In general, city government is too intrusive, and yet manages to fall short in upholding a number of its basic responsibilities. The average resident is hurt by its meddling and simultaneous neglect. I want to stop the unchecked growth of wasteful and corrupt bureaucracy, and strengthen the working professionals who do the real front-line jobs serving the people. The following are a set of issues which I believe can create the greatest gains for the average resident’s freedom, safety, finances, and general quality of life. I stand firm by the basic positions in the headings, but I am also realistic and open to adjusting how best to achieve things when new data and ideas come our way.
More Transparency and Active Notification in Government.
All lasting improvement in a city this large and complex must start with transparency. Elected officials and those appointed must be watched vigilantly, as they are constantly bombarded with temptations and incentives to cut deals and misuse power. No other measure to improve the city can be done securely if the press and the people at large does not sufficiently scrutinize the workings of government, especially its management of budgets and use of contracts. There is more information out there, thanks to technology, but these tools remained unused by the vast majority of residents. My proposals:
“A walk with the councilman.”
I plan to hold regular walking tours around the district, at least once a month if not more often. The public would invited to convene at a designated starting point for a brief 3-5 minute summary about the big news in the district and from city hall. We would then break into informal discussion as we commence walking at a comfortable pace on a circuit route through the area. This is to promote not only physical exercise, but also civic awareness and neighborliness. Additionally, residents throughout the district gain a better understanding and appreciation of the different neighborhoods served. The public would be encouraged to come up to me directly to ask questions or voice concerns. I’m amazed at how many residents don’t even know who their council representatives are, let alone what they do. I believe that positive outreach like this will be key to encouraging the kind of unified and engaged civic culture needed to tackle the city’s bigger problems.
Thorough investigation into systemic corruption
Especially in light of recent city and state level indictments, the Department of Investigation (perhaps with the help of specialized independent auditors where necessary) must be empowered to begin a full investigation of spending, contract awards, hiring practices, and enforcement duties across every city agency and elected office. This will take years to complete, but even public awareness of its commencement will begin to promote better governance.
Clamp down on abuse of “no-bid” contracts.
With the exception of emergency and certain very low cost expenditures, (which should be vetted by standards of appropriateness within 1 year through an open Council hearing and independent budget audit,) all contracts should be fulfilled by competitive solicitation. In order to boost the local economy, bids could in some cases be limited to NY State or NYC firms. No-bid contracts have been called out by city officials as a major source of waste and corruption but few have taken any substantive measures to stop it.
Investigate all Local Development Corporations, and require total public visibility and accountability to the City Council.
Hundreds of millions of dollars – rising to billions once accounting to tax breaks and land deals – are funneled to large developers to the detriment of tax payers. The largest, the NYCEDC, has been declared to have engaged – by itself and through other LDCs – in illegal lobbying of NYC government using taxpayer money, and continues to circumvent the law under the thinnest of technicalities. After spending exorbitant sums, many of these projects force out small businesses and the people they employ as well as force the city to pay vast extra sums for infrastructure changes that neutralize the promised, but rarely guaranteed benefits. Given their private, quasi-governmental status, LDCs must be completely visible to the public. Given their unique privileges to circumvent contract procedures and land use, they must answer to the law making body that controls these laws and procedures.
Whistleblower reporting service
We need an anonymity-optional whistleblower forum with all content digitally viewable by anyone who signs up for an account. The information in these archives would be available to the press and the public at large in order to undertake independent investigation, and alert authorities as necessary. This content should be unfiltered, (as long as it does not include spam, advertisements, or breach of personal privacy) with the standard “Leaving NYC.gov” web-redirect disclaimer.
Active Notification System
There must be a requirement that every city agency make available, to any city resident requesting, active notification of any and all public memoranda, calendars, press releases, upcoming hearings, and budget reports from that agency. The format of notification would be either digital or postal mail. If digital, options should include e-mail, text message, RSS, and all free major social media. If postal, letters must be postmarked within 24 hours of general public announcement.
Video archives should be made available of any and all government entity covered by the state’s Open Meetings Law. These should reside online, catalogued and meta-tagged by issue, committee, and all private entities involved. Hard copies should be available in public libraries for loan system-wide.
Put Education Back into the Hands of Teachers and Parents.
All politicians have an opinion on education, because they have either been to school themselves, or at least know someone who has. In 2002, Mayor Bloomberg wrested control of the NYC school system from the prior Board of Education through the NY State legislature. He abolished the community school boards and renamed the board the “Panel for Education Policy.” By all accounts, the policies enacted since have been an utter failure. Illogical and socially destructive school closures, clueless political appointments, sham “grading” policies, and an uptick in school violence have and continue to devastate the education for the children of New York, and their parents who want their children to have greater opportunities. As a former school teacher who was raised by a school teacher, I am acutely sensitive to this issue. What I’d like to see:
Candid admission about what’s really happening in schools.
Fundamentally, The Bloomberg-spun NYC Department of Education is labeling cancer as a headache and wondering why the aspirin doesn’t work. Rising school violence, wildly inaccurate teacher evaluation systems, lackluster on time graduation rates, an overwhelming majority of college entrants needing remedial courses, and 40% teacher attrition in the first 3 years are stubborn facts which politicians cannot explain away or spin into a lucrative contract for some campaign donor. These are real issues hurting the public that are routinely ignored.
Stop scapegoating teachers for what they cannot possibly control.
