There’s no way around it: this year’s City budget must be different. NYC is facing an estimated $9 billion dollar deficit due to the coronavirus disruptions in our economy. The City Council is currently in the middle of negotiating the fiscal year 2021 budget with the mayor’s administration, in order to reach an agreement by July 1.
The budget this year will be a painful one. Revenues are down, and New York City is not allowed either to run deficits (like the federal government) or to raise revenue in a progressive way (like New York State government). That means some programs that we really value (like the curbside composting program beloved in many parts of the district, and too many others) are going to be cut. We are facing hard choices, so I want to share a little of my thinking as we near the budget deadline.
Any budget we pass — or, at least, any budget that I will vote for — must meet a few clear principles:
- Divest funds from policing to preserve as much investment as we possibly can in education, youth, and social services.
- Prioritize public health to get us through the pandemic.
- Invest in a just recovery.
- Take a smart, long-term approach to economic and fiscal health.
1. Divest from policing to preserve funding for education, youth and social services. The budget included that the Mayor proposed, after COVID hit, included large cuts to public education, youth summer jobs and other social services — yet left the NYPD’s budget largely unscathed. Our allies at Communities United for Police Reform have called for at least $1 billion in cuts to the NYPD’s budget. If we must halt the hiring of new teachers, social workers and school counselors, especially at a time when hundreds of thousands of people are demanding police accountability and racial justice, then our city should not be hiring new police officers or paying hundreds of millions in overtime.
I was one of the first Council Members to call for a hiring freeze this year, and then for $1 billion in cuts. I’m glad that Speaker Corey Johnson and my colleagues in the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus and on the Budget Negotiating Team responded to the moment and put forward a proposal for $1 billion in cuts to the NYPD’s budget this year. I will not vote for a budget that does not meaningfully cut the NYPD.
The fact that our city spends more on the police than we do on the Departments of Health, Homeless Services, Youth & Community Development, and Workforce Development combined is a searing indictment of our city’s chronic underinvestment in services that support and uplift communities rather than criminalize them. As much as possible given the current deficit, funds divested from the NYPD must go to spending that supports communities of color, especially for public education and summer youth activities.
Truly re-imagining public safety, with far less reliance on policing, in a way that reflects a genuine commitment to the fundamental but so-long-unrealized principle that Black lives matter will have to go far beyond this year’s budget — but cuts to the NYPD budget now are an essential place to start.
2. Prioritize public health to get us through the pandemic. Many people are beginning to act as though we have already vanquished coronavirus, but significant collective discipline and public investment is going to be needed to get us through this pandemic for many months to come. Keeping the spread of the virus slow and our communities healthy requires investment: in ensuring our health care institutions have the supplies and staffing they need, in testing and contact tracing, in thoughtful management of our public institutions.
I will be continue to push for a NYC Public Health Corps to help us maintain the kind of collective action and discipline that will be required to keep the virus at bay, including public health educators helping communities understand and follow public health guidance and ensuring that the test and trace team earns the public trust needed to do their critical work. We’ve really seen the need for the Public Health Corps to support social distancing compliance this week, as people have poured into streets, bars, and parks with scarce regard for the public health of neighbors.
But public health isn’t just limited to the health department’s budget. Getting New Yorkers moving around the city safely as we begin to reopen our economy requires a transportation system with a proactive approach to crowding and demand management. Funding for expanded bus lanes, bike lanes, as well as cleaning of the subway, PPE for transit workers, are all pieces of what will make it possible to keep New Yorkers healthy. The Mayor’s current proposal includes $34 million in cuts to DOT, including specifically cuts to expanding and speeding up bus lanes.
Keeping New Yorkers safe and healthy also means tackling rampant traffic violence as cars flow back into the streets. Speeding has accelerated with emptier streets during the pandemic, yet the de Blasio administration left out of the budget the modest $1.6 million dollars needed to start the Dangerous Vehicle Abatement Program. We fought hard to pass this restorative justice program to hold reckless drivers accountable, but it will only work if there is funding for the program to run.
3. Invest in a just recovery. We are facing the worst financial crisis of our lifetimes. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have lost their jobs and more than a quarter of tenants are struggling to pay rent. Families fear losing their homes without income. Black and Latino communities are hit the hardest.
The Mayor’s budget proposed cutting the affordable housing budget by nearly 40%, even as the need for affordable housing will only grow, and the capital budget is the one place we can smartly use long-term debt (see below). I’m pushing back hard against these cuts, and also fighting to restore the funding for our basement unit pilot program, a small sum compared to the budget, but an important investment in another source of future affordable housing. With so many out of work and incomes dropping, affordable housing is going to be critical to our city’s recovery.
Small businesses can’t cover their loans or their rent, and many are facing extinction. We need those businesses to survive, not only because we love them, but to preserve employment and the city’s tax base. To tackle the full scale of the challenge, federal funding is needed, but the City and State can and must do more. I’m glad we’re on the cusp of allowing outdoor dining — hopefully as soon as Monday — but that’s just a first step. My office is working with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce to explore an innovative proposal for “Small Business Recovery Leases.” Watch for more information soon.
And support for businesses must come along with protections for workers, including passing an Essential Workers Bill of Rights to ensure that workers can speak out about unsafe conditions without fear of losing their jobs and expand sick days to delivery workers and other misclassified gig workers. Those bills won’t cost the city anything.
4. This year’s budget must also take a smart, long-term approach to economic and fiscal health. It’s hard amidst a crisis to think about the future; but decisions we make right now will have a deep impact on economic recovery and the long-term health of the city.
We should not turn to short-term borrowing for operating expenses, especially with so much uncertainty about when or how we will be able to pay back debt. But we should utilize borrowing for capital projects including infrastructure, economic development, and affordable housing projects that will generate jobs and economic stimulus now, and long-term value for our city’s future.
The Mayor’s budget proposed $2.3 billion in cuts to capital spending, investments in longer term infrastructure including affordable housing, roads, and bridges. This spending comes from bonds, not out of the operating budget, so these cuts do little to save us money now but will cost us dearly in the short and long term. My analysis, with Councilmember Vanessa Gibson and help from the New York Housing Conference, shows that NYC stands to lose up to 15,000 jobs and more than 20,000 affordable housing units due to these cuts, both of which will be sorely needed for our city’s recovery. I’m pushing back against these cuts, which make little fiscal sense.
A smart, long-term approach to recovery that uplifts all New Yorkers will require more public investment, not less. New York City is limited in its ability to raise revenue, but as NYC leaders we can push hard for relief from the federal government, and urge Albany to take up progressive approaches to raising revenue (like closing the carried interest loophole, or an ultra-millionaire’s tax, perhaps on a regional scale with neighboring states). And as we face the tough fiscal reality this year, we should use the clarity brought by this crisis to establish a “rainy day fund” so that our city is better prepared to weather future crises.
The June 30th deadline is coming up fast. But the COVID-19 crisis is likely to last for at least another year. And the decisions we make now will affect our families, our neighborhoods, and our city for many years to come.