New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first 100 days—a partnership between The Nation and City Limits.
Bill de Blasio, who has promised aggressively activist government when it comes to early childhood education, reducing traffic fatalities and constructing subsidized housing, was this week asked to take on a role that might be too ambitious even for the mayor’s taste: becoming a buyer of last resort for Staten Island homeowners who’d rather move out than build back after superstorm Sandy.
At an event on the island on Monday where the mayor discussed the city’s lagging rebuilding efforts (a report released that day found that the Bloomberg administration’s recovery program had not completed a single renovation), the borough president of Staten Island, James Oddo, pressed in both a private meeting with the mayor and at a subsequent press conference for an “acquisition for redevelopment” program.
De Blasio didn’t commit to the program—or much of anything—on Monday, promising only that his administration’s recovery plan would come out soon. It will be interesting to see how de Blasio plays Oddo’s request, which offers big risks along with potentially significant upsides.
Oddo for months has been calling for an acquisition initiative—inspired, he says, by a visit to New Orleans, where he learned about the Louisiana Land Trust. After the federal levee failure and flood in 2005, the Trust purchased thousands of parcels and distributed them to neighboring property owners and developers. The borough president’s plan, the scope and specifics of which remain to be determined, would differ from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s federally funded NY Rising program, which has bought up hundreds of parcels that were clearly no longer inhabitable with the goal of returning them to nature—forever. Two sections of Staten Island are part of the Cuomo program.
In other areas near the water and not covered by the Cuomo initiative, Oddo wants the city to cut a check to homeowners who can’t afford to elevate their homes or don’t want to wait for the money to come through to do so. Then the city would bundle the properties and use a request-for-proposals process to develop them. “To me it’s the best of all worlds,” Oddo tells City Limits. “We give people a chance to start their lives over [and] it gives government a chance to step back and develop these properties the right way.”
Apart from a single acquisition in October from a woman who had suffered a uniquely horrible personal tragedy in the storm, the Bloomberg team showed no interest in bailing out homeowners. “They were going to go in and go house by house and try to elevate each home,” Oddo says. “To me, that wasn’t visionary. That wasn’t transformative. That didn’t take all this pain and all this loss of life and didn’t honor that.” By gathering small parcels together, Oddo argues, developers could take advantage of economies of scale and create more sustainable, weather-ready housing. He doesn’t know how he’d structure eligibility, and is calling for the city to survey residents, determine the level of interest and and then decide what it can afford to offer.
The downsides of the beep’s idea are pretty clear. At least temporarily, the city would be responsible for the upkeep of acres and acres of territory. Throwing open the exit door could destabilize neighborhoods. Depending on where the eligibility lines are drawn, some homeowners will feel left out. A burdensome precedent might be set for future disasters. The auction could be a windfall for developers, and could squeeze out homeowners and renters who want to hang on. And of course, there’s the question of where the money would come from—though it’s possible federal funds could be used (the state’s original plan for spending that money did leave open the possibility that some property might be bought and rebuilt).
But the idea could braid together help for distressed homeowners, a way to more efficiently make New York more storm proof, a chance to rationalize development in the city’s fastest-growing borough and—perhaps—even a boost to de Blasio’s affordable housing plans. In a blatantly political move, Bloomberg in his first term downzoned much of Staten Island, which assuaged local fears of over-development but basically eliminated the possibility of constructing new affordable housing in the area.
Oddo doesn’t want to increase density much, and given the limited mass transit the area probably couldn’t absorb too many newcomers, but the prospect of buyouts might just be the leverage the mayor needs to get Staten Island to accept some smart growth. In the 1980s the city built and preserved hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing using its stock of tax-foreclosed properties. The dwindling supply of such land has been a challenge to affordable housing development in the past decade. This program could give the city at least a little more land to play with.
Susannah Dyen, the policy coordinator at the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, notes that on some of the parcels Oddo is talking about there were, before Sandy, “a ton of basement and accessory dwelling units that were very affordable.” Oddo himself notes that the neighborhoods have long provided housing affordable to the middle class.