The mainstream media and politicians alike have been perpetrating a nation-wide attack on teachers for years (especially in major urban areas). Underlying this is an impossible demand that a teacher – in the space of a few hours in a large group for barely half the days in year – fix the entrenched problems of domestic neglect, poverty, social dysfunction, and a bad school system a child has endured for years before even being assigned to him or her. The gold standard by which to measure the complex task of education is reduced to 3 or 4 hours in front of a few multiple choice exams.
The media never tires of magnifying the misdeeds of few sour apple teachers into a criticism of the whole profession. Disturbing blows are levied at teachers for many of their contractual rights: due process hearings, pensions, health care, and basic workplace safety. No other municipal union is subject to this degree of public ire or demand. When crime intensifies, we ask for more police empowerment and involvement. When fires spread, we want more firefighters. When public health worsens, we clamor for more healthcare workers. Quite the opposite is happening with teaching: efforts are made to punish teachers, decrease instruction time in favor of prep for onerous testing, overcrowd their classes, revoke school funding, and excess their ranks. I am amazed that there people still think the profession is worth pursuing in this city.
Teachers should have a manageable student load, reasonably achievable goals, an end to worthless metrics, and professional respect. “Value added” is no measure of quality: the group of students a teacher has from is entirely unpredictable from one year to the next. Like other professionals, teachers should be judged on quantifiable aspects of the service they deliver, or the formative assessment of demonstrated veterans – not how students churn out test prep training on one (un)lucky day on a test. Tenure must be protected to ensure that teachers have a reasonable guarantee of long term career viability, so that they stay on long enough to gain expertise in their craft. Teacher evaluations should be constructive and designed to help teachers improve, not an inquisitorial trap to drive down their morale.
Reduce non-instructional bloat.
The stated mission of the NYC Dept. of Education is: “to create a school that provides the highest quality of educational services and opportunities to all students and personnel.” Unfortunately, a hiring freeze is still in place, teachers have gone 4 years without a renewed contract, $1 billion was spent on consultants last year, and the mayor’s office has already forecast cuts to programs in the coming year. Until costs and revenue can be better managed, we need to allocate more smartly the money we have in order to improve outcomes for as many students as we can.
Two real-world metrics that we can use to analyze how effectively the city manages the education budget are median faculty:student ratio and cost per front line staff (FLS). FLS refers to the employees who work directly with children. This group includes teachers, special educators, paraprofessionals, guidance counselors, nurses/psychologists, and social workers. I believe these metrics work together. Faculty:student ratio measures the over or under allocation of workers providing the actual service of education. The second as I will demonstrate below, describes the overhead of a school. The percent difference between the number you get from using the total budget of a school per FLS versus the money for FLS salaries per FLS, is a fairly good estimate of the percent of money not spent serving children. Of course, replacing books and materials means that this number will never reach zero, but I believe it can be reduced markedly.
I emphasize: these metrics do not necessarily determine school or teacher quality. They merely identify efficient spending. Both good schools and bad schools can each be good and bad spenders. I’m not a big fan of using “cost per pupil” on a school by school basis, because it is deceptive when dealing with an outrageously wasteful but small budget, or an overcrowded school. It also does not take teachers into account, which is the main line item in any school’s spending.
The following example demonstrates these metrics in action.
Forest Hills High School (FHHS) is a relatively average performing school on the NY State performance index. It received an “A” from the city, which is nice for the press releases, but effectively means nothing because of how wildly the city ranks can fluctuate. Personally, I think it’s a decent school that does good for our community. Let’s have a closer look at FHHS’s 2012 budget:
Position Amount employees $ per employee Admin $1,215,364 11 $110,487 Secretarial $454,073 8 $56,759 Teachers $14,256,939 191 $74,643 Special Ed. $404,991 6 $67,498 Guidance / Social $1,218,115 13 $93,701 Psych $204,521 3 $68,173 Paras $614,048 17 $36,120 Part time / Other / Support $1,801,397 5 N/A Supplies / Equip. / Reserve $547,273 1 N/A GRAND TOTAL $20,775,696 255 $81,473
A number of things are wrong with this picture. Looking at the whole budget for all salaries (ie, subtracting monies for books, equipment, infrastructure, etc), the cost per FLS is $88,936. But, if we look at just the money allocated for paying the FLS salaries, the average is $73,634. In other words, about 17% of the money is being used to pay salaries to people with no responsibilities to serve children directly. Almost 10% of the whole budget is spent on part time / support, which though helpful, do not put in full time service with kids and probably raise the overhead to almost 20%
There are reportedly 3834 students enrolled, which means each teacher should have roughly a mean of 20 students per class. That is not however, how FHHS classes typically break down. The Detailed District Level Summary (Excel file) reveals that core classes in English, math (aside from the usually “remedial” level A), science, and most social studies classes in fact have 30 – 32 students. Special education classes, with only 6 full-time instructors, mostly fall between 13 – 15 students. The average cost per student at FHHS is $5,418 appears to be a good value at the surface, but is only achievable by overcrowding the general ed population.
FHHS is by many accounts an okay school but the waste and imbalances in class enrollment forebode trouble, especially since discretionary spending is not looking good for Queens. FHHS’ finances should be better managed for the sake of both students and the front-line faculty who serve them. In order to improve quality instruction time, the budget could be reallocated to hire a few more teachers, with special education curricula better streamlined, perhaps in coordination other schools, to correct imbalances in class sizes. 20 students per class may be an unreachable ideal, but it could be approached.
