Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



De Blasio's Cuts to Jail Oversight Must Not Stand

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Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

New Yorkers are beyond tired of the tale of two mayors: one who claims to be committed to substantive reform of New York City’s criminal legal and jail systems and another who resists, delays, and undermines efforts to address the deep injustices of those same systems. The first mayor touts his support for closing Rikers Island jails, ending solitary confinement, and releasing people from jail at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak — though he came to these positions only under constant pressure by advocates, and we are often reminded that he has not truly understood our demands.

The other mayor tells a very different story with his actions, such as his support for expanding the use of bail (and willingness to amplify his NYPD’s efforts to spread fear about bail reform), his choice to prioritize the jobs of police and correction officers over human services, his unwillingness to address ongoing abuse by law enforcement, and most recently, his plans to cut jobs at the Board of Correction by 31% compared to last year.

For most New Yorkers, the Board of Correction may be a relatively unknown agency. The BOC is an oversight board that regulates, monitors, and inspects facilities run by the Department of Correction (DOC). The Board is supported by a small staff of 25 that is already too small to fully meet its mandate. The Board’s budget is only 0.23% of the Department of Correction’s budget, compared to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a police oversight entity whose budget is now set at 1% of the NYPD’s personnel budget.

The BOC’s oversight role is at least as crucial as the CCRB’s, if not more. The NYPD’s brutality can sometimes be seen in public, recorded by cell phone cameras, and shared widely, but abuse of people in the city’s jails happens behind locked doors, and only the Department of Correction and Board of Correction have access to the video evidence.

Over the five years that DOC has been under a federal monitor for excessive use of force against people in their custody, use of force has only increased — to rates now 105% higher than in 2016. This month, New York City settled a $5.9 million lawsuit with the family of Layleen Polanco, and recently disciplined 17 correction officers involved in her death, after an extensive report by the Board. In the wake of COVID-19, the Board has also served an essential role in advocating to keep incarcerated people safe (including by releasing people), and compiling regular reports about management of COVID-19 in the jails. These reports have been critical in substantiating the sweeping claims by people in custody that safety protocols touted by the Department of Correction have not been happening in practice. The voices of people in custody are too often discredited by prosecutors, judges, and other stakeholders, leaving the Board’s monitoring and subsequent reporting essential to elevating the many safety concerns voiced from inside the jails.

There has probably never been a worse time to cut back on jail oversight. Despite the revenue shortfalls New York City is facing, this disaster can be avoided by looking to a much more appropriate place for budget cuts: the department that is perpetrating these abuses against New Yorkers. The Department of Correction has more than two uniformed officers for every person in custody — amounting to the highest jail staffing ratio in the United States, more than eight times higher than the national average. Despite that ratio, the Department’s budget still includes over $60 million for overtime. The Federal Nunez Monitor’s most recent report said that this overstaffing is actually driving more violence against people in the jails, especially through Probe Teams (essentially riot squads), which still have an operating budget over $37 million.

Mayor de Blasio faces a clear choice here, and the decision he makes will have life-and-death consequences for people in the custody of his Department of Correction. He can choose to cut the Board of Correction budget and worsen the human rights crisis on Rikers Island and in all city jails. Or he can preserve the Board’s budget and essential functions, a necessary step that must be followed by further action to finally end the Department of Correction’s reign of terror.

Darren Mack and Roger Clark are formerly incarcerated leaders and members of the Jails Action Coalition. On Twitter @iamdarrenmack & @JailsAction.

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4 Steps to Fix the City’s Ongoing School Reopening Failures

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Mayor and Chancellor on first day of school (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

This city continues to fail us as we attempt to begin the school year safely. Not utilizing any of the months since March to make a safe, equitable reopening plan is unacceptable, and the constant changes to the plan are throwing the lives of many families and educators into complete disarray. It’s time to chart a better path.

Each week brings daily changes as leadership continually pulls the rug out from under students, parents, and educators. Late last Tuesday evening, the night before teachers were set to meet their students online, the mayor announced yet another change to the remote learning policy: students in the hybrid learning model will no longer be guaranteed live remote instruction. Some students will learn from a computer while at school.

The number of teachers and administrators testing positive for COVID-19 has continued to rise, increasing the concern that positive cases only grow as students and teachers come back to school.

Next, just four days before school was to start in-person, the mayor announced another delay, pushing the start of school back to the beginning of October for many students.

As a special education teacher in our public school system and the parent of two young children, as well as a candidate for City Council, I have been speaking out about the inexcusably poor handling of this disjointed reopening planning for months. There is no doubt that the mayor and the Department of Education completely neglected their responsibilities to our students, our educators, and their families. 

Throughout the processes of the closure and reopening of schools, shortsighted planning has been incredibly harmful and led to confusion and stress for our educators and families. Educators need to plan how we will meet the social-emotional, mental health, and academic needs of our children, while families want the best for our children and need to be able to plan for our own work schedules. This lack of planning has been an all-too-frequent hallmark of the current administration, which has let down students, educators, and most New Yorkers on schools and much more.

Instead of treating every student as if they have the same needs, our City needs to reimagine how we’re approaching school reopening, just as we need to reimagine every aspect of our city’s recovery to ensure it is both deliberate and just. Here are four key steps:

Clarify safety standards. According to the Department of Education’s website, a classroom can be cleared by having “at least one functioning method of ventilation,” which could be “a window that opens, a type of mechanical ventilation (exhaust fan, supply fan, unit ventilator) or a combination of the both.” However, even Donald Trump’s EPA notes that “Even with an open window or door, natural ventilation can be limited if inside and outside temperatures are similar and there is little wind.” We must have rigorous and transparent standards regarding our safety if we are to build confidence and trust in a school’s ability to host in-person learning.

Recognize the dual roles of schools as places of learning for our next generation and of child care so parents can go to work, while understanding that different students and families have different needs. We should prioritize in-person learning for students with disabilities, young students, English language learners, students from high-need homes (homeless, food insecure, etc.), and students from families with other major needs, allowing them to have as many days and hours of in-person learning as possible.

With that in mind, older students who are more self-sufficient and independent -- mainly high school students, with exceptions for high-needs students and families -- should have all-remote learning, with the opportunity to participate in counseling and extracurriculars as needed. After all, a 5-year-old with a disability has a greater need for more robust in-person learning than a 16-year-old student. Their educational and emotional needs are not the same, and a family’s child-care needs are not the same with regard to different age groups.

I agree with the latest decision by the city to phase in in-person learning beginning with the students that need it most, but it is insulting that they announced the change days before school was to start in-person for everyone participating in blended learning. Even with this, there would still be many families who want their children to learn remotely, which would be feasible as there will still be teachers who will teach remotely.