Dyen is reserving judgement on Oddo’s idea, for now. “It depends a lot on what gets redeveloped. Overall the buildings that did the best in the storm were the newer buildings, so the idea of building new in these areas make sense,” Dyen says. But new construction is often the least affordable housing. “If there are affordability requirements that are including in that rebuilding, that would make a big difference.”
Read Next: Wen Stephenson on Occupy Sandy and the rise of “climate democracy.”
The New York City Council on Wednesday passed a bill expanding workers’ right to paid sick leave in New York, and Mayor Bill de Blasio quickly said that he’d make it the first bill he signs into law. While expected for several weeks, the move underscore how much has changed not just on the west side of City Hall, where the mayor hangs out, but in Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s office and the Council chambers on the east wing as well.
The previous Council speaker, Christine Quinn, refused for years to bring the sick-leave bill up for a vote even though it had more than enough votes to pass. As the mayoral campaign got underway and the pressure on her increased she agreed to a watered-down version of the bill that applied only to businesses with fifteen or more employees and included implementation delays, carve-outs for manufacturing and a self-destruct button (the law wouldn’t take effect unless certain economic conditions were met). Even that thin gruel was too rich for Mayor Bloomberg, who vetoed the bill and was overidden.
The new version does away with all the half-measures and applies to firms with five or more workers. It also permits time off to care for a close relative who is sick. The bill’s backers and the mayor did amend their original expansion proposal to give a grace period to smaller firms.
The funny thing about the ideological alignment of the mayor, the speaker, most of the Council and many of the advocacy groups that spent the Bloomberg years clamoring for change is that a measure that, by City Hall’s estimate, covers another 500,000 people is going to become law with so little drama. The same won’t be said of the UPK tax, the minimum wage or any of the other ambitious hopes the de Blasio administration has pinned on Albany.
But the low-volume finale for sick-leave expansion is a fitting end for a four-year debate about a right that, let’s face it, most everyone has and takes for granted. Like the eight-hour day, weekends and other hard-wired aspects of decent working life, in a few years we’ll all look back and wonder why this was such a big deal.
And that has implications not just for sick leave but for other social issues: when you close down the silly debates, you change the parameters of what the civic sphere can discuss.
Read Next: De Blasio slams Bloomberg in his first budget address.
There were many important hearings at the New York City Council yesterday. At one, tearful relatives talked about what it was like to watch a spouse get mowed down by a reckless cabbie, or hear that their son would never make it home because a careless city bus driver had run them over. At another, woman testified about what it meant when a labor and delivery unit at an outer-borough hospital shut down. But the most interesting—and, for the progressive agenda, perhaps the most important—hearing was about the Council itself and how to make it a more vibrant and democratic body. In the words of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the goal is a Council “of unity, equality and fairness... one that encourages debate.”
A focus on the Council's rules is not itself unusual: There is a standing Rules Committee to consider such changes, and each Council term begins with the adoption of the rules that will govern the distribution of power among the speaker, committee chairs and individual members. What was different about Monday's event was that the Council began a full-scale reconsideration of how that power ought to be divvied up. As Rules Committee chairman Brad Lander noted in a nod to Mark-Viverito, “It's not often that those in power are willing to think about giving some of it up in the public interest.”
The process itself reflects the principle, according to Lander: Rather than bringing forward a detailed policy plan for the public to weigh in on, the hearing was a broad discussion of how changes might be made in a few key areas, like the way bills are written and brought up for a vote, the authority of committee chairs and the distribution of discretionary funds.
It was clear in yesterday's hearing that the rule changes are not a simple, black-and-white thing. If you govern the distribution of discretionary dollars by formula rather than individual members' choices, are you really taking the politics out of funding, or merely rewarding those institutions who can play the higher form of politics that affects the formula itself? If you make it easier for members to write bills—the system is currently opaque and controlled by the speaker—does that mean the Council will be flooded by symbolic measures or, even worse, that bad ideas will somehow squeak through the system? Even the leading good government organizations who testified had subtle differences of opinion on the wisest way to tinker with how the system is run. People agree on the broad strokes, said Citizens Union executive director Dick Dadey, but as the cliché goes, “the devil is in the details.”
