Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Building a Financial Foundation for Our Children’s Future on 529 Day

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529 accounts allow college savings for children (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

In the face of profound economic hardship and uncertainty, families and school communities across one of the most diverse and hardest-hit areas of our city are coming together today in recognition of their collective work to build a financial foundation for their children’s futures. 

Today, May 29th, is 529 Day.

529 Day, named after 529 college savings plans, which are investment accounts specifically designed for college and career savings, is an annual opportunity to build community around preparing for college and career training. This year’s 529 Day comes as New York City’s communities — particularly its low-income communities, communities of color, and immigrant communities — are bearing the brunt of a public health and economic crisis like nothing we have seen in our lifetimes.

School District 30 in Western Queens, which spans an area from Long Island City and Astoria across to East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and part of Corona, is at the epicenter of the epicenter of these compounding crises. Tragically, these are the same families and communities that are among the least likely to benefit from the federal stimulus programs passed to date.

And yet this community is joining together, virtually, to mark the fact that more than 10,000 of their kindergarten, first-grade, and second-grade students already have a financial asset set aside for their educational future through the NYC Kids RISE Save for College Program, a public-private-community partnership initiative run by the nonprofit NYC Kids RISE. 

Research has shown that a child in a low-income household with a college savings account of just $1 to $500 is three times more likely to go to college and more than four times more likely to graduate than a child without an account. 529 plans are the country’s main college and career savings tool, providing access to investment earnings alongside federal and state tax breaks. In practice, however, the benefits of 529 plans have overwhelmingly accrued to families toward the top of the income ladder. In 2014, just one out of every 91 children in the lowest-income New York City neighborhoods had a NY 529 account, compared to one out of four children in the highest-income neighborhoods.

Today, about 95% of K-2 students across this diverse school district have a 529 account with money set aside for their future. Over the past three years, 39 district and charter elementary schools, thousands of families, community leaders and partners, city government agencies, and state government offices have worked together through the Save for College Program to build financial assets and promote college- and career-going expectations for every participating student, regardless of immigration status or income. To date, this community has collectively deposited more than $3.3 million toward these young students’ educational futures through contributions from local organizations and businesses, philanthropy, and families’ own savings. 

To mark 529 Day 2020, we have joined the schools and families of District 30 for virtual financial education lessons, a virtual town hall on balancing immediate financial needs with long-term financial goals, and a social media conversation using the hashtags #Together529 and #Juntos529. It is a reminder that, despite the immediate crisis, District 30’s students will continue to have options for their future because of the work their families and communities are doing today to prepare. In a moment of darkness, our children’s dreams and possibilities continue to shine bright.

Still, there is so much more to be done. The COVID-19 crisis threatens to widen existing income and wealth gaps in our city, further fray families’ already dwindling safety nets, and harm the long-term educational and economic trajectories of New York City’s children.

To ensure a full and equitable recovery, we need to invest more deeply in the financial security of every family, particularly those who are already most economically vulnerable. We need to continue to find ways to progressively drive assets toward communities of color and immigrant communities — regardless of immigration status — to both help provide a cushion in times of crisis and equip these families to succeed in the long-term. Indeed, initiatives that bring neighborhoods together to build financial resources and resiliency for every family must be a core component of the response to this crisis.

If we know anything, it’s that none of us got here, or go anywhere, on our own. More than ever, we owe it to one another to make sure all of our kids have a real financial asset waiting for them for their future. We hope you will join us in celebration of that vision on 529 Day.

Debra-Ellen Glickstein is the executive director of NYC Kids RISE. Lorelei Salas is the commissioner of the NYC Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP), which houses the City’s Office of Financial Empowerment, and an ex-officio director of NYC Kids RISE. On Twitter @GlicksteinDebra, @LoreleiNYCDCA, & @NYCKidsRISE. Join the conversation by posting on social media using #Together529 & #Juntos529.

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Infrastructure Investment Can Restart the Economy, But Prioritize Fixing What We Have

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Existing infrastructure needs major investment (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Governor Cuomo traveled to Washington on Wednesday to meet with President Trump, where he pitched the president on infrastructure investments like an expanded Second Avenue Subway and a new Penn Station. The governor is right to push for a national public works program, which would get thousands of newly unemployed Americans working again while tackling urgent infrastructure needs. 

The last time the nation embarked on a major public works program, it produced dozens of large-scale projects in New York that helped dig the city and the country out of the Great Depression—from the RFK Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel, and LaGuardia Airport to post offices, hospitals, high schools, and swimming pools across every borough.

A bold public works program would give New York a similar boost during these devastating economic times. But New York’s infrastructure needs are different than they were during the 1930s. Today, what the city needs most is a massive campaign to upgrade and maintain the infrastructure it already has. 

For decades, New York City has fallen behind the mounting state-of-good-repair needs of its crumbling public infrastructure, with serious consequences for the city’s livability and long-term health.

For instance, while building new miles of subway is a worthy goal, the urgent need is to stabilize the current system. Fixing the city’s crumbling subways and modernizing the bus system will require at least $40 billion over the next five years, including $7 billion just to upgrade decades-old signals and cut down on delays. These investments can restore confidence in public transit in a moment of crisis—and with the system shut at night and the city on lockdown, now is the time to get to work.

New York City’s aging infrastructure needs extend far beyond public transit. The city’s beleaguered public housing—home to a disproportionate share of residents impacted by the current crisis—is waiting on more than $31 billion in urgent infrastructure repairs, including crucial fixes to moldering apartments and crumbling facades. 

The city’s average public hospital—essential to the pandemic response—is over 57 years old, and the system is staring down nearly $400 million in critical repair and maintenance costs.

The city’s public parks—especially vital now that New Yorkers have few other options for recreation and exercise—are more than 73 years old, on average, and face more than $634 million in needs, including decaying drainage systems, crumbling retaining walls, and disintegrating bulkheads. 

Parks are far from the city’s only green infrastructure challenges. Thousands of acres of concrete and asphalt need to be greened to reduce stormwater runoff. And meeting the city’s ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require fast-tracked upgrades to retrofit far more public buildings. 

Many of these assets receive little notice until they fail. Over the past decade, the city has averaged 459 water main breaks annually, more than one per day. The number of fracture-critical bridges jumped from 47 in 2012 to at least 67 in 2018. 

Add to the list the stunning repair needs affecting the city’s public schools, colleges, and libraries—institutions that provide a sense of community in neighborhoods citywide, while preparing New Yorkers to participate in the economic recovery.

The Department of Education has nearly $2.5 billion in urgent, short-term capital needs, with over $100 million more at CUNY’s community colleges. And the city’s three public library systems—where the average branch library is more than 65 years old—are facing nearly $900 million in capital expenses to overhaul aging branches, replace leaky roofs, fix broken boilers, and upgrade HVAC systems. In addition, these institutions and many others need major upgrades to expand broadband access and help close the city’s persistent digital divide.

As the city at the epicenter of a national catastrophe, New York will need a historic level of federal investment to restore livelihoods and restart the country’s largest local economy, with lasting benefits for the nation and the world. Investing in infrastructure is a vital place to start. 

But in a city as old as New York, the first priority should be repairing, restoring, and modernizing the aging infrastructure that we’ve already got. There’s no shortage of shovel-ready work to do.

Jonathan Bowles is executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a New York–based think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity. Eli Dvorkin is CUF’s editorial and policy director. On Twitter @jbowlesnyc, @wetwax, & @nycfuture.

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City Fiscal Crisis is an Opportunity to Reimagine Failing Programs, Like Organics Recycling

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Questions about recycling abound (photo: Michael Anton/Sanitation)

The May 13 op-ed by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, New York City Must Keep and Expand Organics Collection, It’s an Essential Service, suffers from two major fallacies.

The authors begin their piece:

 “While is it is no secret that the city’s curbside organics collection program doesn’t pay for itself, that’s only half the story.  It is true that the program currently generates a small amount of revenue, about $50,000.  However, if properly executed, the program has the potential to generate millions of dollars in revenue for the city.”

