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Opinion

Stabilizing the MTA’s Rocky Finances in 2019 and Beyond


MTA modernization

(photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA)


New York’s colossal and crumbling mass transit system is headed toward another cliff -- this one financial. The MTA’s just-adopted budget says it will have a $500 million deficit in 2020 and the deficit will rise to about $1 billion a year by 2022, even with two fare and toll hikes, in 2019 and 2021. The authority’s summary of its situation actually says it is running deficits right now (2018 and 2019), which are being addressed by using all of its reserve funds, drawing down its inventory, and other methods of scraping cash together. Its expenses already exceed its revenues.

This is not actually a revelation. In February 2018 the MTA publicly reported these problems and its bond rating was dropped by Standard & Poor’s. Information about the problem has been public for several years. MTA budgets passed in July 2016 and November 2017, both public documents, presented the gloomy outlooks, as quoted in these MTA Board excerpts:

Presentation to the Board, July 27, 2016: “FINANCIAL PLAN IS BALANCED THROUGH 2019 WITH A 2020 DEFICIT OF $ 371 MILLION”
Highlights of the 2018-2021 November FInancial Plan - November 2017: “BUDGET CONTINUES TO BE BALANCED THROUGH 2019: 2020 and 2021 GAPS HAVE INCREASED TO $352 MILLION AND $643 MILLION RESPECTIVELY”

The ability of the MTA to sustain its operations is contingent on securing recurring revenue sources beginning in 2020 and beyond. The budget adopted in December 2018 forecasts through 2022 and reports the MTA will issue $12 billion in bonds to pay for asset replacements, like tracks, signals, trains, and buses, and continue the Expansion Projects, like East Side Access and Second Avenue Subway. Paying the interest on these bonds will cost the MTA an extra $500 million a year by the end of 2022. The MTA also projects that by the end of 2022 its labor costs will rise by 10%, from $10 billion a year, to $11 billion a year, including pension and health care for retirees.

Although the Governor and the Legislature added a tax on certain rides in for-hire vehicles, including traditional taxis, in the 2018 budget, to take effect on January 1, 2019, these funds will be going directly into the Subway Action Plan to sustain maintenance improvements to reverse the deterioration of basic service (and that congestion charge has been at least temporarily blocked by a judge). The separate long-term financial deterioration of the MTA was not addressed in either 2017 or 2018 by the Governor nor the Legislature.

At the time of state budget adoption in April 2018, the MTA Sustainability Advisory Workgroup was created, consisting of appointees of the Governor, the Mayor, the Assembly, and the Senate, and others. The mission of the group was to advise the state’s political leadership on critical choices and offer policy guidance. The group, chaired by the Partnership for New York City President & CEO Kathryn Wylde, an appointee of the Governor, issued its report on December 17, 2018.

The Workgroup report had many thoughtful recommendations, including supporting congestion pricing as the immediate revenue priority. Governor Cuomo’s support for congestion pricing is now well-known, but neither the Assembly nor the Senate have ever taken a vote, not even a vote in a committee, on congestion pricing, and the recommendation were not binding on the members of those institutions.

The Workgroup report confirmed that the MTA still has not fully costed out, or provided a detailed plan, for its Advanced Technology Fast Forward Plan, or the next phase of capital construction, the 2020-2024 Capital Plan, estimated to cost somewhere between $40 and $60 billion. The sums of money involved still have no clear overlap between MTA New York City Transit President Andy Byford’s Fast Forward Plan and the new MTA Capital Plan.

At the end of the legislative session in 2018, the State Assembly passed a bill to require the MTA to advance the release of the 2020-2024 Capital Plan, due under current law in October 2019, to January 2019, in an effort to have the Capital Plan become contemporaneous with the state budget, but the then Republican-controlled Senate did not pass it. It is now possible the Capital Plan and the Fast Forward Plan will not be available to act on during the 2019 Albany legislative session.

The Workgroup suggested that the state should proceed with congestion pricing despite the lack of information about future costs, because of the obvious need for immediate revenue; the Workgroup also said the capital planning process might be better aligned if it moved to a ten-year plan like the Port Authority --- a useful idea for the future while the existing plan’s shortfalls get addressed.

The MTA’s current 2015-2019 Capital Plan is seriously incomplete. To date, the MTA has received only $7 billion of the $33 billion cost of the plan, and the huge deficits reveal new revenue is needed to continue. Providing the MTA a revenue source for its 2022 deficit -- an extra $1 billion a year-- will provide the money for the $12 billion borrowing and address the operating deficits. Federal funds and bridge and tunnel bonds are still available sources that can feed into the pipeline for the current plan, leaving it about two-thirds funded through 2022, if the agency gets that extra $1 billion a year in a timely fashion -- meaning now.

The projected October 2019 MTA submission of its 2020-2024 Capital Plan, which presumably will incorporate the Fast Forward Plan, at least some version of it, presents an even more severe political test for the state’s governing authorities than congestion pricing itself. That is because MTA investments that cost $40- $60 billion will require revenue sources that bring several additional billion dollars a year to the agency beyond congestion pricing.

Moving to a ten-year capital planning cycle could allow the Governor and the Legislature to separate the additional billions in revenue needed to pay for such mammoth expenses into two five-year phases to avoid excessive tax hikes for the unpopular agency. But the difficulty of finding such a new level of revenue could bring about the return of the divisive regional conflict between funding the New York City Transit Authority and the suburban commuter rail systems.

