The State of Whose City?:
Six Ways to Hear a Speech

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In this annual address, which also functions as a lead-in to city budget season, the mayor covered the waterfront, with everything from announcing major education restructuring, to bragging about record-high tourist visits, to decrying cronyism in Albany. The subjects he touched on are issues to which some New Yorkers devote their life’s work. What follows is a gathering of perspectives on the speech from such people.

Mike Arsham is executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, a self-help and advocacy organization of New York City parents who have been personally involved with the public child welfare system.

Geri D. Palast is executive director of the Campaign For Fiscal Equity, which has been fighting since 1993 to ensure that every public school child in the city has sufficient resources to get a sound, basic education.

Amy Peterson is the acting president for Nontraditional Employment for Women, or NEW, which was founded in 1978 to enable low-income women to become economically independent through training for nontraditional jobs in the construction, transportation, and utilities industries.

Picture the Homeless is a group in which homeless people themselves organize and advocate for policy change. These responses were written by staff and members Sandra Sage, Red Korczykowski, Michael Garrett, Jean Rice and William S.Burnett, all of whom are or have been homeless.

Harry Siegel is the managing editor of Cities on a Hill, a web site and blog “for the urbane urbanist.”

Carlisle Towery is president of the nonprofit Greater Jamaica Development Corporation in Queens.

Regarding your area of expertise, what is your reaction to the speech?

MIKE ARSHAM: I reviewed the speech earlier today with a diverse group of about 10 parents who have had varying types of personal experience with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). They are the real experts. There were some parts of the State of the City that we found encouraging; others somewhat puzzling and troubling.

It is very encouraging that the mayor makes a solid connection between antipoverty initiatives and child protection. This seems to reflect a genuine recognition that risk to children does not originate primarily from their parents’ behavior, but from environmental factors such as lack of access to health care, decent affordable housing, or living-wage employment. The mayor takes ownership of the city’s obligation to support family life by addressing such issues systemically, not simply in the portion of the speech that speaks directly to categorically-based child welfare, but throughout. This seems insightful and courageous.

He uses Nurse Family Partnership to segue from anti-poverty initiatives into a more specific discussion of child welfare, and this also seems like an enlightened choice. That program is an excellent, evidence-based, non-stigmatizing model of primary prevention.

PICTURE THE HOMELESS: He opens up talking about how this is the “greatest city,” but to me what makes it great is its diversity and the way so many different communities work together. Yet his speech was steeped in polarization – doing favors for some communities so they think everything is fine, while leaving so many out altogether. His speech was marked by a complete lack of a sense of responsibility for the common good of all New Yorkers.

He talks about city government as a business, which is what he’s made it – and like every business, his administration has a desirable customer base, and they cater to them and provide services to them, and everyone else waits outside. There’s big talk about so many welfare people getting jobs, but what kind? I know people with two jobs who can’t afford housing. He talks about curbing pensions, but not curbing rising rents! His remedy is to institutionalize the elderly and break up communities.

He gives a $750 million tax break … this across-the-board break gives money back to developers, taking it out of the general coffers, when those corporations have responsibilities to the communities where they operate.

GERI PALAST: We are encouraged that the mayor has made education his top priority. His goals to invest in principals as leaders, focus on improved teacher quality, and distribute funding based on need rather than politics are laudable. But little information has been provided on these far-reaching initiatives. There is a perception and concern that the parents and public have not been adequately briefed and consulted on critical issues of restructuring and management of the schools. Input and buy-in are critical to success.

We agree that CFE dollars are intended to bridge the funding gap. However, CFE funds must be utilized to invest in strategies that work and support building school capacity. An approach that utilizes weighted, per-pupil funding may address equity but not necessarily adequacy — the amount needed to provide a sound basic education as required by the court. It may also fail to account for concentration of needy students and the additional burdens that arise in these schools. This could be an element of a broader program to address disparities, together with expansion of pre-kindergarten, reducing class size, preparing and supporting quality teachers. We will need further detail to fully evaluate it.

HARRY SIEGEL: When Mayor Bloomberg took office, he had one immediate and three long-term tasks necessary to ensure the city’s future: recovering from 9/11, maintaining previous Mayor Giuliani’s success in reducing crime and improving quality of life, diversifying the city’s economy to lessen our dependence on Wall Street, and reducing a city workforce far larger and more expensive than we can afford.

In some ways, Bloomberg is a victim of his own success in guiding a recovery that, as he said, “exceeded our wildest dreams.” He’s kept crime down, and his ambitious rezoning and rethinking of the city’s infrastructure and architecture has leveraged the real estate boom to bring developers’ money to outer-borough communities that have never had access to these funds.

Unfortunately, the mayor has yet to address the other two outstanding problems that threaten to undo us. We can afford no more than a temporary (and not very large) tax cut in boom times because much of the city workforce is a de facto job program to compensate for the missing private sector jobs stifled by the taxes needed to pay city workers. And even with those taxes, we can still only afford our government when Wall Street booms.