Be resourceful in maximizing our space, especially as the weather changes. While there are many avenues to utilize outdoor spaces like recess yards, NYC Parks, and closed off streets, this is only viable until it becomes unsafe to spend extended periods of time outside. If fewer high school students are in attendance, those buildings can be put to use for younger students or students with additional needs. If we want to further consolidate the number of school buildings in use, we can also be flexible with scheduling for older students, which is made easier by the fact that many high schools’ in-person models do not have students in attendance for a full school day anyway. 

Provide more consistent guidance and recognize the hardship parents, students, and teachers are dealing with as we adjust schedules and teaching plans last minute. The mayor and his administration have continually disrespected parents, students, and teachers with plans changing at the last minute. Once we begin in-person learning, deadlines must be given and held. Teachers and parents deserve to know the benchmarks and timelines for ensuring school is safe and meeting the needs of all students. 

For weeks, students, parents, and educators have been sounding the alarm about the city’s preparedness for school, and it is incredibly frustrating that the city’s leadership continues to fail us. Parents made decisions based on promises from the city, and the city’s inability to plan adequately reflects the incompetence of the planning and implementation of a coherent plan.

We can’t have a functioning city without consistent guidance and residents trusting city leadership. We need leaders who listen to New Yorkers and who can reimagine the way we educate our children -- and we deserve better, more creative approaches for those who feel forgotten by the bureaucracies at the Department of Education and City Hall.

Eric Dinowitz is a special education teacher and a candidate for City Council in the 11th District in the Bronx. On Twitter @EricDinowitz.

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AirTrain LaGuardia is Economic Stimulus New York Needs to Turn The Corner

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Rendering of the Airtrain LaGuardia (photo: A Better Way to LGA )

When it comes to rebuilding an economy mired in crisis, my brothers and sisters in the Building and Construction Trade unions have been on the front lines time and time again. We know that building back our economy always begins with building up our infrastructure better than before. And today is no different.

AirTrain LaGuardia is a perfect example of an infrastructure project that can lead the way in putting New York City back on its feet. Construction of AirTrain will get 3,000 skilled union members back to work in good-paying jobs at a time when those jobs – and the additional economic activity they will create – are sorely needed.

Members of the building and construction trades suffered greatly during the pandemic. At one point during the spring, 975,000 construction workers around the nation were unemployed as job sites shut down due to the deadly threat of COVID-19.

Yet at projects deemed essential here in New York, including the building of a new LaGuardia Airport, our union workers continued to show up every day. We worked with our partners to make the job site as safe as possible, and we kept the project moving forward on time, as you saw with the opening of a new Terminal B in June.

Thousands of construction workers at LaGuardia earn a paycheck, support their families, pay their mortgages, and patronize local businesses around the airport. Infrastructure projects like AirTrain LaGuardia will continue that opportunity, not only supporting our construction workers, but supporting entire communities.

That’s why we at Laborers’ Union Local No. 731 strongly support AirTrain LaGuardia, which will create the kinds of jobs we need most – jobs that are a pathway to the middle class. And thanks to expansive apprenticeship programs offered by the Building and Construction Trades Council of New York, as well as our local, these are jobs that are increasingly filled by people of color, women, and military veterans from right here in the five boroughs.

AirTrain LaGuardia, like the transformation of LaGuardia Airport, will also create new opportunities for Minority- and Women-Led Business Enterprises and local businesses based in Queens. More than $1.4 billion in contracts were awarded to MWBE firms for work at LaGuardia Airport. Roughly $500 million in contracts went to Queens-based companies. AirTrain will continue that policy of equity.

LaGuardia Airport is the only major airport on the East Coast without a rail mass-transit link. That was unacceptable in years past and it is even more unacceptable going forward as our workers build the nation’s most technologically sophisticated, efficient, and beautiful airport in the country.

AirTrain would create a dependable ride from the airport to Midtown Manhattan, taking less than 30 minutes with a connection at Willets Point to either the LIRR or the No. 7 subway. Based on surveys of passengers at LaGuardia, as many as 10 million travelers a year would use AirTrain, removing millions of vehicles annually from congested highways and local streets.

Unlike the other alternatives, some of which have been debated for decades, AirTrain LaGuardia would take no private property and would not run through any residential neighborhood or commercial districts. It would be separated from the nearest homes by the eight-lane Grand Central Parkway.

This is a project that can get done. The Port Authority and our union workers have a track record of completing major infrastructure, including AirTrain JFK, a project that I am proud to have worked on for four years as a shop steward. Our skilled union workers built AirTrain JFK, which has been successful far beyond expectations, outpacing paid ridership projections by 55 percent and serving as a catalyst for more than $1 billion in private and public investment in downtown Jamaica.

A new AirTrain LaGuardia connecting to expanded LIRR and subway service could play the same role by jumpstarting the redevelopment of a blighted, industrial site at Willets Point into a new neighborhood with mixed-income housing, shops, hotels, a new school and new parks astride some of the city’s great attractions, creating even more jobs for our building and construction trades and opportunity for all New Yorkers.

We can no longer afford to waver and delay before moving forward. Waiting is not an option during an economic crisis. Now is the time to invest in a 21st century infrastructure for a 21st century post-covid economy by moving forward with AirTrain LaGuardia. The skilled men and women of our New York’s Building and Construction Trades Council, including Laborers Local 731, stand ready.

Carmine D’Amato is the Assistant Business Manager for Laborers’ Union Local No. 731

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Economic Development in a Pandemic: Let's Launch The Bronx Reconstruction Program

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A ground-breaking in the Bronx (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

Recent events have made it abundantly clear that the Bronx needs new, creative solutions. To rebound and rebuild stronger from the crises we face, we need policies that bring equity to economic opportunity; sustainable, liveable neighborhoods with great local schools; resilient communities; affordable, accessible transportation; and local input from the community about decisions affecting the community.

In that spirit and as part of my candidacy for New York City Council in the Bronx’s District 11, I am proposing that the Bronx become a pilot for a job-creation program modeled on, but more equitable than, the Civilian Conservation Corps started by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression.

The Bronx Pandemic Reconstruction Program would include free training and education so that all Bronxites are equipped with the skills for adapting and thriving in the 21st century. The program would focus on communities of color and the communities most severely impacted by the pandemic-spurred economic collapse.

The Bronx Pandemic Reconstruction Program would create 10,000 jobs by offering unprecedented training opportunities across five tracks. Free, degree-pathway classes at area CUNY and SUNY schools will prepare program participants to undertake key roles:

Green technology jobs that will help us transition away from fossil fuels and improve local resilience, like building retrofits and renewable-energy projects for local solar and geothermal power.

Infrastructure rebuilding jobs to repair our crumbling schools, roads, and community spaces.

Entrepreneurship and incubation to create nonprofit organizations and socially responsible businesses focused on the arts, environment (composting and community gardens), transit and micro-transit, public safety, independent bookstores, high-tech, urban agriculture, food production and distribution.

Elder Care jobs to eliminate isolation and provide transportation, age-appropriate programming, and health-related supervision.

