How to Make New York City Council Work for Working People

Issue 279

A former City Council budget analyst dishes on what really happens behind closed doors during city-budget negotiations.

Brandon West May 8, 2023

We just finished state budget negotiations dominated by Gov. Kathy Hochul’s regressive ideas around bail, housing, charter schools and more. And now the city budget, which is due in June, will take center stage as Eric Adams seeks a new round of cuts to almost every city department and agency with the exception of the NYPD, Corrections and Sanitation.

Progressives on the City Council have struggled in recent years to advance a people’s budget. This was the case even in 2020 when mass organizing spurred by historic Black Lives Matter protests led to the establishment of an Occupy City Hall encampment while the budget was being debated inside. To understand why success is elusive, we need to better understand how the budget process works and identify areas where progressives can step up their game. 

Last year’s progressive collapse was triggered by fear of the speaker. Council members went against their campaign promises because they were afraid she would cut them off.

As in Albany, the city budget process is skewed to give more power to the chief executive. By law, it’s the mayor who dictates the amount of funds that can be allocated in the budget, never mind that other entities, like the Independent Budgeting Office and the City Comptroller, release competing and generally higher revenue estimates that over the years have proven to be more accurate. 

Probably the most substantial weapon in the mayor’s arsenal is the fact that the specific areas in each agency body where funding is put, called “units of appropriation,” are highly broad and often inaccurate, allowing agencies to use funds as they see fit and eventually move them out of projects and into unintended areas without City Council oversight.

Council Speaker Adrienne Adams (no relation to the mayor) also has an outsized role in the process. She appoints a Budget Negotiating Team (BNT) that meets in the lead-up to the budget process. When I worked as a budget analyst for the City Council, I got a front row seat to the sausage making. But it was often a tame meeting because the BNT is mostly composed of those who’ve found favor with the speaker rather than being composed of members who accurately represent a cross-section of the five boroughs and its various identity groups. In exchange for a seat in this vaunted body, a member is obligated to forgo their own public advocacy for the budget — no attendance at budget-related rallies or sign-on letters permitted.

Non-BNT members have much less power over negotiations until details come their way. Chairs of committees will learn about the funding their agency is being allocated, but they aren’t in the room where the deals are being made, so by the time the word gets to them, it’s too late. The speaker tries to closely guard details, so that members can’t impact the process. If more people knew, outside groups could organize campaigns focused on leveraging constituents to lobby their leaders on issues and potential cuts to the budget. When it’s all under wraps, there is no outside game, and it’s an all-inside game with very few in the know.

This undemocratic process played out last year when the mayor and the speaker reached a handshake budget agreement on June 10 that included hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to public education. The speaker quickly brought it to a vote on June 13 (more than two weeks before the deadline for finishing the budget) to prevent opposition from coalescing. Despite 35 of the Council’s 51 members belonging to the ­Progressive Caucus and the City Council being majority-female for the first time in its history, it approved an austerity budget that defunded public schools trying to recover from the pandemic by a vote of 44-6. 

The speaker tries to closely guard details, so that members can’t impact the process.

Last year’s progressive collapse was triggered by fear of the speaker. Council members went against their campaign promises because they were afraid she would cut them off — that she would slow walk other legislation they were sponsoring, that they wouldn’t have a “seat at the table” when budget modifications were negotiated later in the year, that Schedule C discretionary funds for local groups in their districts would be curtailed or cut off. Discretionary funding makes up less than 1% of the total city budget but is crucial to council members. Bringing back the bacon to their district gives them tangible accomplishments — funding for a beloved community center, a spruced-up park, a new traffic light installed in a dangerous intersection — that they can brag about to voters. And, it allows them to steer resources to non-profit allies who are often key players in their local political machines.

Last year’s six hold-outs — Councilmembers Alexa Avilés, Charles Barron, Tiffany Cabán, Sandy Nurse, Chi Ossé and Kristin Richardson Jordan — threw down a marker. As ­public opinion turned against the budget cuts, their choices were vindicated while progressives who sided with the mayor struggled to explain their votes. One thing that gives me hope is that in the aftermath of last year’s fiasco, the “new look” Progressive Caucus shrunk from 35 to 20 members after adding more stringent membership requirements. Smaller and much more defined, it can build a clearer voice this cycle. Those who left the caucus wanted the “progressive” label when it served their purposes but did not want it to have any substance. 

Here are some other things City Council can do to make itself a more effective and co-equal branch of government.

  • Reform the selection process for the BNT so that it better represents the city as a whole.
  • Utilize the “terms and conditions” process to ensure monies are only spent on appropriate activities. The Council could leverage this process by requiring data from the agencies for accountability and oversight instead of letting the speaker’s senior staff manage the flow of information.
  • Start using provisions in the Council’s rules that enable members to advance legislation without the blessing of the speaker. This would lessen fears of retaliation for bucking the speaker during the budget process.

Working class New Yorkers deserve a budget that meets their needs. A Progressive Caucus that is bolder, more strategic and more unified will bring us closer to seeing that happen. 

Brandon West previously worked at the NYC Office of Management and Budget and as a City Council budget analyst. He was an organizer with Occupy City Hall in 2020 and ran as a DSA-endorsed City Council candidate in 2021.

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