Some of the worst of the city’s mismanagement can be seen in Jamaica High School (JHS). For 2 consecutive years it received a “D” and is now in the process of being “phased out,” as it slowly dwindles down in size. Further bureaucratic shuffling will not fix the underlying problems the faulty system abetted in the first place. Small schools are proportionally top-heavy and wasteful. JHS currently has 564 students during this slow, painful “phase out,” with a 13:1 student:FLS ratio. Currently, the average cost per pupil is $9712 – almost twice that of FHHS. Looking at JHS whole budget, cost per FLS is $124,494 – almost 40% higher than FHHS. Calculating cost per FLS from the money allocated to such salaries, cost per FLS is $83,899 – almost 14% higher. At JHS, About 30% of the salary money goes to staff not directly serving students.
Bottom line: schools are unnecessarily expensive because of too-large bureaucracies that don’t actually work with kids. Those who do are often dealing with too-large class sizes. The kids get a watered down education, the teachers burn out, and the bureaucrats pat themselves on the back for “cutting costs” and looking tough. We should be reconsidering the larger comprehensive high schools of decades past that consolidate administrative costs.
Bring back reasonable academic expectations.
Not every child is ready or receives sufficient support outside of the classroom to manage a college preparatory arc through school. We are setting up legions of children up for failure by requiring them to satisfy a regents diploma. The current 65% on-time graduation rate is in this city is still well below average, and is artificially propped up even that high by efforts like shady credit equivalency schemes. Technical and career tracks need to be retooled and made more widely available. Currently, the general and career track graduation requirements vary very little. By giving students the entry level job training and certification they need within a comprehensive high school, we increase their chances of success, purposeful achievement, and gainful employment. We spare them the difficulty of scraping together money or going into debt in order to attend a technical school after graduation. We can also focus our efforts better in the classroom to give children in every track more targeted and meaningful instruction.
Move away from Charter schools in favor of multiple enrollment choices for parents.
For many reasons, sometimes very subtle, a child may not be a good fit for his or her school. Allowing parents to enroll their children in a few other schools nearby gives an alternative both to the child and his or her family from the arbitrary impasse of school zoning, and to the teachers/principles who recognize that the child will thrive in another environment. School quality affects property values, of course, and those who live in a district would still entitled to priority seating. Those schools with open seats could accept students from neighboring zones, pending their own budget and space decisions. This alternative is not perfect, but it empowers directly the people with the greatest educational interest in children: the parents. By its own standards of measurement, the charter school system has largely failed to produce the promised results. Mayoral control has authorized chopping up public school buildings in order to give them space, and excessed fully qualified, seasoned teachers in lieu of rookie, less well-vetted staff. The charter system has reduced educational equity through its “lottery” system and special privileges of student selectivity. It routinely dumps, at its whim, children deemed unfit back the public system. It has also increased opportunities for conflict-of-interest cronyism.
Remove serially violent children from the general classroom.
Schools are responsible for providing a safe learning environment for all. Many children will occasionally have an outburst accompanied by unacceptable physical aggression, which school staff members are trained to defuse. Each child is unique, and each situation deserves special consideration. Sometimes a safe time-out space is the best option. For more intractable cases, another general education setting is needed (and can be achieved through parent-based school choice as mentioned in my ideas on education). Serially violent children however, are those for whom most schools’ disciplinary policies have failed at every level of severity. Most of the major disciplinary problems in schools can be traced back to a small fraction of the student body. Some children will thrive once moved to a school specializing in behavioral and other psychological problems. Some may even be fit to return to the general education environment after the natural changes of maturation improve social awareness and mental health. Others will not, however, and will need continued close attention from specialists to give them the best chance at leading a normal life. Removal from the general education population of severely troubled students is both in the interest of their own well-being, and safeguards the rights of the other 95% of the children to a safe learning environment. This is a sensitive issue which deserves further clarification in education policy. Current approaches, either too lax or too severe, continue to imperil all children.
Clamp Down on Waste and Fraud in the City Budget.
NYC is home to 8.2 million, with 18.9 million people in the greater metropolitan area by census figures. This is about 6% of the US population. About 51 million people visited the city in 2011. Obviously, significant administrative spending is needed to keep things running. But more is not always better, and the city has been throwing around money very recklessly.
First, a basic lesson from our fellow fact-finders at the IBO:
60% comes from taxes, which we all pay. You may not think that you pay property taxes or business taxes. But why else are prices for the identical goods and services you buy in New York are so much higher than in even nearby townships? Business owners and landlords must pass these on to you, the consumer, if they’re going to continue to operate. There is no free lunch in this interconnected system.
The 30% from higher government funding is mostly beyond the scope of the city to manage. Much of it is probably already earmarked for education, Medicaid, criminal justice, and other state and federal services carried out within the five boroughs. Whether it is being used effectively is another story.
What are “Other Non-Tax Revenues,” you might ask? Investment returns from the pension fund? Decommissioned property? Parking tickets was my first guess. Actually, the bulk of it comes from intra-city revenue, license and franchise fees, water & sewer, charged services, and yes, parking tickets (i.e. “fines and forfeitures”).
Clearly, we need workers in fire, police, corrections, sanitation, environment, education, and transit. Whether this money is being used efficiently within the agencies is another story.
What should be concerning you is that education eats up 30% of the operating budget while schools have steadily grown worse by any outside measure. (I discuss education exclusively as a major platform issue below.) The vague “social services” take almost 20% of the budget. What are these social services exactly? The IBO broke it down for me: HRA, ACS, Dept. of Homeless Services, Dept. of Youth and Community Development, and Dept. for the Aging.
