Assembly and 14 in the 63-member Senate - have experienced a roller coaster ride for the past five years since Cuomo came into office.

It goes something like this: the governor announces that he shares some of their major priorities in his State of the State speech, they move to back him, and then they watch as their top agenda items are thrown out of the budget when a deal is reached. They build up hope again after the budget is passed, seeking inclusion of the same issues in the typical end-of-session "Big Ugly" deal. They rally, publicly express certainty that Cuomo will deliver for them, that he is in fact on their side and the side of their constituents, all while privately wondering if he is only paying them lip service when he says he continues to be committed to their issues.

And then the session ends.

No DREAM Act, no college for inmates, no reduced punishment for possession of small amounts of marijuana. And this year no legislative action on either criminal justice reform efforts sparked by the rash of police killings of unarmed civilians or the governor's own 'Raise the Age' proposal. While Cuomo has promised executive action removing them from adult prisons, New York remains one of just two states that tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

There was heightened internal tension in the caucus this year as the new and old guards struggled to direct the group. Younger members are pushing for more forceful action on issues important to their communities while veteran members urge caution and warn that major bills in Albany can take a lot of time.

"We need continued pressure on these issues from the caucus and the governor because communities of color cannot feel their issues are second because they are harder to achieve," said Bronx Assembly Member Michael Blake, a freshman legislator and veteran of the Obama Administration.

Brooklyn Assembly Member Nick Perry became caucus chair this year and has served for over 20 years as a state legislator. He acknowledges he is in a particularly tough position after the results of this year's legislative session. Perry's rival for the position, vacated when Karim Camara resigned to take a job in Cuomo's administration, Walter Mosley, was thought to be the choice of the younger members of the caucus but his candidacy collapsed after he took a controversial position on a bill dealing with the East Ramapo School District.

"We had a number of enthusiastic, young freshmen who wanted to bring home their bills but they met with the frustration that is Albany," Perry told Gotham Gazette. "They had a rude awakening," he added, saying that frustration is something he has gotten used to after spending so much time in the state legislature. Perry said that he hopes to marshall the caucus to focus on what is achievable. "We have so many votes that we can achieve so much if we work together. You have to realize you aren't going to win every time and we must pool our efforts into what is possible."

Bronx Sen. Gustavo Rivera agrees with Perry. "I think as a caucus we are not as effective as we should be considering our numbers but I am committed to working with them to enact a progressive agenda," Rivera said.

Despite having been in the Senate for five years, this was the first year Rivera really felt like he was in the minority, he says, as he was unable to impact some of the most important issues facing his community. "This is the first time I really felt it," said Rivera, who added that the caucus will be in control of its destiny if Democrats take control of the Senate in the 2016 elections.

It's a sentiment shared by Perry, who said he expects most of the caucus' agenda will have to wait until 2017, indicating he hopes the presidential election will attract a surge of Democratic voters. "I would bet that the presidential year will bring a wave of working class voters much larger than last year and that the seats Republicans hold narrowly will become Democratic," said Perry.

Perry sees 2016 as intensely difficult for the caucus' issues because of the pressure Republicans will feel to keep their seats.

"We have to realize on issues like the DREAM Act that if some of these Republicans go against the grain they will eventually get blown away," said Perry. "We have to be realistic about the political realities Republicans face in their districts and it is our duty to convince them that there is enough support across the state."

Blake, however, is not content to wait until 2017 on issues of criminal justice reform, or a minimum wage increase. "For me this is not about waiting for 2017," Blake told Gotham Gazette. "Communities of color are not interested in waiting for the next presidential election to move on these issues. Kalief Browder was my constituent. Kalief Browder's parents don't want to hear that we couldn't do 'raise the age' because we don't have the Senate Majority. They are thinking he is dead because we didn't have 'raise the age.'"

Caucus members want to see Cuomo go to bat for their issues with the conviction he's shown in previous legislative victories, but they are conflicted about how much public pressure to put on him. Most members agree that it was their constituencies that delivered for Cuomo during last year's election and that Cuomo needs to be mindful to actually deliver for those voters and not get completely distracted by the upstate economy.

"The problem we have is that at the the end of session what is on the table for black and Latino voters simply hasn't been enough," said Perry. "We were there for the governor during his elections. Something like 77 percent of black voters supported the governor so it is fair for us to expect him to be with us on our issues."

This year discontent with Cuomo among Democrats has exploded into the open as many city legislators feel he failed to go to bat on city issues and in some cases decided to ally with Senate Republicans and wealthy campaign donors over Democratic interests. Cuomo ran on delivering The DREAM Act, an increased minimum wage, campaign finance reform, and the Gender Non-Discrimination Act (or GENDA), but none of those issues ever appeared to be seriously in play in the post-budget session.

Instead Cuomo put his real political muscle into controversial school reforms, the equally controversial education tax credit, and to a lesser extent, 'Raise the Age.' Cuomo also took executive action toward increasing the minimum wage for fast food workers by convening the state wage board and resolved to manage compromises over rent regulations and mayoral control of city schools.

A number of caucus members told Gotham Gazette on the condition of anonymity that they simply no longer believe any of Cuomo's promises and they expect the only way they can hope for him to deliver on their issues is to make it politically impossible for him not to. "Yeah, he got off his ass on the special prosecutor but it's because we dragged him there kicking and screaming," said one caucus member. They are well aware that Cuomo is being attacked by district attorneys and police organizations for signing the order and many of them are concerned he may do away with it if it begins to impact him politically.

Perry said he is certain that Cuomo acted on the special prosecutor order because it is something he fully believes in but he was miffed that Cuomo didn't act sooner. "The special prosecutor was an extremely important move and I believe there is no turning back now - we will have legislation on it next year. The only thing that I don't understand is why the governor didn't do it much earlier. He supported it when we talked about these issues even before he was governor. So, I think when he took this action, it was something he truly believed in."

Adding to the frustration was the departure of Camara as caucus chair. The former Assembly member joined the Cuomo administration to head the newly-created Office of Faith-Based Community Development.

As was made clear by that appointment, Camara has had an extremely close relationship with the administration, was known to stay in contact with the governor and to often be polled by administration representatives before the executive branch took action. Now many members say they've never actually heard from the governor except perhaps in passing at an event.

"This was clearly a transition year for the caucus," said Rivera. "We had a lot of new members who need to adjust to the reality of Albany and we had Karim step off and a new Assembly Speaker added to the reality of us not being in majority [in the Senate]."

It is important to note that the new Assembly Speaker, Carl Heastie, is a member of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Caucus and the first person of color to lead the chamber.

Although the dance between the Cuomo administration and the caucus has become a familiar one the situation is particularly nettlesome after Mayor Bill de Blasio openly lambasted Cuomo's transactional style of politics and what he actually delivered for the city this year. "I don't believe the Assembly had a real working partner in the governor or the Senate in terms of getting things done for the people of this city and in many cases the people of this state," de Blasio told reporters on June 30.

"The governor has developed a relationship with Senate Republicans that could be beneficial to the Democratic agenda," said new caucus head Perry, who represents part of Brooklyn. "So I plan on working with him rather than attacking him for the relationship, as some have."

Sen. Rivera said he is thankful that the governor issued his executive order regarding police killings but he plans to keep up the pressure. "I congratulate the governor on taking such a bold step but we need it in statute and to extend it to all police misconduct. I've been carrying a bill that would do that for the past five years but it hasn't seen the light of day in the Senate."