The first fallacy once again raises the belief that a recycling-related program can one day generate sufficient revenues to significantly offset or eliminate the cost of its operation. Second, and perhaps more significant, is the belief that the organics collection program as currently conceived and executed should be further expanded.

To justify the above speculations the authors quote from an “analysis” performed by the Independent Budget Office estimating $22.5 million in possible future revenues from composting. This analysis is based upon an If, Then series of hypotheses untethered from current programmatic realities. The authors go on to further speculate that “realizing the increased revenue from organics recycling is dependent upon expansion.” 

In the midst of a pandemic and the resulting financial crisis, it is irresponsible for elected officials to call for the expansion of a program that is clearly not working. Successful recycling collection programs are evaluated on a number of factors. In the case of an organics collection program, these most critical factors are: 1) A program design that overcomes participants’ inherent revulsion to decaying organic waste; 2) Maintaining sustained and consistent levels of participation by the generator (container set-out). Without robust participation by all parties targeted by the program, neither collection nor processing can be efficient and sustainable; 3) The three basic means by which to drive participation: regular public education, tangible enforcement, and differential charging for refuse versus recycling services. The latter two options for increasing participation have typically been strongly opposed by most local elected officials and to date there has been very limited investment in the first option.

In recycling programs, participation drives all of the other operational factors like collection efficiency and the successful processing of what is ultimately collected.   There are many other challenges that can contribute to the success or failure of collection and processing but without sustained and adequate participation, organics programs fail. Based solely on the participation levels of the current organics program it is unsustainable and expansion is unjustified.

The authors next invoke the historical decision in 2002, following the recession brought about by the events of 9/11, to temporarily suspend the collection of plastics and glass as justification for why organics should not now be suspended. They argue that once restored in stages over the next two years following 2002, the recycling program never regained the same participation rates it experienced prior to this suspension. While it is true that the gross diversion rates of recyclables did not go back to the exact same levels as prior to 2002, there are a number of reasons for this change in diversion that are related to the suspension but unrelated to the speculations of the authors.

Chief among those was that post-suspension sanitation workers were better trained to no longer pick up what was essentially garbage in a recycling can or bag, but instead leave it for garbage collections.  The recycling diversion rate (simply the weight of what was formerly trash, diverted to collection by recycling trucks) was in fact higher prior to suspension but so was the post-collection residue rate -- the rate of what the processors had to throw out as non-recyclables (garbage) received along with recyclables.

What the recession following 9/11 allowed was for a suspension of business-as-usual thinking, both political and operational, which then provided an opportunity to redesign the metal, glass, and plastics collection and processing program.   

A little more history
Going back to the 1990s and the recession during the Dinkins administration, the city had decided to abandon investment in recycling processing infrastructure and to instead rely solely upon the private sector for the processing of recyclables. City contracts were based upon the lowest bid or lowest net cost to the Department of Sanitation for the processing of those recyclables; contracts that ultimately placed the entire risk of post-consumer commodity market price fluctuation upon the contractors.

While this arrangement worked for well over a decade, following 9/11 and the experience all New York City-contracted recyclers had shipping recyclables out of the Port of Newark for many months, those same recyclers decided it was time to assume far less of the risk associated with processing and marketing the city’s recyclables. In addition, when Sanitation released its rebid of the same processing in contracts in mid-2002 it decided in an unstable marketplace to reduce the risks to its contractors by assuming the market risk instead of the contractor, rather than sharing revenues the sanitation department would be the recipient of most of the revenues, both good and bad, and the contractor would bid a straight processing fee per ton, which would include the contractor’s overhead and profit.  

The market instability plus the new contract structure resulted in what appeared to many as far higher prices, when in fact the prices after revenue offsets would have likely been similar. However, in the rush for cost-cutting following 9/11, one of the proposed cuts by the then-commissioner was to eliminate the entire metal, glass, and plastics collection program.

After much back-and-forth between the administration and the City Council leading up to the 2002 fiscal year budget, a compromise was made to temporarily suspend the collection of plastics and glass while continuing to collect just metal under a straightforward revenue-only contract the recycling bureau had in place. The former metal, glass, and plastics collection program was then scheduled through political compromise, and memorialized into law, for full restoration approximately two years later. 

The previous history is invoked solely to illustrate the fact that the recession combined with the decision to temporarily suspend the metal, glass, and plastics collection program brought about an opportunity to rethink how to design the future processing and marketing of the metal, glass, and plastics recycling stream in New York City.

At the time the city already had long-term, 20-plus-year revenue contracts with private firms for the acceptance and processing of paper but lacked anything similar with metal, glass, and plastics. Because of the limited revenue-generating potential of the metal, glass, and plastics recycling stream, combined with the added cost of processing the same complex heterogeneous stream, unlike with paper, it was incumbent upon the city to make the needed investment to ensure the proper infrastructure to accept, process, and market the materials collected.

The political and operational rethinking provided by this opportunity resulted in the release by the recycling office of a request-for-proposals for a public-private partnership to process the city’s metal, glass, and plastics for the next 20-40 years on a piece of land provided by the city.

Without this opportunity, it is likely that the metal, glass, and plastics collection program, if it still existed, would have experienced many more ups and downs between 2004 and now, as it had since its inception. Instead of looking to expand an organics program that is currently purely voluntary and with a participation rate that dooms it to failure, it would be far better to use this opportunity to suspend the program and rethink all aspects of it to ensure that if and when it is restored, it is designed to succeed rather than fail.

Presently the organics program relies almost entirely upon a private-sector jury-rigged infrastructure for receiving, processing, and marketing the organics it collects.  An infrastructure like that used for originally processing the metal, glass, and plastics stream, designed for another purpose and a wholly different quality stream but modified to a limited degree to answer the current call and secure a contract.  

Times of crisis provide opportunities, if seized, to abandon conventional thinking and instead be creative. Rather than elected officials attempting to satisfy politically powerful constituencies such as the Natural Resources Defense Council by calling for restitution of a failing program, they should use the present crisis as an opportunity to call for the redesign of the program for operational success rather than political success. 

Robert Lange was the prime architect of New York City’s recycling program and the director of the Department of Sanitation’s recycling program for 20 years. He was a 2010 Alfred P. Sloan Public Service Award recipient, and retired from Sanitation in 2016.

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With No Relief from Washington in Sight and Billions in Budget Cuts Looming, What Can New York State Do?

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Gov. Cuomo delivers a budget address (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)

Despite pleas from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and state and local government leaders across the nation for major new federal help for budgets devastated by the COVID-19 recession, there is still no clear path to Washington acting quickly to provide financial relief. 

Although on May 15 the House of Representatives, with its Democratic majority, passed a $3 trillion aid bill for the country that included $1 trillion for state and local governments, President Trump announced he would veto the bill if passed in both houses of Congress and many Republican senators, who hold the majority in that chamber, were quick to announce the House bill dead on arrival. When serious negotiations on a new relief package will occur, or when an aid package might ultimately get passed, is not clear.

State Cutbacks are Coming, No Doubt
It’s been seven weeks since New York leaders adopted the state budget on April 2. That budget anticipated implementing $10 billion in spending cutbacks from what had been the original $105 billion budget submitted by the governor in January for the 2020-21 fiscal year. 

The state has yet to act on those massive cuts despite reaching a benchmark set in the budget that would trigger them, holding out hope for federal action.

Where New York is Now: Tax Receipts Plunge by 70%, 2 Million File for Unemployment
The state’s first benchmark was made public on May 15 by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and it is ugly.


STATE FUNDS Executive Budget
April Estimate
Drop from 
% Drop from 
$11,746.0  $3,583.9  -8,162.10 30.5%
DISBURSEMENTS $7,479.0  $4,373.0  -3,106.00 58.5%

This benchmark, presented in the table above, involved comparing New York’s actual tax receipts in April 2020 to an estimate constructed in the governor's Executive Budget for that month. The table shows the Comptroller’s cash report for April 2020 compared to the Executive Budget estimates. The Division of the Budget was authorized to begin implementing spending reductions if receipts were less than 99% of estimates. The receipts were 30% of estimates, according to the Comptroller’s May 15 report.