This conflict was presaged by Governor Cuomo demanding that New York City and the state split the MTA’s shortfalls 50/50 in both 2017 and 2018. He followed up on that demand during his campaign this fall, when the Governor co-signed a pledge with Long Island Democratic State Senate candidates that they would force New York City to bear the cost of the New York City Transit system’s new capital needs. Mayor de Blasio and Assembly Democrats had resisted the Governor’s demand on this point in the legislative session in 2018.

These Long Island political newcomers may not realize that the Long Island Rail Road’s (LIRR) operating costs are the most heavily subsidized, on a proportional basis, of the three MTA transit systems, far more so than New York City Transit or Metro North. The MTA’s poster child for cost overruns is East Side Access, the giant construction program to link LIRR commuters to Grand Central Station at a final cost of $11 billion -- by far the largest drain on the capital budget. A pushback demand from New York City and Metro North legislators to force Long Island residents to pay their true share of LIRR costs could become an unpleasant regional counterpoint to add more political stalemate, not less, in the legislative process, enabling each constituent piece of the MTA system to drown separately, rather than keep everybody in the lifeboat and make progress.

Let me offer a few suggestions to provide a disciplined approach to this total mess:

1. Stabilize the MTA’s immediate funding crisis with the adoption of a $1 billion-per-year plan for congestion pricing, which will keep the capital and operations budgets in balance through 2022. This is the most logical and efficient way to address the immediate crisis and offers some relief for Manhattan’s horrible traffic, too. If the Legislature could do this by budget time, April 2019, the system could be in operation hopefully within a year. To avoid disruption to the construction program from implementation delays, the state and the city could provide the MTA cash from reserves or short-term borrowings, and even get repaid.

A component of congestion pricing could serve as the source for the state’s unfunded $7 billion obligation to the current 2015-2019 Capital Plan, triggering New York City’s $2.5 billion matching obligation, and bring the current plan to about three-quarters funded.

2. Do a Capital Program Ten-Year Restart: Require the MTA to integrate Fast Forward, the unfunded balances of the current plan, the Expansion Projects, and other essential investments into a 10-year Plan, 2020-2030, with two five-year cycles. The first five-year cycle would have a linkage to the revenue requirement necessary to proceed. The 2015-2019 plan elements funded from congestion pricing would be recognized in the cycle. This was a concept advanced by the Workgroup.

3. Use the Cash Windfall to Businesses from the 2018 40% Federal Corporate Income Tax Cut: A divisive regional confrontation is unwise and potentially politically catastrophic for all involved. The most efficacious revenue on the horizon is a restructuring of the state’s corporate income tax in the metropolitan region to capture a portion of the multi-billion cash windfall to corporate New York from a 40% cut in their federal corporate income taxes. The Legislature could exempt smaller businesses and still find $1 billion a year as a recurring source of revenue from the windfall. (I wrote more about this idea in a prior column.)

Corporate taxes, unlike income taxes, remain fully deductible as a business expense, and avoid more damage to New York from the inability of our taxpayers to deduct most of their New York personal income taxes from their federal taxes after the new federal cap on those deductions (a matter of litigation itself). Further revenue sources would probably still be needed, but the vehicle-for-hire surcharges could be enhanced for the app-based services like Uber and Lyft and further differentiated from the traditional taxis. Charges for for-hire vehicles in the outer boroughs and suburbs, which were excluded from the first round of this tax, could be brought into the vehicle-for-hire fee system, and be linked to transit improvement.

4. A full overhaul of the MTA’s Capital Construction Program, with a plan to cut its costs 20-25%, remains a challenge that can be taken up with a Capital Plan realignment into a ten-year cycle. A separate new construction agency with aggressive powers to cut costs and innovate may be necessary.

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

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Note: this article has been updated to remove an incorrect statement about how legislatively-appointed members of the MTA Workgroup were acting -- they were voting as representatives of their legislative body, not as individuals as originally stated.

Will Tish James Follow Her Campaign Rhetoric and Investigate Cy Vance?


tish james becomes attorney general

AG Tish James (photo: New York Attorney General website)


In 2018 Letitia James won a historic election to become the first woman of color to hold statewide office in New York and the first woman to be elected Attorney General. Filling a seat vacated by Eric Schneiderman (a misogynist playing women’s champion by day), James pledged to be a new kind of people’s lawyer, “unbossed and unbought” by Governor Andrew Cuomo or anyone else. James takes the helm at a moment where a bold vision for making a difference for New Yorkers will also have great consequence for the country.

New Yorkers should look forward to James’ leadership taking on important issues like pollution, reproductive rights, and protecting people and communities in other ways. I am disappointed, however, that she has thus far been silent on the matter of the state’s investigation into the Manhattan District Attorney’s handling of a 2015 sex crimes case against Harvey Weinstein and other sex crimes cases -- such as the one against Dr. Robert Hadden in which I was a victim.

The first question at an August 2018 Democratic primary debate for Attorney General was about a BuzzFeedNews report that Governor Cuomo had ordered the Attorney General's office to suspend its investigation into Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s office. The candidates were asked if they would have agreed to suspend the case as requested. James said that she would not have put the investigation on hold. This story and question only came about because of my advocacy. While representatives of the governor’s office were saying one thing publicly and to me, they had backed off on any real action in support of survivors and against corruption.

Not coincidentally, the next debate question was about how the candidates would maintain their independence from Cuomo. James said, "The office of attorney general is independent from the office of the governor, and I don't believe anyone can question my independence."

Now, James must live up to her campaign promises. The six-month “pause” on the state’s investigation of Vance ended in December. Will James resume it and finally take a real look at the DA’s practices? Or, will she fall in line with Cuomo’s tactics of publicly calling for something to get credit but then letting it slip into the ether when no one is paying attention?