Child Care jobs to ensure that parents can work and young adults can become mentors (more below).

Child Care
After months of lockdown, remote work, and online education, many parents know that they can manage either their jobs or their kids, but not both at the same time. Meanwhile, teenage and young-adult unemployment in the Bronx has skyrocketed as jobs in retail shops, bars, and restaurants have disappeared. As part of the Bronx Pandemic Reconstruction Program, parents across the Bronx could join with others to form their children into “pods,” small groups of 6 to 10 children, who can be cared for by teenagers and young adults employed by the BPRP as tutors, counselors (for hours when children are not in school due to split shifts and staggered days, or after-school hours), and coaches.

With commercial space more widely available as businesses have shut down, these pods can be out of the house but competently supervised by their BPRP minders in neighborhood outdoor and indoor locations, arranged by the BPRP.

Financing the Bronx Pandemic Reconstruction Program
The infrastructure track of the Bronx Reconstruction Program easily can be underwritten by existing New York City capital funds. In the case of grants for social and for-profit entrepreneurs as well as subsidizing green-tech jobs, we can seek public-private partnerships with the city’s biggest banks and corporations, which must step up as they did during New York City’s financial crisis of the 1970s. For elder and child care, we can mine the large pockets of waste that exist in the New York City budget for job creation.

These ideas may seem daring, but the city is facing an unprecedented crisis requiring innovative solutions. We are confronted by a public health crisis, structural racism, and
poor financial planning locally and nationally. To surmount them, we must face them head-on as a unified community in order to protect our families and our neighborhoods, as well as the greater borough and city we call home.

Jessica Haller is a candidate for City Council in the 11th District in the Bronx. On Twitter @JessicaHaller.

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New York Has An Incarceration Problem. Letting People Go Is The Answer

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Governor Cuomo at a correctional facility (photo: governor's office)

The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, and scores of Black Americans have once again put a spotlight on the brutality of policing in this country. But policing is only one part of a criminal legal system that was founded on dehumanizing and oppressing Black people. There are countless Black lives, including those of Kalief Browder, Layleen Polanco, Benjamin Smalls, and Lulu Benson-Seay, that have been taken away in jails, prisons, and detention centers across New York. Now is the time to address the full spectrum of this racist harm and send people home.

Over 48,000 New Yorkers are incarcerated in jails and prisons across the state, and the COVID-19 crisis we’re experiencing on the outside is substantially worse for people in these facilities. The reality is that COVID-19 was bound to ravage jails and prisons, which have always been breeding grounds for poor health outcomes.

Social distancing cannot be practiced in crowded cages. Proper personal protective equipment is not readily available at facilities made for the people most marginalized in our society. And slowing the spread of the virus is not possible when testing is limited or unavailable. All of these factors make prisons, jails, and detention centers hotspots for the virus, yet New York has done far too little to address this issue. Elected leaders, especially Governor Cuomo, instead added fuel to the fire by leading the charge to roll back historic bail reforms and creating a prison nursing home — all during the peak of the pandemic.

This failure to free more people resulted in lost lives, including my fellow Brooklynite Leonard Carter. Leonard was granted parole in January 2020 after serving 25 years behind bars. He was eager to go home and hug his grandson for the first time. Unfortunately, Leonard died six weeks before his release date even after the Parole Board approved his prison departure. Leonard is one of dozens of people effectively sentenced to death by Cuomo’s prison system during COVID-19.

After months of calls from advocates to address this crisis head-on, the New York State Senate is finally holding a hearing on the impact of COVID-19 in jails and prisons today — Tuesday, September 22. Legislators will hear testimonials from directly-impacted community members and their families, and from advocates who are on the frontlines of reform. But this hearing will mean nothing without action. COVID-19 is a clear and present danger to the lives of every incarcerated individual, corrections worker, and those they come into contact with after their shifts. The time to act is now.

First, we need to send people home and keep them home. The Governor must utilize his clemency power and significantly reduce the elder and immunocompromised populations in prison, in addition to all the people who are within one year of release. The Legislature must meaningfully reduce the incarcerated population while ensuring that more people are not being introduced to the system, especially during this pandemic. That means passing the Elder Parole and Fair & Timely Parole bills in Albany, stopping the reincarceration of people for technical parole violations, and forcefully protecting bail reform from further rollbacks (which caused an uptick in the state’s jail population for the first time in a year).

This also requires improving conditions for people currently inside by offering meaningful and frequent amounts of PPE, including masks, hand sanitizer, soap, and other cleaning and health care products. It means testing everyone for the virus and offering multiple follow-up tests. It means passing the HALT Solitary Confinement Act to put an end to the abusive practice of solitary confinement, which has only increased since the pandemic began several months ago. And it means reconnecting people with their families by offering safe opportunities for visits and regular communication with loved ones on the outside.

We must also remember the more than 300 people in the Buffalo Federal Immigration Detention Facility in Batavia, New York who are similarly experiencing horrid conditions. The federal government must halt its inhumane family separation and detention policies, and instead work towards comprehensive reform that supports our immigrant neighbors and ultimately puts an end to detention centers that are by their nature harmful and deadly.

It is critical that we stand with the tens of thousands of incarcerated New Yorkers and their families and fight for their health and safety like our lives depend on it. Our response to this pandemic is only as strong as the people most harmed in our society, and we can’t let them down any longer.

Jabari Brisport is the Democratic nominee for State Senate in Brooklyn’s 25th District. On Twitter @JabariBrisport.

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Covid Must Change How We Handle Rikers and the Future of Jails in New York City

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Council Member Carline Rivera, the author (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

Like most New Yorkers who lived through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am still reeling from the trauma and chaos we experienced this spring. But until I set foot on Rikers Island last week, I had an incomplete understanding of what the true horrors of COVID-19 were for some of our most vulnerable New Yorkers.

At the height of the pandemic, Rikers saw an infection rate seven times higher than the rest of the city. The Department of Correction (DOC) was forced to reopen a shuttered facility on the island to quarantine suspected covid patients when existing isolation wards and clinics reached capacity. Numerous incarcerated New Yorkers, Correction staff, and health care workers died as limited use of PPE and testing allowed the virus to spread like wildfire in closed, poorly-ventilated cell blocks.

Today, with low infection rates citywide, many may view the risk to those at Rikers to be over, but if a second wave does arrive this winter, as many scientists predict, Rikers will once again be directly in the disease’s crosshairs. It’s clear to me from the stories of whistleblowers and the conditions I just saw at the jail that there are many vulnerabilities that still exist - from inconsistent use of PPE and social distancing by staff, to sleeping situations that still place some incarcerated individuals just a few feet apart

Even if DOC commits to adopting solutions at a City Council hearing I am holding on this issue, there is only so much we can do to protect people housed in this decrepit facility.

