Council Calls for Budget Transparency

The first rule about labor contract negotiations is you do not talk about labor contract negotiations. The second rule about labor contract negotiations is ... you get the point. 

Since he was a candidate, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has been mum on how much it will cost to settle all 152 municipal labor union contracts. As budget season kicks off on Wednesday, that “problem of tomorrow” has become a reality of today.

How much will it cost? “We want to be respectful of our friends in labor and not negotiate in public,” has been, and still is the party line. Staying quiet may bode well for the negotiations with unions, but not having that number in the preliminary budget makes fiscal planning difficult.

“As these negotiations go through we are going to be constantly correcting this budget so that concerns me,” Council Finance Chair Julissa Ferreras said. “I am hopeful our mayor will take into consideration the entire city budget while negotiating.”

Estimates vary widely on just how much the contracts could cost. The Independent Budget Office puts it at anywhere from $500 to $7.1 billion. De Blasio set aside $1 billion in the Retiree Health Benefits Trust Fund that could be used for contracts, and the city is seeing better than expected tax returns, but that may not be enough.

With the lack of transparency regarding the labor contracts, the City Council could have easily teed up on Budget Director Dean Fuleihan as he testified in Council Chambers on Wednesday. It has, after all, become somewhat of a ritual come budget season. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s budget director, Mark Page, used to trade barbs with the Council every year, often regarding issues of transparency.

This year, the Council, led by new Speaker Melisa Mark-Viverito and Ferreras, chose to invest their political capital in building a relationship with the mayor’s budget office—something they didn’t have before. They let their voice be heard on the lack of a labor contract number and moved on to asking for things they might actually get, namely transparency.

“We want greater transparency and honesty when it comes to the budget,” Mark-Viverito said. “Those are really important for oversight, so those are the things we are looking for.

For years, Council members were faced with large appropriations that came with little or no explanation. The City Charter dictates that the Council vote on such appropriation and can challenge items they do not agree on. But in some agencies, such as the Department of Education and the NYPD, these budgetary line items would total billions, making it virtually impossible to challenge them.

“When an appropriation is huge and everything is bundled in, it makes it very difficult to truly drill down in the budget detail,” Ferreras said. “In the past, I believe that was done purposefully.”

When pressed, Fuleihan promised to have an open dialogue on what items the Council members want to see broken down, and he also assured the Council that transparency was a priority for de Blasio.

Following the hearing, Ferreras said she tasked the finance team to look at each agency and identify problems. She said that her staff will submit a list to the city’s budget office and that she expects to see updates when the executive budget is released in April.

“I know it won't happen across the board in every agency, but I think making some changes in the units of appropriations would be a solid gesture that we are moving the right direction,” Ferreras said.