Assembly Member Blake said he is committed to working to educate Senate Republicans on major caucus issues - especially criminal justice reform - but he said more pressure to act has to be applied on Cuomo.

"We've seen in the history of the civil rights movement that sometimes it takes someone willing to risk their political career to enact important change," said Blake.

When asked if he was discouraged or caught off guard by the political gridlock in Albany, he laughed. "No," he said. "The reality is we made changes, we didn't get everything but this was not a rude awakening. I was at the White House when we were fighting for health care, when we were dealing with the 'death panel' nonsense. One thing I remember was the president talking to David Axelrod and Rahm [Emanuel] and telling them 'if it means me being a one-term president to do the right thing, then so be it, I'm committed to that.'"

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

The Week That Was in New York Politics, July 13-17


week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday July 17

PHOTO OF THE WEEK: Activist Russell Simmons in an electric car outside City Hall, where we was calling on Mayor de Blasio to make good on his promise to ban horse-drawn carriages via Nikita Stewart of the New York Times

russell simmons electric carriage

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. Eric Garner Settlement; Commemoration: On Monday Comptroller Stringer announced that Eric Garner’s family will receive a $5.9 million settlement. The following day, there was an interfaith prayer service for the one-year anniversary of Garner’s death, which is actually July 17. De Blasio, other city officials, and religious leaders spoke. Other commemorations of Garner’s life and death have been occurring this week and are planned for the weekend. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported that the NYPD has made 33 percent fewer arrests for selling untaxed cigarettes citywide since Eric Garner’s death last July.

2. Legislative Issues Heat Up: Uber and City Hall are at odds as the City Council may pass a bill favored by Mayor de Blasio to cap the for-hire car service; more pressure is being put on the mayor to make good on his promise to ban horse carriages; and City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito is being sued by the firefighters union over proceedings related to pension policy and public information.

3. Cuomo Signs Nail Salon Bill; Announces Multi-Industry Task Force: On Thursday Governor Cuomo signed legislation to improve protections for nail salon workers and also announced a multi-agency task force to fight “worker exploitation” across a variety of industries, many of which are known to employ large numbers of immigrants.

4. De Blasio and Cuomo Keep Their Distance: The state’s top Democrats continued a cooler stage in their feud this week. Mayor de Blasio didn’t attend The New York County Democratic County Committee’s Demmy Awards on Monday, where Governor Cuomo received an award, and the men missed each other’s speech at the Bronx Democratic County Committee’s event on Thursday. No verbal bombs were thrown this week, but both continue to be peppered with questions about their “feud.”

5. Schneiderman Issues Guidelines Around New Powers: On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman set the guidelines for how prosecutors should manage investigations where police officers kill unarmed people. District attorneys can begin investigations, but they will be taken over by the AG’s office, per his new powers provided by Governor Cuomo’s recent executive order.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • 62 New York City schools are on the state education department's new list of "struggling" or "persistently struggling" schools (there are 144 across the state), and have little time to turn around under the direction of city leadership before the state takes over. Being in receivership, though, gives city officials a chance to take extraordinary measures at the schools.
  • 20,325 affordable housing units, a record, were financed in Fiscal Year 2015, announced Mayor de Blasio earlier this week.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

  • It was a good week for residents of five NYCHA developments, where about 16,000 residents will have access to free, high-speed broadband. The city, with private and federal partners, announced the $10 million project, part of the de Blasio administration's push for “affordable and reliable high-speed internet access” for all New Yorkers by 2025.
  • It was a bad week for former Congress Member Michael Grimm, who was sentenced to 8 months in prison Friday after having been found guilty of federal tax fraud in December.

THE FLASH:

  • Last year at this time, on July 17, 2014, Eric Garner died after police officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold.
  • 51 years ago this week, there was a high-profile incident wherein a white police officer shot and killed a young black man, prompting riots.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

 

 

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND

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NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

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by Erika Wang and Ben Max

Under-reported Abuse Given Higher Priority in New City Budget


seniors rally

Rally for senior funding (photo via Council Member Chin)


After more than a decade of abuse, she finally called for help. Dialing 311, the 80-year-old widow - who had remained silent for years as the granddaughter she had raised yelled and cursed at her, slapped her, and stole from her - reached out for help after the younger woman threatened to seriously injure her.

She was referred by 311 to JASA, a non-profit serving seniors that contracts with the city. JASA staff helped her obtain an Order of Protection to stop the abuse, put her in a support group, and ensured the police would check on her. But even now, she refuses to have her granddaughter removed from her home and continues to live with her abuser.

This grandmother is among the more than 120,000 New Yorkers believed to be suffering from elder abuse. Both her situation and her unwillingness to report it are typical of the vast majority of elder abuse cases. Except in the most horrific instances, these are not headline-grabbing incidents, and the victims are among society's most vulnerable, often unable to fight for themselves.

Elder abuse includes physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as neglect. Its most common form is financial exploitation. "Elder abuse victims are 300 percent more likely to die prematurely than non-abused elderly," says Risa Breckman, executive director of NYC Elder Abuse Center, citing a medical study. This problem is increasing in scale with New York City's aging population. And with nine percent of the city's seniors estimated to be victims of abuse, it is also a problem that has been remarkably underfunded according to advocates and providers of elder abuse services.

This year, New York City's budget includes $2.8 million in funding for elder abuse services, more than three times the amount devoted to this issue in previous years. "They have it exactly right," says Breckman. "There needed to be more resources for this."

The city's Department for the Aging contracts its elder abuse services to community-based organizations. There are only a handful of organizations—some with surprisingly small staffs—carrying out this work in all of New York City.

These providers execute wide-ranging services such as counseling, support groups, legal advice and counsel, safe haven, and lock changing to keep an abuser out of the house. They also perform outreach to senior centers to make seniors aware of their options and to other groups such as neighbors, doormen, meal delivery personnel, librarians, and even barbers who may be able to recognize and report the signs of abuse.

Since the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, around $800,000 was allocated annually for elder abuse services. This funding often became part of the "budget dance" with the mayor cutting it down and City Council fighting to restore it. Advocates for seniors argued that this was too small an amount for the protection of the over 1.4 million New Yorkers over the age of 60.

Last year, Bill de Blasio's first as mayor, the funding in the budget for elder abuse services did not increase, though the City Council allocated $1 million of its discretionary funds for such services. Seniors and their allies then launched a concerted effort to bring about an increase and it was widely expected that funding by the mayor would jump to over $2 million for fiscal year 2016. But when de Blasio announced his preliminary and executive budgets earlier this year, the funding remained the same as it had been. Advocates then intensified their lobbying, and advocacy groups like LiveOn NY turned out more than a thousand seniors at City Hall between March and June on Advocacy Day, Elder Abuse Awareness Day, and for budget hearings.

In this effort to increase funding, the biggest ally of seniors and senior advocates was Council Member Margaret Chin, chair of the City Council Committee on Aging. "She's a great chair," says Bobbie Sackman, director of public policy at LiveOn NY. Hundreds of seniors came for the committee's executive budget hearing, many having to watch the proceedings from an overflow room. "What we need is a budget that really makes seniors a top priority. And this budget right now is not it," Chin said in her opening remarks at the hearing.