The de Blasio administration already recognized that, when in April they began a dramatic increase in early release for incarcerated individuals. The Mayor’s Office and DOC worked quickly to identify individuals for early release, including older adults, those with underlying health conditions, those being held on technical parole violations, and those serving city sentences of under a year. In a few short weeks, we went from 5,557 people in Department of Correction custody to only 3,800 - a population drop that had previously been projected to take years to reach (the census has since crept back up to just over 4,100). And analyses show these early releases saw fewer repeat arrests than would be expected for normal release populations pre-covid.

Even with the rapid reduction, jails like Rikers have still been scrambling for space to social distance. Over the last few months, the city’s Correctional Health Services recommended more than 1,500 additional individuals be released, including hundreds who meet the same requirement that were provided for early release in April. Unfortunately, many of these recommendations continue to be rejected by DOC, which refuses to release the total number of approved releases. 

Continuing to release people in DOC custody, while implementing policy solutions to reduce arrests overall, will save lives not just on the inside but in New York City as a whole. Justice and public health advocates have identified the “jail churn,” the phenomenon by which people are cycled through jails for short periods of time, where they risk exposure to covid, and are then released back into their communities. 

But one day COVID-19 will come to an end, and with the plan to close Rikers and open four smaller borough-based jails delayed until 2027 by the city’s shrunken budget, we should take this opportunity to consider how we can safely reduce the city’s current jail population beyond the pandemic, while interrogating how the physical structure of jails negatively impacts public health, and what any new jails will look like in terms of safety and scope. 

This won’t happen overnight, but we can take steps while prioritizing safety and public health. First, we as a city and state must take every possible action to reduce the number of arrests made, remove officers with histories of police misconduct, and work to dismantle the system that enables the ‘blue wall of silence.’ The state can also pass laws to remove unnecessary criminal statutes (like the “Walking While Trans” Ban) and reinstate the portions of historic bail reforms that were sadly rolled back in the wake of pressure from police unions. And we can continue to redistribute funding from our police departments towards community programs proven to be more effective at reducing recidivism.

At the same time, the Mayor’s Office could work with DOC to compile an annual report on city jail populations and corresponding recommendations on how to reduce that overall population in a time-sensitive manner beyond the census projected for the post-Rikers borough-based jails. Since demolition work at the proposed jail sites has yet to begin, these reports could influence the size of the currently proposed local jails each year before construction begins. 

COVID-19 has completely changed how we view our society and work to address its failings, including the systemic and racist inequities that ravage communities of color. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t use this opportunity to ensure we are constantly reviewing our criminal justice reform efforts, from Rikers today and into the future. 

City Council Member Carlina Rivera represents the 2nd District in Manhattan and chairs the Council’s hospitals committee. On Twitter @CarlinaRivera.

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Without Federal Aid, MTA Bloodbath Will Be Even Worse Than Its ‘Doomsday’ Plan

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Subway ridership (photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

We agree with the MTA that its fate hinges on the federal government, which must provide the MTA at least $10 billion in federal emergency funds through the end of 2021 to prevent the end of the New York City region’s mass transit system as we know it. 

The MTA’s options without federal aid from its August “doomsday” plan are all terrible. Worse, they are far from exaggerations and are a glimpse into a possible, very grim future. The parade of horribles range from service cuts and fare hikes to chopping major capital investments to wage freezes. Yet all the unthinkable options in the plan together won’t make up the entirety of the agency’s deficits. This means that all of the MTA’s doomsday scenarios together aren’t a complete picture of the possible devastation that would occur to our transit system without federal aid. 

If you take all the “doomsday” cuts together, they add up to nearly $15 billion through 2024. In the short-term, however, the MTA would still be short by more than $2 billion through 2021. Looking further into the future, with these cuts and reductions sustained for four painful years, the MTA is still short by more than $1 billion through 2024, given total COVID-related losses of more than $16 billion.

  2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 Total, 2020-2024
MTA Deficit from August “Doomsday” Proposal  -$3,198  -$5,844  -$3,485  -$1,776  -$1,959  -$16,262
Reinvent Albany Sum of MTA Doomsday Proposals  $2,055  $4,664  $2,347  $2,884  $2,968  $14,919
Amount of Deficit Remaining after Using all Doomsday Plan Options  -$1,143  -$1,180  -$1,138  $1,108  $1,009  -$1,343


The MTA was clear in its August presentation that these are potential cuts and options, but not yet final proposals. Some board members noted that the plan didn’t make up the entirety of the deficit, and a final, balanced budget will need to be adopted by the end of 2020. Without federal funding, the MTA could be forced to turn these possibilities into real, ruinous cuts. In doing our own analysis of the plan, we are seeking to read between the lines of the MTA’s doomsday options and understand exactly what is at stake for riders. Our graph below shows all the MTA’s proposals together.

 Not included in the doomsday proposal is any deficit financing in the form of borrowing from the public markets or private banks for operating expenses. The MTA is, however, proposing deferring as many expenses as possible, such as the payroll taxes that would have been due in 2020 as authorized by the federal CARES Act. MTA CFO Bob Foran called the ability to delay this payment “basically an interest-free loan” from the federal government. The MTA is also seeking to defer payments to its employee pension accounts. Paying back these deferrals in 2022-2024 results in the negative values seen in the chart above. 

The MTA has already tapped $450 million in short-term bonds from the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF), which gave it a better rate than the public market. However, this is less than a nickel on the dollar of what it needs to bridge its deficit through 2021. Borrowing substantially more sums of money to make up the current deficit is a risky endeavor, however. The MTA already has huge debt loads reaching nearly 26% of its expected revenues next year (see below), and taking on more at a time when continual downgrades makes borrowing even more expensive risks crippling the MTA’s future.

Moody’s, in its latest downgrade, specifically noted the possibility of the MTA using deficit financing in its rationale for its downgrade, stating, “While MTA can access deficit financing to alleviate its near-term revenue losses, this solution would be one-time in nature and result in higher debt leverage. Reduced debt capacity would disrupt the timing and implementation of the authority's $55 billion capital program and potentially weaken asset condition and service quality.”

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The Fed could substantially improve the MLF with longer-term and lower- or zero-interest loans. This is one way that a limited amount of borrowing wouldn’t put the MTA in an even worse financial situation. Only the federal government has the power to set this type of monetary policy and “print” billions in emergency aid.

Transit Service Cuts and Fare Hikes - $6 Billion through 2024
Possible doomsday service cuts include a 40% reduction on the subways and buses and 50% reduction on the commuter railroads. Yet what would be the most dramatic impact to MTA riders makes a surprisingly small dent on the MTA’s deficit: 40% subway and bus service cuts only amount to $880 million in annual “savings,” 50% commuter railroad service cuts only reduces expenses $160 million a year, and Access-A-Ride cuts would be $65 million a year, together only reducing the deficit by $1.1 billion in 2021. While these cuts together are the largest component of the doomsday plan, the MTA is expected to lose $6 billion in 2021 alone, so these devastating potential service cuts to mass transit are only a small part of the reductions that would need to be made.