And, as Brooklyn Councilmember Jumaane Williams noted, how much of the problem with Council governance is about custom rather than the rules themselves. There have been, he said, “things councilmembers were empowered to do but did not historically choose to do” because of a “historic running of the Council that made members feel they could not exercise” the powers they had.
Lander says more hearings are planned, and witnesses called on the committee to make the proposed Rules changes as transparent as possible—and to revisit them every couple years to, as NYPIRG's Gene Russianoff put it, “make sure they don't go stale.”
For those of us who've seen the Council's substantive work often reduced to caricature by tabloid editorial boards, who winced when the Council forever stained itself by extending term limits at Mayor Bloomberg's command in 2008, and who want to see how this Council will strike the balance of being a partner of the mayor but not a puppet, it will be a fascinating process to watch.
“It's not often that people in power consider the possibility that those powers may be curtailed,” noted Queens Councilmember Rory Lancman. “I'm convinced that a more democratic, open, active City Council that solicits the input and takes advantage of the strengths that all members bring to the table will ultimately be a stronger City Council.”
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy on the power of progressives on City Council.
Here’s my submission for the Understatement of the Week Award: Bill de Blasio’s honeymoon appears to be over.
The mayor’s mid-February skid, involving snowstorm response and his late-night phone call about an arrested pal, deepened last week with the exposé of his motorcade’s disregard for the very traffic laws the mayor wants to strengthen. Then the city comptroller criticized de Blasio’s budget for failing to account for the likely cost of labor settlements. Desperate for good news, the administration late last week trumpeted a deal that improved Long Island College Hospital’s odds for survival—but even that victory is thick with uncertainty.
Over the weekend, the New York Post caught the mayor—egads—jaywalking! And the Daily News gave a platform to former de Blasio spokeswoman Lis Smith, until recently the subject of tabloid scorn for her romance with Eliot Spitzer, who criticized de Blasio’s handling of the politics around pre-K funding.
Next thing we know, a “Draft Christine Quinn” movement will begin with a series of small neighborhood vigils and morph into an occupation of the High-Line Park—which is really just like Kiev’s Independence Square, but with better plantings.
No, it’s not that bad yet. But it does seem like a long time since de Blasio was orchestrating the election of an ally as Council speaker, pushing though a paid sick-leave expansion with minimal business-sector opposition, brushing past the kerfuffle over his secret speech to AIPAC and forcing Andrew Cuomo to counter-punch on the UPK plan. That was way back in… January.
Some of the criticism of de Blasio has been unfair. Jaywalking? Lis Smith? Come now. And some of it has been right on target: why a man who has known since mid-September that he was very, very likely—if not certain—to be the next mayor still hasn’t filled out his roster of commissioners is simply mind-boggling.
But fairness is beside the point. Caesar’s wife could complain all she wanted about having to be beyond suspicion, but it didn’t change the fact that she had to be beyond suspicion. De Blasio’s totally accurate, totally acidic criticism of nearly everything the previous mayor did has created a very high standard to which he’s going to be held. That’s just the way it is.
The real question is, what does a bad month mean? The answer: way less than everything, but way more than nothing.
Two months does not a mayoralty make. Mike Bloomberg had a pretty rocky first year and managed to cruise to re-election. But the former mayor was aided by friends and finances de Blasio will never garner. And it doesn’t take long for a media storyline to go from improv to script. So there are real risks to the de Blasio agenda, because so much of it depends on the notion that he has the power to make sweeping change.
De Blasio has often talked about political capital, and he came into office with a lot of it. But no one has an endless supply. And once people get the idea that you’re running out, even the political capital you have buys less. Our mayor’s ability to fulfill his progressive agenda depends on far more than his statutory powers. He needs other people with power to follow his lead.
The bad press, obviously, erodes that capital. And it obscures the real reforms de Blasio has made: moving to end the stop-and-frisk litigation, stopping the stupid practice of charging NYCHA for police services, removing children from two disastrous homeless shelters and more. These moves aren’t universally popular (the police union, for one, hates the move on the stop-and-frisk litigation) but they put the focus on policy and change, and not on de Blasio’s driver’s lead foot.