"She wouldn't let it go and she kept pushing back...to the administration saying 'you've got to fund this $2 million,'" says Sackman. Fighting alongside Chin was Council Member Paul Vallone, chair of the Subcommittee on Senior Centers. His opening remarks were equally firm. "The senior population will increase by 50 percent [in the next 10 years] and this budget didn't go up by a dollar," he said. "To me, if that's not a cut, I don't know what is."

Eventually the administration conceded and the adopted budget more than tripled the funding to $2.8 million.

Advocates say the toughest challenge in getting funding for elder abuse is the lack of reporting of such cases. "We have a hidden crisis and we're asking them to fund something that you're seeing the tip of the iceberg of," says Sackman. A 2011 study of elder abuse in New York State showed that only four percent of the cases of elder abuse are reported. "That's why it's important to really do education to let people know that there are services available to help them, that it's nothing to be ashamed about and that they would be able to get help," Council Member Chin told Gotham Gazette.

A close relationship with the abuser is one of the main reasons for low reporting rates. In the vast majority of cases—many studies cite the number at 80 percent—the abuser is a family member. "That's one of the reasons it's so hidden, because people are either afraid or ashamed," says Sackman. "Who's going to report on their son or daughter?"

Some also blame ageism for the lack of attention to this problem. "People assume that someone who is over the age of 60 or 70 or 80 will have some form of dementia and won't be able to report reliably or give information that is pertinent," says Martha Pollack, director of elder abuse services for JASA. "And this is not the case at all." People are often less likely to believe seniors when they complain of abuse.

With a few dozen people and $800,000 from the city budget to deal with all the cases of elder abuse in the city, elder abuse fighting organizations' resources have been stretched thin. "Prior to the city providing this [new increase] we were at a point where we would have to tell individuals we may have to shut the program and we would go around scrambling for money," says Donna Dougherty, an attorney at JASA.

Advocates say that the increased funding will ensure that more elderly people are served. Organizations will be able to hire more staff, do more outreach, and collaborate more effectively with the NYPD and offices of the district attorneys. Dougherty says this funding "has made a tremendous, tremendous difference in our ability to provide this service and our ability to provide it ongoing, to expand, and to be able to tell our clients: 'We'll be there tomorrow, we're not going anywhere.'"

The Carter Burden Center for Aging is another organization that will benefit from the increase in funds in the budget. Michelle Galligan, director of their Community Elder Mistreatment & Abuse Prevention Program, says they will use the money to double their staff, which currently consists of only two social workers.

The organizations contracted by the city are also planning to use the additional $2 million to reach out to more diverse and immigrant communities where victims of elder abuse speak out at even lower rates, either because of cultural norms or language barriers.

The City Council also took this into consideration in the distribution of the $335,000 of discretionary spending allocated to non-profits to carry out elder abuse services. They have allocated $135,000 to New York Asian Women's Center, $50,000 to Sakhi for South Asian Women, and $50,000 for Turning Point for Women and Families, a nonprofit helping Muslim women. "We want to make sure that seniors who don't speak English and who are linguistically and culturally isolated, that they are also able to get information about what elder abuse is, how they can access service and what organizations are available to help them," explained Chin.

But Galligan cautions that even this tripling of the funding is not as much as it seems when divided across the city and translates into $480,000 for Manhattan, where her organization operates. "As much as we're grateful for the increase in funding," she says, "we can always use more."

"We just want to make sure that money stays in the budget, that it's not money we have to keep fighting for, because we want to grow it," says Sackman. "It's a good thing, we just need more."

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by Zehra Rehman, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Language in Rushed Rent Regulations May Hold Tenant-Friendly Surprise


Cuomo Heastie rent

Cuomo and Heastie in cahoots? (photo: Governor's Office via flickr) 


Tenant advocates disappointed by the rent laws deal reached by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature at the end of session suddenly have a spark of hope, weeks after the backroom negotiations came to an end. Some are interpreting the wording of the new law to actually make it more difficult for landlords to deregulate apartments when rent reaches the established threshold, much to the chagrin of those property owners.

Tenant advocates say the new language of the bill - which regulates about a million affordable apartments in New York City - mandates that landlords have rented an apartment under the $2,700 per month threshold before they can remove it from the rent control rolls. This is as opposed to being able to deregulate the unit once an allowable hike hits $2,700 per month even if the unit is between tenants. Advocates believe this will significantly extend the time under which apartments are rent controlled even if it does not stop their eventual expiration.

Judith Goldiner, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said that since 1997, the language in the statute has been, "for any housing accommodation which is or becomes vacant on or after the effective date of the [1997 law] and before the effective date of the [2011 law] with a legal regulated rent of $2,000 or more a month."

The threshold was raised to $2,500 when the rent laws were renewed in 2011.

Goldiner said the language in the 2015 act can be captured as: "any housing accommodation that becomes vacant on or after the effective date of the rent act of 2015 where such legal regulated rent was $2,700 or more." They key being that the monthly rent was already $2,700 before an apartment is vacated, meaning that the rent threshold cannot be reached between tenants due to allowable vacancy and renovation bumps.

The Rent Stabilization Association (RSA), a landlord group, is aware of the language and believes it to be a drafting mistake that the Legislature could address along with a host of other drafting errors in the "Big Ugly" that was rushed to a vote on June 25 after session went into week-long overtime. But, it is unclear if the Legislature has any interest in returning to deal with the language. Sources in the Assembly say the language in question was inserted intentionally and they would not consider altering it.

Cuomo administration officials indicate they did not think the language was an issue. Tenant advocates wonder if Cuomo would dare alter the bill even if it was unintentional given that his allegiance to Democratic ideals has been under so much scrutiny of late. The governor recently felt backlash from the left after Senate Republicans touted a memorandum of understanding signed by his aide that appeared to agree to roll back a part of his signature gun-regulation SAFE Act. Not to mention attacks on Cuomo over elements seen as lacking (mayoral control of schools) or missing (minimum wage hike) from the final deal.

"Our interpretation is a tenant has to be in place under that threshold before they could move to deregulate," said Goldiner of the Legal-Aid Society. Goldiner said this specific measure was something she and her colleagues advocated for at great lengths. "I don't think this was unintended," Goldiner told Gotham Gazette. "We were in many, many meetings with the Assembly telling them how this would stem the tide of deregulation. And in a bill where tenants got very little, I think this is fairly appropriate."

Advocates still say that while the apartments would remain regulated, $2,700 per month is still a high rent and this tweak is not a game changer of any kind. Landlord groups are dismissing the language as a drafting mistake.

"I think the fact of the matter is when you read the section of the law on legal regulated rent it has not changed at all," said Frank Ricci of the RSA. "The bill in its entirety did so much on so many things that there are drafting inconsistencies throughout the bill. It is not pristine and clean as it has been in past years."

Lawyers for both sides are currently being consulted on the language and interested parties admit the debate could end up being settled in court.

The dispute over the language adds a twist to an especially heated year for the real estate industry and tenant advocates, including many New York City-based legislators.

Many lawmakers who represent parts of the city and advocates regard the changes made to the rent laws this year as minor tweaks that will only make it slightly more difficult for landlords to take apartments off the regulated rolls. The Legislature renewed the rent laws for four years and the law increases the threshold for vacancy deregulation and high-income deregulation from $2,500 to $2,700. Those thresholds will then be updated on January 1 of each year according to decisions by the city and suburban Rent Guidelines Boards. The amount landlords can increase monthly rent based on the improvements they make to apartments has also been reduced slightly and fines for tenant harassment have been increased.