The impact of service cuts cannot be minimized, however. Riders Alliance presented their own doomsday map in July, showing visually on the subway map what taking away half of subway service could look like and saying that cuts would be “a crime against the city and its millions of residents, and a deep, self-inflicted wound to the national economy.” These cuts would have real, negative impacts on riders’ commutes, with subway headways (the time between trains arriving) increasing by 8 minutes, and bus headways by 15 minutes. This means longer commutes, and more likelihood of missing job interviews and child-care pickups, and a much slower, worse economic recovery for the region. 

While no specific lines were identified for reductions on the subways and buses, the MTA identified two possible commuter rail cuts. Eliminating West of Hudson service on Metro North Railroad would reduce expenses by $25 million annually, and save the MTA $1.2 billion in planned capital costs. Long Island Railroad could also delay even further the start of East Side Access (ESA) service, which would reduce expenses by $250 million. East Side Access was anticipated to start in 2022 after decades of work on the troubled project. Pre-COVID, ESA’s operating costs were expected to be more than what riders would pay in fares for the service, making this choice logical in the short-term, but a head-scratcher in terms of the overall cost/benefit of the project. The State Comptroller said ESA operating costs will reach $205 million in 2023, but raise only $14 million in fare revenue.

The pain of these transit cuts could be exacerbated by a bigger fare hike than already planned. The MTA typically budgets for fare hikes every two years at 4% each, and the MTA’s August doomsday options float an additional 1% hike, meaning there could be fare hikes of 5% each in 2021 and 2023. To increase fares at a time when nearly 20% of NYC residents are unemployed would be another severe blow to the region’s recovery.

Fare hikes would mean a monthly Metrocard could increase to $140 a month in 2023 from $127 today, or a single-ride would rise to $3 from $2.75. Typically the MTA has sought to keep single-ride prices low, however, while increasing monthly and weekly card costs to limit the hardship for low-income individuals who tend to buy single rides. These fare increases would generate about $300 million extra through 2024. This means that riders would essentially be paying even more for much less. And with a system both less reliable and more expensive, concerns about a “death spiral” with more people choosing not to ride the system are real, and these “savings” projections may not fully factor in a large drop in ridership.

Bridge & Tunnels Toll Increases and Workforce Cuts - $2.7B
Additional workforce reductions and toll hikes are also possible for Bridges & Tunnels (B&T), which is a revenue generator for the MTA and will remain so with traffic on the bridges and tunnels down about 12% in September from 2019 as of the writing of this piece. Tolls of an additional $1 beyond planned 4% increases in 2021 and again in 2023 would bring in considerably more than the possible fare hikes for trains and buses at nearly $2 billion through 2024. Additional funds could be raised from eliminating resident discounts ($65 million annual) and implementing peak pricing ($100 million annual).

While B&T is the “cash cow” for the MTA, raising billions to subsidize mass transit service and increased tolls will help to offset the deficit, it is important to remember that the MTA doesn’t control all bridges into Manhattan. It therefore cannot effect the same type of outcome on gridlock reduction and air control improvement as congestion pricing would. “Toll shopping” is a continual problem for communities neighboring free bridges, and the current toll structures of bridges and tunnels across the region is not rational. Federal approval of congestion pricing remains essential. However, the MTA must consider robust toll increases as part of its deficit reduction plan, as it is one of the few revenue sources it controls on its own.

There is no real “service” equivalent resulting from B&T workforce reductions as would occur for mass transit. The 300-person workforce reduction does have consequences, like increased lane closures, delays in responses to non-critical incidents, less customer-facing maintenance such as painting and landscaping, and less frequent customer messages. (It is too late, however, to pull back on the $30 million in colorful tiles for B&T tunnels as ordered by Gov. Cuomo.) But it’s not like the MTA’s bridges and tunnels would be fully closed down to drivers 40-50% more like the service cuts that would be inflicted on mass transit riders, or the Whitestone Bridge would suddenly be closed to all traffic like the potential closure of West of Hudson Service. 

Therefore the “pain” felt by drivers of an additional $1 toll is largely at the pocketbook rather than the huge opportunity cost of waiting for unreliable and unaffordable mass transit service. (The New York City Comptroller quantified the economic cost of subway delays in 2017 at the recent height of subway meltdowns as $389 million annually, and it is reasonable to see a 40% service reduction having an even worse economic impact.)

Capital Plan Delays/Reduction - $1.5B through 2024
The MTA’s plans also include pausing or reducing the agency’s capital program, which for 2015-2019 is still unfinished, and for 2020-2024 had barely begun. While we have questioned the MTA’s ability to finish its capital plans on time, capital work is essential to keep the system running and there is more than enough decaying infrastructure to fix. The 2020-2024 plan included buying new trains and buses, as well as modern signals to keep trains on schedule, and the MTA’s August doomsday plan indicated that nearly all big-ticket items from the plan are at risk of being “paused”:

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A “pause” on the capital plan is only one possible outcome, however, given that the capital funds may be used for operating costs. The Governor and State Legislature in April gave the MTA the ability to use “lockboxed” 2020-2024 capital funds for operating expenses rather than bonding them out for capital projects after sign-off from the MTA Board and the Director of the Division of the Budget (Robert Mujica, who also sits on the MTA Board). Under the current legislation, this would be allowed through 2021, and could be paid back if enough federal funds come through to both plug the operating budget gaps AND pay back money “borrowed” from the capital plan. 

Without congestion pricing, the amount of lockbox funds available is less than originally anticipated at just under $1 billion through 2024 according to the MTA’s August document. The MTA also floated spending $674 million in “pay as you go” capital funds on operations. Using capital funds for operating may be a prudent short-term solution, but eventually, the system will simply fall apart if it is not maintained. 

The doomsday plan lists so many major projects that could be delayed or cut that it basically says nothing. The process for changing the plan will be rife with politics (much like the adoption of the capital plan itself) and advocates for each of these projects are likely to clash over which are crucial enough to remain in the capital plan. Additionally, changes to the plan will require the sign-off of the Capital Program Review Board, which has appointees from the Governor, state legislative leaders, and New York City Mayor. While the CPRB failed to be formed in December 2019, essentially approving the 2020-2024 plan “by default,” the stakes are even higher now with the possibility of a scaled-back plan, and it seems more likely that the CPRB appointers might want to exercise their votes this time around.

With a reduced capital plan, the MTA’s focus should be on keeping the trains and buses running, not embarking on costly expansion projects whose return on investment is questionable - take East Side Access for example, whose service is on the chopping block because the $11 billion project is going to cost more to run that it will bring in fare revenue, as noted previously. 

