Election '97: Whatcha Gonna Do?

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The Democratic Party primary for mayor is around the corner, and proposals of substance have begun to emerge. We wanted details of the contestants' plans on a handful of the most critical issues facing the city and our readership, so we asked for succinct, substantive responses to five straightforward questions. Brooklyn City Councilman Sal Albanese and Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger gave it their best shot, and their answers are reprinted below. For two weeks, we pressed the Reverend Al Sharpton and his campaign staff to share their thoughts as well, but they never supplied answers to our questions. Judge for yourself. The primary date is September 9. In our October issue, we'll focus on the general election.

CL: For many New Yorkers, the economy is thriving. Yet unemployment rates remain high and unskilled or low-skill workers have few opportunities to make a decent living. What do you propose to do to generate entry-level jobs that offer the potential for long-term employment and decent wages for city residents?

Sal Albanese: Under my administration, I would appoint an economic development czar, someone with a wealth of knowledge and experience in the business world. This czar's role would be to put together a strategic plan that would diversify New York's industries in an effort to create a sustainable economy for the city. In addition, I would reserve 25 percent of the city's $8 billion contract budget for city-based companies who employ city residents.

Living-wage job development will be the cornerstone of my administration. My primary focus would be on developing a policy that would bolster existing small business and manufacturing in New York. Current policy has focused on retaining jobs in the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) sector of the economy, while neglecting the remainder of the city's business community. The recently publicized example of the Swingline Stapler manufacturer's departure from Queens is a prime example of the city's neglect of small business. Small business is the real engine that fuels the New York City jobs economy, providing 70 percent of jobs in the city.

One of the first steps in spurring job creation would be to eliminate the Unincorporated Business Tax (UBT). The UBT deters small businesses and entrepreneurs from locating in the city and hiring city residents. New York City has become a hot bed for New Media/High Tech pioneers. Many of today's latest multimedia applications and Internet tools are being developed in New York. I would also make available incubator space for burgeoning entrepreneurial industries and light manufacturing businesses. The city must create support structures which both new and small businesses can depend on to grow and build. I would also offer tax incentives and low-cost loans to small and light manufacturers who hire city residents to help them expand their businesses and provide additional local jobs.

Ruth Messinger: The mayor pretends that an unemployment rate nearly twice the national average is a sign of economic health and ignores the fact that more than 20,000 fewer New Yorkers had jobs in the first quarter of this year. He is unwilling to acknowledge a problem exists.

I believe that City Hall has a major role to play in encouraging and shaping economic diversity and growth. And that role includes guaranteeing that the benefits of economic growth are shared by all of the city's residents. To do this I would:

  • Initiate a “City Hire” program. This would give city residents the first crack at jobs created through the awarding of tax breaks, funding of development projects or letting of contracts. All newly hired teachers, cops and firefighters would be city residents.
  • Help small businesses. Key to supporting and nurturing small businesses is ensuring their access to technical assistance, technology and credit. The mayor showers tax breaks on Wall Street and cuts services to Main Street. My office recently helped secure $750,000 in capital for small business loans through the Manhattan Borough Development Corp.
  • Train the city's current and future workforce to compete for jobs more effectively. This means reinvesting in our schools and developing curricula that graduate young people who meet the needs of 21st Century employers. Higher education can become more accessible to the poor by working with private funders to sponsor scholarships to local colleges.
  • Strategic support for emerging growth industries. I would form an Office of Science and Technology that would be a bridge between the city's wealth of university-based research and expertise and the capital markets. This kind of matching of public, non-profit and private resources has spurred the economies of Silicon Valley, Boston, Research Triangle Park and other localities.
  • Invest in the future. The city's infrastructure needs to be retooled for the coming century. The bulk of the funding should come from the federal government–as urged by Felix Rohatyn, Robert Kiley and other business leaders. The mayor of New York City must be a clarion for such investment.

CL: Do you agree with the city's workfare policy as it currently exists? What kind of welfare-to-work program would you advocate?

Albanese: The city's Work Experience Program is a debacle. By definition, jobs must be 50 percent of any welfare-to-work program. As mentioned in the previous question, living wage job creation will be a central focus of my administration. Currently, WEP participants simply work for their benefits without any hope of obtaining a real job afterwards. With the city's unemployment at twice the national average and the administration's invisible job creation strategy, there is no hope in sight. I would also end the practice of having WEP workers perform the jobs of attrited civil servants. The city must hire civil servants to carry out city services and not use welfare recipients as a labor pool of indentured servants.