Tax receipts plunged about 70%, more than $8 billion, compared to the adopted budget projection, which used April 2019 as a normal baseline. 

The problem is two-fold. The economic downturn in New York is massive; more than 2 million New Yorkers have filed for unemployment in the last 8-eight weeks, about 20% of the state’s workforce. And the ordinary April 15 deadline for filing returns for both federal and state income taxes was extended to July 15, leaving New York bereft of normal tax revenues for months. The state is borrowing money for the short-term, but that won’t offset the overall plunge in revenue associated with the economic downturn.

New York State Faces Unprecedented Financial Challenges
New York state government now faces unprecedented challenges in attempting to manage a risky, uncertain set of dynamics that include:

1. Not knowing how much federal aid may come to the rescue, or when, or how deep New York’s own problems may be.

2.Not knowing how to use much of the federal aid already provided by Congress in the initial rescue packages because the U.S. Treasury’s guidelines for use of the funds has been unclear.

An analysis by the State Comptroller indicated that although New York State can utilize some funds provided by Congress for education and Medicaid, $5 billion allocated to New York in the first plan sits in limbo while New York awaits use guidelines. But with so many new expenses associated with the virus in health care and emergency response, much of that money could be unavailable for general budget relief.

3. The possibility that the job losses will drive up enrollment in the Medicaid program, increasing health care costs far more than currently anticipated and increasing the size of the state budget deficit.

The governor and Division of the Budget are undoubtedly still holding off because they know immediate implementation of cuts would be devastating. The governor’s daily press briefings display warnings of cuts to schools, hospitals, and local governments in the 20% range, meaning very large job losses for teachers, health care workers, transit workers, cops, firefighters, and other front-line government personnel. They are holding off despite realizing that too long a delay in making the cuts could make the situation worse for the providers of services that might be affected if little federal aid is forthcoming. Anyone getting a cut in their budget is better off knowing sooner rather than later so they can make plans to cope.

New York’s Current Plan to Mitigate Budget Cuts (short-term)
The state’s Financial Plan, issued April 25, showed that the state had backloaded about 40% of its $10 billion in spending cuts to next year, the final quarter of the state’s fiscal year, from January 2021 to the end of March 2021. 

Congress also permitted the state to defer payment of Social Security and other payroll taxes for its own workforce to save $1 billion or more, providing additional cash flow relief. 

The state’s Financial Plan indicates an effort to borrow $4.5 billion in May and June to cover initial revenue losses due to the tax filing extension and the recession. However, the adopted budget permits the state to borrow up to $11 billion short-term during the fiscal year (ending March 2021), and even permits the state to convert the short-term borrowing to long-term bonding. That means the state is permitted to borrow to cover operating deficits.

The State Comptroller’s analysis of the adopted state budget indicated the state could also re-evaluate its capital budget to defer nonessential projects to save cash and re-allocate financial settlement funds not yet spent for economic development projects. This could hurt recovery efforts in the future, however.

New York Can’t Count on Federal Help
A May 19 hearing in the United States Senate featured competing views on rescuing the economy. Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell said failing to help state and local governments could result in hundreds of thousands of layoffs and further damage to the economy. Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, claimed the best way to help the economy was for the states to ‘reopen’ by easing social distancing restrictions and let people go back to work. It was also reported that President Trump met with Senate Republicans to strategize about new federal legislation, but remained circumspect about what he would support. The House returns to work after Memorial Day, from May 27-29, but many Senate Republicans want to wait longer than that.

Many states dominated by the Republican Party are already reeling from state and local government financial problems. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities is tracking state fiscal problems and has produced an analysis showing major problems in Louisiana, Kansas, Arizona, Missouri, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma. An update to the Center’s report says Georgia has just announced across-the-board state budget cuts of 14%, and Texas announced state agency budget cuts of 5%.

One hopes additional federal aid will arrive soon, but it seems unlikely to be anywhere near as generous as the House bill provides.

Should New York State Borrow Money to Cover Operating Expenses? Yes
The state budget permits New York to convert up to $11 billion in short-term borrowing, envisioned to deal with the extension of filing tax returns to July 15, or possibly longer if the Federal government grants another extension, to long-term bonding. In other words, the state could sell bonds for 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, or 30 years, to pay for its operating deficits this year. This, of course, would avoid some or even a large part of the spending cuts.

Bond raters, budget watchdogs, fiscal experts, ordinary people, and even I agree that borrowing long-term to cover your operating expenses is ordinarily a mistake. However, the alternative — eliminating tens of thousands of jobs including hospital workers, teachers, cops, transit workers, and emergency responders as the pandemic continues, has severe consequences for both those workers and the tens of millions of New Yorkers who depend on them.

New York should make a firm decision it will borrow some of the money it needs to sustain public services in a pandemic-induced near-depression if it can’t get covered by the federal government.

Governor Cuomo, at one of his press conferences, said if the state had to make cuts and later received federal aid, he would restore the cuts. New York could still make modest cutbacks and hope ultimately the Democrats in Washington will be successful with a new round of assistance for the American people, in part through state and local governments. But if needed New York should borrow a large portion of the money to cover its operating expenses this year while addressing the long-term problems created by COVID-19.

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

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Drones with Hacksaws: Climate Consequences of Shutting Indian Point Can't Be Brushed Aside

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A New. York wind farm (photo: @nyserda)

At the stroke of midnight, as April gave way to May, one hundred drones with diamond-brazed hacksaws descended on a remote section of the New York-New Jersey Bight. Methodically, diabolically, they set to their task: lopping off a thousand or more turbine blades whose spinning motion enabled the world’s biggest offshore wind farm. When the sun rose on May 1 it revealed a stark sight: 400 supertall towers stripped bare. Twelve hundred blades, three per tower, that for decades had funneled to the New York grid the equivalent of nearly a thousand megawatts of non-stop carbon-free power, lay at the bottom of the Atlantic.

No one noticed, at least not right away. Downstate New York homes, offices, and subways continued humming — at least, those not shuttered by the virus. The power grid summoned generators fired by natural gas piped in from Pennsylvania fracking sites that customarily ran at partial capacity. As they ramped up to full power their carbon emissions ramped up with them, magnifying New York’s climate impact even as officials were vowing to diminish it. While the worsened smog was concentrated in and around New York, the climate cost, in terms of worsened warming, would spread across the world.

OK, cut the fantasy. New York state’s hundreds of wind turbines are all upstate. None are offshore. In fact, there are just five in all east coast waters, all off Rhode Island. Moreover, hacksaws strong enough and drones sturdy enough to manage the dismemberment don’t yet exist; the turbine blades, toughened fiberglass dozens of feet across, would be hell to carve.

In real life, however, an equivalent operation — equivalent in its immediate climate consequences, that is — did commence at midnight on April 30, in a facility on the east shore of the Hudson River, 35 miles north of Columbus Circle. Technicians gingerly inserted boron rods into the core of the Indian Point #2 reactor, quenching the fissioning process that, since the mid-1970s, produced heat that boiled water that made steam that turned turbines and generated a large stream of carbon-free electricity.

That stream could be fickle. Over much of its first two decades IP2 was felled by leaks, cracks, and violations that limited its output averaged over a year to barely 50 percent of its nominal thousand megawatt capacity. Eventually, however, Indian Point 2, like most of the other 97 commercial reactors in the U.S., found a steady stride. At the end, the reactor was registering annual capacity factors of 80 percent or more and finally fulfilling the dream of trouble-free power.

Now it’s gone — its electricity, that is — switched off pursuant to a deal struck several years ago by plant owner Entergy, Hudson River watchdog Riverkeeper, and New York State, and endorsed by the state’s environmental and climate vanguard. The reactor’s twin sibling, Indian Point #3, will likewise go dark next April, doubling the loss of carbon-free output. From a climate standpoint the dual shutdown will be the same as erecting 800 giant wind turbines and then chopping off the blades.

