Council’s Budget Response Includes Crash Probes, Bus Lanes, Pre-K Pay and Courtroom Salaries

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William Alatriste and John McCarten for the City Council

At the end, there will be handshakes and/or hugs (as there were above in 2014, 2015 and 2018). But now the budget process is about reconciling competing priorities.

Now that the state budget is done, New York’s policy spotlight shifts to City Hall, where Mayor de Blasio and the City Council are entering the serious part of the annual debate over the city’s revenue and spending.

The mayor issued his preliminary budget in February, and the Council has held hearings on that.

On Tuesday came the next step: The Council put out its official budget response—a reaction to the mayor’s February blueprint.

The Council’s budget statement runs to 71 pages and covers several dozens of topics. Several of those relate directly to issues City Limits has highlighted in its recent coverage.

Bus lanes

The Council proposal reiterates the call Speaker Corey Johnson made in his state of the city speech calling for the installation of 30 miles of bus lanes per year. The need for bus lanes was highlighted in the 2018 City Limits series “Can Buses be Better?” It’s worth noting that the Council didn’t just call for any bus lane, but rather:

The Council calls on the Administration to ensure that every new bus lane should be camera enforced and physically separated from traffic along appropriate corridors where camera enforcement proves ineffective. In addition to the physical separation of bus lanes, the plan should also prioritize the implantation of two-way separated bus lanes in the median along key corridors, to keep buses free from conflicts with deliveries, turning vehicles, and double-parked cars wherever possible.

Indeed, our reporting indicated that merely painting bus lanes on the pavement was ineffective without enforcement. “You know how it is. Some cars are always going to block the bus lane or bus stop. They’re never going to stop,” one driver told us. “Personally, I have never seen a police officer actually stop anybody or pull anybody over because of that. I’ve never seen it.”

Early childhood salaries

The Council called upon the administration “to add $89 million to address wage inequities within the city’s early childhood education workforce.” That would address an issue City Limits covered in February, when we reported on the serious pay disparities within the pre-K and 3-K system. As the Council reported in its budget statement:

The administration has financed its signature initiative, Pre-K for All, not only with a significant public investment, but also by paying the thousands of CBO teachers far less than their DOE counterparts. The administration’s effort to expand Universal Pre-K has relied on community-based organization (CBO) providers to serve about 60 percent of the 70,000 Pre-K students. … However, persistent pay disparities between teachers employed by DOE and similarly qualified teachers employed in community-based EarlyLearn and Pre-K centers have impacted the overall stability of the early childhood care and education system.

The Council goes on to say, “With EarlyLearn contracts moving from ACS to DOE in Fiscal 2020, and the city on the verge of establishing a comprehensive birth-through-12th grade education system, now is the time to correct the issue of pay inequity.”

Pay equity in criminal courtrooms

As our Harry DiPrinzio reported in October, public defenders in city courtrooms often earn far less than the assistant district attorneys (ADAs) across the aisle—making it hard for indigent-defense agencies to maintain the experienced staff that help keep adversarial proceedings fair. The Council wants to see courtroom wages addressed in two ways: bringing ADAs up to the salary levels of the lawyers who work for the Law Department—price-tag $5 million—and, for another $15 million, bringing indigent-defense lawyers’ salaries up to the same level.

“Contracting out a government service should not be done to save money by paying unfair wages. The low salaries paid to public sector lawyers contribute to high turnover rates and a loss of expertise,” the Council wrote. “Increasing the salaries of these attorneys would address issues of high attrition and allow attorneys to live and participate in the communities where they work.”

The Legal Aid Society, which would benefit from the move, welcomed it—as a first step. “With this Fiscal Year 2020 budget recommendation, the City Council recognizes our irreplaceable and necessary work defending New Yorkers on a wide range of legal matters. The Council also recognizes that this inequality in pay deprives our staff of a sustainable living wage and undercuts our ability to effectively represent clients on a daily basis,” the Society said in a statement. “However, to truly bridge this longstanding pay parity divide, the city must allocate at least $30 million to meaningfully address the full scope of this problem and its many consequences.”

Tracking collision investigations

Among a series of recommendations about how to improve the Mayor’s Management Report, the Council recommends including “an indicator for investigations completed by the Collision Investigation Squad.”

The operations of that squad, and the relatively small number of arrests it generated, were the focus of an exclusive City Limits story in February 2018. As Gaspard Le Dem reported back then:

With just 21 detectives, 3 police officers and 5 supervisors, the Collision Investigation Squad cannot respond to the hundreds of crashes that occur daily in New York City. CIS is only called to investigate if someone is killed or if emergency responders determine that a victim is “critical.”

But the term has raised eyebrows, as its narrow definition precludes many serious injury crashes from being thoroughly investigated and prosecuted. Safety advocates say its use may violate state law, which requires police to investigate “whenever a motor vehicle accident results in serious physical injury or death to a person.”

Most police departments in the state of New York stick to “serious injury”–a much broader term–to determine whether a specialized unit will investigative a crash.

Next steps

Soon the mayor will release his executive budget, which is his final official proposal. Then the two sides will wrestle over details until striking a deal sometime before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

Much of that negotiating will be behind closed doors, but the Council will also hold hearings on each department’s budget. (A schedule of those hearings will be visible here.)

Also highly visible: As the budget deadline nears, the City Hall steps will feature a steady stream of press conferences and protests by advocacy groups and community organizations pressing for their priorities.

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