In addition, I would include obtaining a college degree as a form of work preparedness. The current program forces students to choose between a B.A. and a broom. Students in the WEP program should be allowed to work on campus, 10 to 15 hours a week to fulfill their work requirement. Each participant in the WEP program must have a skills assessment and a physical assessment to ensure their work assignment adds to their knowledge base (where possible) without jeopardizing their health. Under my administration, any welfare-to-work program would also provide transitional support services and life skills counseling to ensure that the people who need it most have access to the help they need to better their lives and those of their families.

Messinger: I believe in work–and believe people can and should work. But the mayor's workfare program is no way to achieve this. As my report “Work to Be Done” made clear, moving people from welfare to economic independence requires more than workfare–it takes job creation and training. The mayor's program is focused on one goal: cutting the welfare rolls. Just look at his program's poor results: last year just 17 percent out of 218,200 welfare recipients in work-related programs found jobs.

Some 58 percent of the city's single mothers on welfare do not have a high school diploma. Unless our workfare program begins with getting them a GED, their chances of finding employment that leads to economic self-sufficiency remain minimal. The mayor has made it difficult–if not impossible–for CUNY students who receive welfare to stay in school. In a job market increasingly demanding higher skills, this is counterproductive.

We also need to create jobs. Welfare changes will add some 80,000 more people in the next few years to the 280,000 already looking for work. These jobs must be for people with a variety of skill levels and targeted to New Yorkers, as under my City Hire program. City Hall enters into some $6 billion worth of contracts each year. These contracts can be used to generate 6,600 entry level jobs for public assistance recipients and other “hard to place” workers.

Without adequate day care many of our efforts will be fruitless. Some 15,000 New York City children are already waiting for a place. Welfare changes will more than double the need. The mayor has failed to fight for necessary funding from Albany or launch the partnerships between the private and public sectors that can help fill the gap.

CL: Crime is down and many of our neighborhoods have become safer in recent years. What would you do to keep it down? How would you change or improve the Giuliani administration's police strategy?

Albanese: My administration would increase patrol strength in neighborhoods. The neighborhood beat cop who has a familiarity with the community and its residents has the best chance of preventing crime while also assisting in solving local crime problems. In addition, I would streamline the NYPD. Currently, there are thousands of NYPD officers performing administrative duties and desk work which could be performed more cost-effectively by civilians. These officers could then be easily redeployed to active patrol and enforcement duties that would make the city even safer than it is today.

The first line of defense in fighting crime is prevention. Crime experts from across the country agree that providing viable after-school programs and activities that keep young people off the streets and out of trouble are essential components of sustaining the decrease in crime. I would seek to expand neighborhood Latch Key programs, fully fund varsity and junior varsity sports programs in the public schools and advocate for federal funding for summer jobs initiatives.

One area of public safety which the current administration has neglected is reckless driving. There has been a 38 percent increase in automobile fatalities in the past year. Most urban communities across the nation issue approximately 14 percent of their vehicle summonses for reckless driving. Only 2 percent of New York's summonses are issued for reckless driving. My administration would crack down on dangerous drivers and make a serious effort to reduce traffic fatalities in the city.

Messinger: The drop in crime began under the Dinkins administration and has been aided by the management initiatives of Bill Bratton. But in too many communities the police remain less effective than they could be. We also can do much better in preventing youth crime.

We must get back to some of the fundamentals of community policing. This means officers walking a beat and getting to know the people and businesses in the neighborhoods they patrol. This will have three effects: it will deter crime because of a regular police presence, it will make residents and business owners feel safer and it will nurture better relationships between communities and officers.

Far too many New Yorkers are distrustful of the police. There have been nearly 20,000 complaints filed with the Civilian Complaints Review Board since July 1993. Yet even among the complaints substantiated by the CCRB, a tiny number ever result in disciplinary action by the police commissioner. This undermines public confidence in the force and breeds a distrust that hampers crime prevention and investigation efforts. Requiring that all new recruits be city residents will help forge better relations, as will giving the CCRB more credibility.

Our focus on youth crime must be prevention, not incarceration. The mayor has cut $15.7 million from the neighborhood-based youth programs that are essential in helping steer kids away from crime, instead focusing on arrests and lock-ups. This is the very approach that police chiefs around the country will tell you is doomed to failure. We need to invest in youth programs and keep our schools open until 6 PM in order to discourage kids from turning to crime in the first place.

