20 Big Ideas For Our Next Mayor

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By the time you read this, New York will have crowned its next mayor. Politics aside, whomever is elected will face some perennial challenges: balancing the budget while promoting social welfare; encouraging development that doesn’t wreck neighborhoods; holding city agencies accountable without stifling innovation. There will also be issues more specific to this moment in history: plummeting wages; withering federal funds for housing; the desire for security without compromising liberty. These are all delicate compromises, requiring supple management and smart decision-making. To help the next mayor focus his priorities, we’ve come up with 20 suggestions, culled from our own reporting and expert source, listed here in no particular order. Some are bare-bones and practical, while others are geared toward imagining a better, more inventive New York. This list is by no means exhaustive, but we think it’s the right place to start.

1. Put tolls on the East River bridges.
Charging vehicles to cross the city-owned Queensborough, Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges may be politically dicey, but it would bring an estimated $800 million a year in additional revenue to the city while easing traffic and air pollution. The mayor should also consider congestion pricing–using toll booths and mounted cameras to charge drivers for using streets that are already badly gridlocked. When London introduced congestion pricing in 2003, charging $8 to enter the city core during peak hours, traffic dropped 25 percent–and the metropolis generated roughly $120 million in its first year.

2. Build a better jobs machine.
Gearing job search and training programs toward industries poised for growth makes perfect sense, but it wasn’t until the last few years that the city even attempted to do so. After stumbling through its first few years (as late as 2002, the city had created just a single one-step training center for its 8 million residents) the local Workforce Investment Board has finally gotten on its feet and is sketching a plan to bring job training in line with local economic development plans. That means more training in fields like health care and biotechnology. Now we need to take the next step by integrating secondary and vocational education into the process, a move that would help stanch the flow of youth who neither finish high school nor find employment.

3. Preserve existing affordable housing.
The city’s fair market rents are already far out of reach for many New Yorkers. A 2004 minimum wage earner, for example, could afford to pay only $312 per month. Given the shortage of affordable housing, the city should take action to preserve what’s left. Here’s how: provide incentives to owners of federally subsidized housing willing to extend expiring contracts or sell their buildings to qualified nonprofits; expand inclusionary zoning, which offers juicy density bonuses to developers that build affordable units; hold slumlords accountable, so their properties don’t deteriorate; and advocate for the repeal of the Urstadt law, so the city can make its own decisions when it comes to rent regulations, instead of leaving them in Albany’s hands.

4. Make the most of food stamps.
Even as usage of food pantries has skyrocketed, only three out of five New Yorkers eligible for food stamps get them. The gap doesn’t just leave families hungry, it starves the local economy of $477 million per year. To be honest, we’re baffled by the Bloomberg administration’s opposition–largely on technical grounds–to a series of bills designed to boost enrollment. Come on: Getting everyone onboard for the coupons doesn’t cost the city a penny since the feds foot the bill. Sounds like a win-win to us.

5. Support families in crisis.
Nobody wants to turn a blind eye to child abuse, but unfounded suspicions can tear families apart. That’s why the city, already making great strides in reducing its foster care population, should check out the Highbridge “Bridge Builders” program. In place since 2003, the program helps keep kids out of foster care by encouraging teachers and other mandated reporters to refer at-risk families to Bridge Builders, a coalition of community-based nonprofits, before calling Child Protective Services. If the situation is dangerous, the family will still be investigated by the city, but starting with a supportive approach simply makes more sense. The mayor should expand this initiative into a multi-neighborhood pilot and watch as the foster care rolls continue to shrink.

6. Expand voting rights.
While the mayor can’t single-handedly change the law around voting rights, he can certainly join the growing movement to allow ex-felons and non-citizens to vote in local elections. Together, these groups constitute thousands of potential voters, many of whom work and pay taxes in New York. The City Council has recognized the problem with two bills still pending at press time, one that would help educate prisoners about their voting rights, and one that would allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections. If they pass, the mayor should sign them into law. It’s time to give all New Yorkers the voice they deserve.

7. Boost Medicaid enrollment.
Yes, public health care is expensive–but not as expensive as taking care of people in the emergency room. Every year, New York City hospitals spend roughly $2 billion caring for those who can’t pay. What’s more, 75 percent of emergency-room visits are for conditions that could be treated by a primary care doctor. Signing up the half-million adults eligible for Medicaid but not receiving it would reduce the city’s total number of uninsured adults by 28 percent.

8. Improve rental supports for homeless families.
With federal support for the Section 8 rental subsidy program drying up, the city is left with a daunting problem: How do you help the thousands of New York families who can’t afford an apartment? The answer, introduced by the Department of Homeless Services last year, is Housing Stability Plus, a five-year rent subsidy that declines by 20 percent each year. Funded by the city, state and feds, the program has two fundamental flaws: It’s only available to homeless families, and it requires that those families stay on welfare to get it. So, in order to make up for the declining subsidy, a parent needs to find work–but if they get a job and leave welfare, they lose the subsidy. The city is hoping the state will rectify this catch-22; if not, the mayor should find another way.

9. Stand up for same-sex marriage.
This is clearly an idea whose time has come. Just ask state Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan, the Manhattan judge who ruled in February that prohibiting same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. New York City has an opportunity to join San Francisco and New Paltz, NY, in setting an example for the rest of the country. The mayor should immediately end New York City’s appeal of the lower court’s ruling.