Unless Bloomberg addresses these problems, it’s not clear his gains can survive an economic downturn, or a new mayor.

CARLISLE TOWERY: Following the speech, I felt like the city had entered a new era, ushered in by an especially competent, sensitive and courageous mayor. The Mayor articulated his deep grasp of key issues facing the city, and how he is addressing them. His tone and words were admirably unifying and motivating as he proffered his compelling vision for New York’s continued prominence and global leadership. He engaged us in innovative ideas for citizen participation. He warrants public applause for running a meritocracy – a talented team of professionals who are effective and ambitious. He is courageous to take on the Board of Elections, the national issue of gun control, and the state’s Public Authorities Control Board.

I was pleased that the Mayor referenced downtown Jamaica’s impending rezoning and that he cited “transit-oriented development” as smart. Kudos to him for pledging continued leadership in securing federal funds for the rail link from Jamaica/JFK to Lower Manhattan. He committed to continue city investments in infrastructure, which are critical to our economy and to meeting anticipated growth. His focus on the city’s growth makes clear the importance of realizing Jamaica’s potential, of utilizing our existing infrastructure, especially in transportation.

AMY PETERSON: Mayor Bloomberg outlined major economic development and transportation projects including the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, the extension of the Number 7 subway line, the planned Moynihan Station to replace Penn Station, and the new stadiums for the Yankees and the Mets. These projects will provide thousands of jobs for New Yorkers and more opportunities for the women we serve. By working with the mayor’s office, we will ensure that women are trained for the construction trades. They will have the opportunity to work on these projects and build the neighborhoods where they live.

If you had delivered the speech, what else would you have said? What did the mayor leave out?

PICTURE THE HOMELESS: He never once mentioned the word homeless. He talks so much about how good we’re doing, yet we have 35,000 people in shelters. He says he’s making all this affordable housing, but that’s for families making 90 percent of Area Median Income – $70,900 a year! If we’re a great city, what are we going to do about the poor? The mayor took an oath to protect the rights of every New Yorker, and I have yet to see a mayor live up to that. The proposals he made today will increase poverty levels – giving landlords and homeowners kickbacks but not holding them accountable for keeping buildings empty or developing housing for the poor.

HARRY SIEGEL: Bloomberg’s CUNY plan sounds terrific. It’s telling, though, that he claimed that “the demands of their jobs prevent far too many [CUNY students] from completing their studies and without degrees, they often remain among our working poor.” The city needs a real plan for creating and maintaining private sector jobs for people without college degrees. At present, the mayor seems to think that the best we can do for the working class and the working poor is affordable housing and having the city fill out their Earned Income Tax Credit paperwork (which of course raises real questions about the efficacy of the program in encouraging work).

Also noteworthy was the non-mention of Sean Bell [an unarmed man killed by police Nov. 25].

MIKE ARSHAM: The brief portion of the speech that focuses directly on categorically-based child welfare is, unfortunately, somewhat less encouraging. We recognize the limits of time and space in the context of a speech, but the scattershot attention to ACS’s signature reform efforts is puzzling. There is no mention of ChildStat, reinvestment in preventive services, or the Community Partnership Initiative. Those initiatives that are referenced have more to do with ACS’s surveillance and investigative functions than with its services, internal quality control, and family support functions. This is more than a little frightening and off-putting to parents who have had direct contact with the system.

Capping the portion of the address that deals directly with ACS with a reference to criminal record checks is particularly perplexing. The current administration has made unprecedented progress in treating parents as respected partners in service planning and policymaking, rather than simply as suspects or perpetrators. Failing to claim credit for this seems like a real missed opportunity to shore up ACS-community relationships that have been compromised in the aftermath of Nixzmary Brown’s death.

CARLISLE TOWERY: I would spotlight the city’s economic development professionals, stressing the importance of job creation and retention. Local economic development does not happen naturally, yet it gets taken for granted and overshadowed by the giant projects. I would explain the significance and the progress that can be made by small efforts in the aggregate. “Bread and butter” projects and programs – which the Department of Small Business Services expertly facilitates all over the city through its Business Improvement Districts and Local Development Corporations – are expanding economic activity and supplementing city services, reflecting local needs and priorities.

GERI PALAST: If I had delivered the speech, I would have called on the governor to fully fund CFE at $6 billion per year in addition to current funding adjusted for inflation, with regular costing out studies every four years to continue to get an accurate assessment of need. As the mayor did last year on CFE capital funding, I would have committed the full force of the mayor’s power to achieving this goal. I would have committed to a new, transparent, accessible planning and tracking system on these new investments to enhance the accountability system and provide tools for educated input by parents and the public.

As noted above, I would call for increased investment in strategies that work—universal pre-kindergarten, class size reduction, and recruiting, preparing and supporting quality teachers.