Why Wind or Other Benign Energy Won’t Replace Indian Point’s Climate Contribution for Some Time
Wind turbines and reactors are dissimilar beasts. Wind turbines threaten no one, whereas the Indian Point nukes are thought by some to menace millions. Yet they have in common something vital to climate: neither entails a combustion process that emits carbon (or requires methane). This ensures that even counting their respective construction processes (and also, for the nukes, refueling), neither is responsible for more than a minuscule amount of greenhouse gases (see sidebar). Both are antidotes to fossil fuels

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Does it not follow, then, that shutting Indian Point need not worsen climate change? Can’t its nearly zero-carbon kilowatt-hours be replaced painlessly by building more wind or solar electricity, or with “negawatts” of electricity saved through energy-efficient L.E.D. lights and smarter appliances?

Riverkeeper and its anti-nuke allies take that stance in the case of Indian Point. I have advanced similar arguments repeatedly throughout my career

Most recently, I have championed Mark Jacobson’s paradigm and analysis for replacing all energy— not just electricity — with “100 percent wind, water and sunlight.” Jacobson and his team concluded in 2013 that 40 percent of the energy required for New York State could be provided by 12,700 five-megawatt offshore wind turbines, with the remaining 60 percent coming from a mix of onshore wind, solar farms, rooftop solar on residential and commercial buildings, and retention of the state’s large hydro facilities built in the mid-20th century. I strongly endorse this vision and approach. And in a report published this week I documented that “clean electricity” — energy savings plus increased wind and solar power — is doing more than fracked gas to push out coal and decarbonize the U.S. electricity sector.

But even under the most optimistically aggressive timetables, it will be at least one decade and possibly several before it can be said that Jacobson’s turbines are doing Indian Point’s climate good deeds. That is because every bit of renewable energy and efficiency we can muster needs to go to replace fossil fuels, not to replace a different zero-carbon source. Not until the New York electric grid has been reconstituted to the point that the “replacement” (or “marginal” in the parlance of grid engineers and economists) block of power almost always comes from renewables rather than gas or coal can it be said that Indian Point’s climate benefit is now being supplied by solar or wind.

2 indianpointThe logic of electric grids dictates that if a block of carbon-free energy from, say, a giant wind farm, is having to replace similarly carbon-free Indian Point 2, it cannot also replace fossil fuels. Let's augment this point with two separate pieces of evidence pertaining to Indian Point. 

First, the latest figures (2018) show that fossil-fuel plants supply downstate New York (New York City, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley) with 70 percent of its electricity, as per the donut chart below from the NY Independent System Operator, the state-chartered body that manages New York’s power grid. Moreover, because their fuel costs make them costlier to run, these plants, which are almost entirely fueled by natural gas, are always called on after the state’s renewable and nuclear sources. This guarantees that the “marginal” (last) units topping off the grid — the ones that will be fired up in place of Indian Point — are almost always gas-fired plants rather than zero-carbon generators. 

In other words, shut Indian Point, and the flood of kilowatt-hours to replace it won’t come from existing wind or solar farms; these are already running as flat out as the available wind and sun permit. Until wind and solar (plus hydro and the state’s other operating reactors) so dominate the grid that one of them is always “next in line,” the energy replacing Indian Point will come from under-utilized fossil-fuel generators that will be made to run more than they would if Indian Point were still operating.

More proof, if any were needed, may be found in the bar chart below, which I derived from NYISO data. The bars contrast statewide electricity production during IP2’s final week at full power, before its “coastdown” en route to shutdown, with production in the first week without it.

The share of electricity produced by fossil-fuel plants shot up from 29% to 33%. Lest that rise seem small, those four percentage points actually denote a nearly 14 percent increase (the additional 4% share divided by the original 29%). A contributory factor was the small drop in renewables (largely hydro and wind), but most of the increase was a direct consequence of the fall in the nuclear share as Indian Point 2 was turned off. 

It’s axiomatic: withdraw the nukes and fossil generation rushes in. (The same would happen if some state edict forced hydro plants or wind farms off line.) Reminder: Indian Point 3 is slated for shutdown next year.

My argument, then, is that shutting Indian Point will result in a more or less one-for-one substitution of its output by climate-damaging fossil fuels, for a long period of time. 

3 indianpointCounterarguments range from somewhat wonky points about grid operation and management, to belief that with nuclear power diminished or off the table altogether, changes in culture and policy will enable energy efficiency and renewables to scale up faster. Some arguments and rejoinders follow: 

Argument: Renewables won’t be throttled — deliberately cut back — as often if Indian Point isn’t supplying the grid; the regained output means that some of IP’s lost output is made up by wind and solar generation rather than fossil fuels.

Answer: Large-scale throttling of renewables in New York is a strawman, only occasionally befalling wind generators late at night when their output is high and demand is low, but accounting for less than 2 percent of statewide wind production. Moreover, nighttime loads appear poised to rise due to peak-pricing of daytime power, overnight charging of electric vehicles, and widespread development of energy storage systems, making throttling even more rare.

Argument: By pushing up prices paid for power supplied to New York, closing Indian Point will attract more renewables and efficiency.

Answer: That is true, but the likely effect will be far too small to offset the loss of Indian Point and bring much closer the time when the grid won’t have to run fossil fuel generators more than it would otherwise. (Note also that streamlining siting of wind and solar farms would probably spur renewables more than a modest jump in power prices; hopefully, the recently enacted Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, REGACBA, will help accomplish that.)

Argument: Keeping Indian Point 2 alive was expensive.

Answer: That is true as well. Engineering, repairs, maintenance, security, regulatory compliance — the list is extensive. Still, these costs were largely known, and I strongly suspect that they were a relative bargain in terms of averted carbon emissions — at least compared to many other ways to cut carbon. (Building new reactors to cut CO2 is an entirely different proposition, of course.) Had IP2 been kept operating, any prospective major overhaul could have been an occasion for removing it from service.

Argument: Quebec’s vast hydro-electricity resources can readily substitute for Indian Point.

Answer: Bringing that power downstate presents a Rubik’s Cube of interlocking issues including cost, ownership, regulatory authority, and opposition not just from some First Nations and their environmentalist allies but also from competing electricity producers. And for all its vastness, Canadian hydropower too must be accountable to the reasoning that until the New York grid has been made largely carbon-free, every potential additional renewable kilowatt will be counted on to replace fossil fuels, and using it to replace another zero-carbon energy source effectively squanders its climate value.

Argument: Without Indian Point — indeed, without the distraction and false allure of nuclear power — society will be more inclined to throw its full weight behind renewables and efficiency.

Argument restated by a colleague: The question of Indian Point and carbon emissions is not some simple energy addition and subtraction but the social decision-making context. Everything is about politics — political and social will, messaging, energy, enthusiasm, public support. In the real world, enthusiasm for renewables is related to unease with nuclear power.

Answer: I agree that for far too long, nuclear power has absorbed far more public and policy attention than its current contribution and future potential warrant. (This report is an example!) It is also true that energy policy and investment are shaped by social context. But nuclear power’s heyday as a flashpoint of public concern was 40 years ago. Nowadays nuclear power isn't that much of a hot-button issue. 

In short, the era is long gone when enthusiasm for renewables and the ability to harness it for a full-scale mobilization to rapidly push out fossil fuels was greatly influenced by unease about nukes. Rather, the two pillars on which a renewables-based Green New Deal will stand are, first, the immediacy of green jobs, and, second, the understanding — veneration, for some, myself included — that wind and solar, even at the necessary colossal scale, can be made harmonious with nature. 

The argument also requires, as a kind of flip side, that leaving the 97 existing United States nuclear units running must enervate or undercut the push for renewables and energy efficiency. But how, exactly? I’ve no idea if this notion is widely held or just a niche affectation. But if it is to rise beyond hand-waving, its adherents should at least identify the flashpoints and levers by which clinging to existing reactors is getting in the way of massively expanding solar and wind. 