Workforce and Non-Service Impacts - $4.3 Billion
Given the workforce reductions that could happen with the massive service cuts -- 7,200 for New York City Transit alone -- the MTA has also listed possible reductions to headquarters’ costs like consulting contracts, something that front-line workers and unions have frequently called for. Cutting consulting contracts would save $310 million through 2024 (though consultants often do essential work on IT systems, for example, that would need to be taken up by MTA staff instead), and the MTA has floated other “non-personnel” reductions of $875 million through 2024. 

The MTA also listed the possibility of either postponed wage freezes (net of zero, but $536 million in deferred costs through 2022) or permanent ones ($1.1 billion in cuts through 2024). Additional workforce reductions of 1,000 workers would cut costs by $125 million annually. 

Overtime cost reduction has been a continual focus of the MTA and more is proposed in the plan at $975 million through 2024. However, with a gutted workforce and a wage freeze ($1.1 billion through 2024), overtime cannot be eliminated entirely and it will be difficult to cut back unless the current workforce is aligned perfectly with the MTA’s needs. With fewer workers available, the goal might be to reduce unplanned overtime, to ensure that the amount budgeted is correct.

Lastly, the MTA is floating deferring a number of employee-related costs. These include payroll taxes originally due in 2020 ($473 million, to be paid back in 2021 and 2022), and pension plan deferrals ($1.8B billion to be paid back 2022-2024). The MTA has also floated using other post-employee benefits (OPEB) trust funds in 2022, freeing up $336 million. However, MTA Chief Financial Officer Bob Foran noted at the August MTA Board presentation that “this is money that was set aside to be invested at a higher return to provide for future health care costs.”

The proceeds from this are unknown in terms of the higher costs MTA would pay without this investment. It is considered best practice to have OPEB trusts, as they will lower costs in the long-term. For all of these items, they are simply helpful for cash flow in the short-term, as the MTA seeks to keep the system running in the absence of federal aid. But eventually these costs will need to be paid back, and the longer the MTA waits for federal funds, the more it will have to resort to measures that risk its ability to provide the type of service that New York City needs for its economic recovery.

Rachael Fauss is senior research analyst for Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @RachaelFauss & @ReinventAlbany.

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New York Should Borrow to Plug Covid Budget Holes, But Not from Private Investors

rontkim fiscal

Mayor de Blasio at a budget presentation (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson are aggressively lobbying the state Legislature to authorize the City of New York to borrow billions of dollars from private financial markets by selling municipal bonds through the Transitional Finance Authority.

Governor Andrew Cuomo also recently announced that if the federal government does not step up with stimulus money for New York, he is also open to borrowing money for our state.

Unfortunately, most people stop paying attention once they hear any financial jargon; the private investors want to keep it that way. In fact, they want the public to think that they are generously swooping in to save thousands of essential government jobs.

This is wholly false, and in bailing out our city and state we must resist borrowing from Wall Street and private investors as much as possible.

Taking private money will make the ultra wealthy even wealthier as, over the next 30 years, they collect hundreds of millions in interest from our city and state revenues. Most of their capital gains won’t even be taxed. New York’s economy will inevitably bounce back, and the 1% will continue to enrich themselves during a global crisis. 

An alternative, more responsible route is to borrow from The Federal Reserve (the Fed). It is openly allowing the city to tap into their vast public resources with a simple “Add to Cart” mouse click.

For the first time in history, the Fed has created the Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF), a new pot of money designed for unprecedented times such to attract borrowers and spark economic reinvestment in communities. The MTA, for example, just secured $451 million in early August at a 1.92% rate, almost 1 point more competitive (or roughly $12 million) than borrowing from private banks. 

Consider this: the Fed is our currency issuer, and it never runs out of money. It is the world’s largest public bank, and it is not lending money in order to profit from natural catastrophes.

Borrowing from the MLF is more like borrowing from a family member with a magical money tree in their backyard -- we don’t really have to worry too much about paying them back on time. Moreover, “debt” to the Fed is not the same. The Fed will never come down on New York to bankrupt us, privatize public services, or negatively impact our credit ratings because their deficit ultimately adds real value to our communities.

Conversely, if New York City opts for private investors and faces another economic downturn in ten years, they will still come to collect, and possibly force us to privatize more public goods to fulfill our debt. 

Opponents of this route, like Wall Street underwriters and investment bankers, will continue telling the city the Fed’s terms and rates are not as competitive. But this is thoroughly dispelled by cases like the MTA's, so what’s really preventing this obvious path back to economic solvency?  

Corporate Democrats are unwilling to draw the line against the rich. Being self-anointed managers of corporate power has narrowed their logic and imaginative capacities. They resist new taxes and public money, two obvious solutions during this economic downturn, because their campaign donors and potential future employers -- maybe Citigroup or Goldman Sachs -- will be cut out of the deal if we turn to the Fed. 

Now is precisely the time to take full advantage of the Fed’s willingness to open up its lending facility to local governments. Leaving new money behind is reckless and irresponsible. It is money we need to make our teachers and kids safe in school, keep our public transit system solvent, and avoid painful job losses. If the Fed is willing to inject new money into municipal bond markets -- at a time when state and local governments need to employ resources and people for much-needed public services and social programs -- we have a moral obligation to take it.

Assemblymember Ron Kim represents parts of Queens. On Twitter @rontkim.

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Time to Say Goodbye to NYPD Buy and Busts

buy guns heroin

NYPD officers (photo: @NYPDnews)

The protests following George Floyd’s murder have amplified two different, yet intertwined demands: to hold police officers accountable and to defund the police. In New York City, the NYPD’s continued use of predatory “buy and bust” operations, which target poor people of color and are conducted by detectives with long misconduct histories, exemplifies the imperative to divert funds away from policing to public health services. 

As a public defender, I have handled dozens of these “buy and bust” cases. These “operations” occur daily and follow a familiar playbook. Typically, an undercover officer approaches a person in the street and attempts to purchase a “baggie” of crack or heroin. At times, the person sells the undercover drugs directly. Other times, the person directs the undercover to a street seller, hoping to receive a small tip in return. Once a buy is complete, a police “back-up” team arrests the person, whether they had completed the sale or only introduced the undercover to a seller. The whole police enterprise then proceeds to replicate the process elsewhere, often conducting six or seven “operations” per day. Public data reveals that over the past five years, these operations led to approximately 43,878 arrests — an average of 8,775 arrests a year, or 24 arrests a day. 

In an unsurprising pattern for the NYPD, these operations target people of color. NYPD data reveals that between 2015-2019, 87% of people arrested in these operations were Black or Latino, a total of 38,290 arrests. Through these operations, New York City arrests, jails, and punishes poor people of color, some of whom are struggling with substance use disorder. Often these operations intentionally target people with substance use issues, one of the most vulnerable groups of individuals in our city. Even prosecutors recognize that substance use underlies many of these arrests and thus routinely extend pleas that incorporate substance abuse treatment programs.