Maybe the way for de Blasio to shift the tune, rather than running away from questions, is to keep putting out new policies. Forget about the inevitable charge that you’re trying to do too much. One thing I learned during my brief and unsuccessful boxing career is that you can’t defend yourself by backing up. The only way not to get pummeled is to keep punching.
(OK, so my boxing career consisted of one sad fight, which I lost. But at least I’m still pretty.)
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy on de Blasio and the snow
Life for homeless people in New York got better just a week into the de Blasio administration, as the new mayor restored an emergency provision that relaxed shelter entrance requirements when temps on the city’s streets dropped below freezing. Mayor Bloomberg, who in 2004 made a bold promise to dramatically reduce homelessness but pursued several hard-hearted and light-headed policies, had eliminated those “code blue” rules a year earlier.
And today, de Blasio took another step toward a more humane homeless policy: taking steps to move more than 400 children out of two family shelters notorious for their unsafe, unhealthy conditions. But de Blasio himself called today’s announcement merely a “first public step in a larger strategy to improve homeless services, while we address the underlying causes that have left a record number of adults and children living in New York City shelters.”
Indeed, while the situation facing 400 kids at the Auburn Family and Catherine Street shelters will improve, the fact that 22,509 children (and 29,752 other people) are in city shelters in the first place is the real challenge facing the administration. And meeting that challenge is another subplot in the dance of Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo.
Already the two Democrats—one coming off a huge landslide win, the other aiming for one in November—are jousting on the minimum wage and taxes on the wealthy and joining up to push for a federal waiver to save Brooklyn’s hospitals. The waiver came through. The other issues remain on the table.
While homeless numbers were high throughout the Bloomberg years, they spiked after the city terminated its Work Advantage program—a temporary rent subsidy for formerly homeless people. After Work Advantage disappeared, there was no place for people to go after living in the shelter. With the exit door blocked, the population inside swelled.
Many advocates had disliked Work Advantage because of its very short, one or two-year duration, which they argued was not enough time for formerly homeless families to find a way to pay their own rent. The Cuomo administration evidently shared some of those misgivings, and cut state funding for Work Advantage. The Bloomberg administration followed suit, and the program vanished.
Now Cuomo’s people and the de Blasio administration are talking about creating a new subsidized housing program. One question is how much the new program will resemble the disliked Work Advantage scheme. Another is whether, as part of the deal with the state, de Blasio will make good on a campaign pledge to restore a priority status for homeless shelter residents applying for Section 8 or public housing. Bloomberg eliminated that priority on the idea that it drew into the shelter system people looking for a fast-track to a cheap apartment. De Blasio said during the campaign that he’d restore the priority, but has not done so yet.
Why? According to today’s Times:
The city is less likely to depend on federal housing programs as a solution because of the dwindling supply, Mr. de Blasio said. “It will be a tool we use as needed, but I think the central thrust has to be getting at the root causes,” he said.
It’s true that neither Section 8 nor the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) are on rock-solid ground, and both already have lengthy waiting lists. But neither program is melting away anytime soon. De Blasio took a big step toward shoring up NYCHA by eliminating some fees the authority was forced to pay the city. No, public housing and Section 8 aren’t going to solve New York’s homeless crisis, but together they turn over around like 8,000 apartments a year. Families—some 10,000 or them—make up most of the city’s shelter population, so even if a minority of those slots went to shelter residents, it’d make a big difference.
It’s possible that the issue of homeless access to Section 8 and NYCHA is part of the discussions with the state about a replacement for the Work Advantage program. Those discussions have to wrap up before the state passes its fiscal 2015 budget, which is supposed to be by April 1.
But that alone won’t put the homelessness issue to bed. De Blasio said today that a broader effort (“Greater supply of affordable housing. Pushing up wages and benefits. More preventative efforts.”) is needed to really reverse the tide of homelessness. Pushing up wages—at least the minimum wage—is, of course, another gambit in the Cuomo–de Blasio chess match.
Read Next: How universal pre-K could redistribute wealth—right here, right now.