What about radiation dangers from Indian Point?
The main purpose in closing the Indian Point reactors — and, arguably, the reason New York’s governor took an interest — is of course to extinguish the possibility of exposing the tens of thousands of people in its immediate vicinity and the millions in the New York metropolitan area, many of whom cannot quickly evacuate, to radioactive contamination from an accident on the scale of Chernobyl in 1986 or Fukushima in 2011.

Since the dawn of U.S. commercial nuclear power in the late 1950s, the nuclear industry’s bête noire has been the specter of horrific accidents, not least because it motivated increasingly stringent safety requirements that in turn drove up costs. I know very well the safety-regulation-cost nexus. In the early 1980s I published a scholarly article on the subject in the peer-reviewed journal Nuclear Safety, followed by a book-length exploration, Power Plant Cost Escalation: Nuclear and Coal Capital Costs, Regulation and Economics, arguing that costs arising from ever-increasing regulatory stringency would doom nuclear power’s expansion in the United States. 

No one can divine the likelihood of a serious accident at Indian Point, particularly as it hinges in part on human fallibility and malfeasance. Nevertheless, I believe that if I lived nearby I would draw some comfort from the absence of a severe U.S. reactor accident in the four decades since the 1979 meltdown of the Three Mile Island reactor near Harrisburg, PA. Since that traumatic event, U.S. nuclear plants have racked up roughly 15 times as much experience as they had accumulated to that time. 

This points to some success in climbing out of the morass of design blunders and operational mishaps that so unsettled Americans about nuclear power in its first few decades. So does the sharp reduction in reactors’ average downtime rates from 40 percent to 15 or even 10 percent today — an achievement that can’t entirely be chalked up to lax regulation.

This brief argument will not resonate with those who regard every reactor on earth including Indian Point as a bad accident waiting to happen. Nor do I intend it to. Here I am seeking to lay to rest the notion that the decarbonization lost by shutting Indian Point can be made up elsewhere anytime soon. It cannot, for the reason that those “elsewhere” decarbonization candidates — huge wind farms, wholesale installation of solar arrays, and energy efficiency for which I and others have campaigned for half a century — are all needed to push out fossil fuels. If any of these measures are replacing Indian Point, they’re not decarbonizing. 

Riverkeeper and Indian Point
The campaign to shut Indian Point has been spearheaded by the venerable Hudson River environmental watchdog group Riverkeeper. Founded in 1966 as the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, Riverkeeper earned its environmental stripes exposing and litigating corporate polluters and tenaciously defending the lower Hudson Valley and New York region’s drinking water and overall ecology. Its push to shut Indian Point was borne from the harm to the Hudson’s renascent striped bass fishery from the plant’s thermal plumes, impingement, and entrainment. Riverkeeper also has been the template for numerous “waterkeeper” protectors around the country. I’m a former member of the group and also consulted for it on several earlier efforts to shut Indian Point.

At the time of this writing, the group’s web site is marking the shutdown of Indian Point 2 with a statement referring to “this historic moment” and noting:

As Indian Point shuts down, environmental groups…are emphasizing the fact that renewable energy and energy efficiency that has been built up over the last several years are replacing the energy from Indian Point. An independent research brief by Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy found that recent deployment, current development, and projected growth of renewable generation and energy efficiency will contribute nearly 45,000 GWh annually by 2025, almost three times the 16,000 GWh currently supplied by Indian Point. (emphases added)

The brief cited by Riverkeeper is actually more guarded on these points. Its conclusion begins:

Our estimates suggest that renewables, storage and energy efficiency growth in line with New York’s targets could provide sufficient generation and local capacity following Indian Point’s closure, avoiding the need for a sustained increase in gas generation. (emphases added)

Note “could” rather than “will” and “sustained” rather than “any,” suggesting not just hedging by the consultant but some concordance with my central point that for years to come, climate-damaging carbon emissions will be higher without Indian Point operating than they would be with it. Indeed, the consultant’s brief did not venture such a comparison — suggesting that the scope of work from Riverkeeper may have excluded evaluating the possible rise in greenhouse gas emissions from shutting the reactors.

The consultant’s brief is creditable. It doesn’t invoke speculative imports of hydropower from Quebec. It explicitly and repeatedly credits “Indian Point’s carbon-free generation,” thus steering clear of outdated anti-nuclear tropes of reactor operation as somehow carbon-intensive. Most importantly, the brief does not claim that retiring Indian Point will leave the climate unscathed. 

It is likely too late to reverse the shutdown of Indian Point 2. Too much went into crafting the deal, and too many plans have built on the expectation that the plant is being closed. The same, it must be said, goes for Unit 3.

In addition, with closure now the status quo, its reversal likely would be seen as, and thus would become, the kind of shot in the arm for nuclear power that could, in fact, get in the way of energy efficiency and renewable energy, just as the antinukers fear. 

So the closures of Indian Point 2 and 3 will almost certainly stand. Why write this report, then? I could say I was forced to. First, by an anti-closure supporter of my not-for-profit, the Carbon Tax Center, who bared his distress to me and said that my silence made me complicit in setting back the climate cause. I came to agree that I was complicit — though not as director of CTC but as someone with the capacity to look clear-eyed at the issue, based on my long study of nuclear power and energy policy. I soon concluded that my long-standing excuse for being silent — Well, if New York state and the federal government had enacted the kind of carbon taxing I’ve fought for, Indian Point’s carbon benefits would be monetized —as they deserve to be — and that would have thwarted and defeated the long-standing campaign that did finally shut it down. — was insufficient.

I have little axe to grind here. I believe I see all sides. Unfortunately, the climate side, which moves me most, was not at the table when the deal was hammered out in 2016. The argument that renewable energy and energy efficiency can replace Indian Point, which originally was simply meant to cover — which it in fact does — keeping on the lights without laying too big of an economic egg, was too casually and carelessly extended to say that renewable energy and energy efficiency will replace Indian Point’s climate benefits, which they cannot do for quite some time.

Why climate was not at the table when Indian Point’s fate was being sealed is a worthy subject, perhaps for another occasion. I hope readers find this paper illuminating and helpful.

Charles Komanoff, a mainstay of New York City's livable streets movement, had an earlier career as author, researcher, and expert witness on electricity policy and nuclear power. On Twitter @Komanoff.

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Enough Talk, Time to Give FDNY EMS Their Due

enough talk op

Mayor de Blasio visits with EMS (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

The coronavirus pandemic has compelled us to take stock of the racial and socioeconomic inequities that have burdened our city’s more than 5 million New Yorkers of color for generations. These obstacles to their upward mobility exist not only in health care, education, and housing but within our own municipal workforce.

The most glaring among them happens to also be one of particularly cruel irony given COVID-19’s onslaught on the city’s 9-1-1 system and related services: the unequal pay received by emergency medical technicians and paramedics at FDNY EMS.

These more than 4,000 EMTs and paramedics are predominantly people of color, often hailing from the same communities being ravaged by the coronavirus, and their ranks boast a higher percentage of women than any of the city’s uniformed services. They too are employees of the Fire Department, but, compared to their overwhelmingly white, male firefighting counterparts, FDNY EMS members are paid about $12,000 less on average, annually, and more than double that amount after five years; despite routinely facing threats to their safety as they provide life-saving medical care to well over 8 million New Yorkers, as well as commuters, tourists, and other visitors who need it.

FDNY EMS responded to over 1.5 million medical emergencies in each of the last two years. Over that same time, assaults against its members increased by 27% in 2018, and 36% through last fall.

Demoralized and undervalued, some 900 skilled and well-trained EMTs and paramedics left their jobs during that period to earn tens of thousands of dollars more as firefighters through an exclusive testing and hiring process within FDNY.

This pipeline, created on the heels of legal rulings affirming that FDNY engaged in hiring discrimination against minority and women applicants, has served to help the Department compensate for the abysmal racial and gender diversity outside of its EMS workforce.

Less known is the number of FDNY EMS members that walked away to join other city agencies, or left the city altogether, thus jeopardizing the health and well-being of our fellow New Yorkers. This is crucial work, and yet the compensation and parity issues have made it a difficult path to pursue for so many talented New Yorkers – and this was before COVID-19.