There is also the capital budget, not included above. The capital budget is currently funded by city debt, payments on which will double in 10 years at the current rate. Essentially, if an expense is a “physical public improvement” costing $35,000 or more with a “useful life” of 5 or more years, it qualifies for coverage under the capital budget, not the main operating budget above. Here is the latest allocation, averaging $9.6 billion a year:
It is mathematically impossible for the city to continue on its current course over the long-term. Costs are in an unsustainable rate of growth. Here are some sobering realities as reported by the IBO:
- Debt service (the city paying off its bonds) is projected to rise steadily at 7% through 2016.
- The average increase in the capital budget since 2002 has been 6.2% per year. This is all borrowed money.
- Benefits for city employees is projected to rise steadily at 7.2% through 2016. Pension costs that you see above and in years to come have already been obligated by contracts from years ago.
- Many of the city workers (Police, teachers, school admin, fire, sanitation) have not had their contracts renegotiated. In addition to a higher salary scale, there may be retroactive pay raises to account for lost income due to inflation. None of this is reflected in the current budget.
These numbers do not take into account that the city may fail to receive state and federal aid for various funding, present or future. We’ve already seen such failures happen. They assume that unemployment will continue to fall at a certain speed, even though the well-respected CBO has cast doubt. They assume that long-term interest rates will continue to stay at their historic lows, which is true for the short term, but not permanent. We are already seeing the effects of the budgetary squeeze, such as rising school lunch prices, heightened parking fees, lay-offs of healthcare workers.
These fiscal issues are deep, and not easy to separate. Clearly, we cannot continue on the current path forever, and it is better to make changes when they can be eased in incrementally. I have a few suggestions which I am open-minded to reconsider as needed. When the facts change, so should our approach.
Stop most no-bid contracts except for emergency services.
As mentioned above, all city contracts should be fulfilled by RFP or some other open bidding process. In order to boost the local economy, bids could in some cases be limited to NY State or NYC firms. No-bid contracts have been cited as a major source of waste and corruption but few have taken any substantive measures to stop it. We could potentially close the current budget gap on the savings from competitive bidding alone.
Dramatically ramp up efforts to crack down on budget mismanagement.
City government aid programs outrageously overspend. Of those agencies that post a breakdown of their expenditures, roughly 20% is pure employee overhead, not including their pensions. NYCHA is one particularly stark example. Its total 2012 Federal funding was $3 billion. Its capital budget adds about another $500 million annually (omitting the cost of healthcare and pensions.) With about 175,000 apartments under its thumb, NYCHA’s expenses come out to over $20,000 a year per apartment, above average market rate for most apartments outside of Manhattan – it is even higher, as they aren’t subject to property tax. Even though it is still running a deficit, and is begging for more money, NYCHA’s chairman still had the nerve or the ignorance to describe the agency as an “economic engine“. Another example is the Department of Education. With $24 billion in operating revenue and billions more for pensions and healthcare, the 1,100,000 students are served at an average cost of over $22,000 per pupil. This may also not include additional state or federal grants. $1 billion alone is spent on no-bid contracts. As mentioned above in transparency but is worth repeating, all local development corporations, including the NYCEDC, must be fully investigated, open to public scrutiny, and accountable to the City Council. After being caught illegally lobbying, affecting billions of dollars worth of giveaways to large developers, virtually nothing has been done to curtail or monitor these entities. There are dramatic savings to be realized if the city muster a sustained investigation and deliver real financial enforcement.
Slowly increase pension contributions for municipal workers or require longer service.
To my heroes in the law enforcement, NYFD, teachers, transit, and elsewhere: I mean no disrespect. I’m trying to make sure your lines of work remain viable for the present and future, a future not held hostage to budget cuts and public smear campaigns that ruin careers and pressure your best to leave an untenable work environment. We need you to pitch in a little bit more to continue offering you the protection you deserve. I realize that some of these jobs require a physical hardiness that decreases with age. The solution for one agency may not be the same as another. Even members within each profession may have widely different capacities. It may therefore be effective to offer an array of options, where each member could perhaps choose to contribute more from the regular paycheck with the option to continue to retire earlier, or instead stay on the job longer while making lower contributions. In return, unions should be allowed much more power in policing their own members, and to create a track of professionalism for those with job longevity. Managerial and mentoring positions should be pulled from experienced lower ranks directly – not unskilled appointees from higher up with political connections. Also, allow unions to determine eligibility requirements for membership, and give the union a chance to restructure its overall budget internally to avoid lay-offs if it can negotiate certain measurable benchmarks with the city. It’s about time the city live up to its claim of respecting public professionalism.
Raise the threshold for capital budget spending.
The capital budget is a clever way to mask costs from the public by not hitting the taxpayer directly, by instead cutting other services they receive. For the operating budget, of course, must cover the debt incurred to create the capital budget. It is a classic “pay more, get less” shell game. Large capital projects may be best financed by debt, but $35,000 is too low a threshold, and increases the likelihood of wasteful pork spending on innumerable small outlays. “Useful life” is an exceedingly vague term, and should be better defined along categorical lines. There are other troubling issues with the capital budget as it stands. The uncommitted funds are often rolled over, which means that more tax money is wasted on paying interest for funds not even used. Furthermore, 5% of the discretionary part goes to the projects of the borough presidents, without question, by law. As is, the capital budget is overused, and adds unnecessary obfuscation, waste, and opportunities for graft to the city’s finances.