AMY PETERSON: In 2005, Mayor Bloomberg created the Mayor’s Commission on Construction Opportunity. The Commission was developed to ensure that women and minorities have access to well-paying jobs in the construction trades and the ability to participate in the new development projects taking place all over New York City. As part of this initiative, the unions in the City’s Building and Construction Trades Council are reserving 10 percent of the slots in their apprenticeship programs for women. The city funded a highly successful advertising campaign to make women aware of NEW’s program and attract them to long-term careers in the trades.

On the issues closest to your heart, what do you hope next year’s State of the City will say?

GERI PALAST: The city received the commitment to full funding of CFE, we have completed a strategic planning process with meaningful public input, we are implementing the agreed upon investments and reforms, and we are showing anticipated success in increasing student performance, graduation rates and addressing the needs of our lowest-performing students.

CARLISLE TOWERY: I hope to hear the mayor report an innovative, aggressive city partnership with the state (MTA, Empire State Development Corporation and the Port Authority), Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, and private developers that has moved forward components of an “airport village” around AirTrain. And I hope he will announce that new programs at York College are providing career opportunities in science and mathematics for minority students, in association with the U.S. FDA headquarters and laboratory on York’s campus.

MIKE ARSHAM: In our fondest dreams, the mayor might say something to this effect: “The acceptable number of child abuse deaths in any given year is zero. We must recognize, however, that parents who kill their children are an aberration statistically and socially. We refuse to make broad generalizations or sweeping policy decisions about parents who become known to ACS based upon the very small percentage of those parents who are depraved or homicidal.”

In the same dream, the mayor would speak directly to struggling parents in communities like Harlem, Highbridge, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, and he would say: “ACS exists to help and support you. If you need assistance in meeting the many challenges of raising children in our city, you can access services safely, without fear of being unfairly judged, demeaned, or punished.”

AMY PETERSON: Bloomberg will report that his focus on construction opportunity and his focus on poverty, through the Commission for Economic Opportunity, have combined to ensure that low-income women are finding their way out of poverty via pre-apprenticeship training programs and careers in the construction trades. Mayor Bloomberg will report that as initiated by the Mayor’s Commission on Construction Opportunity, major development projects throughout the City are meeting their goal and women represent 15 percent of the tradespeople on these projects.

HARRY SIEGEL: Governmentally, I hope to see a long-term plan to reduce the size of the city government, which would in turn help to reduce taxes, promote new private sector and small business job growth, and help diversify the city’s economy.

Politically, I hope that Bloomberg will attempt to institutionalize his successes by working to create a permanent reform movement, and push once more for non-partisan elections to help diversify the city’s political monoculture.

PICTURE THE HOMELESS: Next year, I want to hear him say that everybody has a right to a place to live. I want him to commit to stop police brutality and selective enforcement against the homeless, and that there are no more abandoned buildings – which will mean that no one will have to be stuck in the shelter system. I want to hear: “Last year there was a considerable income gap, pockets of affluence surrounded by deserts of poverty, and we’ve done our best to diminish that gulf. I have done my best to unify the city, as opposed to how polarized it was as 2007 started.”

Did anything in the speech surprise you?

CARLISLE TOWERY: I was surprised that he did not mention effects of the state hospital closing commission’s decisions. And I expected more references to his bold PlaNYC 2030, for which he deserves much credit. Undertaking forecasting and long-term strategic planning is work long overdue and much needed.

HARRY SIEGEL: One, the mayor’s claim that the teachers’ unions will work with him on tenure reform. After years of being outfoxed at the negotiating table, he seems to have learned little. Two, his radical and little-remarked-on move from centralization to decentralization in the school system.

As an aside: Am I the only one disturbed by a campaign finance reform movement in the city and state spearheaded by a billionaire who’s opted out of the program (Bloomberg), and a multi-millionaire’s son (Spitzer) whose father has contributed heavily to his campaigns?

GERI PALAST: The weighted per-pupil funding. CFE believes strongly in the strategic targeting of school funds to the highest-need and lowest-performing schools and students. The weighted per-pupil funding is a massive overhaul that could point in a positive direction. The proposal raises the specter of the national controversy that weighted per-pupil can be a back-door school voucher program that appears equitable but does not address real need. We urge the mayor to open the programmatic details to review before implementation.

MIKE ARSHAM: There is no mention of the new and exciting opportunities for system reform afforded by new leadership in Albany and Washington, including the ascendance of U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel [D-Harlem] to Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

This could generate all kinds of creative thinking: the end of the state Children and Family Services Block Grant? Subsidized kinship guardianship? Court reform? Loosening of federal Title IVE restrictions on child welfare spending? A new reimbursement methodology for foster care that eliminates the perverse incentives to place and keep children out-of-home? The possibilities are limitless, and largely unexamined. It is not too soon. Children and families have waited long enough.

– Karen Loew

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