At the peak of the outbreak, as many as 7,000 emergency calls were placed in a single day, a level not seen since September 11, 2001; including the highest three-day call volume in FDNY history.
Despite the indignity of having only 12 sick days available to them, one out of every four FDNY EMS members called out during those agonizing weeks due to exposure to the coronavirus.

Four EMTs ultimately lost their lives to the virus, and a rookie EMT, John Mondello, tragically killed himself after just three months on the job serving in one of the busiest EMS stations in the city, having succumbed to the mental anguish of watching patient after patient die from the disease.

To this day, the most progressive city in America is denying these first responders their due. Mayor de Blasio himself previously described the work of EMTs and paramedics as “different” from firefighters, but has since given them numerous platitudes.

If the dedication, bravery, and sacrifice of FDNY EMS wasn’t apparent to him before COVID-19, it surely is now.

There can be no further argument against fairly compensating these beleaguered but endlessly brave first responders.

The time is now to show our gratitude for their service, commitment to excellence, and the value they add daily to our city by giving them the equal pay and benefits they rightly deserve.

Corey Johnson represents parts of Manhattan and is the Speaker of the New York City Council. I. Daneek Miller represents parts of Queens and is the Chair of the City Council Committee on Civil Service and Labor. On Twitter @NYCSpeakerCoJo & @IDaneekMiller.

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Human Services Workers are Essential Workers: It’s Time for the City to Treat Us That Way

workers food hungry

Workers at Project Hospitality move meals (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Like health care workers, first responders, grocery workers, delivery workers, and more, human services workers are essential workers during COVID-19 and beyond. We are always essential.

We serve the most vulnerable where they are and according to what they need. We help seniors get meals and medications delivered and staff residential facilities, homeless shelters, and food banks.

We provide home care to at-risk communities, keeping them from overwhelming hospitals. We help people navigate the unemployment system, sign up for public benefits, and fight back against predatory landlords. We provide services to address the rise in domestic violence and child abuse, and assist those impacted by the justice system.

We help families navigate remote learning and staff Regional Enrichment Centers for the children of frontline workers and homeless children. We are mainly women, people of color, and immigrants serving our neighbors in communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and for whom recovery will be a long and arduous road.

More than anywhere else in the nation, New York State and City contract out their human services work to us because they recognize that government cannot provide services to the vast diversity of New York’s population on its own. The work continues even as conditions have deteriorated.

We have not received hazard pay although we are required to keep our programs open, are underpaid and have gone years without cost of living adjustments. We lack adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Many of our staff have gotten COVID-19, some have died.

We are working without adequate support from government. The City has threatened to reduce funding to many of our programs, which are more critical now than ever. This has already triggered layoffs, contributed to widespread job insecurity, and hurt the communities already marginalized and isolated before the pandemic began.

Throughout the crisis, the City has not successfully communicated its emergency response strategies to the human services sector nor has it sought to bring the sector to the table as real partners and active problem-solvers to jointly determine its plans, thereby compromising and in some cases, delaying the provision of needed resources to hard-hit neighborhoods. The City is also proposing policies that while well-intentioned, will be unfunded mandates for human services organizations.

We demand that the City of New York ensure now and through recovery:

-All human services workers receive pay reflective of our commitment and essential services to New York City. This includes hazard pay (incentive pay) and annual cost of living adjustments that have to be funded by the City.

-Human services organizations be recognized as essential to the city’s rehabilitation and receive assurance that all of our City contracts and City Council discretionary funding will renew in Fiscal Year 2021 (which begins this July 1) so that we can continue our work.

-Human services organizations receive maximum contractual flexibility in FY21 to meet the evolving and emerging needs of the communities we serve.

-A FY21 City budget that prioritizes human services that support the neighborhoods and populations most significantly impacted by COVID-19.

We are risking our own health and our families’ health to serve others through COVID-19. When New York begins to recover, we will be the ones helping the hardest hit New Yorkers put their lives back together. Without adequate support from the City, human services workers will not be able to carry out this work, and tragedies resulting from COVID-19 will continue to worsen.

Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC)
Greenwich House
Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation (NMIC)
Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center

Additional Signatories
82nd Street Academics
Abbott House
Academy of Medical & Public Health Services
ACMH, Inc.
Ali Forney Center
Apex for Youth
Apicha Community Health Center
Arab-American Family Support Center
Asian American Federation
Asian Americans for Equality
Bangladeshi American Community Development and Youth Services
Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation
Bergen Beach Youth Organization
Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC
Birch Family Services
Boys' Club of New York
Broadway Housing Communities
Bronx House
Brooklyn Community Services
Casita Maria
Catholic Charities
Center for Court Innovation
Center for Employment Opportunites
Center for Family Life
Center for the Integration and Advancement of New Americans, Inc. (CIANA)
Child Care Center Of New York City
Child Center of New York
Chinatown Manpower Project
Chinese Methodist Center Corporation
Chinese Progressive Association
Citymeals on Wheels
Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF)
Coalition for Hispanic Family Serviced
Coalition for Homeless Youth
Commonpoint Queens
Community Consultation Center/Henry Street Settlement
Community League of the Heights Inc
Community Options
Comunilife, Inc.
Concern for Independent Living, Inc.
Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation
Day One
Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM)
Dominican Women's Development Center
Educational Alliance
Elmcor Youth & Adult Activities
Emerald Isle Immigration Center
Encore Community Services
Fern Zagor Consulting LLC
Fifth Avenue Committee
Florence E. Smith Senior Services
Fox House
Girl Vow
Girls for Gender Equity
Goddard Riverside
Goodwill Industries of Greater NY and Northern NJ, Inc.
Graham Windham
Grand St. Settlement
Green City Force
Hamilton-Madison House
Harlem Dowling-West Side Center
Hartley House, INC
Head Start Sponsoring Board of NYC
Heights and Hills
Henry Street Settlement
Her Justice
Homecrest Community Services Inc.
Hot Bread Kitchen
Housing and Services, Inc.
Hudson Guild
I Have A Dream - NY Foundation
India Home, Inc.
Indochina Sino-American Community Center
Jacob A Riis Neighborhood Settlement
Japanese American Social Services, Inc
JCC Staten Island
Jewel Human Services Inc.
Jewish Community Center of Staten Island
Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, Inc.
Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York, Inc.
La Colmena
Laal NYC
Lantern Community Services
Lenox Hill Neighborhood House
Life Dome adult Services
Literacy Assistance Center
Little Flower Children and Family Services of NY
Lower East Side Family Union
Lutheran Social Service of NY
Manhattan Youth
Maranatha Human Services. Org
Mekong NYC
Mercy Home for Children, Inc.
Millennium Development
MinKwon Center for Community Action
Mixteca Organization, Inc.
Morningside Retirement and Health Services
Mosholu Montefiore Community Center
Muslim Community Network
NAACP New York State Conference
National Association of Social Workers-NYC Chapter
Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter
New Settlement Apartments
New York Center for Interpersonal Development, Inc.
New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault
New York City Anti-Violence Project
New York Memory Center
Nonprofit Finance Fund
Nonprofit New York
Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW)
NYC Employment and Training Coalition
NYU Nursing
Ocean Bay Community Development Corporation
Odyssey House, Inc.
Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow
Option Center/ Goddard Riverside Community Center
Osborne Association
Outreach Development Corporation
Partnership for After School Education
Partnership with Children
People's Theatre Project
Per Scholas
Phipps Neighborhoods
Polonians Organized to Minister to Our Community, Inc.
Presbyterian Senior Services (PSS)
Project Hospitality
Providence House, Inc
Queens Community House
R.A.I.N. Inc.
Recreation Rooms and Settlement
Red Hook Initiative
Restore NYC
RiseBoro Community Partnership
RSS Riverdale Senior Services
RYAN Health
Safe Horizon
SAIL, Inc.
Sakhi for South Asian Women
Sampreshan Inc
Sapna NYC, Inc.
SCAN-Harbor, Inc.
SCO Family of Services
Selfhelp Community Services, Inc.
Services Now for Adult Persons, Inc. (SNAP)
Sheltering Arms
Sisters of Charity Housing Development Corporation
Social Builder USA
South Asian Council for Social Services
South Asian Youth Action
Southeast Bronx Neighborhood Centers, Inc.
Spanish Speaking Elderly Council-Raices, Inc.
St Nicks Alliance
St. Francis Friends of the Poor
St. John's Residence for Boys
StreetWise Partners
Sunnyside Community Services
Supportive Housing Network of New York
The Advocacy Institute
The Brotherhood Sister Sol
The Center for Anti-Violence Education
The Child Center of NY
The Children's Village
The Committee for Hispanic Children and Families
The Door
The Fortune Society, Inc.
The HOPE Program
The Jewish Board of Family & Children's Services
The Korean American Family Service Center
The League Education and Treatment Center
The New York Foundling
The NYC LGBT Center
The Young Women's Christians Association of Queens
Tolentine Zeiser Community Life Center
Union Settlement
Unique People Services
United Chinese Association of Brooklyn
University Consultation & Treatment Center for Mental Hygiene Inc
University Settlement Society Of New York
UnLocal, Inc.
Urban Pathways
Veterans & Community Housing Coalition
Violence Intervention Program
Volunteers of America-Greater New York, Inc.
Washington Heights Community Services, Inc.
West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing (WSFSSH)
Women For Afghan Women
Women In Need (WIN)
Workforce Professionals Training Institute
YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood
Youth Action Programs and Homes, Inc.