Opportunities to investigate a prosecutor’s actions are rare. And, with the newly-created Commission on Prosecutorial Misconduct itself in legal jeopardy, they remain further out of reach for many who’ve been harmed. As someone on a long list of people who were sexually assaulted in New York City and failed by the systems supposedly in place to help us, I remain perplexed at the lack of willingness by the state’s legal entities to conduct a thorough review of the Manhattan DA despite case after case of questionable outcome.

In addition to the much reported campaign contributions from Weinstein and Trump family attorneys, Vance repeatedly took contributions from my abuser’s attorney and a member of his employer’s Board of Trustees. Vance has denied that these contributions reveal corruption and pledged to reject contributions from those with cases before his office. The report he commissioned from Columbia University to reach this logical conclusion failed to mention any conflict of interest or the case against my abuser even though it had made headlines.

I could no longer stay silent and watch the same players continue to replay the same game at the expense of women. I didn’t set out to talk about being sexually assaulted by my OBGYN while I was pregnant. I wanted to show what happens when you come forward seeking help and are failed by a system rigged to favor well-connected perpetrators. I was one of more than 20 women who came forward about the same man. Rather than pursue justice, the DA chose to offer him a plea some have called the “deal of the century.” No one should have the experience I did once they decide to report a crime.

In a letter to Vance, Counsel to the Governor Alphonso David wrote that "women have been victimized by the system for years and it must stop." I couldn’t agree more. Oversight by legislators, advocates, and the public is critically important to how institutions such as the Manhattan DA perform moving forward. New Yorkers will be waiting to see if Attorney General James is indeed independent and fulfills her duty to complete the investigation. I’m not giving up until the problem is solved -- and it is far from solved. I hope James won’t give up on this either.

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Marissa Hoechstetter is an activist. On Twitter @MHoechstetter.

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The City’s New Pharmacy Ban and Next Steps in Fighting Cigarette Smoking


de Blasio New York City anti-smoking

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Shoppers at pharmacies are there to buy products that will make them healthier, whether that’s tissue boxes to help with colds or prescription medication for a chronic issue. Pharmacies shouldn’t be home to items that make people sick.

CVS recognized this in 2014 when it took the unprecedented step of stopping the sale of tobacco products in its stores. Many public health professionals thought this would be the beginning of a wave of pharmacies following CVS’ lead. That didn’t happen.

Until January 1 of this year New Yorkers could still buy tobacco products at 500 pharmacies throughout the city. That’s when a new law went into effect that banned New York City pharmacies from selling tobacco products. This rule was part of a package of legislation signed into law by Mayor de Blasio in August 2017 aimed at reducing the number of smokers in the city by 160,000 by 2020. More than 5 decades after the U.S. Surgeon General first warned against the dangers of smoking, more than 880,000 adults in New York City still smoke.

The ban on tobacco sales in pharmacies is another important step in the long fight against tobacco use in New York City. Despite many years of progress, that fight is far from over, and we’re now facing unprecedented challenges. Policymakers need to continue pushing for a healthier, smoke-free city by taking an even more restrictive approach to purchasing tobacco products and turning their attention more closely to the dangers of products that can act as a gateway to traditional cigarettes.

There are many ways to continue building on the anti-smoking momentum that has been accelerating since the passage of the Smoke Free Air Act in 2002.

Now that pharmacies no longer sell cigarettes, policymakers should turn their attention to where else New Yorkers are buying tobacco products. After it pulled tobacco products from its shelves, CVS found that 38 percent of people who exclusively bought cigarettes at their stores were more likely to stop buying them at all. Imagine the impact that can be made if access were further restricted at other stores that traditionally sell cigarettes, along with restricting access near places that young people frequent, including schools, houses of worship, playgrounds, and libraries. An aggressive campaign to reduce access – whether through halting sales altogether or continuing to increase prices – will pay dividends in public health and lower the number of smokers in New York City.

Looking beyond traditional cigarettes, one of the most pressing new challenges in public health is the rise of addictive e-cigarettes, which have exploded in popularity among youth. More than 20 percent of U.S. 12th-graders reported that they vaped nicotine in 2018. Alarmingly, a study found that teens that used e-cigarettes had three times the level of cancer-causing chemicals in a urine test than their non-using peers.

The New York CIty pharmacy ban includes e-cigarettes, but there are still too many avenues through which young people can buy these dangerous products. There is also a persistent, misleading narrative that e-cigarettes help people quit smoking, despite the blatant lack of evidence to support this assertion. Policymakers need to take comprehensive action to prevent the further spread of e-cigarettes by continuing to limit sales and launching comprehensive education programs, or we risk reversing decades of progress in curbing smoking.

While we celebrate the critical milestone achieved by this ban and its companion legislation, we must turn our attention to the next frontier in reducing the number of smokers and improving the health of all New Yorkers. There are still too many places to buy tobacco products, and the looming threat of e-cigarettes grows bigger every day. We’ve recognized the dangers of smoking for long enough, and it has only become clearer that increasingly firm action is critical to combatting this problem.

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Lisa David is president and CEO at Public Health Solutions (PHS). PHS’ NYC Smoke-Free program has contributed to changes in tobacco control measures in New York City. On Twitter @wearephsny.

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To Help More Students Succeed in College, Reform Remedial Education


class2018 laguardia comm

(photo via LaGuardia Community College)


New York’s community college students face long odds of graduating. Only 25 percent of community college students statewide—and just 22 percent in New York City—earn an associate’s degree in three years, an enormous barrier to economic opportunity in a state where a college credential is becoming the floor to career success. There are multiple reasons why so many New Yorkers aren’t making it through college, but one major driver is clear: far too many students entering community colleges in New York are being pushed into remedial education programs.