These predatory “buy and bust” operations epitomize a failure to recognize the ineffectiveness and harm of policing — and to shift funding accordingly. Across the country, local governments have begun treating substance use disorder as a public health epidemic. Some of the new approaches address substance use itself, such as providing methadone, clean syringes, and safe injection spaces; others address homelessness and access to alternative pain reduction treatments; and still others are preventative, providing much-needed employment opportunities, child-care, and counseling services. Yet Mayor de Blasio has chosen to continue to police and imprison Black and brown people, rather than to provide assistance and opportunities. 

Drug treatment pleas, which often result from buy and bust arrests, demonstrate the harm caused by attempting to solve a public-health problem through policing and the courts. Many of the individuals who are swept in by these operations are not mentally or physically prepared to cease substance use and to engage productively in a 12- to 24-month program. Instead, they often opt to take treatment pleas because they fear the alternative — a prison sentence. As a result, relapses are common, and even with the help of dedicated, supportive, and caring program staff, clients too often end up imprisoned for long periods of time when they fail to complete their program. Moreover, treatment pleas encourage courts to leave unexamined the police’s conduct, a process slowly eroding constitutional due process protections. Thus, treatment-by-threat is far from the public health-focused approach recommended by experts, and implemented elsewhere. 

Defunding buy and bust operations will free up millions of dollars that could be invested in community-based approaches. Up to ten officers participate in each operation, many of whom are detectives earning high base salaries. Moreover, many of the involved officers collect substantial overtime pay for each operation — booking and jailing six or seven people takes the officers well past the end of their shift. The financial costs associated with these operations are further inflated in the courts. Data from the Bronx Defenders indicates that in 2015-2019, buy and bust cases were pending in court for an average of 97 days, while 1,107 of those 3,201 cases (an enormous 34%) were dismissed. Throughout the litigation of these cases, city funds pay the salaries of public defenders, prosecutors, judges, and court staff — instead of funding community-based services. 

Unsurprisingly, officers involved in serious and repeated misconduct are the ones often conducting these predatory buy and bust operations. Misconduct allegations, including planting and fabrication of evidence, as well as the rape of a teen woman, have dogged Narcotics officers for years. A recent analysis found that 8 of the 10 most-sued officers for misconduct were from Narcotics, the command that conducts these operations. Yet these are not just single “bad apples”: 6.9% of substantiated civilian allegations were made against Narcotics officers and involved a total of 254 different officers. No wonder, then, that prosecutors have ended up dismissing 34% of these cases in the Bronx; the prosecutors themselves do not trust Narcotics officers and the arrests they make. 

Buy and bust operations do nothing to address the needs of the community or help people with substance use issues. It is a self-serving enterprise that helps dirty cops rack up overtime by targeting vulnerable people. 

The mayor has so far failed to heed the calls to defund the police and hold officers accountable. The recent, insufficient cuts to the NYPD budget have all but disappeared amidst sky-rocketing overtime costs propelled by now-debunked claims, while officers with lengthy, violent misconduct records still prowl our streets. If the mayor ever chooses to begin to stand for progress and justice, defunding predatory buy and bust operations, and the bad cops who run them, can be a start. 

Oded Oren is a Criminal Defense Attorney at The Bronx Defenders.

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Uncurb Our Enthusiasm: How the City Can Better Help Restaurants and Keep New Yorkers Moving


Outdoor dining is proving successful (photo: @NYC_DOT)

With the City’s popular Open Streets and Open Restaurants programs, the de Blasio administration has taken important steps forward to support New Yorkers during the pandemic, helping to ensure that people, not just cars, have much needed access to our streets. 

Meanwhile, the success of these programs have been amplified by the continued growth of biking as a safe, socially distanced form of transportation, and by bikeshare’s ongoing expansion into the Bronx and Upper Manhattan. In New York City and elsewhere, restaurants have a long history of prospering in areas that prioritize walking, biking, and mass transit (studies show that restaurants in New York increase sales after Citi Bike stations are installed nearby, and bike lanes have shown to increase retail sales by up to 49%). This current moment is no different - if anything, the complementary nature of good street uses has never been more important.

It’s heartening to see that the city’s outdoor dining program is expected to continue into 2021 and we believe that the Department of Transportation (DOT) can make it even more effective. Specifically, DOT should develop policies addressing curbside space as part of the growing Open Streets and Open Restaurants programs that ensure all new users of our streets, whether restaurants, retail, cultural institutions, and schools can co-exist in limited space, and, most importantly, not disrupt our critical transportation system, including Citi Bike stations. 

While the city’s current approach to outdoor dining approvals and regulation has come with the benefit of flexibility and speed, it has also left a dearth of guidance on how to resolve complicated and unique situations that some businesses and residents may face. Over the last few weeks, as outdoor dining has continued to thrive, and as cyclists use bikeshare more and more, there have been a few instances where these popular users of streetspace have come into unnecessary conflict with each other. Restaurants found themselves unable to take advantage of the outdoor dining program because they were told by the city that the existence of transportation infrastructure like Citi Bike docks, loading zones, or bus stops precluded their ability to participate in the program. 

Combined, outdoor dining and bikeshare stations take up a small fraction of our city’s curb space: Citi Bike docking stations account for just 0.5% of curb space within the footprint of the bikeshare system’s service area. And according to Meera Joshi at Sam Schwartz Engineering, curbside dining eats up a similarly miniscule piece of the streetscape pie, occupying only 0.3% of curbspace.  

Given how integral both services are to our city, and how little space they take up, the city needs to make more space available and be more creative about the footprint of outdoor dining. Specifically, the city should look to take more free parking, which currently occupies around 75% of curbside space in New York City, as a lifeline to struggling businesses and critical transportation modes like biking and buses.  

Moving forward, we encourage the city to change the rules that limit outdoor dining to the spaces immediately in front of a restaurant’s building frontage. Instead, restaurants that may be currently limited or blocked from outdoor dining space due to the placement of critical infrastructure, should be able to access adjacent and available curbside space. We believe that this simple addition will both support our hospitality industry and keep New Yorkers moving. 

The future of New York City requires our leaders to reimagine our assets, including street and curb space, in support of tools that can benefit all New Yorkers.

Tom Birchard is the Owner of Veselka Restaurant. Danny Harris is Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives. On Twitter @veselkanyc and @DannyHarris_TA.

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Busting Industry City Rezoning Myths

industry city hum

Industry City (photo: @IndustryCity)

City Council Member Carlos Menchaca’s July announcement of his intent to vote no on Industry City’s controversial “special innovation zoning district” because Jamestown Properties and investor owners were “ramming through their proposal unchanged,” catalyzed a deluge of appeals to the City Council and Speaker Corey Johnson to break the long-standing tradition of ‘member deference’ on matters pertaining to land use and real estate development.