Sen. Adriano Espaillat, a Manhattan Democrat, called the changes "one inch forward," and added: "We saw some tougher penalties but there were no major victories, we are still going to lose thousands of affordable apartments over the next four years."

Michael McKee of Tenants PAC agrees. He points to a study by Tom Waters of the Community Service Society that predicts the city alone stands to lose 87,500 rent regulated apartments given the $2,700 per month threshold.

Frank Ricci, of the Rent Stabilization Association, said that the new laws will make it much harder for landlords to afford maintenance and repairs. "These changes are going to make it much more difficult to maintain buildings. The Major Capital Improvements changes are going to disincentivize owners from making major improvements or doing major work like fixing the boiler."

Advocates point to reports from Waters and analysis from blogger John Krauss that show the city has consistently seen thousands of apartments leave the affordable housing rolls despite increases in the deregulation threshold made in 2011. http://blog.johnkrauss.com/where-is-decontrol/

"We've said for 22 years that raising the threshold is meaningless," said McKee. "It simply makes financial sense for landlords to spend the money [on repairs] to deregulate their apartments. The new laws do nothing to disincentivize them."

However, Espaillat and McKee say that tenants were particularly organized this year and effective in putting pressure on Cuomo and the Legislature. Advocates barraged the governor at his offices and continued their protests after the deal was passed - at one point targeting Cuomo's home in Westchester.

There may be no lull in the action as calls to strengthen the laws continue and the 2016 election year is just around the corner. On Wednesday, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former state senator, will brief the media "about a new push to achieve some of the urgently needed protections not provided by the recently approved rent laws negotiated by Governor Andrew Cuomo and State Senate Republicans." Adams is also going to convene a meeting of state and local electeds and tenant advocates "to discuss plans moving forward."

Legislators and tenant advocates say they think the recent campaign could continue and be used as a tool to help Democrats win control of the state Senate at which point they could revisit the rent laws even before they expire. "We we were on point on organizing, on messaging, on building a coalition," Espaillat told Gotham Gazette. "If we win the majority next year we could very well address affordability." Democrats, who traditionally do better in presidential years, hope in part to ride a Hillary Clinton wave.

Ricci told Gotham Gazette that such action would create an unstable environment for landlords. "If you want a well-preserved housing stock in the city, you need consistency and predictability," said Ricci. "There is a lot of thought and planning that goes into improvements. If there is talk every year about tinkering it would create an unstable environment. In fact it would be shortsighted on the part of the Legislature to even talk about changes because it will stop people from making these large investments." 

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

City Fights to Stem Annual Tide of Summer Family Homelessness


BdB Taylor DHS

Mayor de Blasio, at podium, & DHS Commissioner Taylor, left (photo: @NYCDHS)


New York City is home to about 10 percent of the homeless population in the United States. By the end of 2014, the number of homeless in the city's shelters reached a historic high of nearly 60,000 that included 25,849 children. But since the start of this year, there has been an 11 percent decrease in homeless children. As of July 10, the figure stood at 22,864 homeless children according to city data (with 55,837 total homeless individuals).

Traditionally, though, when the school year ends there is a jump in the number of families applying to stay in homeless shelters. This year, New York City may have broken that trend.

While the number of single adults in the city's shelters is still increasing, there has been a slight but steady decrease in the number of homeless families. This reversal is giving hope to those advocating for the homeless that the summer spike in family homelessness may not be happening this year. They credit this to new programs under the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to help homeless families move out of shelters and into housing. The administration has also upped efforts to help at-risk families stay in their homes.

New programs are tailored to help homeless families whose situations are often different from those of homeless single adults. About one-third of homeless families have at least one working adult, according to Gabriela Sandoval, policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit group. "It's not that they don't have an income, it's that their income might not be enough to have an apartment," she says of these families. Eviction, domestic violence, and overcrowding of one apartment by multiple families have been identified as the main causes of family homelessness in New York City.

The last few years, the summertime increase in family homelessness has been significant. While the number of homeless families has been rising consistently for years, there is typically a sudden jump of about 500 or more families around the end of each school year, according to Sandoval.

There are several reasons for this surge. To avoid moving to a shelter during the school year, many families double up, that is, live with other families in cramped living conditions. When the school year ends, all the children from both families are home during the day. This increases stress on the host family, often to a point where they ask the other family to leave.

Going to a homeless shelter can mean disrupting or changing a child's school. Some parents who are trying to give stability to their children end up staying in normally unacceptable living conditions while waiting for the end of the school year. Landlords are also less hesitant to evict families with children in the summer than they are in the wintertime.

Families that enter the shelter system at the start of the summer do not necessarily leave once the summer ends, of course. For many, initial sheltering becomes long-term, with the average family stay in the shelter system at over 400 days.

"The kids are really the voiceless victims in the whole system," says Sandoval. Jeff Foreman, policy director of Care for the Homeless, agrees and describes the impact of homelessness on children as "phenomenal."

Last year, 1,800 babies were born in New York City's shelters. "Kids who are born in shelter can be in shelter long enough that they have those incredibly important developmental years—learn to walk and maybe talk—while they're growing up in a shelter," says Foreman. This is the case for Elizabeth, whose grandchildren are growing up in a shelter and who spoke with Gotham Gazette about her family's experience. Elizabeth came with her daughter and her children to a shelter three years ago, hoping that the stay would be temporary. "His first steps, he took in here," she says of her three-year-old grandson growing up at the shelter.

Shelter conditions affect parents and other caregivers, which in turn affects children in the family. Elizabeth and her daughter both regularly meet with a therapist to treat depression. Even though the family has an apartment in the shelter, they still have to deal with a curfew, restrictions on visitors, and water getting cut off for hours at a time. Last winter, Elizabeth and her family had no heat or hot water for three days. "There's nothing you can do," she says of the situation. "The stress is getting to me."

Studies show that homelessness also takes a toll on children's academic performance - it leads to more missed school days, and higher dropout and grade failure rates. Homelessness also leads to developmental delays, health problems, and higher rates of depression and other emotional problems. "It's a life-long impact if you're in a shelter long enough," says Foreman.

The summer spike in family homelessness has occurred consistently since at least 2005 when the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg ended programs that gave homeless families priority access to public housing. The administration felt that this policy was an incentive for families to become homeless so that they could jump the line and get quick access to subsidized housing.

In the decade that followed, the number of homeless families in New York City increased from 8,722 to a high of 14,524 in January 2015. The situation worsened in 2011 when the administration, facing budget issues on the city and state levels, also ended its Advantage program, started in 2007, which was providing temporary rent subsidies to families. Once again, the administration felt it was incentivizing homelessness. "One theory is that some people have been coming into the homeless system, the shelter system, in order to qualify for a program that helps you move out of the homeless system," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at the time.

The current commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, Gilbert Taylor, does not share that view. "These are not single individuals who enter the shelter system by themselves. But rather these are mothers and fathers, these are aunts and uncles, these are grandparents, who are caretakers of the children who are in tow," he told Gotham Gazette. "And it matters. If you have a child, you really think about what's best for your child."

