If you still think Mayor Bill de Blasio will turn New York City into a socialist utopia, take a look at his preliminary budget for fiscal 2020. It leans in quite the opposite direction.
While the $92.2 billion budget would be $3 billion bigger than last year’s $89.2 billion, this is largely due to fixed costs such as pay increases, debt service and education. It would reduce funding for various agencies through a program called Eliminate the Gap, which would freeze hiring and decrease staff through attrition and not filling certain vacant positions.
The mayor is arguing that this will not lead to any layoffs, but it’s clear that agencies could see fewer staff and various programs could shrink. His proposal, according to the city’s budget analysis, would slash funding for the Department of Housing and Preservation and Development, which handles building-code enforcement, emergency repairs and affordable-housing subsidies, from $1.26 billion in fiscal year 2019 to $947 million.
The reasoning for a more cautious budget is because the city projects that revenue from personal income taxes will decrease by $935 million in 2020. The city could also lose state funding for programs and services such as public transportation and education. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in February that the state had lost $2.3 billion in income-tax revenue last year. He blamed it on wealthy people fleeing to lower-tax states after the 2017 Republican tax bill drastically limited the federal-tax deduction they could take for paying state and local taxes.
Mayor de Blasio also hinted that agencies could face additional budget cuts if the overall budget does not include an additional $750 million in savings. It’s unclear how this will play out with the City Council, where powerful members including Speaker Corey Johnson have indicated that the budget should not slash spending for the Fair Fares program, which lets low-income New Yorkers buy half-price MetroCards, or affordable housing.
The city has other tools it should use to help working-class people that would also generate revenue. For instance, it could bring in as much as $3 billion by simply enforcing fines against landlords and enacting criminal-justice reforms.
Last September, Housing Rights Initiative reported that the city had failed to collect $1.5 billion in fines owed by landlords for violations ranging from loose rubbish to failure to notify authorities of asbestos. A 2016 audit by city Comptroller Scott Stringer reported that HPD had collected less than 3 percent of $35.1 million in overdue fines assessed in the previous two years.
Collecting these fines could also substantially decrease tenant harassment, as landlords would know that penalties would actually be enforced.
Reforming the criminal justice system could also save almost $2 billion a year, as well as meaning that fewer people are harmed by it. “A More Just New York City,” a report released in 2017 by a commission headed by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, said the city’s jail population could be substantially reduced through reforms such as hiring more social-service workers, eliminating cash bail, expanding pretrial supervision and reclassifying certain offenses from criminal into civil. If those recommendations were followed, the Rikers Island jail could be closed and fewer correctional officers would need to be hired. That could save the city $1.6 billion a year.
The mayor’s proposed 2020 budget would retain funding for Fair Fares and his signature health-care program. It would also provide $2.7 million to improve bus infrastructure and increase bus speeds. However, with de Blasio speaking the language of austerity, it may soon become difficult for the city to invest in genuinely affordable housing, further expand Fair Fares or increase funding for various safety nets.
The city’s final budget is due July 1. In March and April, the Council will analyze the preliminary budget, hold public hearings, and meet with various stakeholders to determine concerns and issues. After those hearings, it will send a summary of its concerns to the mayor, who will then release an executive budget with changes based on those concerns. Through May and June, de Blasio and the Council will negotiate the final version.
If an austerity-based budget is enacted, New York could see a world similar to the 1970s and 1980s. For the sake of balancing the budget, city hospitals were closed and subway maintenance was virtually eliminated. Tuition was imposed at the once-free City University of New York in 1976, while subway and bus fares more than tripled, from 30 cents in 1970 to $1 in 1986.
Photo: Mayor Bill de Blasio. Credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.