Stop the Ruinous Overdevelopment
Queens needs to strike a better balance between the real estate magnates pushing for new development and the preservation of its history / residents’ rights. Currently, I believe the pendulum is swung far too severely to large scale development. Developers have for years effectively lobbied at many levels of city government to change zoning in Queens in order to make their profit in up and coming neighborhoods at the expense of the long time residents who helped build the character and economy which made these neighborhoods attractive in the first place. At the same time, Queens is becoming increasingly unaffordable for the many working people who call it home. The illegal conversions that have arisen to serve as the pressure release valve is not an acceptable way to cope with this problem.
Of all development issues, the one affecting New Yorkers most ubiquitously is finding adequate and affordable housing. Underlying the problem is a fairly simple issue of supply and demand. But a “simple” problem isn’t necessarily “easy.” The available stock has been obstructed from rising to meet the demand for several reasons, some of which are very entrenched and would not be not easy to overturn, nor should they in many cases. Rent in this city is stifling. Queens, once a bastion for those who would trade for a longer commute to save money, has seen steadily increasing rents over the years. It is a growing problem ignored for far too long.
We must not however, simply relax all building restrictions across the board. That would lead to overcrowding and all the attendant public health and safety problems. It would also unfairly punish current owners, and decimate communities. I believe the best forward is to work out the problem gradually, block by block. In order to protect the rights and well-being of residents and the acknowledge the reasonable need for developers in a dynamic city, I suggest the following measures.
Prioritize landmark status approvals for underrepresented neighborhoods
The stated mission of the Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) is:
- Safeguard the city’s historic, aesthetic, and cultural heritage.
- Help stabilize and improve property values in historic districts.
- Encourage civic pride in the beauty and accomplishments of the past.
- Protect and enhance the city’s attractions for tourists.
- Strengthen the city’s economy.
- Promote the use of landmarks for the education, pleasure, and welfare of the people of New York City.
Manhattan has benefitted disproportionally from the commission’s focus and attention. Elected officials have lauded the Aqueduct race track, casinos, a soccer stadium, and other sorts of destructive development in the name of bringing jobs through increased “tourism.” Job creation is a good thing, but those who do come out to these out of place new-fangled attractions are largely spending within the venue itself, which mostly benefits the developer, not the neighborhood it mutilates. For much less money and in keeping with fair treatment under the law, Queens could encourage the kind of tourism genuinely helpful to the small business community that powers this city if it had a more active tourism agency powered by an LPC that works to preserve its history and culture.
Rezone and expand residential building permits incrementally in low-density areas, with input from the community.
Expanding the housing stock must be done on a case by case basis; each block and building is unique. City Council members should be holding regular town hall meetings across their district to solicit both ideas for new housing and petitions for areas to better protect, from civic associations, individuals, and preservation groups. These meetings could form the core of zoning changes brought to the City Council floor.
Set guidelines and require regularly updated use studies on roads, utilities, environmental impact, and public services for quantifying determination of where to allow for new zoning
All developers love to talk about the trickle-down economic benefits their projects will bring to the city. Few however, want to talk about the costs imposed on the community. Across from my co-op, for example, is a construction site for a future 21 story hotel in what was once an empty lot. Most of the pre-existing buildings are under 10 stories. A bus route runs directly up the street. Only 41 new parking spots will be created on the premises, and the proprietor is reportedly planning on valet street parking. New development bears significant costs on 3rd parties. In order to deal with inevitable clashes between developers and residents, I submit for your consideration the tweeding tort.
Enact the “Tweeding tort”
Though new construction may have an overriding social good, there must be justice in addressing the potential loss of value to home owners who purchased under a market driven up by artificial scarcity. Renters too, who signed long contracts under higher prices lose out as well. These people worked hard and played by the rules for a chance to compete in a dysfunctional market. A solution to the problem needs to compensate them justly. Developers should be held to pay current home and business owners, as well as long term renters for harming their property values.
The “Tweeding Tort” is a financial liability. Basically, any construction requiring a zoning variance, (not just housing) over a certain size would be subject to legal review for the loss (or stalled growth) of value it causes within a certain radius before the developer can receive a construction permit from the city. It would work something like this: The developer would be required to lay out some amount of money to have a real estate survey conducted by a consulting agent or firm, which the Community Board selects by majority vote. If more than one Community Board is affected, their votes will be weighted as a fraction of the residents represented in the affected radius. A signed petition of some number of homeowners in the district, (perhaps 500 or 1000) could veto any particular nominated agent. Negative or stagnating effects on property values over the time of construction plus 5 years from the date of completion would have to be compensated to homeowners. Renters could re-coup their percentage on the time in their lease remaining from the date construction begins. All points of community development (construction nuisance, increasing housing supply, air quality, noise level, traffic effects, school overcrowding, loss or increased use of neighborhood amenities, etc.) are subject to the estimation. The liability would be calculated on the median property value, with that percent then applied to all properties across the board. Those with higher priced properties who expect a larger loss are free to appeal their settlement for a larger one on their own. If the developer does not have this money up front, he or she will have to obtain an insurance bond.
Developers, I acknowledge your part in city improvement: If the property values do not drop or stagnate, or actually increase to the betterment of what the survey found, the developer could then receive back that portion of the suit in a temporary tax abatement plus interest for lost time value. I welcome suggestions on further ways to refine or changes the details of this process.
Parkland is precious, and deserves special protection: no private development.