The current administration has introduced eight new programs to decrease homelessness. Many of these programs are targeted at helping families with children. In 2015, there appears to be something of a breakthrough, with a sustained decrease in the number of homeless families. "We've been hopeful for a very long time. It's just that this year, we're finally seeing...some changes in the right direction," says Sandoval.

At an affordable housing press conference on Monday, de Blasio discussed the state of homelessness in the city, saying, "Homelessness is not going up, thank God. The number of street homeless has gone down a little. We have a long way to go. The number of folks in a shelter has gone down about two or three thousand. We have much more work to do."

The CITYFEPS and Living in Communities, or LINC, programs provide eligible families with assistance in paying rent to move them out of the shelter system. CITYFEPS is a rent supplement program for families that are living in or at risk of entering shelters due to a recent eviction or foreclosure. LINC are rental assistance programs that are also intended to move families out of shelters. Three of the six versions of the LINC program are specifically for families. LINC I is for families with at least one working adult, LINC II is for families that have had multiple stays in shelters, and LINC III is for victims of domestic violence. "There's really evidence here of the start of the success of these programs," says Foreman.

The city is also financially supporting landlords who are often reluctant to rent to homeless families. This support includes providing incentives such as a signing bonus and security fund. The current administration has also restored priority access for homeless families to public housing. These policies led to over a thousand families making the transition from shelter to public housing in the last fiscal year.

In the past, the city often coped with the summer increase of homeless families by opening new shelters. But many of these emergency shelters lacked facilities, such as kitchens, needed for family living, like the Pan Am Hotel in Queens that was converted into a shelter last summer, and was widely criticized after bug and rat infestations were exposed.

This year, to check the summer increase in homeless families, DHS has stepped up efforts to prevent families from becoming homeless.

The recently passed fiscal year 2016 budget, which went into effect July 1, increases funding for homelessness prevention. This builds on last year's increase when the administration doubled Homebase, the homelessness prevention services that DHS provides through various nonprofit organizations. Homebase tries to keep families out of the shelter system by providing legal services, rent arrears and other grants, as well as mediation to help them stay in their homes. DHS boasts a 95 percent success rate for families it helped keep their homes last year through Homebase. The agency has also stepped up outreach efforts with an ad campaign targeting at-risk communities as well as a television ad encouraging families facing eviction to contact Homebase. Toward the end of the school year, DHS partnered with the Department of Education to reach out through schools to help families identified as at risk of losing their housing.

Through its programs, DHS is also trying to provide after-care services to avoid families returning to shelters when their subsidy ends, as happened at the end of Advantage. "We offer after-care services that help our clients connect to their communities in a way that will make their movement from shelter be long-standing and permanent," said Taylor. "Part of the after-care services for working families is really thinking about ways in which those employed can build wealth, can build income, and be prepared to afford and maintain their housing at the end of the subsidy period, which is up to five years."

These after-care services are targeted to the particular need of the population of each program and include help with maintaining employment and building income, providing access to vocational training, and aid in safely maintaining housing. "I would like to hope that it is a sustainable decrease, that the number of families that are leaving are leaving permanently," says Sandoval.

The city's fiscal 2016 budget is seen positively by providers of homeless services. "There's a lot of big victories in there," Foreman says of this year's budget. He estimates that there is theoretically enough funding to provide housing vouchers for 800 households under the eight new programs. This could mean thousands of people moving out of shelters and into permanent housing. Another victory in the budget is more funds for DHS to hire housing specialists to help homeless individuals find and keep permanent homes.

Despite the beginnings of progress, as de Blasio said on Monday, a lot more needs to be done to combat the city's chronic homelessness problem. Advocates would like the five-year time limit on the LINC programs for families to be extendable on the basis of need to avoid a return to shelter after the subsidy expires. And, while this administration is allocating 750 NYCHA apartments annually to the homeless, advocates want the number increased to at least 2,500.

Advocates are also seeking over 30,000 new supportive housing units in the city through New York/New York. These are affordable units, jointly funded by the city and the state, with targeted support services within the building for tenants with particular needs such mental illness, substance abuse, or having exited the foster system or incarceration. In New York City, many of the people in supportive housing have come through the shelter system.

On Friday, July 10, New York State Assembly Social Services Chair Andrew Hevesi released a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo calling for 35,000 new supportive housing units. The letter, signed by a bipartisan group of 133 Assembly members, specifically asked for 10,150 units for families. "There's definitely more that the city should be doing," says Sandoval, "and the state should be doing."

For now, the city is processing summer shelter applications from homeless families. While a summertime increase is expected, the numbers may finally be smaller this year. For those who do come to the city's Bronx family intake center to apply for shelter, DHS will also be providing resources to help them stay in their homes in the chance that it is still possible. What will not be known until later in the year is if the summertime surge, even a smaller one than usual, will be offset by the number of families moving out of shelters.

"You don't turn a ship in a day," said Foreman, before adding, "it is beginning to work."

***
by Zehra Rehman, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Are DAs Doing Enough to Overturn Wrongful Convictions?


DA Thompson Reynoso

Brooklyn DA Thompson, left, & Council Member Reynoso (photo: @BrooklynDA)


What is the price of winning? For prosecutors in wrongful conviction cases, it can be a life.

Last year, there were a record 131 exonerations nationwide according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Of those exonerated, six were serving time on death row.

During that same time period, six new Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) were established at district attorney offices across the country, increasing the total number of units by about one-third. CIUs conduct reviews of wrongful conviction claims and were responsible for 49 exonerations in 2014, more than for all previous years combined. But the structure and number of exonerations of each individual CIU varies markedly, leading to different systems by which the district attorneys who prosecute crimes are reviewed.

In New York City, where each borough has a corresponding DA, the Manhattan and Brooklyn District Attorney Offices have a CIU and Conviction Review Unit (CRU), respectively. The other boroughs do not currently have formal review units. Like other CIUs, the New York City-based units vary in both organization and outcomes.

Former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes formed a CIU in 2011 that resulted in two exonerations. But many, including current Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson, who defeated Hynes in 2013, felt that Hynes was incapable of adequately looking into convictions that were secured during his nearly quarter-century tenure.

"My predecessor called it the Conviction Integrity Unit, but I thought the process in place did not have integrity. And so, I changed the name and called it the Conviction Review Unit," Thompson said while speaking at a New York City Bar Association event last year.

Since Thompson established the CRU in 2014, he has allocated an annual budget of $1.1 million to the unit. "If you're serious about the idea that the job of a district attorney and a prosecutor is to do justice, not merely to secure convictions," says Mark Hale, Chief of the Brooklyn CRU, "then the books don't close on these cases. You should always be pursuing justice, even long after the jury has reached their verdict."

The Brooklyn CRU secured ten exonerations last year and has been touted by some as a model. Two of the ten exonerated individuals died while incarcerated and had their convictions vacated posthumously. These examples show how costly wrongful convictions - and delayed reviews when questions arise - can be. The other eight men whose convictions were overturned were facing maximum sentences of life in prison. The CRU has produced an additional three exonerations in 2015, including one involving a defendant who was facing possible deportation.

The Manhattan CIU, created by District Attorney Cyrus Vance in 2010, was the first of its kind within the five boroughs. Since its inception, the unit has reviewed more than 160 cases, reinvestigated 14 cases, and vacated five convictions, according to an office spokesperson who declined a request for an interview. As of January 2015, The National Registry of Exonerations lists four vacated convictions by the Manhattan CIU that meet the registry's criteria for exonerations. The vacated convictions include two robberies, one assault, and one sexual assault.