Yesterday Mayor Bill de Blasio picked another Bloomberg administration veteran, Emily Lloyd, to head the Department of Environmental Protection. It was another perfectly smart, sound, safe choice of an effective policymaker. It also was, like many of de Blasio’s personnel picks, at odds with the message of sweeping change that he was elected on. There is a logic in a mayor’s picking trusted, Establishment-friendly hands to implement a progressive vision. But there’s also a need for a mayor to have people around him feeding him the kind of game-changing ideas that embody such a vision, and there have been some questions about who among de Blasio’s advisers would offer those ideas.
De Blasio answered some of those questions yesterday by naming Maya Wiley, the founder and president of the Center for Social Inclusion, as his counsel. In that post, the mayor said, Wiley will “make sure that not only are the actions of this administration legally sound, but that they are morally sound as well, and that we stay focused on our goal.”
Wiley was a speaker at a City Limits event in 2012 that was part of our Tackling Poverty series. Her crisp analysis of the politics around economic injustice and her no-nonsense treatment of the role of race in poverty were delivered so engagingly that she somehow managed to make the white people (at least this one) feel challenged without feeling useless, which is not an easy thing to do.
“In order to build a country that is structured in a way that works for all of us.… We have to know better. We have to understand the way that race plays out in the way that society is structured,” she said. She also defined the goal of progressivism: equity, as in “a floor beneath which none of us fall.”
And she lanced some of the conventional wisdom around “poverty fatigue” and the canard that the era of big government is over. She saw “a failure of political will in terms of elected officials” to grapple with economic injustice, but a growing desire for that change among people. She added:
“It’s a myth that anybody in Congress is opposed to big government. The question is, big government for what? Is it big government for the military and for the criminal justice system? The same folks that claim that government should not be big are the same folks that have ensured its massive expansion for killing people and incarcerating people.”
Wiley also wedded her sharp political analysis to practical action; a lot of her remarks drew lessons from working to make transit access more equitable in Louisiana. Transit is one of those perfect progressive issues: making it better for everyone would also make it fairer for people who are currently getting screwed.
Along the same lines, Wiley wrote in a piece in The Nation in January about the potential social impact of increasing broadband access in the city:
The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has found that more than 3 million Americans have access to high-speed Internet through publicly owned networks, which have saved these communities millions of dollars and motivated incumbent providers to improve services because of increased competition. New York is getting a big infusion of federal dollars to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. Mayor de Blasio should look for ways to leverage some of those dollars to better equip low-lying, low-income communities to weather the roiling seas of climate change and the economy.… High-speed Internet access won’t stop future superstorms and it won’t solve all the unfairness that low-income New Yorkers face. But with strong alliances between community members, local non-profits, businesses and technology experts, it will bring affordable, local innovation that helps us build stronger, fairer and more resilient communities.
In announcing her appointment on Tuesday, de Blasio said, “To have a truly just society means economic opportunity for all. And in this day and age, that means having access to the totality of the digital world.”
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy asks, “Will de Blasio update zoning policy?”
In case you missed it, this week saw the first mini-scandal of the de Blasio era.
Late Monday night, a Brooklyn pastor named Orlando Findlayter was pulled over for failing to signal a turn. He was driving with a suspended license, so the police brought him to the precinct station, where it was learned that he had two outstanding warrants from a civil disobedience arrest last fall. Findlayter endorsed Mayor de Blasio and served on his inaugural committee. The mayor was told about the arrest by a City Hall aide and called an NYPD official to learn what was going on, and that official called the commander of the precinct where Findlayter had been arrested. Shortly afterward, the minister was released with a desk appearance ticket instead of being held over until court reopened in the morning. The police official de Blasio spoke with said later that by the time she called the precinct commander, he had already decided to release Findlayter.
Critics say the mayor pulled strings for a political ally—or at the very least, that Findlayter was cut a break because of his connections. The NYPD Patrol Guide says desk appearance tickets “will not be issued in the following circumstances: a) Arrest on a warrant.” But precinct commanders might have latitude to break that rule, particularly when the underlying offense is minor, he knows the person and letting him go might foster police-community relations.
