If anybody accuses New York City residents of thinking they’re too important, remind them that our city budget is bigger than all but five other states – and we’re gaining on Illinois. There’s a lot to dig through in the $85.2 billion budget agreement from earlier this month, but here are five big takeaways.
A program meant to protect immigrant New Yorkers from President Donald Trump’s administration has become the most controversial part of this year’s budget. New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito wanted the $26 million program to provide free legal services to immigrants in deportation proceedings to apply to anybody with financial need. But Mayor Bill de Blasio wanted to exclude from the program any immigrants who had been convicted of serious offenses – like murder and rape – that would’ve already caused the city to turn that person over to federal immigration officials, despite its so-called “sanctuary city” status.
When de Blasio and members of the City Council held a June 2 press conference for the traditional “budget handshake” to announce that a deal had been reached, the disagreement still hadn’t been settled. Days later on June 6, when the City Council convened to officially pass the budget, a rider had been added: The city couldn’t pick and choose who would get free legal services based on their criminal record.
Though the mayor has the power to override that section, Mark-Viverito would likely have enough votes for an override. Instead, de Blasio has said that he’ll get his way by working through the contracting process for the legal services, which his office controls. All in all, it was a rare moment of public disunity between a mayor and City Council speaker who are usually on the same page.
MMV’s last budget
Mark-Viverito may have been empowered by the fact that this will be her last budget as speaker. The East Harlem politician is term-limited and will leave the council at the end of the year. It was also the final budget for City Council Finance Chairwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who recently announced that she won’t seek re-election. The finance chair is generally considered the second most powerful position on the council because of its influence on the budget.
The Mark-Viverito years will be remembered largely for its big spending progressive budgets and the political cooperation with de Blasio. This year’s June 2 budget agreement was the earliest since 1992 – coming almost a full month before the city budget is due on July 1. It stands in especially stark contrast to the divided government in Albany that, even when the budget is on time, routinely pushes right up to the midnight deadline.
Money for riders
Speaking of Albany, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is state run, but has an immense impact on life in New York City. So, the city always contributes some of its own money to the MTA. As commuters face increasing crowding and delays on subways, buses and trains, the city budgeted $1.8 billion over the next two years to the MTA – though transit advocates will tell you that’s a drop in the bucket for the huge system’s needs.
Despite a big push by advocates for the poor, that does not include any money sought by the Fair Fares campaign, which called for the city to fund half-price MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers. While the city budget includes subsidies for students, the elderly and the disabled, de Blasio has continually looked to the governor to fund it instead.
Steps to close Rikers
De Blasio has come out in support of closing Rikers Island within 10 years, and this budget was the first opportunity to put his money where his mouth was. The budget reallocates money that was intended for a new jail on Rikers Island and repurposes $1.1 billion to building and renovating borough-based jails over the next decade.
City correction officers have always worked heavy overtime, which advocates point to as a factor in the violent culture on Rikers. This budget doesn’t do much to help. The department of more than 12,000 employees added just 74 positions over the past year, and the budget actually increased anticipated overtime spending for the next fiscal year.
Bigger and better?
The final enacted budget totals $85.2 billion – $3 billion higher than last year’s adopted budget, and about $10 billion more than de Blasio’s first adopted budget three years ago. New York City is legally required to have a balanced budget, so the rising spending is a direct result of the city’s humming economy, plus steady funding from the state and federal governments filling its coffers.
The de Blasio administration has steadily been increasing the city’s reserves, and more was added this year as the fear of federal budget cuts under the Trump administration looms. This year’s budget added an additional $300 million to the reserves, increasing the city’s emergency savings account to nearly $1.5 billion, with another $4.2 billion in the retiree health benefits trust fund.