"To me, that office has zero credibility," says Jeffrey Deskovic, who was wrongfully convicted in Westchester County and exonerated after spending nearly 16 years in prison. Deskovic, who founded The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, cites the Jon-Adrian Velazquez case in which the Manhattan CIU upheld a murder conviction despite recanted eyewitness testimony and a lack of physical evidence linking Velazquez to the crime.

But Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project, a national organization that works to reverse wrongful convictions on the basis of DNA evidence, stresses CIUs are evolving entities. While Scheck views comparisons between the two New York district attorney offices as unproductive, he also acknowledges there are certain factors that increase the effectiveness of a particular CIU over another.

"The successful CIUs have been ones where the person who has supervisory responsibility is a former defense lawyer," says Scheck, pointing to renowned defense attorney Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr.'s role as advisor to the Brooklyn CRU. "You really need from a cognitive point of view a completely different perspective because it's very hard to de-bias people who are working within offices, prosecutors particularly, for quite a number of years," says Scheck.

The latter point has been a criticism of CIUs. Essentially, a wrongful conviction is admission that the district attorney's office responsible for the case got the prosecution wrong in the first place. When those cases involve prosecutors and a district attorney who are still in office, the objectivity of the review process is called into question. As of January 2015, individual CIUs ranged in number of exonerations from zero to as many as 33.

In addition to Sullivan's role as advisor, the Brooklyn CRU employs the use of an independent review panel. The panel reviews and makes non-binding recommendations to the district attorney's office regarding wrongful conviction claims. The panel is comprised of three attorneys who are not employed by the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office.

The Manhattan CIU has a Conviction Integrity Policy Advisory Panel comprised of criminal justice experts, including Scheck, who advise "the Office on national best practices and evolving issues in the area of wrongful convictions" according to a Manhattan District Attorney press release. The panel does not review cases, which are handled internally by the Manhattan CIU.

The Brooklyn CRU's comparably high rate of exonerations can be traced to other factors as well. Four of the Brooklyn CRU's exonerations last year involved cases handled by former police detective Louis Scarcella, who has been accused of coercing witnesses and intimidating suspects into making false confessions.

"In doing the number of cases for the years that we did," says Hale, "those cases of violent crimes in the volume that we did, it would be foolhardy to believe mistakes weren't made in some of those." But Hale points to other factors in the unit's success, including a dedicated staff whose sole responsibility is to review wrongful conviction claims.

While the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office processed a high volume of cases during New York City's crime-ridden 1980s and '90s, a 2015 report issued by the National Registry of Exonerations asserts that the borough is not unique. The report refers to the number of exonerations in Brooklyn as "an impressive accomplishment" but maintains "there is no reason to believe that the problem it addresses is restricted to Brooklyn. The concentration of false murder convictions in Brooklyn in the 1980s and '90s," the report continues, "is often explained by a crisis in law enforcement: a murder rate about 5 times what it is now, and limited resources to investigate and prosecute those murders."

But the report argues that similar conditions existed throughout the five boroughs as well as in other urban areas nationwide. "If the same resources were devoted to similar cases from other cities," the report maintains, "many additional false murder convictions would no doubt be found."

The number of homicide and homicide-related arrests, such as criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter, disposed in Brooklyn during the '80s and '90s was one-and-a-half times the rate of homicide-related arrests disposed in Manhattan. However, the total number of felony arrest dispositions during the same time period was higher in Manhattan than in Brooklyn.

Currently, the Manhattan CIU reviews serious felony offenses including homicide, rape, burglary, and robbery. Earlier this year, the Brooklyn CRU expanded its review to include non-homicide felony offenses as well. Since that expansion, the Brooklyn CRU has secured two exonerations in non-homicide felony cases.

Acknowledging the lack of CIUs in many other localities, Hale concurs with the report's finding and notes, "There are other people who probably would find the same proportion or the same numbers of exonerations if, in fact, they were looking."

Brooklyn DA Thompson's fresh eyes have undoubtedly helped the office take a deeper look into the relatively old convictions that were obtained primarily during the Hynes administration. Will those eyes remain as sharp once convictions secured under Thompson's leadership are called into question?

"It comes down to the will of the D.A.," Thompson acknowledged during his speech last year. "I can't say that there will never be anyone wrongfully convicted under my tenure, but I can tell you that I'm going to take swift action."

***
Brooke L. Williams is a freelance multimedia journalist based in New York City. She reports on the criminal justice system with an emphasis on those wrongfully convicted. You can follow her on Twitter @williamslbrooke
@GothamGazette

The Week That Was in New York Politics, July 6-10


week in review bus readers

photo: Stanley Kubrick via Museum of the City of New York


Gotham Gazette's Week in Review, Friday July 10

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: Governor Cuomo appoints AG Schneiderman as a special prosecutor in cases where police officers kill unarmed civilians, via the Governor's Office on flickr (top); mothers of individuals killed by police officers join hands after Cuomo's announcement, via John Taggart (middle); City Hall for the World-Cup-winning US Women's National Soccer Team celebration, via Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen (bottom)

Cuomo Schneiderman mothers 

mothers after cuomo presser
city hall DM Glen

TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK:

1. De Blasio Announces Bail Reform, ‘Supervised Release’: On Wednesday the de Blasio administration announced that $17.8 million will be allocated to supervise “3,000 eligible defendants safely in the community” instead of detaining them in jail while waiting for trial. Low-level, non-violent offenders will not be asked to pay bail, no longer will those who cannot afford bail be sent to Rikers Island jail to await trial.

2. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman Named Special Prosecutor: On Wednesday evening Governor Cuomo signed an executive order designating Attorney General Schneiderman as a special prosecutor for cases where someone killed by police in instances where the victim is unarmed or if there’s a question of whether or not the victim is armed and dangerous. By Thursday a new special investigations and prosecutions unit had been formed in Schneiderman’s office.

3. Queens Library Corruption: An audit released on Wednesday by Comptroller Scott Stringer revealed that over $310,000 was spent by executives in the Queens Library system on “prohibited expenses.” The Stringer audit includes many eye-popping abuses by Queens Library officials past and present.

4. Cuomo Signs ‘Enough is Enough,’ Comments on De Blasio: On Tuesday Governor Cuomo signed ‘Enough is Enough’ into law, “stepping up protections against sexual assault” at private and public college campuses. On NY1, he also responded to the comments Mayor de Blasio made last week about how disagreements with the Governor result in “some of kind of revenge or vendetta” by saying, “my way is the exact opposite and the proof is in the pudding." De Blasio responded on Thursday, saying “it had to be said.” Then the governor declined to name anything he thought the mayor had done well.

5. NYC Parade for US Soccer Team: On Friday New York City held a ticker-tape parade for the World-Cup-winning United States Women’s National Soccer Team. After winning the World Cup, Mayor de Blasio announced that the team would be saluted along the Canyon of Heroes, a first for a women’s sports team.

THIS WEEK'S NUMBERS:

  • $332,500 will be paid out by New York City to six Occupy Wall Street protesters who say that the police “unjustly blasted them with pepper spray four years ago.”
  • 44,000 feet of scaffolding have been removed from New York City Housing Authority developments not undergoing construction, Mayor de Blasio announced Thursday.
  • $44 million, five-year contract will be awarded to Questar Assessment, to develop new state exams for the New York State Education Department.