Private development in parks should be strictly prohibited. Contiguous open green space is vital to the health of the residents in a city as big as New York. It is a place where all business should be tightly regulated with permits, in a controlled amount and for limited leases, first come first served, no exemptions. Parkland cannot simply be “replaced” square foot for square foot somewhere else in the city when private developers come in. The natural environments of parks can take over a century to reach their maximum public benefit and beauty. 240 isolated square blocks of park would not in any way provide the same benefit as Central Park in its entirety, and the same goes for Flushing Meadows Corona Park, and all others around the city. Politicians have no business brokering out irreplaceable parkland to the highest, or most connected bidder. Fresh air in freely roam-able space should be non-negotiable, a concept perhaps not much understood by those in office with more subterranean values.
Equitable Treatment for Small Businesses and Their Employees.
From the artificial limit on taxi-cab medallions that shut out hopeful drivers, to the required size of the window on the 2nd floor of a daycare facility, to citations for poppy seeds on the floor in the bagel shop, the intrusion of regulation is overwhelming. These innumerable obstacles make it difficult to start a business, and thereby cost the city in tax revenue. They foster expensive insurance to cover frivolous predatory lawsuits, and ultimately transfer costs to many people unable to afford them. This unsettling mix with subsidies for favored companies also pave the way for corruption, as this borough knew all too well under the reign of Donald Manes. Perhaps most harmed are the many New Yorkers who have been out of work due to economic hardship and cannot find suitable employers willing to hire.
One city-tax-free year for new businesses, and a periodic tax-free year for all small businesses.
I know firsthand that starting and running a small business in this city is hard work, and comes with tremendous risk. Local business owners of New York, I tip my hat to you in respect and thanks for the role you play in drawing people from all over the world to this city’s shores. Most new businesses fail however, usually in the first year. The current economic climate does not help. To encourage the kind of entrepreneurship that keeps the economic engine of New York humming, I will push for all new businesses to be released from their city tax obligation in that precarious first year. Furthermore, I wish to extend to all businesses with a revenue under a certain amount (to be determined – there should be a smooth decline, perhaps maxing out at $10 million) a tax free year on a regular basis (to be determined – perhaps every 15 years). The proprietors themselves would have the choice of when to exercise the tax-free year within the period, and would be allowed to apply it retroactively to a later year’s tax return. Business income tax accounts for only 7% of city revenue. A loss of 1/15th of that would not impact the budget much, but at a business owner’s discretion, it would be the difference between the survival or failure of a company, and the loss of preservation of economic livelihood for workers. The increased tax revenue from keeping people employed and businesses running, (not to mention the reduced strain on the city’s social services for the unemployed,) would more than make up for the small loss. This small concession from the Department of Finance could be tremendous for our small business community.
Put the burden of the Living Wage on NYC.
The “Living Wage” bill is a proposal for a minimum wage above and beyond what NY State and the federal government require. Owing to various interconnected issues, a “living wage” in NYC is certainly higher than in much of the rest of the country, by almost any standard of measurement. But in a troubled economy, many of those fortunate enough to have employment will find their own livelihood at risk if the city’s small business engine is strained to pay higher wages and potentially lay off workers it cannot afford after coping with short run cost increases and declining sales for costs passed along to the consumer. There is a way to balance this need with a “living wage” that protects all. A more sensible solution would be to allow all businesses a city tax break equal to the entire portion of the wages they would pay for any new “living wage” above the NY State’s minimum. Workers would receive better compensation, small businesses will continue unaffected, and the burden will fall to the larger, wealthier forms of industry. City revenue shortfalls should be taken directly from windfall city subsidies to big developers and businesses – the NYCEDC is a good place to start.
Warning, not a fine, for a first time citation.
Too many new businesses owners learn, often in the harshest of ways, about the byzantine regulations governing their livelihood through penalty. I propose that unless there is a past, pending, or resulting private suit against a business for missteps in abiding by a city regulation, that first offenses should result only in a warning. The citation would be issued, and kept on record. Continued infractions would of course warrant the stated penalty. All violations which bear a clear and present public safety threat should however, result in the usual penalty.
Clean up Queens.
Literally. Although there are many beautiful places in this borough, others are an embarrassment. See the photos below.
There is a well-documented correlation between the worsening physical condition of NYC neighborhoods and attendant crime rates. Addressing dirty, broken streets and ill-kept public plazas was once a City Council issue, but many residents will tell you that not enough has been done. Increased fines require catching the violator, which is not easy and side-steps fixing the problem at its root: encouraging better behavior by heightening the perception of what is publicly expected. Raising the public expectation comes from setting the example, by taking regular positive action to keep our neighborhoods clean and recruiting others in the effort. Here’s what we can do:
Use the community’s help.
Current graffiti and trash reporting systems are too rigid and lengthy to use, and it discourages the benefits crowd-sourcing. I want to create a simple online, mobile phone friendly reporting service at the City Council website with an interactive map and geolocation so residents can drop notifications for the Council and the public about excessive trash, graffiti, broken signs, and other mess or decay in need of attention. Those without online access would be encouraged to call council offices directly. The data would be viewable at any time, and the highest clusters submitted in a weekly report to the Dept. of Sanitation, Transportation, and Citywide Administrative Services.
Make the issue public.
I plan to organize regular “neighborhood cleanup” events. I believe people fundamentally care about their neighborhoods. Once a few take the decision to get actively involved, the next most likely are inspired to join. Once they join, it encourages a few slightly less likely, and so on in a positive feedback loop. Where the city falls short, my office will pick up. To put together money for the basic supplies, local businesses could donate to receive ad space in a Councilmanic bulletin. I will meet with the principals of all public schools in and around the district about ways to involve the youth in beautification related community service projects. Landscapers, contractors, plumbers, and anyone else with heavy duty transport to spare will be solicited for help in pickup. The most diligent by category will be honored with a councilperson’s award.
