Mayor Eric Adams and the New York City Council are in a classic battle of political wills over the best way to cut the budget and close a projected multibillion-dollar funding gap, without hurting poor and low-income families.
While budget battles are an annual rite in big city government, the fight in New York is different this time. The City Council comes to the table with an outer borough mandate at the same time New York faces a stubborn downturn in employment, tourism and tax revenue.
The same coalition that brought Eric Adams to power – voters from the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, outside the traditional city power centers – also elected a City Council for the first time that looks like our racially and ethnically diverse boroughs.
Under Speaker Adrienne Adams, expect the City Council to be a bulwark against budget cuts that unfairly fall on the backs of New Yorkers most battered by inflation and dependent on city services. Indeed, earlier this year the City Council called on the mayor to reverse $215 million in school cuts to reflect lower enrollment. Look for a similar response to across-the-board budget cuts that likely will be on the table as the Adams administration confronts a projected $3 billion budget shortfall next year, particularly any cuts in building and health inspections.
Another reason to resist arbitrary, across the board budget cuts is the disproportionate impact they have on poor communities while typically sparing police and fire departments.
The Council should also resist reductions in low-income housing, which would be counterproductive in the face of the city’s housing affordability crisis.
Pink slips define the front line of the battle between the City Council and Adams’ administration. The budget’s bottom line largely plays out in the number of job vacancies the mayor keeps on the books but has no plans to fill, and how many openings are eliminated outright. Service delivery, equity and fairness often turn on how many city workers are dispatched to the neighborhoods where the majority of New Yorkers live.
A recent report by the State Comptroller illustrates how head count matters. Before the Covid pandemic, the city’s work force peaked at 300,400 full-time employees. That number has since dropped 6.4 percent to 281,333 through August 2022. That recent decline is larger than the 4.7 percent loss of workers between fiscal years 2008 and 2012 following the Great Recession.
The municipal work force is already depleted, and the loss of the last two years isn’t equally distributed across city government. Of the city’s 37 largest agencies, each employing more than 250 workers, 11 agencies saw a decline that was twice the citywide average of 6.4 percent, and even higher in some cases, the comptroller’s report said.
The tension over how best to slice the economic pie does not mean condemning or demonizing the mayor. Quite the contrary – the City Council’s role is democracy at work, and for the first time, voters from New York City’s outer boroughs played an oversized role in electing both the executive and legislative branches.
That new accountability to voters of color promises to expose a fundamental truism of New York City governance: Politics often forces elected leaders to choose between doing the right thing and doing the expedient thing for the right reasons. The demands of the office can co-opt core beliefs to damaging effect.
During the Koch and Giuliani administrations, when budget cuts disproportionately fell on the poor and minority neighborhoods, the service cuts generated a muted objection from the City Council. In the end, the voters were forgotten as politics and partisan loyalties overruled moral principle.
The cycle reached a breaking point when Bill de Blasio ran for mayor on the promise of addressing soaring income inequality, an increasingly unaffordable cost of living and the largest homeless population since the Great Depression. De Blasio’s landslide election with support from Black and Latinx majorities, in many ways, represented a backlash against the failures of the “permanent government” of real estate developers and Wall Street titans.
De Blasio’s broken promises played a part in the elections of the current City Council and Eric Adams, whose appointees include a historic number of women and people of color. Voters seemed to be calling for City Hall to move beyond past symbolic gestures and to get to work on improving the quality of life in the boroughs that were previously taken for granted.
Adams, who came to office as arguably the most powerful New York City chief executive in years, now has an ascendant equal partner in the City Council. Together, they are well equipped to address the ongoing housing, jobs and public safety crisis.
David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.