By custom, the New York City budget is passed with a handshake. After months of negotiation between the mayor’s office and the City Council, it signifies that the two sides of City Hall have reached agreement and met in the middle – literally – in the historic building’s marbled rotunda that falls halfway between the mayor’s office and the council chamber.
This year, there would be no handshake. That is, in part, due to public health precautions by the city’s top elected officials, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who have maintained physical distance in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Their negotiating had been done entirely remotely, mostly on phone calls.
But the two leaders didn’t just have physical space between them. The lack of a traditional handshake underscored the disagreements between the two sides up until the final hours, primarily centered on the question of how much to cut the New York City Police Department’s budget. Not to mention the disagreements that still remain among the 50 City Council members, with more than a dozen expressing their disapproval for the budget with a “no” vote on Tuesday night.
Nonetheless, de Blasio and the Council reached a deal on an $88.2 billion budget that is greatly reduced from the city’s plans before the coronavirus pandemic hit New York – including a hefty cut to the NYPD budget sought by police reform activists.
The City Council held a meeting late Tuesday night that lasted just past 12:30 a.m. Wednesday morning to officially pass the budget for fiscal year 2021. The mayor was expected to sign it immediately, not long after the midnight deadline before the new fiscal year began on July 1.
This year’s budget was “in many ways, the toughest budget challenge this city has seen in a long, long time,” de Blasio said Tuesday. The economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic is projected to cost the city $9 billion in revenue. This $88.2 billion budget represents a 5% cut from the $92.8 billion fiscal year 2020 budget passed one year ago. It is the first time the New York City budget has been reduced year-over-year since 2009, during the Great Recession.
The new fiscal year’s budget is also 8% lower than the $95.3 billion preliminary budget de Blasio proposed in January, meaning the mayor and Council had to find some $7.1 billion in cuts and savings in the last few months. Few specifics were publicly available as of Tuesday evening, but many of the cuts and cost-savings proposed by de Blasio in April, such as reducing overnight service on the Staten Island Ferry, likely made it into the final budget. (De Blasio’s initial proposal included a minimal cut of just $24 million to the NYPD.) Additionally, de Blasio has said that if the federal government does not provide the city with more stimulus funds, he may have to lay off up to 22,000 city employees starting Oct. 1. The mayor also said the job cuts could be staved off if the state Senate were to agree with the Assembly and grant the city the authority to borrow money for its expense budget. But the state Senate has held firm, with a spokesman saying the mayor had not provided a detailed enough plan tied to the proposal.
But in the financial crisis, police reform activists saw an opportunity. As early as April 30, a coalition led by the advocacy coalition Communities United for Police Reform called for a major cut to the NYPD’s budget. Following the widespread protests against police brutality and systemic racism in late May and early June, a more specific demand from CUPR and its allies crystalized: cutting the NYPD’s budget by at least $1 billion and redirecting the savings towards services like summer programs for kids.
Other activists took the demands further. The Democratic Socialists of America’s New York City chapter called for the NYPD’s $5.6 billion budget to be cut in half. And in the week leading up the budget vote, hundreds of activists slept outside in Lower Manhattan as part of an ongoing Occupy City Hall protest in support of major NYPD budget cuts.
Most New Yorkers may not agree with the activists’ demands. According to a Siena College poll released Tuesday, just 41% of registered voters in New York City support defunding the police, while 47% oppose it.
But the demands dominated the discourse, and city leaders quickly warmed up to the cause. With just weeks before the budget deadline, Johnson and other City Council leaders agreed to set $1 billion in cuts as their goal. De Blasio, while initially opposed, eventually conceded, announcing on Tuesday that the NYPD’s budget would be reduced by $1 billion, But an analysis of budget documents suggests that top-line number relies on an expansive view of police spending and associated costs. Nevertheless, the 12% year-over-year reduction is significant. The NYPD’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year will be $4.92 billion – $690 million less than the previous year’s $5.61 billion budget.
Cuts counted toward the $1 billion number include reducing planned overtime spending by $352 million for the year and cutting spending on contracts by $12 million. The city will also cancel one of the four annual police academy classes – a move which could reduce the NYPD’s headcount of 36,000-plus uniformed officers by 1,163, saving more than $85 million. The reduction also includes significant cost shifts, like moving the budget for school safety agents, which patrol city schools, to the Department of Education. Some $430 million of the total cuts to the NYPD will be redirected towards youth and family initiatives, including $115 million for summer youth programming, de Blasio said Tuesday.
“This is real redistribution,” the mayor said. “This is taking real resources and putting them where they’re needed most.”
But Johnson refused to declare victory, knowing activists who pushed him to make the cuts were largely disappointed with the result. Jawanza Williams, an organizer with VOCAL-NY, which organized the Occupy City Hall protest, said the organization was “outraged” and “appalled by our leaders' deceptive decisions, the lack of transparency in government, and stonewalling in the face of a national reckoning of racial injustice and police violence.” Many criticized the shifting of school safety agents in particular. "Most of the so-called $1 billion in cuts to the NYPD are suspect, more budget-dancing than meaningful reductions,” New York City Council Member Brad Lander said in a statement. Lander, a progressive Brooklyn Democrat, said he would vote “no” on the budget as a result.
In total, the budget passed 32 to 17. City Council Member Costa Constantinides was absent for the vote, and one council seat in North Brooklyn is currently vacant. Of the 17 votes against the budget, nine members thought the cuts to the NYPD were not enough, and eight thought the cuts were too much.
9 NYC Council members voted no on the FY '21 budget because the NYPD cuts weren't enough: Barron, Kallos, Lander, Menchaca, Reynoso, Rivera, Richards, Rosenthal, Van Bramer— Jeff Coltin (@JCColtin) July 1, 2020
8 voted no b/c NYPD cuts were too much: Borelli, Diaz Sr., Deutsch, Gjonaj, Holden, Matteo, Ulrich, Yeger
While he doesn’t have a vote on the budget, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is among those dissenting on the left. Williams released a statement Tuesday morning threatening to withhold the budget if de Blasio and the council didn’t freeze NYPD hiring and commit to major changes to the current school safety model. Even longtime political observers were confused by the move, questioning whether the typically weak public advocate’s office had the power. That includes the former public advocate, de Blasio.
“The budget is effective as soon as Council passes it and is certified only by the mayor, comptroller, and city clerk,” de Blasio’s press secretary, Freddi Goldstein, said in an emailed statement.
Unbowed, Williams vowed to follow through. The budget “is one that I cannot support and will not sign off on,” Williams said in a written statement released early Wednesday morning, after the council passed the budget. So he said he would be “compelled to act in my charter mandated capacity as Public Advocate.” Such a test of the office’s powers is unprecedented, and could result in a court challenge from the de Blasio administration.
Johnson seemed exhausted as he held his own virtual press conference Tuesday afternoon, just hours after the mayor’s. “Personally, I did my best. And it was a really hard negotiation,” Johnson said. The mayor didn’t want to cut nearly as much as he did from the NYPD’s budget, and there was major disagreement among members too. “But I was trying to find consensus to do something meaningful, knowing this is the beginning.”
Correction: This story was updated to reflect details of the City Council’s budget vote. A previous version of this article overstated the fiscal year 2020 NYPD budget and misstated the nature of the cuts to the fiscal year 2021 NYPD budget.