Step up enforcement.
Lastly, the Departments of Sanitation and Land Use Committees have the power to issue citations to the worst offenders, who continually make life unpleasant for their neighbors despite the best attempts at improvement. We do not need more fines, just better enforcement. I will publicize this issue continually, with evidence, until the top brass steps up their response.
The Police Are Trying to Safeguard Our Neighborhoods: Work with Them.
For a city of this size, the police have made tremendous strides in keeping us safe.The last 11 years saw a collective drop of over 42% in major felonies. Some people have pointed to upticks in 2012 related to thefts, but murders still managed to drop to an all-time low. I remember years ago in the mid-90s receiving early dismissal on Halloween when attending high school, because gang initiates were known to prowl the streets for ritual victims. Kids who stayed out after dark, even on the weekends, were usually those your parents told you to stay away from in school – for good reason. Nowadays, good people from all walks of life can enjoy much of the city well into the night without undue fear. To have come so far in such a short time is a testament to the heroic efforts of the NYPD.
But there is still work to be done, and the relative safety we have enjoyed now has bred a measure of complacency that at times threatens to reverse the progress. New York’s Finest have been wrongly criticized for decisions and policies beyond their control. Worse though, is when people living in safer neighborhoods and elected representatives help disseminate a fear and hatred of the police in the communities most in need of them. As the son of a law enforcement officer, I feel fortunate to have grown up in relative safety while still developing respect for the vital role played by the police. I want to see all residents reap the positive outcomes of the last 20 years.
Collectively, south Queens, and parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx have not partaken much in the general reductions of violent crime throughout the city. I want to work to change that.
Mend community relations by working with residents to heighten awareness.
There are so many effective and inexpensive outreach programs that we could try citywide. One example is to distribute postage-paid anonymous reporting cards into residential mailboxes, requesting information about sightings of criminal activity. Even a small response rate from these cards would yield an enormous amount of statistically significant data on which the NYPD could begin surveillance, obtain warrants, and improve patrols. Another approach would be a registry for parents to voluntarily submit a curfew time or off-limits places for children whom they have trouble controlling, with the agreement that if an officer finds their children in parentally disapproved places or out at disapproved hours, the child should be escorted home or to the precinct if home is not an option.
Rebuild the “Thin Blue Line”
There are currently 34,500 uniformed police. But at any given time, only 1/3rd of them will be on duty. Furthermore, of that 1/3rd, a portion of them will be in the station taking care of mandatory paperwork, testifying in court, on surveillance, or involved in other procedures keeping them from working their beat. This is down significantly from over a decade ago. The drop coincided with, strangely enough, a spike in “Stop, Question, and Frisk,” a tactic which has been overused and is no replacement for an adequate police force to protect a growing population. Quite simply, we need more officers. Pressuring a smaller number of officers to use controversial “Stop and Frisk” measures in order to save money is a neglect of responsibility.
Increased undercover work
More officers should be sharing the burden of serving in plainclothes. Despite Gene Hackman glamorizing the job in The French Connection undercover work can be stressful, and fraught with danger. Officers in plainclothes are however, are effective at performing drug busts, black market gun sales, and more recently, targeting the rash of electronics theft.
In addition to the psychological difficulties, the nature of making busts reduces an undercover officer’s effectiveness over time. More officers should be encouraged to spend a brief tour in plain clothes, so that we can decrease burnout and have a higher number on the street to curtail what crime we can, and get close enough to the most insidious offenders to collect the evidence needed for successful conviction.
Clarify “Stop and Frisk” Law and End the Quotas
“Stop and Frisk” is a contentious practice, and we need to better define under what circumstances it can be used constitutionally. Under documentable evidence of budding sinister activity, we want officers to intervene cautiously so as to defuse, not escalate the danger of the situation. This is how they are professionally trained. If we make every innocent street questioning attempt a potential career-ending civil rights crusade, the police will conveniently begin to notice less and respond less to the clear and present indicators of criminal activities. “Stop and Frisk,” used according to legally defined procedure, can lead to more successful arrests shown to reduce crime. Unfortunately, this is not happening. The city is laying off police, and overusing heavy-handed measures like “Stop and Frisk” to compensate.
The city needs effective preventative police work, but police-community relations need to be addressed. 80-90% of people stopped are found completely innocent in any given year. Guns are found only 0.2% of the time. This indicates to me a rampant overuse or misuse of the tactic. The number of “Stop and Frisks” has been ramped up 600% under Bloomberg, who took office after the Giuliani administration had already brought a significant drop to violent crime. I would like to see the NYPD reassess their approach to bring down the number of stops and yield a higher percentage of successful convictions, rather than antagonize innocent citizens who might otherwise actually help them. The purpose of “Stop and Frisk” is to investigate suspicious behavior in order to curtail crime before it occurs, but it is intrusive and open to abuse. We should demand clearly defined criteria and target crime reduction outcomes to justify its continued use. Increased “Stop and Frisk” means the city is not managing its police force well. The dramatic rise of this tactic in the last 12 years did not confer a commensurate benefit. “Stop and Frisk” should be done constitutionally, and in closer connection with other effective tools, such as CompStat reports, more police on the streets, more plainclothes officers, and a wider effort to recruit and act on help from informants.
Expand, Improve, and Upgrade Queens Public Transit.
A great number of Queens public transit riders rely on buses. Bus service has grown steadily worse for residents, with delays, multiple arrivals, and service cutbacks. These add dramatically to residents’ commute time, and physically drain them while they wait in the very cold and hot weather. As someone who used to take city buses for many years, I know how significant a quality-of-life issue this is, and will make it a top priority to seek relief for the community, and NYC at large.
