The $88.1 billion budget deal reached Tuesday by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council in the wake of the coronavirus crisis and a month of protests includes a major reduction in police overtime that many mayors have promised and none have delivered.
The spending agreement also depends on $1 billion in unspecified labor savings. It has no provision for the major reductions in state aid threatened by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. And de Blasio is looking towards uncertain federal aid or risky borrowing to help ease the pain.
All those potential holes appeared even before the city released detailed information on how much it has agreed to spend and what it expects in revenue as the pandemic’s thrown the world economy for a loop.
“This is the first time in 15 years I’ve seen a budget without a press release explaining how the budget was balanced,” said Maria Doulis, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission. A press release issued late Tuesday afternoon contained few details.
As hundreds of protesters have occupied City Hall in recent days, demanding “defunding” of the NYPD, some city officials criticized the budget for using sleight of hand to reduce police spending by a claimed $1 billion. Much of the savings, they note, comes from merely transferring functions like school safety out of the Police Department.
City comptroller and mayoral candidate Scott Stringer called the changes in police spending “a bait and switch and a paper-thin excuse for reform.” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said he would attempt to block property tax collections because police spending had not been cut enough.
Even Council Speaker Corey Johnson acknowledged the $1 billion goal sought by advocates hadn’t been reached, and that the true total for cuts to and transfers from the NYPD was $837 million.
But fiscal experts are more concerned about whether the budget is realistic and about how relatively small the reductions are in comparison to the big spending increases since de Blasio took office in 2014.
‘No Plan to Get There’
Despite significant downturns in projected city revenue, the $88.1 billion pact returns spending only to the level of the 2018 budget. If the mayor had increased spending since he took office in 2014 at the rate of inflation, the total this year would have been $84 billion.
Both numbers, though, are a far cry from the pre-pandemic $95 billion proposal de Blasio presented in February.
His plan to shrink the workforce through attrition returns employment to only 2018 levels as well. Since the previous headcount record set in 2008, the city has added almost 16,000 employees, of which roughly 6,000 are a result of the de Blasio universal pre-K program.
Since the attrition envisioned in the budget reduces the number of employees by about 3,000, the payroll will still be 10,000 larger than 2008.
Achieving the planned reductions will not be easy. Stringer immediately attacked the proposal to slash overtime for uniformed and civilian NYPD employees by up to $353.2 million “with no plan to get there.”
While de Blasio contended he has made progress reducing police overtime, the figure in the last five years has never dipped below $693 million annually. Meanwhile, a projection that the 2020 figure would be $623 million is expected to be revised sharply higher.
‘Crisis Far From Over’
The mayor is planning to slash labor costs by $1 billion and threatens he will have to lay off 22,000 workers in October if he doesn’t reach the target. But such savings are very difficult to win from the city’s powerful labor unions.
The education budget also illustrates the risk. The mayor said the Department of Education’s $23 billion budget had been cut by $400 million from his previous proposals. The state has threatened to reduce aid to the city schools by almost $3 billion if additional federal aid does not appear.
The mayor has made it clear he is counting on either additional federal aid or authorization to borrow money to reduce the cuts in Tuesday’s budget.
Doing so would merely delay the problem since such aid would only last for a year or two, when tax revenue and the economy are likely to be depressed for several years, economists say.
This week James Parrott, an economist at the New School, estimated that despite reopening its economy the city could see 600,000 fewer jobs at the end of the year compared to February. Other official forecasts don’t see a full recovery until 2024.
“The mayor and the City Council haven’t done enough to cut recurring spending,” said Andrew Rein, president of the Citizens Budget Commission. “The crisis is far from over.”