De Blasio Budget Director Gets Praise, Muffins at First Council Hearing

Finance Chair Julissa Ferrera and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito speak at budget hearing

Finance Chair Julissa Ferrera and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito speak at budget hearing

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s budget director appeared in front of the City Council today–but instead of the usual heated grilling, was met with apologetic and thankful council members who celebrated the mayor’s agenda.

They even offered him muffins.

“I love everything you guys are doing,” gushed freshman Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal to Mr. de Blasio’s budget director, Dean Fuleihan, at one point. She brought apple cake muffins for Mr. Fuleihan and her fellow council members (with no refined sugar, her spokeswoman noted to Politicker).

Mr. Fuleihan’s warm reception was due in part to the budget proposed by the new administration. Unlike the proposals of many recent years, which prompted council members and advocates to march on the steps of City Hall, fighting to halt cuts to city agencies and social services, Mr. de Blasio’s preliminary budget is relatively painless.

“The Council no longer has to spend most of its efforts trying to fund programs and services,” the Council’s new Finance Chair Julissa Ferreras remarked. She also commended Mr. Fuleihan for coming prepared with written testimony.

Ms. Ferreras nonetheless acknowledged “many uncertainties” in the plan, including, most notably, unresolved labor contracts with nearly every one of the city’s municipal labor unions, which could cost the city as much as $7 billion to settle, according to some estimates.

In his testimony, Mr. Fuleihan said the administration would fight for savings in city workers’ health care costs, but otherwise refused to discuss how he would fund the retroactive pay hikes many unions are demanding, in addition to regular raises.

But some members nonetheless displayed some bite. Brooklyn Councilman David Greenfield interrogated Mr. Fuleihan about an unexplained $32-million deficit in the preliminary budget for education, at one point warning the new budget director that “you should see what we did to the last guy.”

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito also pledged a hard line on the budget. In her opening remarks, she called for “a truly thorough analysis of the budget like we have never done it before.” Citing a change in the administration’s “participants and values,” Ms. Viverito promised to review agency spending “in its totality, evaluating each agency for its efficiency.”

She also urged Mr. Fuleihan to improve transparency in the budget and provide more detailed breakdowns of large, “lumped” funds in city agencies’ budgets.

Other council members appealed to Mr. Fuleihan for improvements to existing city agencies, notably jobs programs to employ city youth over the summer months. Councilmen Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan and Andy King from the Bronx claimed that many schoolchildren who applied for summer jobs through city employment programs were turned away due to lack of space. “With $75 million extra, we can afford to hire every young person in the city,” Mr. Rodriguez said.

Other presenters, meanwhile, were set to offer alternatives to the administration’s numbers. Ronnie Lowenstein, the director of the Independent Budget Office, estimated the city would end the current fiscal year with a $2 billion surplus–$244 million more than the mayor’s office’s numbers, according to her prepared testimony. If that full amount is rolled over into the next year, the 2015 fiscal year would end with a $1.2 billion surplus, according to the office. The mayor’s office predicts no surplus.

Still, Ms. Lowenstein sounded an “important reasons for caution,” including the contracts, which the IBO estimates could cost the city anywhere from $500 million to $7.1 billion. (The latter of which would “eclipse the surplus along with the funds set aside in the retiree health benefits trust and the budget’s general reserve.”)

Comptroller Scott Stringer is also expected to forecast a rosier financial picture, predicting an additional half-a-billion-dollars in revenue in next year’s budget thanks to higher-than-expected tax collection, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The extra $510 million, however, may not be enough to cover the new labor contract contracts, he said–the “Achilles’ heel” of the city budget.

With reporting by Jill Colvin.