New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Capital New York Council raises questions about transparency in budget by Sally Goldenberg

Council raises questions about transparency in budget

The de Blasio administration on Wednesday got a tougher grilling from the City Council over its preliminary budget than it received last year, as members lamented a lack of transparency in the latest fiscal plan and other individual items they believe are under-funded.

One year after Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal raised eyebrows by baking muffins for Dean Fuleihan, the new Office of Management and Budget commissioner, the Council's finance committee tossed a series of hard-hitting questions at him Wednesday, during the first hearing on de Blasio's proposed Fiscal Year 2016 budget.

"We had discussed last year at this time the commitments of making this budget process more transparent," Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, who chairs the finance committee, said at the start of the hearing.

In every budget presentation de Blasio and Fuleihan have made over the past year, they have boasted of honesty, fiscal responsibility and transparency.

Ferreras argued that City Hall did not make good on its commitment of making public six units of appropriation, which are details within the budget on an individual city agency's expenditures.

Only three of the six were in the preliminary budget, which de Blasio unveiled last month, Ferreras said. Left out were details on the mayor's universal pre-kindergarten program, disease control and early intervention.

"Universal pre-K is such an important program. This Council would like to follow its expenses, its details, its overruns," Ferreras said.

"We did, as you identified, three different U. of A.s (units of appropriation). In the executive budget, we will do the fourth one which was the early intervention, so we are planning to do that," Fuleihan said.

"Right. I hear you. That's still not six and it's still in fiscal '16 as opposed to fiscal '15 when we had discussed this and the U. of A. for universal pre-K is one that's very important to this Council," Ferreras replied.

"We will get back to you. We made a commitment and we will make sure that we keep that in the executive budget," Fuleihan said.

The mayor's executive budget for F.Y. 2016 will be presented in the spring. Another round of Council hearings will take place before a final deal is struck, typically in the last 10 days of June. It takes effect July 1.

Ferreras also complained to Fuleihan of City Hall's decision not to mandate agency cuts for the preliminary budget. Those cuts and savings will be presented in the executive budget instead, which Ferreras said cuts the council's time to evaluate them and limits oversight.

Fuleihan said the Council will have the chance to review agency cuts and savings going forward.

"Obviously, we'll present those to you, we'll discuss those with you and we will monitor those," he said.

Fuleihan and de Blasio did away with the long-standing practice of requiring each agency make targeted cuts known as the "Program to Eliminate the Gap" (P.E.G.)

Instead, they asked agencies to voluntarily find savings in their budgets last November and have said they will put teeth into that requirement in the spring.

Other members presented specific concerns: Jumaane Williams was troubled by funding levels for the NYPD, Jimmy van Bramer complained of insufficient money allocated for libraries—which Fuleihan indicated would be altered in the revised capital budget—and Ben Kallos questioned the growth and overall cost of the city's debt.

Municipal governments, like the federal government, incur debt to begin long-term construction and infrastrucutre projects. Interest rates are very low and, as Fuleihan pointed out, the city's overall cost of debt service is less than 15 percent of the city's revenue—a modest amount.

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