In fact, statistics indicate the NYPD is becoming more and more likely to simply let people go with a piece of paper. From 2002 to 2012, the number of arrests by the NYPD dropped 8 percent. The number of desk appearance tickets jumped 314 percent—from 5 percent of the total to 21 percent. There are several possible reasons: more arrests these days are for misdemeanors rather than felonies. Keeping detainees in lock-up is expensive. State law requires the system to arraign detained people within twenty-four hours, so the police have good reason to try to limit the number of people they have to get to court each day.
Part of the uproar over the Findlayter incident stems from popular misconceptions of what is supposed to happen when someone is arrested for something.
We read all the time about how someone arrested for some terrible thing was given “ridiculously low bail.” When someone isn’t locked up to await trial, we assume the system has cut her a break. But before someone is convicted of a crime, the only thing the system is supposed to do is take the minimum steps necessary to make sure they show up for trial. Sometimes that means high bail, low bail or no bail. Occasionally it means keeping someone under lock and key. So, someone famous may get low bail because they’re unlikely to flee prosecution. It doesn’t seem fair, but it doesn’t mean they’re getting a break, exactly. Same goes for a minister whom a precinct commander knows. The guy ain’t running to Canada, so let him go. (As it turns out, Findlayter showed up for court the next day and got the warrants vacated.)
That’s not to say the system is perfect. City Limits has written a lot about how bail (even when set very low) distorts the criminal justice system and damages low-income people’s lives. New York’s court system is looking to change that.
If the Findlayter story goes into a second week, maybe we’ll learn more about whether something funky happened, though it doesn’t seem to be the case. Regardless, maybe one takeaway is that the NYPD should hold fewer people overnight, no matter what collar they wear or whom they’ve endorsed, and continue a trend of trusting people to show up for court themselves.
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy on de Blasio’s decision not to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade
Not only is his partner in government, the public advocate, calling for a review of school cancellation procedures. Not only is the New York City Parents Union taking issue with the decision not to call school today. Al Roker is Tweet-trashing Mayor Bill De Blasio’s handling of today’s snowstorm. Now that’s serious.
Wait, is that serious? Am I really talking about the weather on a blog for The Nation?
Well, if you read your history of progressive mayors of modern New York, you’ll see that a snowstorm can make, if not a fatal one, at least a big scar. When John Lindsay was mayor and a snowstorm paralyzed Queens, he got shellacked for it. It didn’t stop him getting re-elected, but it dented his armor and facilitated a narrative that he didn’t care about white neighborhoods and was a lousy manager.
At a press conference today, the mayor and his schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, defended their decision. After all, kids have a lot to learn in school, a week’s vacation is coming up, and closing schools creates childcare headaches for thousands of families and especially hurts the 200,000 or so kids who get free breakfast and the 500,000 or so who eat free or reduced-price lunch at school. Farina even made the boast that it had become a “beautiful day” outside, which seemed like a new twist on the tale of two cities.
Then the mayor and chancellor said that if they’d had more information last night when they made their decision, they might have acted differently. The chancellor very candidly said she’d re-examine whether it was sound policy to make the school closure call the night before, as has become custom, which is helpful to families but causes problems when forecasts change.
By the time the presser wrapped up, it was a little unclear whether de Blasio was admitting an honest boo-boo or not.
Others were less nuanced about his performance. Shortly after the press conference ended, Public Advocate Letitia James said, “It is clear that a re-evaluation of the criteria for closing New York City schools is needed after today’s storm.” Then the NYC Parents Union said in a statement: “Keeping schools open today during a severe winter storm was an irresponsible decision. … The safety of students and all those who work in schools was put at risk.”
For his part, Roker said… oh, if you care, read it yourself.
What’s a progressive to make of all this, once she shovels the sidewalk? Does any of it matter to the quest for economic justice?
The answer is yes. It’s not the snow that matters, of couse. In sixteen years as a reporter, most of it in New York, I’ve never had to cover a snowstorm, or wanted to. (In fairness, I did skip my tenth wedding anniversary celebration to cover Hurricane Irene. Bad call.) I hate that I’m even writing a blog post about snow.