The New York Daily News followed with three editorials urging Industry City to “build bigger” and “The Council must vote yes” because the stakes for the city are to “build or die.” Members of the City Council - Robert Cornegy (Brooklyn District 36), Ritchie Torres (Bronx District 15), and Donovan Richards (Queens District 31) - penned opinion pieces stating that as a “steward of the public good,” they plan to “do what I believe is right” and vote to approve Industry City’s massive special district and rezoning application. With no direct neighborhood ties or experience, their support is “personally offensive” to Alexa Avilés, Community Board 7 member and candidate in City Council District 38 to replace the term-limited Menchaca.

Amid the ongoing economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rezoning of Industry City has taken on heightened urgency as an engine of job creation in a city facing “a severe blow” to its local economy and “distressingly high” unemployment rates, particularly among immigrants and communities of color. A Chinese language news article reposted in City Limits reported on a letter to City Council Speaker Johnson from Sunset Park’s Chinese immigrant growth coalition, comprised of Community Board 7 members, business and property owners, and local developers expressing their support for an Industry City expansion. Community Board 7 member Kenny Guan, owner of Guan Realty Corp. located in neighboring Dyker Heights, said, “We need to build up locally and in the city and the entire country with jobs especially with the Coronavirus here in Sunset Park.” Mr. Guan also makes an appearance in an Industry City video touting opportunities for local small businesses.

There are zero public dollars at stake here
Supporters of Industry City repeat and perpetuate the false notion that as a “purely private investment,” Industry City, therefore, does not benefit from public subsidy. In a 2015 Crain’s article, Industry City CEO Andrew Kimball noted city and state investments of $115 million for infrastructure upgrades to the sprawling 16 building complex. The city also invested in ferry service and a fiber optic broadband network along Third Avenue to provide high-speed connectivity, and as former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen noted, “If we were not doing all this other stuff, [Industry City] wouldn’t be as successful as they’re going to be.” 

Furthermore, a Partnership for New York City letter signed by 17 organizations including labor unions, local chambers of commerce, and the Real Estate Board of New York, claimed rezoning Industry City “will generate $100 million a year in desperately needed local tax revenue.” Real property taxes are the largest source of city revenues to fund essential public services such as education, housing, transit, and health services. The truth, however, is Industry City has long been a beneficiary of the city’s costliest commercial real estate tax exemption program, the Industrial and Commercial Incentive Program (ICIP), which significantly lowered the amount of tax owed on a commercial property by reducing the property’s assessed value for up to 25 years.

Due to its high cost in foregone commercial property tax revenues, which the Independent Budget Office estimated at $500 million in fiscal year 2008, ICIP was replaced by the Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program in 2008. But, properties with previously approved ICIP tax exemption benefits (such as Industry City) were not affected. 

Despite the perception that Industry City does not benefit from public subsidies, three Industry City buildings have been paying significantly reduced property taxes for nearly two decades. In the case of 639 2nd Avenue, which is one of Industry City’s nine city block-long “finger buildings” connected by a public corridor of boutique retailers dubbed Innovation Alley, its current estimated market value is $36,331,000 but the 2020/2021 taxes will be based on an assessed value of a mere $9,446,240. The 25-year ICIP benefit period for 639 2nd Avenue will end on June 30, 2027. For 882 3rd Avenue, a 12-story building with commercial office tenants, Industry City’s 2020/2021 tax bill will be based on an assessed value of $21,827,520, which is significantly less than half the property’s market value at approximately $60 million. Industry City’s commercial property tax exemptions are, in fact, a public subsidy.

creation cash cowjob

To Bring 20K New Jobs to Sunset Park” 
City Council Member Ritchie Torres’ statement in his co-authored New York Daily News opinion piece, “..Industry City’s application is not about skyscrapers that displace people. It is about jobs that employ New Yorkers in a time of depression-level unemployment,” is particularly myopic and disappointing. As Chair of the Oversight and Investigations Committee, Council Member Torres led a March 2019 joint oversight hearing with Council Member Paul Vallone, Chair of the Economic Development Committee, to demand an account of Mayor de Blasio’s New York Works jobs plan. Describing the mayor’s plan to create 100,000 “good-paying” jobs by 2027 as “glorified wishful thinking,” Council Member Torres was a fierce advocate for accountability of the mayor’s “pretty promises.”

Community concerns about Industry City have long centered on the questionable promise of entry-level, good-paying jobs for working class New Yorkers. Despite the fanfare about an Innovation Lab to connect Sunset Park residents to employment at Industry City, the only account of workforce training and placement outcomes showed paltry gains for individuals seeking employment. In a one-year period between May 2018 and May 2019, the Innovation Lab helped place 114 individuals of whom 91 secured employment in Industry City “innovation economy jobs” such as maintenance/building services, security guards, dispatchers, food production, and retail.  

One of Council Member Torres’ chief criticisms of New York Works focused on the “uncertain at best and woefully inaccurate” method of tracking job creation. It was during the March 2019 joint oversight meeting that Council Member Torres’ questioning of job projections versus actual numbers of jobs created led to the discovery that in the one year since the New York Works implementation, $300 million was spent to create a mere 300 actual jobs at that point. It is, therefore, especially disappointing that Council Member Torres endorsed Industry City’s rezoning application without studying Industry City’s track record in job creation for working class New Yorkers. Regulating land use and zoning are key tools the city leverages for economic development and job creation, and as tools that should advance public interest and welfare rather than private investor profits, job creation claims based on a rezoning deserve the highest level of scrutiny and accountability.  

Acknowledging the lack of Industry City job creation data, Council Member Menchaca appealed to his colleagues in a September 9 letter, writing, “Industry City’s argument boils down to a promise. That they will create thousands of jobs during an economic recession. This argument is also their greatest liability.”

The Ultimate Cash Cow” 
A few months after Jamestown Properties and their investor partners acquired an ownership share of Industry City and hired Andrew Kimball, who transformed the Brooklyn Navy Yard into "an economic engine of craft whiskey distilleries and film studios," working artists were displaced in favor of hosting art and design festivals such as the NYCxDesign. At the May 2014 NYCxDesign, Chilean artist Sebastian Errazuriz created a cash cow piñata stuffed with $1,000 bills. Festival attendees took turns swinging a stick at the piñata in an effort to break it and grab for the dollar bills. Errazuriz stated his cash cow symbolizes “...a golden calf from the Bible, a false idol, the Bull of Wall Street" and years later, the cash cow piñata remains an apt metaphor for the “false idol” of job creation based on a massive private investor and developer-led rezoning.

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored deep and persistent racial inequality but approval of Industry City’s rezoning proposal to establish an innovation district will not generate the jobs desperately needed by working class New Yorkers.

Tarry Hum's family moved to Sunset Park in 1974, and her father continues to reside there. She is Chair of the Urban Studies Department at Queens College, CUNY and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood. On Twitter @TarryHum.

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