Business And Civic Leaders Call City’s Plan For Federal Aid “Scattershot”

More than 20 leaders from different business, arts, and community groups have written a letter to the mayor and city council urging them to reconsider how they’re using federal stimulus aid in the nearly $100 billion proposed budget, which takes effect in July.

The unusual coalition of critics and allies of Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “We write out of deep concern that current plans for these funds do not strategically support those sectors and communities that have suffered the greatest losses” from the COVID-19 pandemic. They warn that a failure to wisely allocate the dollars “will delay recovery and create unnecessary fiscal stress in the future.”

The signatories include leaders of building and hospitality trade groups, the Partnership for New York City, and the Citizens Budget Commission, which often critique City Hall’s priorities, as well as the Broadway League, the New York Urban League, and different chambers of commerce.

Though much of the federal aid is earmarked for education and expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, about $6 billion is direct local aid which can be used for a variety of programs. The mayor has proposed using hundreds of millions of dollars to hire cleanup workers in the parks, and to temporarily expand mental health services.

The letter calls the city’s current approach to using these funds “scattershot.” They said federal money “should be concentrated on strategic interventions designed in partnership with industry and nonprofit groups with a focus on restoring 500,000 lost private sector jobs, preparing workers and students for re-employment, sustaining cultural organizations and small businesses through a period of prolonged recovery, and addressing the health, mental health, homelessness, and public safety challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.”

Job training is a top priority for the signatories. “Right now, there’s just simply not enough money invested into retraining the workforce to get them into the types of employment opportunities that exist in a post-COVID economy,” said Jose Ortiz, Jr., chief executive officer of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition, which includes 180 organizations involved in job training, human services and education.

Ortiz said the budget currently includes $600 million for these programs but experts in the field believe it should be $900 million. He said this would ensure an “equitable recovery” in which people in the service sector, for example, can get trained to work in better paying fields like technology and healthcare.

Another signatory, Jessica Walker, president and CEO of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, agreed. She criticized spending money to hire cleaning crews for the parks when those funds could be used to contract with non-profit organizations that can put people to work.

“The tech community continues to grow and build in the city, and we still have not adequately addressed the skills gap in the city,” she explained.

Walker also said the budget could do a more strategic job of helping small businesses, which are getting state and federal aid. She suggested technical assistance to help grow their businesses, or providing access to lawyers so they can negotiate leases with their landlords after the eviction moratorium expires at the end of August.

But the de Blasio administration insisted its current proposal is already investing the federal stimulus funds in ways that will stimulate the recovery. “This includes vital investments in small business grants, the largest tourism campaign in city history, directly hiring 10,000 New Yorkers in the City Cleanup Corps, providing universal 3-K early education, and more,” said mayoral spokesperson Laura Feyer. “Paring down those investments means slowing down economic recovery. That can’t be tolerated.”

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson issued his own reply. “I’ve been adamant that this budget must be focused on the city’s long-term recovery, as well as our fiscal stability and the elimination of wasteful spending,” he stated. “This Council has already secured investments in education, housing, and enhanced sanitation services for the upcoming fiscal year, and we will continue fighting for more to help New Yorkers.”

Budget negotiations between the mayor and city council speaker traditionally continue until the very end of June, giving lobbyists a few more weeks to make their case for additional changes.

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering the city’s recovery efforts at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.