For weeks, I have promised you, the good readers of Excelsior, that I would explain what a comptroller does and I am happy to inform you that today I will finally be delivering on that promise.
New York City’s race for comptroller has been heating up, as more people run to become the city’s top accountant – although there’s more to the job than just crunching numbers. The job has a few major responsibilities, including auditing city agencies, reviewing city contracts, acting as a fiduciary – a fancy name for a person who acts on the behalf of others – to the city’s five pension funds, determining the prevailing wage, reviewing the city budget and issuing bonds for big city projects.
Perhaps the most important aspect of being a comptroller is providing financial oversight by auditing city agencies. You may have already noticed that the comptroller’s office frequently publishes financial audits and reports on various city agencies, such as the New York City Police Department, the Board of Education and the Department of Sanitation. This is because the comptroller is mandated by the New York City Charter to audit at least one aspect of each of the city’s agencies every four years, although when the comptroller chooses to audit each agency is typically up to them. While auditing these agencies, the comptroller is expected to assess how they are spending or collecting money, depending on what portion of agency they’re auditing. By conducting these audits and producing these reports, the comptroller is able to provide the city with financial oversight and act as a check against the city’s executive and legislative bodies.
Similarly, the comptroller also reviews and registers city contracts. A typical contract is reviewed by at least five different agencies, and then it is sent to the comptroller who has to register the contract within 30 days of receiving it or send it back to the originating agency. While some comptrollers have rejected contracts, they aren’t actually granted the authority to do so unless the city does not have the funds to pay for the contracts. In 2015, Comptroller Scott Stringer rejected a series of homeless shelter contracts due to outstanding violations, which some local law experts felt was outside of his purview and a violation of the City Charter.
The comptroller is also charged with reviewing the city budget each year and making a set of recommendations based on the city’s finances. They are also expected to certify the budget, along with the mayor and the city clerk.
The state comptroller operates very similarly but on a much larger scale, overseeing New York’s finances, its pension fund (the state has one of the largest pension funds in the country) and conducting audits of state agencies. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has been in office since 2007, and because the state comptroller doesn’t have term limits, unlike the city comptroller, which is limited to two terms, he has been able to continue to serve in the role.
By the numbers
- 5: The number of pension funds that the city comptroller oversees, which include the New York City Employees’ Retirement System, the Teachers’ Retirement System of the City of New York, the New York City Police Pension Fund, the New York City Fire Pension Fund and the New York City Board of Education Retirement System.
- 65 reports were issued by the comptroller between Jan. 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2020
- $4 billion: The total amount divested from fossil fuel companies, as voted on by two city pension funds in January.
- $239.8 billion: The city’s total amount of pension assets, as of November 2020.
Fixing the city’s financial mess
Body Text: Whoever next steps into the role of city comptroller will have to contend with the city’s numerous financial issues, such as an estimated $5.25 billion budget gap in the coming fiscal year that was largely caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state is expected to receive $12.3 billion in unrestricted federal funds by the end of the month, with billions more expected to go straight to local governments across the state, thanks to President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. While this money will undoubtedly help resuscitate New York’s finances, financial experts have pointed out that it might not be enough to fully fix the budget deficits in the city and state. That’s where the comptroller’s help is needed. The comptroller may not be able to set the city budget, but they can help come up with budgeting solutions that might help the city trim its finances and reduce its debt, which is a large part of what they do when assessing the budget.
The Democratic and Republican primaries for comptroller are slated for June 22, and here are the top candidates vying for the post.
- Kevin Parker: A state senator from Brooklyn, who has previously worked for former state Comptroller H. Carl McCall.
- Brian Benjamin: A state senator from Harlem, who has previously worked as an investment banker and affordable housing developer.
- David Weprin: The Assembly member is a Queens native, who previously represented northeast Queens in the City Council.
- Corey Johnson: The New York City Council speaker entered the race after dropping out as a mayoral contender in September due to mental health challenges.
- Brad Lander: The City Council member represents Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, Park Slope and Kensington neighborhoods.
- Michelle Caruso-Cabrera: A former CNBC contributor who ran in 2020 against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic primary for the 14th Congressional District.
- Zach Iscol: A former mayoral candidate who dropped out of the race, Iscol is also a veteran of the Marine Corps and co-founded the nonprofit Headstrong Project that provides mental health services to military veterans.
- John Tabacco: Tabacco, a Staten Island resident who hosts the talk show “Liquid Lunch” on BizTV, has worked on Wall Street for decades and has the backing of the Staten Island and Brooklyn Republican parties.
- Daby Carreras: A city native and founder of Brando, a nonprofit that aims to fight various health issues, Carreras picked up endorsements from the Manhattan, Bronx and Queens Republican parties.
A teeny-tiny history lesson
In 1989, Elizabeth Holtzman became the first woman elected as New York City comptroller. Holtzman entered into the role after serving in Congress from 1973 through 1980 and then working as Brooklyn district attorney from 1982 through 1989. A reverse political trajectory of sorts.
In her campaign for comptroller, Holtzman said she wanted to use the office to address a wide range of issues and increase funding for education, AIDS programs, housing, health care and to fight crime. She also said she felt the city’s comptroller “can and should be more than a bookkeeper.”
As comptroller, Holtzman helped grow the city’s pension funds, built affordable housing and helped increase job prospects for city residents. However, Holtzman ended up only serving a single term in the comptroller’s office.
NEXT STORY: Looking back on a year of locked down New York