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Keep Subways Closed Overnight to Expedite System Modernization

gov tours cars

Governor Cuomo discusses subways during coronavirus (photo: governor's office)

The MTA’s recent institution of overnight closure of the subways has attracted a tremendous amount of attention and criticism from advocates for homeless people and many transit advocates. MTA Chair Pat Foye has sought to reassure critics by emphasizing that it is a temporary measure that will end when the pandemic emergency is over. The closure seems to be an attempt to assure transit workers that the MTA is taking their safety seriously and the public that the trains are safe and will not become de facto homeless shelters. But it can be turned into a long-long term initiative with important benefits.

Instead of bemoaning the loss of a symbol of the ‘city that never sleeps,’ public transit supporters should be welcoming the closure policy and giving serious thought and discussion to whether to make it permanent, at least in some form.

The subway system urgently needs more regular maintenance and capital improvements, especially the installation of computer based train control (CBTC). CBTC will allow trains to safely run more closely together, enabling more frequent service and hence, less crowding. The L and the 7 lines are the only ones now equipped with CBTC, while work on the E, F, M, and R lines is in progress. Faster installation would require that lines go out of service so the tunnels can be accessed for longer windows of time than is possible during 24/7 service. That is one of the reasons MTA estimates for system-wide completion of CBTC have run into multiple decades.

That is crazy. Despite being the biggest transit system in North America, we still rely primarily on WWII-era fixed-block signals, which are safe but limit the system's capacity on the majority of its lines.

Of course, the lack of subway service at any time of day is a serious problem for those who depend on it to get to work, school, and other important activities. But the problem is less acute now. In pre-pandemic times, of the more than 5 million subway riders each weekday, only 150,000 daily riders (less than 2%), used the trains between midnight and 5 a.m.

The MTA has expanded bus service for the approximately 11,000 essential workers who need public transportation overnight during the pandemic. This effort can be ramped up and improved when the city reopens and more riders return. Indeed, it is expected that it will be quite a while until the prior levels of ridership return so there will be time for the level of alternative overnight bus service to fully ramp up.

The Regional Plan Association, one of the leading supporters of the metropolitan area’s public transit systems, argued for overnight subway closure in its Fourth Regional Plan, released in 2017:

Only a handful of cities aside from New York run 24/7 service and in most of these cities it’s not the entire system, just one or two lines. If New York City decides to use overnight closures to accelerate modernization efforts they would be taking advantage of the fact that only 1.5 percent of weekday riders use the system between 12:30 am and 5 am. However, the MTA must provide robust alternative service for these riders, many of whom depend on subways to get to and from work and other late night activities. For these riders, the MTA should offer frequent high-speed bus service. This may even provide superior service for most riders given that late night service subway service is already infrequent and unreliable, and that buses could run frequently on largely uncongested streets overnight.

Closures to improve construction productivity were recommended, albeit in a less emphatic way, in the report of Governor Cuomo’s Metropolitan Transportation Sustainability Advisory Workgroup, released at the end of 2018. Andy Byford’s Fast Forward Plan provided for some temporary weekend and line segment closures to install CBCT and do high-priority maintenance. That plan, however, estimated it would take 10 years to install fully computerized signal control on all lines.

As pandemic restrictions ease, there is a real concern that many will shy away from public transportation and resort to driving cars to get into and around New York City. To attract riders back, subway cars and stations need to be clean, with public health measures in place to make riders feel safe. This is no small task, to be sure. But it will also encourage riders to return if they know that service has improved, that there are more trains and hence, less overcrowding, that trains do not go out of service because of “signal problems” or for other maintenance reasons. 

Keeping the system closed for four hours overnight, even if for only a few lines at a time, while CBTC and other capital and repair projects are completed will dramatically improve service without impacting the vast majority of riders, and will have relatively little impact on fare revenue.

In response to a question after his talk before the Association for a Better New York (ABNY) two weeks ago, Chair Foye acknowledged that the temporary overnight closures present an opportunity to make more rapid progress on repairs and system enhancements. He and the governor should go further and open a serious conversation about the relative costs and benefits of reverting to all night service versus keeping the system closed in those overnight hours and/or closing certain lines to get all the needed work done. There are probably operating cost savings that could be achieved through long-term closures as well as service benefits. 

This could be one of the few chances to make lemons out of lemonade from a terrible catastrophe; we just need to abandon the 24/7 orthodoxy and think seriously about how to dramatically and quickly improve subway service. New Yorkers can still be part of a thriving 24-hour city while the subway is being cleaned, modernized, and enhanced for a few hours each night.

Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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To Avert Massive Housing Crisis, We Need a Government Solution for Property Owners and Renters; Here’s a Roadmap

massive crisis bx

There's a looming housing crisis we must avoid (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The anxiety and concern driving the “cancel rent” movement is real and justified, but giving rent relief to those who don’t need it makes no sense. Something must be done for struggling renters, but those requesting relief should be asked to provide financial information backing up their request and those that need it should receive it.

However, canceling rent without subsidizing the lost rental income to property owners will only make matters worse. Without rental income, eventually property owners will be unable to pay the millions of Americans they employ, including essential workers who clean and maintain the places millions more live, work, and shop. They also may be unable to pay utilities, maintenance costs, and most importantly, property taxes, which fund many of the municipal and social programs upon which we all depend.

Property owners are not the enemy, they are an essential part of the solution. Bankrupting tens of thousands of property owners and sending many properties onto the foreclosure rolls will cripple the ability of property owners to support a solution, exacerbate housing insecurity for tenants, and saddle government, at least for a time, with properties they have no capacity to manage.

The only viable solutions are those that keep tenants in their homes and businesses, and landlords managing properties. Government must make sure both happen. Ignoring the problem or worse, offering a partial solution and pretending the problem is solved will only result in less revenue for the government and massive displacement for millions of Americans at a time when we can all least afford it.

Governmental proclamations that provide for a temporary hold on evictions solve only half the problem. These solutions are at best short-lived and certainly short-sighted, not to mention confusing for the public. Ninety-day temporary eviction relief has led to a widespread misunderstanding that rent relief, or rent forgiveness, was also offered for 90 days. In part because of this, rent collections have dropped, even among people who can afford to pay. In turn, owners’ ability to meet their own financial obligations has already reached a crisis point for many, but especially small-scale property owners.

Instead of this one-sided approach, government should sponsor comprehensive programs for tenants and property owners, authorizing both to enter into payment plans.

Under this scenario, tenants would be permitted to pay off their missed rent over the next year and property owners would in turn receive real estate tax deferral in the amount of the deferred rent payments. Property owners would then repay taxes to the government on a monthly basis once rental income begins to be repaid. Working together, such a plan could keep tenants sheltered, while keeping property owners and the city ultimately whole.