The city has focused intensely on extending the #7 train westward to the Hudson, and even into New Jersey in order to drive up real estate values in areas already well served by trains. The 2nd avenue line, though much needed, still largely serves Manhattan. Meanwhile, great expanses of Queens in no reasonable walking distance to any trains remain unserved. The MTA needs to take a long and hard look at further subway options for Queens.
Better coordinated platooning to reduce pileup.
Currently, especially in Queens near subways, there is a growing problem of long periods where no buses arrive at major stops. Lines will wrap around the block, so thickly sometimes that they create traffic hazards for cars and pedestrians alike. Then 2 or 3 buses will suddenly arrive at once. One, two, or even all 3 of the buses may be virtually empty. This is rife with inefficiency. Buses should be in constant communication with dispatchers. If a bus is running behind, or the following bus is slightly ahead of schedule for some reason, dispatchers should be authorized to order buses to skip stops (unless current riders signal for them) in order to maintain good spacing. In the worst situations, lines which are terribly off schedule should be allowed to switch local buses temporarily to express routes if they are either at a route end point or have no passengers. I welcome other suggestions to better coordinate off-schedule buses.
Subway shuttle routes.
Many, perhaps a majority of daily bus riders use the bus chiefly in order to reach the subway. For those in more remote areas of Queens at the tail end of a bus route (such as Glen Oaks, Richmond Hill, northern Astoria, Howard Beach), the daily commute would be greatly improved if lines existed that would go non-stop along the quickest route possible (even the highway if effective). Current bus scheduling penalizes drivers who reach their destination too quickly. This type of shuttle line should incentivize speed. A shuttle line could also dramatically relieve bus overcrowding, as those who live on closer parts of the route would not need these buses. Currently, the so called “express” buses are a contradiction to the “one city, one fare” policy, and are often not fast enough to be worthwhile to most commuters.
More “Limited” routes for different bus lines.
The “limited” line is a bus that skips many lesser used stops in order to more quickly arrive at the major ones. People have a variety of transportation needs. Some have limited mobility and are glad to wait at local stops if it means less walking. Others need to cover a much further distance as quickly as possible, and don’t mind walking a little further to another stop in order to get faster ride. More limited bus lines give people either option. Like shuttle buses, they can decrease crowding on the regular bus. Limited lines should be permitted to take faster detours at driver discretion, as long as they reach the designated stops. This would improve predictability of bus arrival and even fuel efficiency.
Increased subway service.
Queens commuters will not hesitate to tell you how crowded and uncomfortable the morning commute can be. We need more frequent service in peak hours. A feasibility study should be conducted into the creation of a new subway line to connect the north and south parts of Queens, to further reduce the strain the main lines and promote greater intra-borough commercial activity.
Institute Citywide Youth Involvement Programs
Education does not end in the classroom. The home environment, for example, has been routinely shown in research to have great effect. Not every child will be fortunate enough to receive good home enrichment, but there are a number of ways the city can support alternative opportunities without incurring a great deal of expense. These opportunities can improve not only academic learning, but also foster responsibility, social awareness, and exposure to new learning experiences. Many of these activities could take place over the summer, to bridge that painful gap that reduces learning gains made over the year. Some of them could be done as after-school and/or weekend programs. I would like to work with interested schools to provide community service credit requirements or some alternative academic credit fulfillment options if possible.
Language help for adults with limited-English proficiency.
For many immigrant populations of NYC, there is often a shortage of people available who speak their language that can help them achieve basic English skills needed to live independently. The young English Language learners in our communities are at a critical age where language acquisition is easier, and could be a vital bilingual bridge for adults to gain greater spoken proficiency. I believe the children’s own language learning efforts would be aided through supervised informal social interaction, games, and discussion with older adults. The adults would also be a wonderful resource to help transmit cultural heritage.
Some children with critically useful foreign language abilities may not be able or interested in interacting with adults, but would prefer to provide socially useful translation services of newspapers, community bulletins, and other informal documents. This could be enormously helpful in developing children’s reading comprehension and practical writing skills.
Public art projects.
For those students artistically inclined, I would like to see opportunities available for the creation of murals, holiday card campaigns, social issue printed media, and other large scale projects that bring joy and awareness to the community. These projects may be carried out in schools or community centers, and foster not only creative skill, but also efforts in detailed planning and logistics.
QA Engineering internships.
New York’s booming information technology sector is constantly scrambling for technical talent. For the many smaller firms, one of the roles often sacrificed is Quality Assurance (QA) engineering. Unlike software development and system maintenance, entry level work in these positions does not require a lengthy specialized degree. A student with an analytical mind can be trained how to use custom software, run and validate usability tests, and properly report results by an experienced QA engineer. For older students who are considering technical careers, this would be excellent exposure to the profession. Companies would benefit greatly from the extra inspection by avoiding more software failure and improving customer service.
For those students more socially inclined to work with the peers and interested in education, it would be productive to engage in reading activities. Books chosen would be age-appropriate, but self-selected. Mature older students may be interested in working with younger students.
Children who prefer being outdoors would be a great asset in creating smaller green spaces around the city. With small grants from the Parks Dept., kids would be able to beautify and maintain gardens and trees that are otherwise neglected until the department of transportation or buildings is called in to fix a problem. Community gardens improve quality of life for all residents, and teach children how to take pride in efforts that come to fruition only long after the initial work is done.
- I welcome more ideas for programs, and will update this list as they come my way.