THE GLORY AND THE GOAT:

  • It was a good week for political reporters with the return of Mayor de Blasio from vacation, the public sniping between de Blasio and Cuomo resumed, and the continued fallout of Donald Trump.
  • It was a bad week for Pearson, the education testing company at the center of quite a bit of controversy over the years lost out to Questar Assessment for the aforementioned testing contract with New York state.

THE FLASH:

  • Last year around this time, on July 9, 2014, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Dan Garodnick presented the representatives on the East Midtown Steering Committee. Now, the committee is set to present its recommendations to the mayor and city planning. 
  • Thirty years ago, on July 10, 1985, then-Mayor Koch announced his candidacy for a third term. He called it “the best job in America.” He would go on to win 74% of the vote.

GOTHAM GAZETTE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK:

MORE FOR THE WEEKEND:

  • "WNYC teamed up with public radio stations in St. Louis and Baltimore for a multi-city, many-voiced special program on race, community, and policing" hosted by Brian Lehrer.
  • The Economist looks at NYPD Commissioner Bratton's new/old plans.

***
NOTE TO READERS: we hope you enjoy this new Gotham Gazette weekly feature - please share it if you do; on Twitter, use our handle @GothamGazette.

If you have feedback on this feature for us, you can email editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Watch Sunday evening for our latest Week Ahead in New York Politics, which gives you a preview of key issues and events to be aware of for the week about to start. In the meantime, catch up on the latest original reporting from Gotham Gazette here. And have a great weekend!

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by Erika Wang and Ben Max

Prison Escape Allows Critics to Attack Cuomo on Prior Source of Strength


Cuomo Dannemora prison escpae

Cuomo at a prison escape briefing (photos via Governor's Office on flickr)


Richard Matt, one of the two men involved in a daring and complex escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility, is dead, shot by officers after he refused to be taken alive. The other, David Sweat, was captured and returned to a maximum security prison after being shot twice. The high drama, which played out across national media, is apparently at an end. But investigations of the prison have begun, prison employees are retiring and suspended, and later this year things are likely to flare up in Albany hearing rooms, as Senate Republicans plan to investigate how policy may have led to the pair's escape.

Some legislators see the incident as reflective of the strain Gov. Andrew Cuomo's prison reforms has put on guards and correctional facilities across the state. Others insist the escape was an isolated incident that isn't indicative of anything other than two criminals so badly wanting to escape that they went to remarkable, made-for-Hollywood lengths.

Some advocates and legislators who support Cuomo's prison policy, which has led to the closing of 13 prisons across the state, say they fear the hearings may be used to attack that policy rather than investigate the escape. The Cuomo administration did not return a request for comment.

Sen. Patrick Gallivan, chair of the Senate Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections, told Gotham Gazette that he intends to hold joint hearings of his committee with the Committee on Investigations and Government Operations after any criminal investigations are completed. "I want to be conscious of the Legislature's role here and maybe not get into the nitty-gritty, but look at the larger issues of public policy," Gallivan said. He noted that, while his thought process is ongoing, he expects the main areas of focus to be staffing, safety, and contraband. The government operations committee has subpoena power.

Gallivan also noted that The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association has testified "for the last five years about safety and staffing levels."

NYSCOPBA contends that the Cuomo administration maintains a "bloated" administrative department at the Department of Corrections, and should look there to make cuts rather than closing prisons and cutting staff. They say that small upstate communities that rely on prison jobs are devastated by the closures and cuts while the safety of communities across the state is jeopardized.

"Violence in New York State prisons is on pace to reach a record high this year," Mike Powers, president of the NYSCOPBA, wrote in a statement this spring. "It's time for a real plan to invest in staffing and resources to help protect our law enforcement officers and keep our prisons safe."

The New York Daily News and the Albany Times Union both reported that the Cuomo administration's efforts to reduce overtime spending left two guard towers at Clinton Correctional Facility empty and that similar concerns about overtime prevented a lockdown and search after a brawl broke out involving dozens of inmates only a few days before the escape.

Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who sits on the Senate corrections committee and supports Cuomo's prison reform efforts, said that he has tremendous respect for Gallivan and expects him to take a thoughtful approach to any investigation. However, he said he felt that the escape was an isolated incident and not reflective of any major policy. "I don't think this is a systemic issue. These were two guys who were committed to get the hell out," said Rivera. "We know there may have been a few bad staffers but that does not lead me down the road to, 'We need systemic changes,' or something particular like increased staffing."

Many reform advocates also consider Gallivan to be especially open-minded on criminal justice issues and receptive to ideas from both sides of the aisle. However, they are concerned that with 2016 being an election year, Republican leadership will see the hearings as an opportunity to attack prison reform efforts.

Cuomo has made that issue one of his administration's top priorities. "An incarceration program is not an employment program," Cuomo famously said during his 2011 State of the State address. "If people need jobs, let's get people jobs. Don't put other people in prison to give some people jobs. Don't put other people in juvenile justice facilities to give some people jobs. That's not what this state is all about. And that has to end this session."

Since then the administration has closed 13 facilities, both upstate and downstate, and reduced the corrections budget by millions of dollars. The administration backed up its efforts to close prisons by pointing out that the state has been paying to maintain thousands of empty prison beds while increasing funding for alternative sentencing.

Gallivan said that empty prison beds doesn't necessarily mean they have enough beds in the right places. He wants to investigate whether there is overcrowding within higher-security facilities. Records show that the population at Clinton Correctional has declined, while incidents of violence or finding contraband have increased fairly dramatically. Assaults on prison officers across the state increased by 29 percent between 2010 and 2014; with most assaults occurring in maximum-security facilities.

Assembly Member Daniel O'Donnell, chair of his chamber's Corrections Committee, was so shocked by what he saw during a December tour of Dannemora that he wrote the Cuomo administration and asked it to invest in body cameras for prison guards to reduce violence. He has since said he believes the prison is "The most dangerous prison in the New York state system."

The Cuomo administration dismissed discussion of O'Donnell's letter when the two prisoners escaped in early June, telling the Daily News, "This is a serious situation and shouldn't be used as an opportunity to push an agenda."

Gallivan said that he has heard anecdotal evidence from corrections officials that body cameras are helpful in reducing violence and that he has an open mind about their employment.

The senator added he is still in the early planning stages of the hearings and that developments in the criminal investigation could change things drastically. "We're going to let any criminal investigations run their course and I expect that could be sometime in the fall. Meanwhile, staffing is a budget issue, so I'd like to get this done before next year's budget."

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by David King, Albany Editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Breaking Down the City Budget


de blasio mark-viverito budget

Mayor & Speaker at budget announcement (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


Wednesday, July 1, marked the beginning of the new fiscal year under a $78.6 billion budget agreed upon by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council.

When he unveiled his preliminary budget outline in February, de Blasio hailed the plan as “scrupulously fiscally responsible.” The 2016 budget continues a trend of increased spending: from 2010 to 2014, the budget increased at an average of around 4 percent per year. The first budget of the de Blasio administration increased spending by 6.3 percent. Now, the second de Blasio budget has grown 5.2 percent from 2015.