CL: What do you believe is the single largest problem facing the New York City public school system, and what would you do to solve it?

Albanese: The lack of performance-based accountability. There is no substitute for monetary and material resources for the school system. The $1.5 billion cut from the system over the past three years must be restored and additional monies allocated to address current inequities. Both accountability and resources are necessary for the public school system to be a success.

The reason why some under-funded schools succeed and some better-funded schools fail is educational leadership and accountability. Principals must be held accountable for the educational performance of the children in their schools. This can be done by offering them four-year performance-based contracts. Good principals are successful at supervising and motivating teachers to excel. They are also resourceful at acquiring outside resources and program funding for special initiatives in their schools. My administration would advocate for the creation of school-based councils involving parents, community and faculty.

I would also promote the development of a Leadership Recruitment and Development program for the public schools. The system needs to identify good teachers who would make good supervisors and administrators. We are not grooming teachers who have the potential to become good leaders. These teachers must be identified and then given the option of entering a skills building and development program that would put them on a career track to become principals.

Messinger: The central issue confronting our public school system is insuring that our children receive the highest quality education possible. When fewer than half of our children can read at grade level; many have decades old textbooks–or no books at all; numerous classrooms are dilapidated and overcrowded; many teachers are teaching subjects they have no training in; and many schools have had to close science, history, art and music programs because there were not enough teachers or classrooms, then we cannot say the city is providing children with the best possible opportunity to learn.

It is time to make education a priority. We need to do for our schools what together we did to combat crime. We must marshal resources–not cut more than $1 billion from classrooms as the mayor has done. We must establish innovative programs such as tuition forgiveness that will encourage our best CUNY students to become public school teachers. We must provide the ongoing professional training that will help our teachers grow and learn with each succeeding class, and we must pay them enough so they do not leave for the surrounding counties. We must give principals and school administrators the freedom and responsibility to ensure that the highest educational standards are met–and hold them accountable when they are not. And perhaps most importantly, we must have a system that assumes all children can learn if given the opportunity.

CL: During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Koch and Dinkins administrations developed and rebuilt tens of thousands of units of affordable housing. Under Giuliani, the city's capital spending on housing has dropped by about half. Meanwhile, the city is in the midst of a severe housing crisis. Between 1993 and 1996, the number of apartments renting for less than $500 a month dropped by 113,000, and for the first time in decades, the federal government is no longer providing the city with new rent subsidies for low-income people. How do you propose to preserve and expand affordable housing in New York?

Albanese: The first step toward expanding and preserving affordable housing is to ensure that NYCHA and HPD are run efficiently and competently. I would select commissioners with experience in the housing industry and who possess vision for the department. Without a long-term strategy for affordable housing and an agency focused on implementing that strategy, New York will continue to suffer a housing crisis.

The city must also work with many of the successful nonprofit organizations who have already put up thousands of units of affordable housing in many areas of the city. Nehemiah housing in Brooklyn is a prime example of what can be done when the city works with communities to develop housing. There are other examples of this type of partnership in areas of Harlem, the Bronx and elsewhere. These programs can be expanded and duplicated.

I would propose a $5 billion to $8 billion, five-year capital plan targeted toward building quality affordable housing, particularly in areas of the city that need revitalization. Under my administration, the office of the mayor would also be used to lobby the federal and state government for the city's fair share of existing housing dollars.

Messinger: The city's continuing housing crisis manifests itself in three ways: an affordability gap, a shortage of available units, and disrepair and abandonment. We are doing a terrible job of preserving the housing we have, losing some 16,000 units a year to abandonment. The mayor has cut housing code enforcement, yet this is the most cost-effective way to protect our housing stock. The city should return to cyclical building inspections. Combining certain housing, buildings, fire and health department functions gives us a jump start on achieving this goal. The city should also direct more funds to the 8A and Participation Loan programs, targeting them to community-based organizations and other property owners who are clearly dedicated to properly maintaining buildings in their neighborhoods for the long-term.

A serious city commitment to housing preservation will not alone solve the affordable housing crisis. Even in this time of federal pull-out, there are things we can do to spur development. We need to craft more innovative mixes of tax-exempt bonding, abatements and credits to produce lower income housing. Allowing developers to apply 421a and 80/20 tax credits to the renovation of city-owned buildings would generate more low-income rental and cooperative apartments. The creation of a state low-income housing tax credit program would add to the pool of development dollars. The city should also encourage increased investment in affordable housing by union pension plans.

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