Recognizing that developmental education is unintentionally derailing students from the path to a degree, both CUNY and SUNY are taking important steps to reform this system from the ground up. Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature should support these essential efforts by setting broad goals for reducing the number of students in remedial programs and funding innovative alternatives at community colleges statewide.

Remedial education has long been viewed as a necessity, since large numbers of students enter the state’s public colleges academically underprepared. At New York’s community colleges, which take all applicants and serve thousands of low-income and first-generation college students each year, most students enter struggling with at least one core subject like math or reading, and the majority are placed into remedial education.

But researchers now know that traditional remedial programs aren’t working. Students entering these programs are far more likely to drop out by the end of their first year, and the vast majority will fail to graduate with a degree—even as studies show that many students could have succeeded by staying out of developmental education entirely.

In recent years, roughly three-quarters of CUNY community college students placed into at least one remedial math, writing, or reading course. Nearly 90 percent of these students will not earn an on-time degree, and six in ten remedial math students will have dropped out within two years. Whatever initial excitement spurred these students into college quickly fades, as some of their peers make progress toward a degree while they remain stuck in classes that feel like high school never ended—all while burning through financial aid.

A better system is possible, and it starts with placing fewer students there in the first place.

In fact, evidence shows that high-stakes placement tests are weak predictors of a student’s potential, and many students who end up in remedial education can succeed in credit-bearing courses. CUNY and SUNY are developing smarter placement algorithms that analyze more than just test scores, and this data-backed reform should expand.

Of course, some underprepared students will require extra support to succeed in college. These students need access to programs that can build academic skills while maintaining momentum toward a degree.

That’s where innovative new approaches can make a difference. Study after study has shown that reimagined alternatives to remedial education programs are working for underprepared students by improving learning outcomes, boosting college completion, and speeding the path to a credential.

For instance, CUNY’s Start program has shown tremendous early results by providing an intensive, single-semester course combined with significant academic and non-academic support—all without using up financial aid. In addition, CUNY is expanding the highly-promising corequisite model, which places students in credit-bearing math and English courses bolstered by weekly support sessions. This approach is proving effective, helping students pass gateway math and English courses at higher rates and even improving college completion. Likewise, SUNY’s Math Pathways program is taking a similar approach to rethink math remediation for underprepared community college students.

As evidence mounts that these new strategies are working, it’s time for New York policymakers to give remedial reform a major boost. First, the State Legislature should pass a law setting broad goals for improving support systems for underprepared students, significantly decreasing the remedial population, and aligning SUNY’s and CUNY’s approaches with best practices nationwide, while leaving the specifics up to education leaders. Policymakers should then fuel progress toward these goals by implementing a new time-limited challenge grant for community colleges, aimed at expanding remedial education reforms quickly and efficiently to campuses statewide.

Traditional remedial education has been just another stumbling block on the road to a college credential. By investing in comprehensive remedial education reform, New York State can lift up underprepared students and put thousands more on track to a brighter economic future.

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Eli Dvorkin is editorial and policy director of the Center for an Urban Future, a New York–based think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity. On Twitter @WetWax & @nycfuture.

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Now’s the Time for Automatic Voter Registration in New York


primary voting parkslope

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Over the last several decades, 15 states across the country – both red and blue – have modernized their voting laws, including our neighbors in New Jersey and Massachusetts. Unfortunately, here in New York we remain mired in the past, refusing to implement reforms to fix the state’s poor electoral system and erecting arbitrary barriers to voter participation.

The results are clear: New York routinely has some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. In 2018, New York ranked 48th in turnout. Also important to this discussion is that in the midst of the 2016 election, upwards of 200,000 voters were illegally purged from the voter rolls in Brooklyn due to errors at the New York City Board of Elections.

Now, more than ever, New York has an obligation to make it simpler – not harder – for people to vote.

This legislative session in Albany, we can make real change. New York can move our elections into the future by passing Automatic Voter Registration, or AVR.

The idea behind AVR is simple: instead of putting the burden of registering to vote on individuals, the state automatically registers them when they interact with government agencies and they can elect not to participate if they so choose. Here’s an example of how it would work.

When an eligible voter goes to the DMV or enrolls in Medicaid, he or she is already supplying a variety of data – name, birthdate, address, etc. From that single interaction, New Yorkers can and should be able to sign up for the service they’re seeking and register or update their voting information.   

Automatic Voter Registration would securely collect and electronically transfer the data of eligible voters to the state Board of Elections, which would then send a pre-paid postcard to the voter to give them the chance to opt out of registration. If the individual doesn’t opt out, he or she is added to the rolls.

It's simple, it’s commonsensical, and it promotes civic engagement. AVR not only allows more individuals to participate in the democratic process by easing the registration process, it also ensures that voter rolls are accurate and up-to-date.

And we know it works.

In Oregon, for instance, 94 percent of individuals who interacted with the DMV and were eligible to vote were registered. Research suggests that 44 percent of the new registrants subsequently voted, leading Oregon to have the largest turnout increase between 2012 and 2016 of any state. In 2018, it had one of the highest turnout rates in the country.

AVR also saves the state money by eliminating the costs of provisional ballots, costly paper transactions, and manual data entry. Across the country, localities have saved an average of about $3.54 in costs per registration by moving from a paper to an electronic method.

And the time freed up allows election officials to focus less on data entry and more on running elections smoothly and efficiently. That’s something New York desperately needs.

The question is whether we have the will.

Here at home, polling released by a new New York advocacy effort, AVR NOW, from Civis Analytics shows there is positive support for AVR in almost every single New York state Senate district. Statewide, a supermajority of 64 percent of New York voters support AVR. That’s not surprising here in New York because even the most casual voter knows our elections are dysfunctional.