“[Fiscal 2015] was his first year and he was able to implement a lot of his new initiatives,” explained Rachel Bardin of Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan and nonprofit civic organization. The increased spending went toward funding programs like universal pre-K, issuing municipal IDs, and homelessness prevention. Spending also increased as the mayor settled contracts with labor unions - de Blasio inherited a situation where all of the city’s municipal unions were working under expired contracts.

This year, the budget has grown again, raising several eyebrows. Part of this growth is due to an increase in personnel, including the hiring of an additional 1,297 police officers. An increased city headcount is expensive not only due to annual salaries, but also because of health care and pension costs. While de Blasio has expanded spending, he has also grown the savings funds the city keeps, able to do both because of the flush times the city is enjoying.

The trend of growth in spending has prompted a cautious attitude in some, including city Comptroller Scott Stringer, who called on the de Blasio administration to find steeper agency savings and allocate more money toward budgetary reserves. Bardin, of CBC, warns of the implications of the uptick in spending if there is an economic downturn— the likelihood of which is “inevitable,” according to a CBC statement. De Blasio and his budget team agree. The mayor struck a very serious tone during his May executive budget presentation, warning that the economy will certainly not continue to grow as it has been.

“We have additional spending built into the budget and our revenues in the downturn wouldn’t be able to support that,” Bardin told Gotham Gazette. With insufficient funds to support the increased spending, a situation could occur in which the city must consider raising taxes, laying off employees, and ending or reducing programs.

But Doug Turetsky, Chief of Staff for the Independent Budget Office, pushed back against the idea of an inevitable economic downturn and cited the unprecedented $1 billion the administration just put into the city’s general reserve fund. During the previous administration, the fund typically contained $300 million, Capital New York reported.

“Neither we nor the administration has forecasted a downturn,” Turetsky said. “We both forecast slower job growth than we’ve seen in the last couple of years but we still see a growing economy. It’s a risk because there hasn’t been this long of an expansion in forever. But there’s always risks in any forecast.”

At a CBC event in May, New York City Budget Director Dean Fuleihan said that the city has set aside funds in three different reserves. “We have been extremely cautious and realistic in our projections,” he said. “Even though we are in a growing economy, we will continue to come back and do more and more on savings.”

Meanwhile, the City Council has been trying to further increase transparency by calling for more units of appropriation within the budget, that is more line items with specifics of which programs are being funded. Council Member Julissa Ferreras, who chairs the Council’s finance committee and helps lead budget negotiations with the mayor’s administration, has had several public exchanges with Fuleihan where she has insisted on greater transparency via units of appropriation. In announcing the final budget, Ferreras trumpeted increased specificity, but said there is more work to be done.

While Bardin feels that the spending plan is largely transparent, she added, “There are certain items that are difficult to track within the budget.”

In an effort at greater transparency, we break down the budget below. First, it is important to note that the “city budget” most refer to and that we have discussed thus far is the expense budget, for operational, programmatic, and personnel expenses, which for fiscal 2016 is $78.6 billion. This includes money to be spent by the City Council and by City Council members in their districts. There is also the city’s capital budget, money dedicated for construction and infrastructure spending. In this big bucket there is also spending by the Council and individual members.

Expense Budget— $78.6B
The expense budget funds city government services. All city agencies, the City Council, and the borough presidents get their operational funding from the expense budget, as do the Comptroller and the Public Advocate; including funding for salaries and pensions of city employees and other operational costs of government offices such as rent, utilities, and office supplies.

The budget includes $21.9 billion for the Department of Education, $5.1 billion for the NYPD, and $9.7 billion to the Department of Social Services. It includes $61 million for the City Council, $94 million for the Comptroller’s Office; and $3.4 million for the Public Advocate’s Office.

This year’s expense budget includes $25 million for the Borough Presidents’ offices, appropriating $5.8 million to the Brooklyn borough president, $5.65 million to the Bronx borough president, $5.15 million to Queens, $4.7 million to Manhattan and allocated $4.3 million for the Staten Island borough president.

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The expense budget also funds the city’s debt service— money required to cover the repayment of interest and principal on a debt. The city’s 2015-2016 expense budget allocates $2.93 billion for debt service.

Schedule C- $52.6 million
City Council discretionary funds make up a relatively small portion of the expense budget, but are traditionally among the most scrutinized pieces of the budget, and released in a document called “Schedule C.” Council members are allocated discretionary funds to give to nonprofit organizations that benefit their district and constituents.

In May 2014, reforms were made in an attempt to make the distribution of these funds more equal and transparent— the allocation was previously controlled at the whims of the Speaker, who could use the discretionary funds to reward allies and punish enemies. Reforms ushered in under new Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and other members brought a uniform system, with each Council member now receiving a base of $400,000, and an additional $25,000, $50,000, $75,000, or $100,000 based on the poverty level of their district. Council members receiving the maximum amount of $500,000 include Maria del Carmen Arroyo, Fernando Cabrera, Vanessa Gibson, and Ritchie Torres— all from the Bronx— as well as Mark-Viverito, who represents East Harlem and part of the Bronx.

As Speaker, Mark-Viverito also has access to an additional $16 million, for allocating what is known as the ‘Speaker’s List,’ money to go to organizations and initiatives at the Speaker’s discretion and at the request of Council members.

This year, the Speaker’s List heavily funds projects in Brooklyn, including allocating $340,000 to the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce; $255,000 to Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation; and $250,000 to El Puente Williamsburg, a community human rights organization. Eric Adams, the Brooklyn Borough President, was also the only borough president who received additional funding— $100,000— from the Council for employee compensation. Adams’ office also received $100,000 last year for “personal services enhancement,” along with that of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. Though some have said Brooklyn has long been underfunded despite being the most populous borough, others point to political favors or special needs as the borough booms.

Two organizations that see the most funding by the Council are Catholic Charities Community Services, which is set to receive $666,000 ($130,000 from the Speaker herself, using both funds allocated to her as a council member and the Speaker’s List) and the Hispanic Federation ($166,000 funded by the Speaker).

Capital Budget: $13.9B
The capital budget is distinct from the expense budget, and used to finance large physical infrastructure projects. The infrastructure funded through the capital budget can be either for government use, such as government offices or for public use, such as roads, schools, and parks. For any project to be funded from the capital budget, it should cost at least $35,000 and be useable for at least five years, according to the IBO. Almost all capital funding goes through city agencies. The capital budget also includes discretionary funds for Council members and borough presidents.

Last year, 24 Council Members chose to implement the 2014-2015 cycle of participatory budgeting, a process in which district constituents are allowed to propose projects and vote on how a portion of the capital funds their council member has control over should be used ($1-2 million per district).

Additionally, the five borough presidents are given the power by the City Charter to allot portions (this year 5 percent) of the city’s capital budget to fund construction projects or improvements to infrastructure. Those portions are then allocated to city agencies or nonprofit organizations. In late June, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer announced her office would allocate $30 million in capital grants to projects including playground and athletic field restorations at public parks and tech improvements at CUNY and SUNY campuses.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz announced that she would allocate $200,000 of her capital funds to purchase and install real-time bus countdown clocks at the borough’s busiest bus stops.

“Capital grants give us the opportunity to both fix nagging problems and invest in our neighborhoods’ future,” Brewer said in a statement sent to press. “Whether we’re fixing the roof at a branch library, renovating a playground, or building out a new computer lab at a local school, these capital grants are going to strengthen our communities and improve people’s lives.”

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by Catie Edmondson and Zehra Rehman, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette



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