But how the press spins this story will matter. It’s been a tough week for de Blasio with the bishop thing and now the snowstorm largely overshadowing his State of the City and budget speech, at least in the tabloids. In the complex calculus that will determine whether de Blasio gets his UPK tax hike and the other very ambitious items on his agenda, the mainstream press attitude toward the mayor is very significant, only because stories about stuff like the weather drown out other more important coverage.
Like the wintry mix that’s now coating my sidewalk, you can ignore stories like this and hope they melt away, or you can shovel.
If you’ll excuse me…
Read Next: Ellen Bravo on how snow and greed cost one woman her job at Whole Foods
Bill de Blasio took steps both symbolic and substantive toward putting money behind his progressive agenda when he unveiled his preliminary 2015 budget on Wednesday.
The mayor’s presentation, delivered in the Blue Room at City Hall, was laced with invective about the Bloomberg administration and shadowed by uncertainty surrounding municipal labor contracts, decisions in Albany and federal aid.
“The budget must reflect a progressive agenda. It must reflect what New Yorkers needs right now,” the mayor said. “Ours is a progressive administration. Our budget will be a progressive budget—one that puts us on the road to giving hard-working New Yorkers a fair shot.”
De Blasio’s $73.7 billion budget plan includes money—starting in the current year and extending into fiscal 2015, which begins July 1—for a new NYPD inspector general and the implementation of an expanded paid sick-leave law.
He also ended a long-standing budget quirk that had the city’s public housing authority, NYCHA, which has been hobbled by funding cuts at all levels of government, paying the city for police services. That mov e will go a significant way to eliminating NYCHA’s operating deficit.
The de Blasio administration will also spend $1.3 million to upgrade two homeless shelters, including one that figured prominently in the December New York Times series about homelessness in Michael Bloomberg’s New York.
And under an agreement with Gov. Cuomo he’ll cap rent in HIV/AIDS housing at 30 percent of tenant income, something advocates have sought for years. (Jim Lister, a VOCAL-NY leader living with HIV/AIDS who pays 72 percent of his disability income towards rent, lauded this move in a statement: “I take 32 pills every day and have two and a half shelves full of medications in my kitchen. I don’t know how I would manage all of that and my other health needs if I was in a shelter, but that’s where I would end up if not for this agreement.”)
But those initiatives pale in size or importance to the UPK/after-school plan, which puts a $530 million question mark on both the revenue and expense side of the budget. Cuomo and Republicans who share control of the state Senate are resisting de Blasio’s calls for a tax on high-earners to fund the program.
As if the fight over that money weren’t enough to keep everyone busy, the mayor today called for the state to make good on a court ruling that found it had systematically underfunded city schools. His budget calls for an additional $500 million from the state.
In keeping with custom, reporters asked de Blasio what he’ll do if the state doesn’t come through on either count, and de Blasio refused to countenance that possibility.
What de Blasio did do—a lot—is criticize Mayor Bloomberg: his lack fiscal prudence in depleting a fund for retiree health expenses, his questionable transparency in presenting budgets and his handling of labor negotiations. The new mayor must have set a record for the number of times a former mayor’s name was uttered at a budget briefing.
The criticism began with de Blasio reading—for dramatic effect, he said—a list of hospitals that closed during the Bloomberg era and a roster of facilities that are now under threat. The obvious implication was that Michael Bloomberg had fiddled while hospitals closed. But de Blasio suggested the fix for the problem was a federal waiver, something Bloomberg had no more authority to give than de Blasio does. De Blasio is at least asking for the help.
Highlighting his decision not to threaten to close twenty fire companies or slash the budgets of the borough presidents and public advocate—proposed cuts that under the Bloomberg administration became an annual rite—de Blasio said he was taking first steps toward ending the annual budget dance: “We got the point that that was a game. We’re not playing that game anymore.”
He also said, “The previous administration was given an artificially high level of credit for management,” and de Blasio says credit was deserved on some counts “but the way they budgeted was not appropriate.” He added later: “I have not made a secret of the fact, that in the final year or two of the Bloomberg Administration, there was a particular interest in burnishing the mayor’s legacy.” And on Bloomberg’s contention that there was no money for retroactive raises for city workers: “The previous mayors’ statements ring hollow in that there was not an honest effort to find the kind of cost-savings that could have led to resolution of these outstanding contracts.”
