News & Politics

With asylum-seekers in the spotlight, mayor and council battle over city finances

New York City Council members responded with outrage over the mayor’s requests to fork over discretionary funding.

New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams listens to testimony from members of Mayor Eric Adams’ administration at an oversight hearing on the response to asylum-seeking migrants on Monday, Dec. 19.

New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams listens to testimony from members of Mayor Eric Adams’ administration at an oversight hearing on the response to asylum-seeking migrants on Monday, Dec. 19. Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit

Even as New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ administration seems close to securing hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government to reimburse costs serving asylum-seekers, the mayor cried poverty late Tuesday night, asking the City Council to voluntarily give up funds it controls to help the cause. 

Council members responded with varying degrees of outrage after the news broke that Adams told the New York Post editorial board that some of the council’s $563 million in discretionary funds should be on the chopping block amid the ongoing financial crunch. That was news to the council, which didn’t get a letter from the mayor suggesting the budget cut until nearly midnight. And if the form wasn’t problematic enough for New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, so was the message. Some of those discretionary funds go to community organizations that have taken on the “lion's share” of supporting asylum-seekers as the city has contended with staffing shortages and a lack of resources, she explained.

“We cannot allow the mayor’s suggestion that we cut a lifeline to communities stand as a viable option. These are service providers – viable, needed service providers – that provide a lifeline to New Yorkers in need,” she told reporters Wednesday. “What we should be asking is why the administration is being so opaque about its spending on contracts during the asylum-seeker crisis. We need those answers.”

At the heart of this is a debate over how much the city has spent, and how much money it has to work with. The mayor included a vague cost in the letter sent to the City Council. “As of last month, the city has spent more than $250 million to house, feed, and provide wraparound services to over 31,000 asylum-seekers,” he wrote. And with more migrants expected to come, the administration expects the cost to the city’s budget to approach $1 billion. That’s a massive bill, but all City Hall has publicly provided so far are broad estimates. Adams’ administration has yet to release any detailed figures of how much it's spent overall in its response to the surge of arrivals that have come since spring. The Independent Budget Office pegged the cost at at least $600 million this year, and hundreds of millions more if the population of migrants in need of services increases. 

Disagreement also extends beyond just the cost of serving asylum-seekers. Adams’ Office of Management and Budget says agencies need to reduce their costs amid dire fiscal straits and out year budget gaps in the billions. But the council’s budget office forecasts billions more in revenue in the coming year than the mayor’s side does. And the IBO may have the most positive vision of all, with a projection this month that the city will end this fiscal year “with a sizable $2.2 billion surplus.” The City Council as a whole leans more progressive than the mayor, and many members have made noise all year calling on Adams to spend more on services. Adams has framed himself as the fiscally responsible one who has to make tough decisions. Funding for the asylum-seekers is the latest battleground, and Mayor Adams showed his frustration by pulling out a rhetorical dagger, and striking the council.

“I’m hearing from my council persons all the time that we need to give more free stuff away. This stuff costs money,” Adams said at an unrelated press conference Wednesday. “And I am not going to take away from taxpayers to go beyond what we have been doing. And we have been doing a lot.” 

Council members swiftly rolled out statements strongly condemning the prospect of cutting discretionary funding. The women’s caucus pointed to the recent threats to abortion access and reproductive health care, saying any suggestion “to strip vital resources” to their initiatives is insulting and dangerous. 

The Black, Latino and Asian caucus said slashing “lifeline” grants to nonprofits would “not only further shortchange Black, Latino and Asian communities, but severely hemorrhage the capacity and capability of these organizations to provide adequate and meaningful services that our communities rely on.” 

The LGBTQIA+ caucus issued similar condemnation: targeting community-based organizations for “draconian cuts” is dangerous and cruel, particularly as the LGBTQIA+ community is “facing more homophobic and transphobic attacks, insufficient access to services, and the lack of basic safety.”

Some of the council’s most progressive members said blaming service cuts on newly arrived migrants and asylum-seekers only adds insult to injury.

“We can’t and won’t fall into the xenophobic trap of blaming immigrants for needless reductions to essential services,” they said in a statement.

Since spring, New York officials have scrambled to respond to the arrival of over 32,000 asylum-seekers, many of whom rolled into the city aboard buses sent by other state’s leaders in a political ploy. City leaders have rushed to support newcomers in a myriad of ways, such as enrolling children in schools, providing food, legal services and medical care as well as opening 60 emergency shelters primarily in hotels. Nonprofit organizations and faith groups alike have organized winter clothing drives and dispatched thousands of volunteers. Earlier this week, the city council convened for two days of hearings centered on how the city has handled the surge of asylum-seekers so far.

It’s been an expansive, all hands on deck operation – one that’s increasingly strained city resources and already cost hundreds of millions of dollars. And with the city now anticipating an additional 1,000 plus people to begin arriving each week given a pending change to the federal immigration policy Title 42, things have become only more dire. Within the last couple of days, Adams has repeatedly underscored the need for federal and state aid, claiming even that some city services could be reduced without financial support. 

This week, federal lawmakers are reportedly close to including some $800 million in a federal omnibus bill for grants for U.S. cities like New York that have been taking in migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border. However, it remains unknown how much of that total New York would receive.