In Final $98.7 Billion Budget, De Blasio Places Priority On Schools And Recovery

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council reached their final yearly budget agreement of de Blasio’s eight years in office. The $98.7 billion deal for the fiscal year that starts July 1 came in on the last day allowed under the law, a fitting act for an official rarely known to arrive anywhere ahead of schedule. Council members were poised to approve the package Wednesday afternoon.

The deal hammered out between the mayor’s office and City Council was bolstered by about $6 billion in discretionary federal stimulus money and an increase in funding from the state. 

“This budget is a historic investment in New York City and is exactly how we’ll receive a recovery for all of us,” de Blasio said at a press conference, which included a ceremonial handshake with Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in City Hall Wednesday morning. 

The mayor said the financial plan seeks to accomplish five goals: fight Covid-19, increase city reserves, boost the local economy, support students, and enhance public safety. 

The Public Safety Debate

Police funding has become a lightning rod in the year since a wave of protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Critics and supporters of the NYPD have vigorously debated whether the agency needs more money to fight a recent uptick in gun violence, or should have some of its funds diverted to community-based crime prevention strategies. 

The budget deal includes a $200 million increase for the NYPD, compared to last year. Mayor de Blasio said the vast majority of that amount will go to overtime, as well as technology such as mobile tablets for patrol officers.

“So we put in a number that we now believe is the realistic overtime number for what we’re going into for next year but it’s substantially less than what it was in previous years,” he explained.

“The way to recovery is through public safety,” the mayor added, confirming that the Department of Correction and district attorneys will also get boosts in funding. 

Following calls from Black Lives Matter activists, the budget also set aside some funding for public safety alternatives. These include $24 million towards a job program for 1000 residents deemed at risk of violence this summer in Mott Haven, Brownsville, and South Jamaica. Another $5 million will fund anti-violence activists, known as “credible messengers,” who encourage residents to put down their guns and negotiate truces within neighborhoods suffering from violence.

A handful of police reform activists stood outside City Hall as the deal was announced, with signs protesting plans to increase NYPD spending.

“It’s shameful that after last year’s budget tricks, and lies that the NYPD’s budget would be cut by $1 billion, that Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Johnson and the City Council doubled down on a budget that increases funding to the NYPD and fails to redirect much needed funds to non-police safety strategies,” Anthonine Pierre, spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, said.

The group’s director, Joo-Hyun Kang also argued that the investments in community anti-violence programs were paltry compared to the NYPD’s increases. “This budget does some restoration of past cuts, but it mostly short changes the long term infrastructure we need in communities of color,” she said.

Following the rise in anti-Asian hate incidents, the budget does include a new $4 million initiative called AAPI Community Support which will fund Asian-led and Asian-serving organizations to provide mental health and other services.

Recovery Funds

To aid the economic recovery, de Blasio said the budget will use $30 million to promote tourism, which was announced earlier this year, and $11 million to help small businesses cut through red tape. It will also pay for a new citywide cleaning corps and legal help for commercial tenants. 

For city schools, the budget draws on billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds for education, a sum that’s to be spread over two years, plus an increase in state aid for schools. It includes $500 million dollars for small group tutoring to combat learning loss from the pandemic. It also expands free pre-school for three-year-olds, restores funding for individual schools, and pays for an additional 650 social workers. It includes $18 million for reducing class sizes and $27 million to boost literacy. 

To tackle the city’s persistent racial wealth disparity, New York City will spend $15 million to create its own 529 college savings accounts next year for every public kindergarten student that will have a minimum deposit of $100 in each account. This local fund is different from the state’s college savings account, which parents can join at their own expense.  And the budget sets aside $4 million for scholarships to CUNY. 

The deal also seeks to support formerly incarcerated individuals with $57 million for housing and healthcare, $6.6 million for jobs, and $5 million for mentorship programs. 

Johson said these investments were “unimaginable” at this time last year when the pandemic had brought the local economy to a near standstill. 

Record Spending

The city’s budget has grown dramatically under de Blasio’s two terms in office. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s last financial plan in 2013 totaled $70 billion. 

Kathryn Wylde, President and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, criticized the nearly $100 billion record level of spending. “Economic recovery will not be facilitated by city government spending more on government run programs, which is the faulty assumption behind this budget,” she said. “The incoming mayor and Council will find themselves short of resources to sustain this level of spending in years to come.”

Wylde was among a group of business and civic leaders who wrote a letter to the mayor and council speaker earlier this month, urging them to be more strategic with city spending. They wanted a greater focus on job training. 

“Federal aid should have been directed at restoring the private sector economy rather than expanding city government,” she added. “The city is paying 10,000 temporary workers to clean graffiti rather than funding contracts with small and minority-owned businesses, small landlords and merchant associations to carry out necessary cleanup.”

But others worry the city is squandering the enormous infusion of cash coming from the federal government. The budget was criticized by those who worry Department of Education (DOE) money isn’t being targeted to the students who need it most. 

“While the final budget includes some important education investments, it falls far short of meeting the needs of the students we work with every day,” said Randi Levine, policy director at Advocates for Children. “The DOE is getting $7 billion in COVID-19 relief funding and there’s not yet any new funding targeted to programs for English Language Learners, students who are homeless, or students in foster care – all of whom were hit particularly hard by the pandemic and need specialized support.”

Education advocates also complain that the mayor has been opaque about plans for the enormous sum being directed toward addressing learning loss, and other initiatives to help students rebound from the pandemic. Advocates for smaller class sizes called the $18 million investment a drop in the bucket, given that parents consistently rank smaller classes as a top priority. 

The group Save Our Storefronts also criticized the city for not doing enough to save small businesses, which suffered tremendously during the pandemic. The state is spending more than a billion dollars for small businesses to help pay back rent and other expenses. But some wanted additional aid from the city and weren’t satisfied with grants and a program to help them cut through red tape.

“This budget provides more government jobs while doing little to save small businesses that, collectively, employ more than half of New Yorkers,” said Chris LaCass, an organizer with Save Our Storefronts. “After a year of excessive inspections and fines that killed many businesses, this budget does practically nothing to save the survivors that are on the edge of collapse. There is nothing good to say about this budget from a small business perspective.”

But de Blasio pushed back against criticism, including that city spending has ballooned too much on his watch. He touted investments in early education and affordable housing, and noted that the current budget adds money to city reserves. “We made it a purpose to redistribute wealth to working people,” he said. “I think we’re striking the balance.” 

Council Speaker Johnson also emphasized that the new budget restores funding for sanitation, parks, libraries and cultural institutions. “I’m happy to report that we reversed many, many of the painful cuts that we were dealt with last year—cuts that were felt in our parks, our cultural institutions and our libraries,” he said. 

The city had cut $106 million last year from the Sanitation budget but restored some services after business leaders voiced their concerns.

Funds were also restored to some programs aimed at helping people find new jobs. Jose Ortiz, Jr., CEO of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition, said that’s important for putting people back to work after the pandemic. 

“We’re still evaluating the full budget and its impact on the city’s workforce, but we’re grateful that many of the programs for workers have been restored, and in some cases increased, from last year’s devastating cuts,” he said.

This story has been updated to include a comment from the New York City Employment and Training Coalition.

Source