This session, New York has a chance to modernize our elections, tear down arbitrary barriers to voting, and reaffirm that our state works for all the people.

We should seize it.

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State Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens is the incoming Deputy Majority Leader and author of New York's Automatic Voter Registration bill. Sean McElwee is a policy analyst, writer and co-founder of Data for Progress. On Twitter @SenGianaris & @SeanMcElwee.

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New York City is No Longer Just a Union Town; Open Shop Construction Workers are Finding Their Voice and Must Be Heard


construction workers

(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


We’ve all heard that old refrain: “New York City is a union town.” In some cases, that’s still true, as many unions remain both politically influential and dominant in their industries.

But the truth is that New York City is no longer a union town when it comes to construction, as the vast majority of private sector work is being done by the open shop. A review of New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) pulled permits shows that most private construction work across the city – approximately 80 percent – is now done by open shop workers. That equates to more than $15 billion of work for the non-union workforce.

And despite what you might hear from the unions themselves, that’s actually a good thing for local communities and workers who’ve been left behind by the building trades. Men and women of color are finding new opportunities to enter the construction industry, and rates of local hiring on new projects are increasing.

The problem now is that even though construction unions no longer have most of the work in New York City, they still have the loudest voice. Whenever there’s a public discussion about laws or rules affecting the industry, politicians and policymakers always hear from union bosses – but they rarely hear from open shop workers about their interests and their needs.

More elected officials should recognize that the open shop is a prime source of employment and career paths for New Yorkers of color. Around three-quarters of open shop workers are black or Latino and residents of the five boroughs.

Officials also need to understand that construction workers in the open shop are earning good wages and benefits that far surpass those offered in entry-level positions in other industries. Workers are earning at least $20 per hour upon getting into the industry, as well as accessing crucial health insurance and 401k programs.

Beyond the obvious economic benefits for our city’s marginalized families and communities, open shop has also begun to reverse the impact of decades of discriminatory hiring practices in the construction industry. While unions have certainly come a long way, many barriers still stand in the way for people of color entering the field of construction.

This is all because, as its name implies, the open shop provides a particularly inclusive hiring model. And given the high rate of diversity in our part of the industry, employers now are investing more in construction safety and skills training programs for non-English speakers. The incorporation of bilingual instructors into these programs has facilitated efforts to attract workers from diverse backgrounds and expanded open shop job opportunities further.

The question now is how to keep moving the needle. As the open shop continues to expand, the need for support and resources from city and state officials will only continue to increase. These workers work hard to support themselves and their families – and they deserve fairness from politicians across the spectrum.

Politicians at all levels must identify a long-term, ongoing effort to create resources for open shop workers and residents of this great city. New York City really is not just a union town anymore. We’re proud of that and ready to fight to keep that progress going.

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Brian Sampson is president of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Empire State Chapter. On Twitter @ABCEmpireState.

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As City Minimum Wage Hits $15, Much to Celebrate and More To Do


de Blasio business visit

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


They may not know, but the million-plus people who crowd into Times Square on New Year’s Eve have reason to cheer the dropping of the ball because it will also signal rising wages. Beginning December 31, 2018, New Yorkers working minimum wage jobs in the city for companies with 11-plus employees will see their hourly compensation rise to $15.

But like all events in New York City, coordination and planning are needed to make this a celebration and not a disaster. Serious questions and profound possibilities surround this policy shift. The nearly 1.5 million people making a minimum wage in New York City will see their lives change markedly for the better. Workers already making slightly over $15, meanwhile, will have the opportunity to pressure their employers to better their own interests, yielding opportunity but also potentially conflict.

These changes mean big adjustments for all players in the New York economy. However, there are some relatively simple ways that government, both municipal and state, can help the New York City workforce and its servicers stay secure and effective through the transition.
One: help businesses adapt. Businesses have little in the way of resources, tools, FAQs, and how-to sheets for adapting to the minimum wage increase, and job-seekers lack access to public materials on searching for work in the changing market, with new expectations and barriers as well as earning opportunities. There also isn’t anyone outside of Albany, and specifically not in New York City Hall, charged with monitoring how businesses and workers fare during this transition: who is struggling and in what ways, and which decisions businesses and workers are making in the short- and long-term. But, administrative changes and public synthesizing of information can go a long way towards ensuring that the $15 minimum wage is as much of a victory as it should be — for everyone.

Two: secure the funds. City and state government bureaus must provide enough funding in their contracts with social service agencies to ensure agencies can afford to pay workforce professionals a living wage. The average human service professional in New York City made only $29,600 annually (in 2015 dollars), and advocates have pushed the city and state governments for contracts that meet cost of living needs to mixed success. To make this wage raise work, the people servicing employment relationships on the ground must be able to keep up.

Three: shine more light. New York City can do better compiling and sharing information, which would make this transition feel less like a shot in the dark. Workforce agencies don't currently have data that can shed light on who is being served, in what ways, by whom, to what effect and at what cost. Moving forward with the city's common metrics initiative could illuminate who is going through workforce programs and successfully attaching to certain jobs, better equipping professionals to match job opportunities with candidates in a new market.

Finally, this wage increase is promising but poses new questions for New Yorkers. Will the availability of internship opportunities, now more expensive, decline? Will higher compensation levels create a bigger barrier to entry for those who’ve been unemployed and want to get back to work? Will firms invest more in automation?

In order to make the most of this incredible sea change for working families, it’s on us as a city to deal with these questions and broaden the horizon of these possibilities to the best of our abilities. By taking the right steps, New York City can show the world once more what it can do.

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Stacy Woodruff is the director of The Workforce Field Building Hub.

