City Council Asks for More Transparency at First Budget Hearing

Labor Relations Director Robert Linn and Budget Director Dean Fuleihan discuss the city budget after a council hearing today. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen/New York Observer)
Labor Relations Director Robert Linn and Budget Director Dean Fuleihan discuss the city budget after a council hearing today. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen/New York Observer)

Members of the City Council’s Finance Committee pressed the de Blasio Administration for more transparency in the proposed $77.7 billion budget today, kicking off the first of many hearings on the preliminary budget.

A year after Budget Director Dean Fuleihan was first greeted by the council with freshly baked muffins and a great deal of praise, this year there were no baked goods—but there was perhaps a bit more frustration.

Finance Committee Chairwoman Julissa Ferreras began the hearing by saying that many of the problems surrounding transparency in the behemoth budget remained unchanged in the second year of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.

“The lack of transparency in the budget and the administration’s failure to timely provide budgetary information to the council impedes the council’s ability to make informed decisions about the city’s current fiscal condition, properly assess past and current proposals, and adequately make long-term planning decisions,” Ms. Ferreras said. “The path to progressive values and efficiency starts with transparency in the city’s budget so the council can be an equal partner in decisions affecting the city’s finances.

In 2013, members of the council asked all mayoral candidates, including Mr. de Blasio, to commit to more transparent budgeting—in part through offering more units of appropriation, or budget lines. The members have argued that single budget lines for billions of dollars for agencies or programs make it impossible to effectively track the spending over the course of years. Last year the council requested six new units of appropriation in the budget, so far, a fiscal year later, they’ve received only four.

Ms. Ferreras said the council was still awaiting more clear units of appropriation for disease control, early intervention programs, and the mayor’s signature universal pre-kindergarten program.

“Universal pre-K is such an important program, this council would like to follow its expenses ,its details, its overruns and just be able to follow it in some transparent way,” Ms. Ferreras said—before adding the council we be asking for even more units of appropriation on top of the unfinished business from last year.

“We made a commitment, we’ll make sure that we keep that in the executive budget,” Mr. Fuleihan said.

Having to wait until the executive budget, which is first released by the mayor in April, was a recurring theme. Mr. Fuleihan has directed city agencies to find “efficiencies” in their budgets—areas where they can save money—which he said will be reflected in the executive budget. The request for savings replaces the “PEG” programs, or program to eliminate the gap, of the previous administration, which dictated specific cost savings. Unlike PEGs, there’s no designated budget category for the planned savings.

“How do you envision this Council being able to follow efficiencies, and why did you chose to put those efficiencies in the executive budget and not the preliminary budget, which really limits this council in begin able to have oversight or even influence or opinions on your efficiencies?” Ms. Ferreras asked.

Mr. Fuleihan argued the current budget did reflect some savings in areas like energy, which in the past would have been rolled into PEGs. He said the city was taking its time to avoid some of the kinds of cuts that came with previous PEGs.

“We want to be very careful, because there were programs, and there were parts of the prior administration’s savings, we believe are things this administration and this council would not agree with. We actually would not agree to reducing staff for food stamps,” Mr. Fuleihan said.  “We’re doing this in a very careful and thoughtful way, but we’re happy to keep you informed and we’re happy to keep reviewing it.”

In addition to back-and-forth with the council, there was also an element of back-and-forth with the state to today’s hearing. As Mr. de Blasio did in Albany, Mr. Fuleihan today criticized the state budget for presenting cuts to homelessness programs, even as the number of New York City residents in shelters continues to rise. He also noted that, for the first time, the state budget has offered no breakdown of how much each school district in the state will receive for education funding.

The council will have ample opportunity to press for some of its budget priorities—including the addition of 1,000 police officers—in upcoming preliminary budget hearings with heads of city departments.

City Council Asks for More Transparency at First Budget Hearing