Capital New York Council, administration spar over budget choices by Sally Goldenberg

Capital New York
Capital New York
Council, administration spar over budget choices
Sally Goldenberg
06/09/2015

The City Council pressured the de Blasio administration to cut the police department's budget, increase funding for seniors and libraries and revise its projections for legal claims against the city during a budget hearing on Tuesday morning.

The Council and the mayor's office are negotiating the final details of the proposed $78.3 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2016, which begins July 1.

Julissa Ferreras, chairwoman of the Council's finance committee, opened the hearing by declaring the "budget dance" over.

The longstanding practice involved former mayor Michael Bloomberg cutting services the Council would routinely restore each year and was widely viewed as disingenuous.

"Let me be clear—the days of the budget dance are over and as finance chair I reject any notion of the budget dance," Ferreras said in her opening remarks.Capital reported Tuesday that the dance has taken a new form, with the Council and mayor fighting over requests for additional funding for services, rather than cuts.

The hearing that followed had moments of tension as de Blasio's budget director, Dean Fuleihan, defended a series of funding choices to Council members who routinely asked for more money.

Among the most contentious issues were the Council's requests for extra money for libraries and the Department for the Aging, which cut its budget by $3.1 million after the mayor asked commissioners to find savings.

"We cannot in good conscience talk about ending the budget dance when libraries continue to be bandied back and forth as part of this process," Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer told Fuleihan.

He wants the city to add $65 million for operating costs.

Fuleihan said the administration has made an unprecedented $300 million commitment to the 10-year capital budget for libraries, which Van Bramer insisted was insufficient. (The libraries are asking for $1.4 billion over the next decade in capital money.)

Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who chairs the Committee on Aging, criticized the city for largely ignoring her request for $11.5 million more in services to reduce waiting lists and enhance senior centers. Advocates for seniors asked for $33.7 million more in the upcoming budget, and were originally given $2.6 million of that total. The administration has since added another $2 million for elder abuse programs.

"You left out our seniors," Chin told Fuleihan.

The budget director said the administration has increased overall funding for the Department for the Aging by more than $24 million since de Blasio took office last year.

Chin was not satisfied, pointing out that de Blasio's citywide request for agencies to voluntarily come up with savings resulted in the agency slashing its budget by $3.1 million.

"The $3.1 (million) was simply not being used by the agency," Fuleihan said.

"Seniors should not be on waiting lists. Don't you agree?" Chin replied.

In contrast to the Department for the Aging, several other agencies, including the NYPD and the Department of Corrections, opted to leave their budgets virtually untouched, according to a plan released last month by the administration.

The document shows the NYPD came up with $3.5 million in savings over five fiscal years, mostly on an overtime reimbursement for staffing special events. The NYPD is expected to spend $672 million on overtime by the end of the current fiscal year on June 30, which is $89 million more than last year.

"Why didn't NYPD have to propose any future savings, particularly since the Council has repeatedly called for (it) and the agency has acknowledged the need for an overtime control plan?" Ferreras asked Fuleihan.

He said the city is working with the NYPD on its overtime budget and noted many issues arise throughout the year "that do create pressure on the overtime budget."

"It is a challenge for us to understand why [the Department for the Aging] has to take these cuts but NYPD does not have to propose a plan. And then you say you're having conversations. This is year two of our budget process. When do the conversations turn to an actual overtime plan?" Ferreras added.

Fuleihan also said improving the Department of Corrections is a priority for de Blasio and said all city agencies will continually be asked—and possibly eventually ordered—to lower their budgets.

Councilmember Ben Kallos pressed Fuleihan on the Law Department's projected rise in spending for judgments and claims against the city, which was estimated to rise from $710 million in fiscal year F.Y. 2016 to $817 million in F.Y. 2019, documents show.

Kallos said the Law Department "was unable to answer" questions about the increase and "further stated that this number is set by" the Office of Management and Budget.

"Honestly these are consistent with history. … Certainly this is not an unusual amount of money," Fuleihan replied.

Two other members, Helen Rosenthal and Maria del Carmen Arroyo, also requested the administration consider increasing the hourly pay for nonprofit workers receiving city contracts for social services.

De Blasio recently agreed to pay the roughly 50,000 workers $11.50 an hour, after six years of flat funding.

Rosenthal and Arroyo asked Fuleihan to analyze what it would cost to pay them $15 an hour—the rate de Blasio wants private employers pay their workers by 2019. (He is asking businesses to voluntarily pay staff $13 an hour while he pushes Albany for a higher minimum wage.)

"We cannot continue to perpetuate poverty in our city when we as government are the ones that are aiding in that practice," Arroyo said.

Fuleihan, who acknowledged some subcontractors were not given the increase, said the raise was in keeping with the city's living wage law governing wages private developers receiving city subsidies must pay their workers.

One issue that did not come up was the Council's request for 1,000 new police officers, which de Blasio has so far resisted.