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A Dog-Friendly City Must Adapt to the Times


chelsea winston house edit

photo via DogSpot


There you are, walking your dog in the neighborhood and you pass a new coffee shop that just opened in a long-vacant storefront. You really want to check out their lattes and support a local entrepreneur, but instead you keep walking because there’s no way you are leaving your dog tied up and vulnerable on the sidewalk just so you can get a caffeine fix. Sadly, this scenario – in which small business owner and responsible dog owners all get shorted – isn’t so hypothetical. It happens every day in New York City, where more than half a million dogs live and where nearly two-thirds of stores do not allow them inside.

That’s why we started DogSpot in a garage in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 2014. Our communities needed a solution to this problem that no one was solving, so we designed a secure and comfortable spot for dogs to wait while dog owners briefly run into a store or restaurant. For more than two years, we operated a network of these secure, climate-controlled, smart dog houses on Brooklyn sidewalks, keeping dogs safe and driving business to local retailers. It wasn’t until we unexpectedly got a cease-and-desist letter from the Department of Transportation (DOT) – ironically sent while we were exhibiting at a Smart Cities Expo in Spain by invitation from New York City Hall – that we learned the city’s regulatory enforcement didn’t allow for this type innovative solution to this common problem.

So now, while pet owners and shop owners across the U.S. are enjoying the benefits of DogSpot, our hometown of New York City is out of luck, casualty of an antiquated regulatory approach.

Fortunately, unfortunate headlines like “She Had a Genius Idea, Then the City Showed Up” could soon be replaced by “New York City at Forefront of Urban Innovation” and “Dog-Friendliness Proves a Boon for Small Business Owners” thanks to the New York City Council. Last month, the City Council held a public hearing on a new bill from Council Member Rafael Espinal, Jr. (Intro. 886) that would clear the path for pet harbors like DogSpot to operate outside commercial businesses on city sidewalks.

The bill thoughtfully addresses concerns raised by DOT about obstructions by only allowing pet harbors in locations with very wide sidewalks and within a limited clearance from the building, making pet harbors no different than the sidewalk furniture and children’s rides that are currently permitted across the boroughs. Simultaneously, it would update regulations that understandably did not anticipate new technologies or urban design.

At the end of the day, the positive impacts of this common sense regulatory fix will be significant. One in seven households in our city have at least one dog and there are approximately 600,000 dogs across the five boroughs. This bill would give DogSpot members in Brooklyn access to a humane alternative to leaving dogs unattended, and provide dog owners in the other boroughs the same access to a safe option. And what’s more, local retail businesses – many of which struggle to make it in New York City – would no longer need to turn away customers with pets.

What the City Council has an opportunity to do with Intro. 886 is to simultaneously support small businesses, keep pets and sidewalks safe, and send the message that as technology evolves, New York City’s regulations actually can evolve along with it. Those innovators working to solve today’s urban challenges are watching and waiting to see if New York City is welcoming to modern problem solving and passing this bill now would be a clear signal that the answer is yes.

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Chelsea Brownridge is the CEO & Founder of DogSpot.

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Bans on Shackling Pregnant Women Don't Work; New York Must Do Something Else


criminal justice building


A federal lawsuit filed this month alleges police in the Bronx kept a pregnant woman shackled while she gave birth in February. Allegedly, doctors at Montefiore Medical Center warned that shackling a woman in labor poses high danger to a fetus, but the cops cited a manual that they said allowed them to do it.

If you’re thinking shackling pregnant women during childbirth should just be banned to prevent this barbaric practice, you’re wrong. Shackling pregnant inmates is already prohibited in New York.  

Securing metal clasps around a pregnant woman’s ankles has been illegal in the state for almost ten years.

In 2009, New York became the sixth state to ban restraints during birth when then-Governor David Paterson signed the Anti-Shackling Law, which prohibits shackling during labor, delivery, and recovery. When it was amended in 2015, the law prohibited shackling of women eight weeks post-partum and while being transported in custody.

The problem is that few police or corrections officers appear to obey this law. The Corrections Association of New York, a reform and advocacy organization, interviewed 27 women who gave birth while in custody of the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision after the 2009 shackling ban went into effect. A full 85% of them said they had been shackled while pregnant in flagrant violation of state statute.

Aside from the fact that the practice is inhumane and impedes normal labor and delivery - women need to move around for pain management and cervical dilation for vaginal deliveries -  the health effects of shackling women are harmful for both mother and child. Shackles all but destroy prompt and uninhibited diagnosis of vaginal bleeding, and being able to discern preterm labor pain from other treatable conditions.

Some may call it fortuitous that such a lawsuit was filed right now, when shackling of pregnant women is getting increased scrutiny. A ban on shackling is a provision of the federal FIRST STEP Act, the contentious prison and sentencing reform bill passed by the House of Representatives and pending before the Senate.

Back in September, when the Senate version of the FIRST STEP Act remained unknown, three female Representatives (Karen Bass (D-CA), Mia Love (R-UT) and Katherine Clark (D-MA)) introduced the Pregnant Women in Custody Act of 2018, which would have created a national standard of care for pregnant women in all federal prisons and required the Department of Justice to collect health data on that population. Last year, an anti-shackling plank was included in the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act (sponsored by Democratic Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Richard Durbin). The Pregnant Women in Custody Act and the Dignity Act were never voted on in committee, much less in the larger chamber.

But even if these bills had been made law and applied to all incarcerated women, not just federal prisoners, officers probably would have ignored them. What’s happened in New York proves that even codified prohibitions of this conduct don’t prevent it.