For those who can pay full rent, they should. Tenants who can still pay, even those who are unemployed due to COVID-19, should be obligated to pay at least 30 percent of all income they are receiving, including unemployment benefits, interest and dividends, or of savings in excess of two years of rent, to fulfill their rent obligations.

In either case, property owners in buildings with 10 or more units should also offer tenants the ability to pay rent by credit card and cover the tenant’s cost of the associated credit card fees for those unemployed due to COVID-19.

Finally, to help ensure that these admittedly complicated and novel approaches are effectively implemented, the city should immediately create a stakeholders task force allowing property owners, labor, lenders, utilities, tenant advocates, and city government to come together to prevent a housing crisis on a scale we have never encountered.

Measures that put the full burden of providing housing on either property owners or those without means will work for no one. Government must be part of a comprehensive solution instead of addressing only half of the problem.

Francis Greenburger is Chair and CEO of Time Equities, Inc.

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New York’s Next Step Toward More Justice and Better Democracy

parollee restor oped

Questioning which New Yorkers can go to the polls (photo: Gotham Gazette)

Practicing social distancing is by no means easy, but the guidelines are simple: maintain six feet of distance from others, avoid crowded environments, public bathrooms, and shared dining facilities, and to blow off steam, go outside. Stick to the guidelines, health officials assure us, and we can all help protect each other, especially the vulnerable. 

But many of the most vulnerable people during the COVID-19 crisis are those whom most of us will never see and for whom social distancing is simply impossible: people behind bars. Prisons were not designed to prioritize personal space; moreover, many have faced overcrowding for years. At least 462 incarcerated people in New York state have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and 1,204 prison staff have as well. According to the Marshall Project, the number of undiagnosed infections in prisons is likely much higher. Tragically, at least 373 incarcerated people have died across the country from COVID-19 related illness. 

Yet even after facing those conditions while paying their debt to society, many of those who complete their sentences and reenter the public will have no voice in our collective future. That’s because New York, unlike 19 other states and Washington, D.C., denies people on parole for felony convictions the right to vote. It’s time to fix this with new legislation.

To be clear, thanks to Governor Cuomo’s issuance of voting rights pardons since 2018, most people on parole can currently vote. The governor’s staff began conducting a monthly review of everyone recently released on parole and the governor uses his pardon power to individually restore voting rights to each person living in the community and successfully completing the terms of their parole.

But the process is more cumbersome than it needs to be, both for the people rightfully having their voting rights restored and for the government. Moreover, voting rights shouldn’t depend on the discretion of one person. The governor has used his pardon power justly, to welcome people living in our communities into our democracy. But a future governor could depart from that practice—we’ve seen it happen in other states.

That’s why we are among the state senators co-sponsoring Senate Bill 1931. This legislation would make rights restoration automatic upon release from prison and provide those released an opportunity to register to vote right away.

We prioritized democracy reform at the beginning of this legislative session because we’ve heard loud and clear from our constituents that it is what they want. We need to make it the law that people on parole can vote, not just the policy of the governor. These are our neighbors. They work and pay taxes, and they should have a say in choosing those who levy them. They send their children to public schools, and they should be able to decide who oversees those schools.

State after state has acknowledged this obvious truth in recent years. In 2019 alone, Colorado, Nevada, and New Jersey passed laws restoring the right to vote to everyone living in the community, with New Jersey’s governor signing that state’s law this past December.

There is no good reason we shouldn’t do the same, and formally codify the governor’s policy here in New York. The criminal justice system has determined that each person on parole has served their time and is ready to return to their community. We all have an interest in welcoming them back with open arms and encouraging healthy reintegration. Until we change the law and make clear that their voting rights are not something bestowed upon them by the generosity of the governor, we send exactly the wrong message: that their voices don’t matter and they don’t have a real stake in what happens in their communities.

In fact, the history of New York’s criminal disenfranchisement laws makes clear that they were never aimed at accomplishing some good policy goal. They date back to a 19th century attempt to evade the mandate of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—to deny black men the right to vote.

These days the law is still discriminatory, but it also serves to sow confusion and waste government resources. Because the governor has to use his pardon power to restore voting rights, the process is needlessly complicated. Each month, the state corrections department sends the governor a list of everyone released and on parole the previous month. The governor’s staff then individually confirms each person’s eligibility before issuing a voting rights pardon. His staff then continuously monitors the parole status of each of the 30,000 people with a pardon to ensure they remain eligible.

This isn’t just a lot of work, it means that it is still impossible to give a simple, straightforward answer about whether people on parole can vote. Since the restoration process is not automatic, there is a four- to six-week gap between when someone is released from prison and when they have their rights restored. That means people cannot be told they have the right to vote on their way out. And we’ve heard that even people who do have a pardon have faced skepticism or misinformation when they try to register.

The bill we are co-sponsoring would clear up the confusion. It would set thousands of New Yorkers immediately on the path to reengaging in a positive way in their communities, something that has only become more important in the age of COVID-19. We urge our colleagues in the Legislature to join us in passing this bill, continuing New York’s journey to becoming a national leader in democracy.

State Senators Zellnor Myrie and Leroy Comrie represent parts of Brooklyn and Queens, respectively. On Twitter @SenatorMyrie & @LeroyComrie.

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As Coronavirus Overwhelms Funeral Homes, New York Must Act to Allow Alternatives to Traditional Burials

coronavirus homes

(photo: betterplaceforests via Instragram)

Across New York City, communities of color have been disproportionately hurt by COVID-19. Along with my colleagues in the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus (NYSBPRHA), I have heard from countless New Yorkers the numerous real and painful struggles they are dealing with as a result of the pandemic. Many are frontline and essential workers who continue to do their jobs day after day, risking their lives in order to help others. Per one recent report by the New York City Comptroller, 53% of health-care workers are immigrants and 70% of health-care workers are people of color. 

For communities who have given and lost so much already, what has been most painful is the inability to say goodbye to their loved ones. Hospitals are closed to visitors to control the outbreak, phone calls are almost impossible for critically ill patients, and funerals and memorial services have frequently been cancelled or delayed indefinitely.

As cremations have more than doubled in some parts of the country, many places are putting a cap on how many funerals and burials they can do. Meanwhile, those who have lost their jobs are forced to make tough decisions on whether or not to purchase a casket and a burial plot or feed their families. As families continue to grapple with these decisions, more and more people are dying every day, leaving hospitals with hundreds of bodies and funeral directors working overtime. 

To address these issues, we need to open our state up to new ways of memorializing our loved ones. 

To that end, I recently began working with Better Place Forests, which preserves forests and provides a more affordable, more sustainable alternative for people who choose cremation, enabling families to choose a final resting place beneath a tree while abiding by best regional practices that benefit local economies and the environment. 

To help the grieving families of first responders, Better Place recently launched the Memorial Trees for Heroes initiative to honor those who have bravely taken on risk in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic to help others. As the national average cost of a traditional burial is $8,755, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, this program will be an incredible help for the families of frontline workers who have passed away from COVID-19.

All health-care workers, caregivers in nursing homes and hospices, first responders, public transit workers, delivery workers, and others who have not had the luxury of working from home, but rather had to work to keep our communities running deserve access to programs like this one.

But right now, programs like the Memorial Trees for Heroes initiative that could provide comfort to grieving families have trouble operating in the state due to a one-size-fits-all approach that prevents cost-effective options for New Yorkers. I, along with my colleagues in the NYSBPRHA, believe the state must act now to provide more options and assistance to the thousands of COVID-19 victims’ families. Doctors, nurses and other essential frontline workers who sacrificed their life to help others deserve to have a beautiful final resting place where their loved ones can honor their memory. We must ensure the values these fallen heroes stood for in life and in death live on to serve as a testament to the greatness of this city and our communities.

Assemblymember Tremaine S. Wright represents parts of Brooklyn and is Chair of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus. On Twitter @tremaine4ny.

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