Faulting Mayor de Blasio’s expansion of the city payroll during his tenure, Andrew Yang says the city ought to spread the money coming from Washington out over several years. But should the city save for a rainy day when it’s pouring now?

Bill's big budgets

Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

Mayor de Blasio presents his first budget, in May 2014.

Andrew Yang has demanded that Mayor Bill de Blasio spread the federal stimulus money headed to New York City over a number of years, noting that multi-billion dollar future budget gaps loom and faulting the current administration for adding 30,000 jobs to the city payroll.

“It’s not clear that all these additional hires are on the frontlines doing things that are going to help accelerate our recovery,” Yang said on Monday, according to the Daily News.

That’s a common critique of de Blasio, who expanded the city budget by some $23 billion a year before COVID-19 restrained spending growth.

However, there are some nuances to this topic that mayoral candidates—or, at least, the next mayor—cannot afford to gloss over.

According to data from the Independent Budget Office, de Blasio did increase the city budget from 2014 through 2020 by $23.4 billion in nominal dollars—or $14.8 billon, if you account for inflation. That’s an increase of 18.7 percent, which is big, though not as big as the 33.6 percent increase in the budget during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s time in office. Of course, Bloomberg did that over three terms, not two, but the increase under the current mayor isn’t out of step with the expansion pursued under his predecessor.

De Blasio has been more expansionist than Rudy Giuliani was over eight years, and certainly more than David Dinkins was over four years, but budget growth under de Blasio was not much more than Ed Koch oversaw from 1980 through 1989. (The first two years of Koch’s mayoralty, 1978 and 1979, are not included in the IBO data City Limits accessed).

Recent Mayors’ Fiscal Highlights

Milestone yearCity full-time employeesCity budget (millions, adjusted for inflation)
1980: Earliest available data195,563$44,797
1989: Last Koch year247,469$52,394
1993: Last Dinkins year248,850$54,579
2001: Last Giuliani year249,824$59,536
2013: Last Bloomberg year269,774$79,547
2020: Latest de Blasio figures300,446$94,380
Source: IBO

De Blasio did, as Yang said Monday, expand the city workforce by just under 31,000 people from 2014 into 2020. But that’s not nearly as many workers as Ed Koch added during his last decade in office. And Bloomberg added a not insignificant 19,000 workers. The economic context is worth considering: Total employment in the city increased by 467,000 jobs during Bloomberg’s tenure, and by 585,000 jobs during de Blasio’s pre-COVID days; in other words, the current mayor grew the payroll more during a time when the city’s overall workforce was growing more.

Change in the City’s Overall Workforce during the Bloomberg & de Blasio Years

YearNYC private non-farm jobs added or lost from previous year
Source: BLS.gov

While it’s likely that Yang is right that not every one of the de Blasio hires is directly serving the public—his expansion of the workforce attached to the mayoralty especially has raised some eyebrows—the bulk of the de Blasio payroll increase is among teachers (in the K-12 schools and at CUNY), cops and firefighters.

De Blasio’s Expansion of the City Payroll: Top 20 Agencies

Agency2020 headcount2013 headcount2001 headcountChange in headcount under De BlasioChange in headcount under BloombergCumulative share of de Blasio’s total headcount increase
Dept. of Education – pedagogical121,077108,41694,39712,66114,01941.28%
Dept. of Education – non-pedagogical13,60711,2028,1862,4053,01649.12%
Police Department – Civilian15,51914,2049,3741,3154,83053.41%
Department of Health and Mental Hygiene5,5304,3952,8641,1351,53157.11%
Fire Department – Civilian6,3665,2424,3061,12493660.77%
Police Department – Uniform35,91034,80438,6301,106(3,826)64.38%
Administration for Children’s Services7,0396,0187,1211,021(1,103)67.71%
CUNY – Community Colleges pedagogical4,5453,5982,2179471,38170.79%
Fire Department – Uniform11,04710,18011,336867(1,156)73.62%
Department of Parks and Recreation4,2363,4481,9657881,48376.19%
Department of Transportation5,1204,3793,94174143878.61%
Department of Buildings1,6761,02368565333880.73%
Department of Sanitation – Uniform7,7557,1217,944634(823)82.80%
Dept. of Info. Tech. and Telecommunications1,6731,07128660278584.76%
Dept. of Citywide Administrative Services2,4031,8781,58352529586.48%
Law Department1,7131,2941,15141914387.84%
Housing Preservation and Development2,4122,0152,379397(364)89.14%
Department of Correction – Civilian1,7411,3581,560383(202)90.39%
Board of Elections6823423023404092.65%

“Yang’s remarks regarding the 30,000 headcount increase under de Blasio reflect a lack of understanding for where those jobs occurred,” says James A. Parrott, director for economic and fiscal policy at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “But the same goes for most people who comment on the headcount increase.”

Current budget projections do indeed show out-year budget gaps of $3 billion to $4 billion. It is not uncommon for the city to see more red ink the further it looks down the road: Bloomberg’s last budget in 2013 predicted budget gaps of $1.9 billion, $1.7 billion and $1.3 billion in fiscal years 2015-2017. There is no question, however, that the fiscal peril is greater now than then.

The question is whether spreading the federal relief payments over several years is a sensible way to close those looming gaps. It’s always tempting to put money away for a rainy day, but not when it’s already pouring.

Yang is not the only voice calling for caution in how the billions in new federal relief money is spent. “[A]s a one-time revenue infusion, federal funds should not be used to support new programs or hiring that requires on-going funding,” the fiscally conservative Citizens Budget Commission warned in a March 15 report. “If federal aid is sufficient and flexible, the City should spread these funds over multiple years to support a glide path toward stability as the economy and tax revenues recover and the City increases the efficiency of its operations.”

Andrew Rein, the president of the Citizens Budget Commission, says his organization is not analyzing or commenting on candidate proposals like Yang’s. “There could be various plans to use the federal funds that would be in line with our approach. A key is to spread over time and not use them to support recurring needs that do not have a way of being supported after the federal funds are exhausted.”

The problem that the city faces now is not a recurring budget imbalance but a short-term economic emergency, according to Parrott. “New York City is facing a pronounced labor market reallocation over the next two years involving 150,000 or more workers who will need to be retrained and redeployed into other jobs,” he says. “That undertaking will cost $1 billion or more. Some portion of the federal money is clearly needed to facilitate that reallocation, the largest New York City has faced since the WWII demobilization.”

The city has long faced strains in its budget outlook, like the cost of employee benefits or the flaws in the property-tax system. But the current circumstances are unique, according to John Tepper Marlin, a former chief economist for the comptroller’s office.

“The federal money should not be called a stimulus,” he says, but rather should be considered relief. “This is not a cyclical recession. This is an exogenous pandemic.”

“We are making up for loss in income because people are having to stay home. We want to encourage people to comply with federal guidance. So we concentrate on the people who are most affected, at the lower income levels,” Marlin says. “For those most affected, spreading the money out is not going to do the job. That money is really needed by those most affected. Mr. Yang and I can survive a year or two of reduced income, but those on the front lines have no choice but to work, and if they lose their jobs — as so many people in the food and beverage industry have done, for example — it’s not an inconvenience. It is a crisis.”