The risk of litigation -- other women suing like Jane Doe is -- has little hope of curbing these abuses. For one, Jane Doe isn’t incarcerated now so she doesn’t have to clear those monumental hurdles to file a lawsuit in federal court imposed on inmates by Prison Litigation Reform Act. Women who are shackled during pregnancy must exhaust internal remedies before their claims of civil and human rights violations can be presented in federal court. Those tasks, on top of nursing (if in a facility that has a nursery) or wrestling with the separation from their children, are often insurmountable for new mothers. Besides, officers are often indemnified by their employers - and your tax dollars.

Since bans alone won’t cut it to stop officers from shackling women, more needs to be done, like amending the Anti-Shackling Law by criminalizing this conduct so that individual guards face some accountability.

Dangers hide in the criminalization of any activity, namely the chance of unjust prosecution and conviction. That risk might be higher in paramilitary systems like law enforcement, where officers of lower rank must follow the orders of supervisors or risk discipline or termination.

But those risks are minor enough that they can’t be fairly weighed against the prospect of physical harm and death for a mother and her newborn from shackling.

As long as there is little to no consequence for officers who break this law, we will continue to put women and children in harm’s way. A ban on shackling women needs to be more than symbolism or a moral stance. When it’s still happening despite the fact that it’s unlawful, we need legal force to create practical effect.

Next month, Democrats will control both houses of the New York State Legislature; Republicans won’t be able to block meaningful criminal justice reform. Amending the Anti-Shackling Law to include accountability for officers who continue these human rights violations is essential to any positive change in New York correctional culture.

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Chandra Bozelko is the Vice President of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and member of the junior board of the Women’s Prison Association. On Twitter @aprisondiary.

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Why The Amazon Deal is In Trouble


amazon protest via nycchange

Amazon protest (photo: @nycchange)


Amazon, Mayor de Blasio, and Governor Cuomo have recently gotten a first taste of how deep the backlash against the deal to bring the company to Queens is in New York City. They should be worried. First,Queens Neighborhoods United held an anti-Amazon rally in Astoria that drew hundreds of community members, another in a series of key actions against the deal. Then, members of the New York City Council peppered underprepared executives from Amazon while a raucous crowd booed and threw up signs. More actions are coming.

There is plenty of cynicism running through all three parties to the deal, so weathering some political grandstanding and protests was baked into the process. It’s why they went through a General Project Plan to bypass any public involvement or City Council review (which meant that the hearing was largely political theater — for the moment). No one seriously worried about the deal getting derailed.

But they are wrong and must know it by now. It seems clear that collectively they miscalculated on three factors:

One, Amazon’s terrible reputation as a neighbor and employer is more widely known than they expected.

Two, Americans, including New Yorkers, no longer buy that corporate giveaways are good for them

Three, New York City’s crumbling infrastructure has cost the mayor and the governor any credibility with New Yorkers.

These points are obvious to most people who don’t work for Amazon, the mayor, or the governor, but since no one outside of those three groups were involved in the deal, they were underestimated.

That’s easier to understand given the PR strategy, which became clear at the Council hearing. All three parties are banking on Amazon’s popularity with customers to see the deal through.

That’s potentially a sound, if deeply cynical, strategy. Amazon is really cheap and fast. Over 50% of Americans have an Amazon Prime account. Amazon is trusted more than Congress.

They have early evidence to support that in New York City. At the hearing, Amazon representatives and the city’s president of the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), James Patchett, cited a recent Quinnipiac poll saying that New Yorkers “overwhelmingly support” Amazon locating a second headquarters in Queens: 57% support it, while only 26% oppose it.

Look a bit closer and you’ll see that the result isn’t as strong as it seems. The primary question includes the statement “Amazon locating one of its new headquarters in Long Island City in Queens.” That’s innocuous language, but only 57% supported that?

It’s also a lot different than the reality of the deal. More accurate wording would be “Amazon, a $1 trillion company, getting $3 billion of public money as well as public and private land to build a new campus.”

Not surprisingly, when the poll referenced the “incentives” included, it tells a very different story: 46% of voters said they support the deal, while 44% was opposed.

While Quinnipiac has a sterling reputation and should, framing the $3 billion as “incentives” is doing a lot of heavy lifting. That may be technically accurate, but it is also accurate to call it “subsidies” or a “transfer of public funds” which would likely impact a respondent’s answer differently. Quinnipiac is using the language offered by the city and state, a choice that does involve accepting an ideological framing, which has consequences to the public discourse.

Since Amazon, the de Blasio administration, and the Cuomo administration are relying on the poll as vindication, it’s fair to say that they should be worried. Aside from the slightly generous wording of the poll, the simple fact is that most New Yorkers aren’t all that jazzed about HQ2, and the deal and company have barely seen the type of local scrutiny that is already starting.

Most New Yorkers can’t possibly be closely familiar with details of the deal. Even the City Council just found out about it — the MOU was only made public when the deal was announced.

The details around the $3 billion are worth examining (see a lot more about the incentives here and here), but the key points are troubling. All parties stress that the “incentives” are performance-based which is half-true, but how Amazon’s performance is measured is still intentionally vague. A lot of pubic money will be guaranteed, but Amazon has not made similarly detailed promises.

As more of this and other information about Amazon comes to light, I have a hard time believing that New Yorkers will support the deal. Community groups, the Democratic Socialists of America, elected officials, labor unions, and others are making sure more people hear about those details, through door-to-door canvassing, community meetings, and other efforts. Amazon will counter and spend a lot of money on consultants and hide behind the rushed-to-life community advisory board, but the deal stinks and people will see that for what it is.

The biggest question that Amazon, the mayor, and the governor have to answer is the most obvious: why does Amazon even need help to move to Long Island City?