10. Support the Health Care Security Act.
The City Council made great strides toward bringing health insurance coverage to the city’s working poor when it passed this bill, requiring most grocers in the city to provide health insurance to employees and their families. And, thanks to the savvy work of its backers, most notably Jobs With Justice and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, it marks an ideological coup. By singling out an industry that can’t relocate out of the city and often already provides health coverage to its workers, the groups successfully courted heretofore unlikely allies: employers that already do the right thing, and end up at a competitive disadvantage because of it. The mayor could use HCSA to send a message to Wal-Mart: Bring us good jobs or stay out.

11. Get behind a hip-hop museum.
New York has spawned many a fad, but few of its cultural progeny have come close to the still-soaring arc of hip-hop. From Kool Herc’s gritty roots in the South Bronx to the glamour of Diddy and J-Lo, hip-hop’s global appeal speaks not only to the struggle of getting by, but to the pluralism and diversity that make New York distinct. Give this movement a museum, a hall of fame, something, anything–and show some institutional love for a phenomenon that has shaped urban culture the world over.

12. Stop criminalizing the mentally ill.
When it comes to bad ideas, few are worse than throwing the mentally ill in jail. Not only does it cause human suffering, as groups like the Urban Justice Center have documented, it costs local taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Rather than arrest and incarcerate the mentally ill, New York should take a lesson from cities like Memphis, and create Crisis Response Teams within the NYPD that are specially trained to calm people in psychiatric crises. We should also establish mental health courts, like the one in Brooklyn, in every borough to help mentally ill New Yorkers who have run-ins with the law get the services they need.

13. Make street safe for cyclists
With gas prices soaring and traffic snarling, it’s no surprise that 120,000 New Yorkers bike every day. What is surprising is just how much danger the city expects cyclists to endure. Riding up the most heavily trafficked bridges, for instance, requires riders to maneuver across highway ramps and six lanes of traffic, dodging potholes left and right. We should follow Toronto’s lead and conduct a formal study of bike fatalities, identify trouble spots and work to fix them. In the meantime, we could emulate Chicago and start aggressively ticketing cars that park and idle in on-road bike paths.

14. Bring fresher food to the ‘hood.
Many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods lack good, fresh produce, and their residents are plagued with poor health, in part, as a result. Though the city added 14 farmers’ markets in the last year alone, they’re still far more common in affluent neighborhoods than poor ones. The mayor should make expansion in low-income neighborhoods a priority, and put wireless food stamp terminals at every market.

15. Investigate all child deaths.
Every year, the public advocate’s office releases a report on child deaths, based on findings by the state. Yet this report includes only the deaths of children known to the child welfare system. Last year, Councilmember Christine Quinn called for creating an independent child fatality review team that would look for trends among all child deaths, research that would help identify both preventable accidents, like those caused by improper sleeping positions, and hidden patterns of abuse. Quinn’s proposal drew criticism from agencies reluctant to see others checking their work. The mayor should throw his full support behind this no-brainer.

16. Find a new home for the Bronx Terminal Market merchants.
When the city announced plans last year to redevelop the Bronx Terminal Market, it failed to anticipate the outcry from the wholesale food merchants who worked there. The merchants are right on two counts: The deal should have been subject to competitive bidding, and the city now has an obligation to properly relocate them [see Q&A, page 29]. A successful move within the Bronx would double the benefits to the borough by helping two neighborhoods thrive.

17. Respect civil liberties.
We know the world has changed since 9/11, but recent efforts to restrict personal freedom have gotten out of hand, drawing heat from the New York Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups. Random bag searches, cops in schools and hidden cameras may all be appropriate in limited circumstances, but they certainly should not be left to the discretion of city agencies without written guidelines governing when and how they should be used. The next mayor should also ease up on Critical Mass and rethink the current prohibition on holding mass protests in Central Park. These are events designed to build community, and deserve room to breathe.

18. Help artists access city-owned space.
In recent years, the city has cracked open the door for various artists in need of a home. The most successful effort was the recent creation of the East Fourth Street Cultural District, a strip of city-owned buildings in the East Village sold to arts groups for $1 apiece to use for performance and studio space. It’s not just charity: A vibrant arts scene brings ticket-buyers to local restaurants and shops, boosting the city’s economy. The mayor should also seek ways to replicate successful creative efforts already underway to make the most of under-utilized spaces, like Governor’s Island, the High Line and Williamsburg’s McCarren Park pool.

19. Mandate more recycling.
The Solid Waste Management Plan, introduced last year, has many fine features, including a call for the equitable distribution of waste among the boroughs. But it’s still a little vague when it comes to recycling. The City Council has proposed extending recycling requirements to businesses and schools; collecting more yard waste for compost; and creating an office of recycling separate from the Department of Sanitation. These are all good ideas–and long overdue.

20. Hold corporations accountable.
While Mayor Bloomberg made great strides in eliminating excessive tax breaks, the city is still wasting valuable resources courting corporate giants. In August, city and state officials offered Goldman Sachs at least $150 million in tax breaks and $1.6 billion in federally subsidized Liberty Bonds to ensure that the company would build a $2 billion tower in Battery Park. The tower is key to downtown revitalization, but the size of the handout sets a dangerous precedent for other major employers. Rather than jumping to write a check, we should build on Bloomberg’s positive reforms: investing more in overlooked industries, encouraging development outside of Manhattan, and enhancing the quality of life factors for all New Yorkers.

Research assistance by Bryan Farrell.

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