De Blasio’s election was a repudiation of Bloomberg, and his mayoralty so far—from ending the stop-and-frisk litigation to expanding sick-leave—has turned the page quickly and decisively on the Bloomberg era. Now that de Blasio has etched his first budget, which is the ultimate statement of priorities and strategy, it’s probably getting near time to close the book on the former mayor. De Blasio’s vision is big enough, and New Yorkers are smart enough, for the differences to be obvious from here on out.
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy on De Blasio and New York’s inequality crisis
Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address last month ended in an E pluribus unum refrain: New York is upstate and downstate, Latino and black, Republican and Democrat, folders and wrappers, but, the governor said, “We are one … We are one.” The crowd ate it up.
Now that theme of unity has become Cuomo’s attack line against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s call for a higher minimum wage in the five boroughs. Like his plan for a tax on high earners to pay for expanded universal pre-K and middle-grade after-school programs, the wage hike—which de Blasio laid out in his State of the City speech on Monday—requires Albany approval, something Cuomo isn’t likely to give. He told a radio show yesterday:
“We are also one state and we don’t want to cannibalize ourselves. We don’t want to have different cities with different tax rates competing amongst themselves. … Albany has one tax rate and then Schenectady has a different tax rate because Schenectady is trying to steal business from Albany. Or they have different wage requirements or different labor laws. … This could be a chaotic situation. So the balance is very important. And that’s what the constitution tries to establish, the balance. A common set of primarily economic factors within a state. And then let the states compete. … That competition within the state, however, I do not believe would be productive. I don’t want to see Buffalo trying to steal from Syracuse trying to steal from Albany.”
Cuomo’s concern about chaos resembles legitimate anxiety about a race to the bottom: competition in the past thirty years among countries and states—vying for who can offer the lowest wages, highest subsidies and fewest workers’ rights—has harmed workers and government budgets.
The trouble is, de Blasio isn’t engaged in a race to the bottom. He’s trying to raise the floor. His call to hike taxes and raise wages is not an attempt to undercut Yonkers or Rochester or Buffalo.
It’s true that having different minimum wage levels in different parts of the state will complicate the marketing pitch the Empire State makes to businesses and workers we’re trying to lure here. But that’s more theory than threat. Businesses don’t really consider whether to move to New York State as a whole, as in the entity running from Montauk to the Canadian border. They consider whether to move to a particular part of the state. And each area in the state presents different advantages and disadvantages.
In fact, there’s already a lot of local variety in taxes and wages. New York City and Yonkers have an income-tax surcharge. Property taxes vary greatly among municipalities: A 2011 report by the Empire Center found that Sagaponack in Suffolk County taxed property at $1.32 per $1,000, while Wellsville, in Allegany County, had a rate of $62.20. On the wage side, the prevailing wages that union workers get (which affect more than just the construction trades, because they impact other businesses’ building costs) differs depending on where you are. Meanwhile, some government contractors in New York City are required to pay a living wage, a mandate that does not exist elsewhere in the state.
The differences don’t end there. Cities regulate their businesses in different ways. New York City’s calorie counts, smoking ban, restaurant grades, trans fat prohibition and other steps applied only to firms in the five boroughs.
The reason for the disparities is simple: Midtown Manhattan is a long way from Cooperstown. Different cities face vastly different circumstances and need to tailor some policies to reflect that. This is why Cuomo in 2012 pledged special state aid to Buffalo, and not to Syracuse or Troy.
If Cuomo doesn’t like a hike in the minimum wage because he doesn’t think it should be higher, he can make the argument that it will reduce employment or help middle-class teenagers more than poor people (though those arguments are weak in their own ways).
If he doesn’t want differences in the minimum wage among different parts of the state, however, there’s a better solution than blocking de Blasio: raise it everywhere.
Read Next: Barbara Koeppel on the bad math behind the right’s arguments against raising the minimum wage.