The Amazon executives were shockingly flat-footed when they were asked this at the hearing. They claimed that talent was the main driver but that subsidies “mattered,” which more or less reveals the obvious: they were coming here anyway. They also tried to repeatedly say that the incentives are performance-based, but that does not answer why the company needs them. And, they had no good answer when directly asked if they would give the incentives for public use, but indicated the company would not.

Holding hundreds of cities over the barrel just to make sure that New York and Virginia (Crystal City) came up with incentives shows you how unethical Amazon is. Holding a gun to the city’s and state’s heads before moving in doesn’t make you a good neighbor. They aren’t and never will be, and that’s even before touching on their anti-union labor practices and what they do to local retail.

None of this is surprising to people who pay attention to Amazon’s history. They have bullied Seattle and small businesses and startups on their platform. They have exploited warehouse workers, third-party delivery services, and even white-collar employees. They have worked with ICE and the DOD. In the City Council hearing company representatives fell over themselves trying to say they aren’t a monopoly, but how else do you have the chutzpah to ask New York for $3 billion while insisting on a completely secretive process including non-disclosure agreements?

Maybe the mayor and the governor couldn’t “stop” Amazon from coming, but they could and should have done everything in their power to protect the many communities of New Yorkers who will be negatively impacted by Amazon (and already are). This deal doesn’t do that. Instead, they put aside their mutual disgust and saw “HQ2” as a legacy-defining victory.

But the political landscape in New York City and across the United States is changing. “Job creation” used to be enough for politicians to support a corporate giveaway, but people know those jobs aren’t good-paying or union-protected. “Spillover effect” used to be enough for technocrats to justify public wealth transfers, but people look around at crumbling subways, crowded schools, and overflowing sewers and wonder why there isn’t enough money to fix those directly.

Amazon, the mayor, and the governor are left hoping that people’s love of cheap goods delivered to their door quickly will save the “HQ2” deal. They think people are lazy and stupid, basically. The reality is, people are overworked and poor. Corporations like Amazon getting billions of what should be public money from politicians are a big reason why. Community groups and the DSA plan to keep knocking on doors throughout the city sharing that message.  Let’s see what the polls look like after that.

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Peter Harrison is a member of NYC-DSA and CEO/Co-founder of homeBody, a public benefit startup. On Twitter @PeteHarrisonNYC.

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Imagining an ‘Asset Light’ Sanitation Department


sanitation truck snow plow

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Recent news that the New York City Department of Sanitation had its trucks evicted from a Chelsea garage on West 30th Street and will now park them on a side street near Manhattan’s Bellevue South Park should raise a question: why does Sanitation need to garage its trucks in the first place? It's not as if sanitation trucks are Lamborghinis requiring careful protection or 1970s era Jaguars that spent more time in the shop than on the road.  

Since Sanitation is street-parking the trucks now, and has for several years over near the West Side railyards, why are any garaged overnight at all?

Sanitation, and thus the City, could realize substantial efficiencies, capital and operating cost reductions in its garage operations by using an "asset light" strategy with a much smaller footprint for its structures.

Some of the city’s 2,100 garbage collection trucks have been maintained for years outdoors in various locations throughout New York City.

What if Sanitation used small fueling and washing facilities around the city where, say, a half-dozen trucks could be power-washed and fueled at a time, every so often, in a "roll-in, roll-out" facility, and then parked at a location near the start of their routes?

According to press reports, the Sanitation workers union rules require its trucks to be parked near Sanitation facilities that house lunchrooms, showers, and locker rooms. But what if that were not the case? What if the City were to negotiate with the sanitation union so as to use existing facilities in police precincts, hospitals, firehouses, or in some of the smaller footprint Sanitation fueling and washing facilities, and park its trucks near those facilities?

Why couldn't workers, who are actually first responders to some of New York City’s worst weather events, be reimbursed for parking their personal vehicles in commercial parking lots and garages or at reserved parking spots near where the trucks they operate are parked, along with the 1,000 or so cars and light-duty trucks sanitation department operates?

Certainly, there are some department vehicles that would still need to be garaged.  Mechanical brooms, front-end loaders, and snow-melters don’t really lend themselves to outdoor parking. But there are less than 800 of those vehicles -- of the total 3,400 Sanitation vehicles -- and they could be spread among smaller facilities throughout the city.  

Going asset light would allow Sanitation to sell off massive garages that occupy huge footprints, some on prime real estate, in Manhattan and the four other boroughs, and instead operate from smaller ready and repair shops where trucks could be cleaned, fueled, and serviced on a fixed schedule and prepared for snow removal service. Equipment for maintenance, repair, and snow-plow service could be trucked to these smaller footprint satellites from central locations in industrial areas of the five boroughs on an as-needed basis.

All of this would,  of course, require a radical rethinking of the way the Department of Sanitation currently operates. The unions would have to buy in and members compensated by some means, perhaps by a shorter workday as routes would be accessed more quickly. But re-thinking how Sanitation functions would reduce its operating costs and allow existing facilities to be sold off for development -- as warehouses for UPS, Amazon, FedEx, or other commercial businesses; to ameliorate a dearth of active park play space in Manhattan and other boroughs; or to develop into affordable housing.

“Amazing Grace” Hopper, the pioneering computer scientist and U.S. Navy Reserve admiral who laid the groundwork for COBOL, UNIVAC, and other world-changing computer technology, once said that “The most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it.’”  

The Department of Sanitation and civic leaders should take the admiral’s words under advisement and re-think the means by which the city operates the department.

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J.G. Collins is the managing director at The Stuyvesant Square Consultancy, an advisory and consulting firm. On Twitter @StuySquare.

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