Mayor Bill de Blasio, who spent 51 days on the road during his failed four-plus-month bid for the presidency, insisted all along he was able to run the city while away.
But he started and ended his quixotic race with old and new unfinished business brewing back home — everything from the public housing mess to diversifying city schools to property tax reform.
Speaking to WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Friday morning, de Blasio listed as his top priorities expanding 3K education, bringing health care to all New Yorkers and universal paid vacation.
Now that the mayor will presumably be spending more time in town, other business will also demand his prompt attention:
First Lady Chirlane McCray’s signature mental health initiative, ThriveNYC, is midway through a transformation after its Mental Health Service Corps struggled to retain staff and deliver services. The city Health+Hospitals system is taking over management from Hunter College and is looking to integrate early-career social workers into its primary care and behavioral health clinics, according to the newly released Mayor’s Management Report.
The report also disclosed that Thrive’s Mental Health First Aid program trained just over 50,000 New Yorkers in how to identify and engage with people experiencing distress — well short of a 72,000 goal, explaining: “Hiring challenges in Fiscal 2019 delayed progress toward this year’s Mental Health First Aid training targets.”
In June, after advocacy by City Council, ThriveNYC officials announced they were collaborating with the Department of Education to hire 85 social workers to provide clinical care to students.
While de Blasio was on the campaign trail, the ailing New York City Housing Authority got a new chair, Greg Russ. He arrived with the consent of federal authorities who previously prompted NYCHA to bring in an outside monitor to ensure the agency addresses widespread health and safety hazards.
NYCHA remains behind target on its own promises to inspect and remediate toxic lead paint in 135,000 apartments believed to pose potential risks. Meanwhile, the authority is struggling to tackle a growing backlog of tenant requests to clean up mold.
This week, the Citizens Budget Commission assessed NYCHA 2.0, de Blasio’s late-2018 plan to generate revenue through private investment, and found that without major gains in political support locally and in Washington, “its prospects remain tenuous.”
Tangled Property Taxes
In May 2018, de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson convened a commission to study the city’s convoluted property tax system and recommend reforms. They acted soon after the filing of a lawsuit arguing that assessments between different neighborhoods and building types are so unequal as to amount to unconstitutional racial discrimination.
That lawsuit remains pending. An Albany legislative session, meanwhile, came and went with de Blasio scarce — and without action to alter tax assessment formulas, which are governed mostly by state law.
Deputy Mayor Vicki Been, previously co-chair of the tax commission, recently said, “I don’t think it’s realistic” to expect the property tax system to change before de Blasio leaves office at the end of 2021. A few days later, the mayor took to Twitter to say he was committed to advocating for change in Albany.
After numerous public hearings, the tax commission still has yet to produce recommendations for reform. A mayoral spokesperson said that a report is coming later this year.
Give Him Shelters
Halfway through a five-year commitment to end the use of hotels and apartments as homeless shelters and open 90 new purpose-built facilities across the city, progress has been slow. Only 25 of those 90 new shelters are operating as of August, while hotel usage has ballooned by 40%.
The sale of 17 shelter buildings to affordable housing groups moved some families off the roster of the homeless. But the shelter population is stagnant overall and the new Mayor’s Management Report shows the length of time people stay in shelter rising.
A Streetcar He Desires
In his 2016 State of the City address, de Blasio proposed a 16-mile trolley system that would connect the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts. The throw-back idea seemed quaint, but had a very modern-day $2.5 billion price tag. Many argued there were much more pressing transit priorities around the city.
Since then, the BQX — for Brooklyn-Queens Connector — has shrunk in scope and grown in additional funding needed for its future construction. The city’s Economic Development Corporation insists it’s still a go. After initially announcing the project would be funded exclusively through taxing of rising property values along the route, the mayor said last year federal financial support will be needed.
In late May, officials told a City Council hearing for the BQX that a bus rapid transit line was also under consideration as an alternative.
BQE Needs Fix PDQ
Last year, the mayor supported a plan that would rebuild a decaying stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway — and shut the Brooklyn Heights Promenade for up to six years. Facing local outrage, he switched lanes in April to commission an “expert panel” to consider other options on how to replace the 1.5-mile long stretch of the BQE.
Meanwhile, an online petition launched by the nonprofit A Better Way wants the Department of Transportation to go back to the drawing board on BQE ideas. The petition had 70,000 signatures as of Friday. And just this week, Speaker Corey Johnson announced that the City Council hired an engineering firm for “independent, outside expertise” on DOT’s BQE plans.
A 2016 city-sponsored study concluded that if nothing is done by 2026, the BQE will have to institute weight restrictions that could prohibit trucks. If nothing is done by 2036, that section will have to shut down, the study found.
Revisiting Elite Education
The movement to diversify the city’s public schools entered a new phrase while de Blasio was on the campaign trail, when an advisory group he appointed released its recommendations shortly before the start of this school year.
The School Diversity Advisory Group called for reducing segregation by eliminating gifted-and-talented programs, along with admissions screening measures used by hundreds of middle and high schools. Those efforts at selectivity have disproportionately benefited the system’s white and Asian students over the years.
The group’s proposal came in the wake of de Blasio’s failed bid to reform the admission process for the city’s most selective high schools, known as specialized schools. The mayor and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza were unable to convince Albany legislators this year to eliminate the lone admissions criteria of a single exam.
Their efforts generated strong backlash, particularly from Asian communities, as did the notion of scrapping most accelerated programs in the public schools.
On gifted-and-talented programs, the mayor has tried to temper the outrage by making clear he’s in no particular rush to act. “It’s a lot of big issues and complex issues that have to be thought through carefully,” de Blasio told NY1 last week. “We’re going to take real time to discuss this and really hear all perspectives.”
TLC for the NYPD
De Blasio’s squeeze between police who need mayoral support to keep the city safe and New Yorkers demanding reform intensified during his presidential campaign — peaking with the firing last month of Officer Daniel Pantaleo in connection with the 2014 death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. The mayor blamed the federal Department of Justice for the NYPD years’-long delay in launching Pantaleo’s disciplinary case. Yet he announced cops who kill an unarmed civilian will now face immediate disciplinary proceedings.
The de Blasio administration has so far unsuccessfully lobbied state lawmakers to repeal a state law that restricts the release of police disciplinary records — a move opposed by police unions, but demanded by advocates as essential for accountability.
The Police Department, meanwhile, has been hit with a rash of suicides, with nine officers taking their own lives so far this year, about double the usual annual average. City lawmakers are pressing the de Blasio administration to earmark $150 million a year for added mental health care for officers. They have introduced legislation that would put counselors at each precinct.
De Blasio’s proposal to build four borough-based jails to allow for Rikers Island to eventually close is expected to be voted on by the full City Council in mid-October. If successful, the administration expects to begin the process of commissioning designs early next year.
Unresolved issues remain. A Bronx group opposing the proposed location at the site of an NYPD tow pound in Mott Haven has filed a lawsuit. Council land use chair Rafael Salamanca says he’s against it as well. Senior citizens living next door to the Manhattan jail are demanding consideration. Details remain scarce on what’s in store for inmates with mental health conditions.
The administration has budgeted $8.9 billion for the four new facilities so far, but the ultimate cost remains unknown.