Last month, New York City mayor Eric Adams ordered almost all city agencies to cut their budgets by 3 to 4 percent for the coming fiscal year, which begins in July. His new proposed executive budget, subject to approval by city council next month, outlines hundreds of millions of cuts to libraries, schools, and social services. Meanwhile, the New York Police Department chose to acquire two robotic dogs for approximately $750,000 — making two new dogs worth a year of preschool for approximately fifty-eight three-year-olds.
The mayor’s choices are both devastating and antidemocratic. Adams has blamed the city’s fiscal woes on the recent influx of asylum seekers in the city, pitting refugees against long-term New Yorkers and giving the public the impression that there aren’t enough resources to be shared. He has dismissed criticism from a significant number of city councilmembers, recommendations from policy experts, fierce opposition from community groups, and contrary information from watchdog groups like the Independent Budget Office, which actually projects a $4.9 billion surplus for 2023.
Unfortunately, some of the mayor’s premises — that repeating the phrase “fiscally responsible” often enough will justify making any and all cuts to our safety net — are hardly unique. The mayor’s cuts embody poor budget judgment on a local level, as well as the need for budget justice and democracy in cities nationwide.
In his instructions to agency leaders, budget director Jacques Jiha stated that they “should avoid meaningfully impacting services where possible.” This is not possible. I should know: I am a scholar who specializes in the study of urban policy and governance, a parent of a child in our public schools and a professor at the City University of New York (CUNY).
Three or 4 percent cuts don’t sound like much, until these cuts are put into context. They are actually the third round of cuts in just a few months. Mayor Adams has proposed a 50 percent cut in job postings in all agencies, without attention to whether these vacancies were for expendable positions or for ones that are absolutely essential to keep New York running.
And these three rounds of cuts follow steep, seemingly indiscriminate budget cuts last year, more than $370 million for the Department of Education alone. As reported in the City, this means that Brooklyn’s Middle School 859 had to work with 15 percent, or $825,000, less than it did the previous year. So several teachers were “excessed” over the summer, and the school eliminated leadership positions for teacher professional development, planned to increase class sizes from twenty-five to thirty-three, and shrank arts, music, and enrichment offerings.
These cuts also come exactly when students direly need more resources to cope with learning and emotional losses they suffered during the pandemic. More than eighty-seven hundred children in NYC lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19; an investigation by a coalition of journalism organizations reports that “decades of underfunding mental health care left schools unprepared” to help these students.
These cuts are an act of self-sabotage. According to one Brookings Institution study, six of the country’s top ten four-year colleges for economic mobility are part of CUNY. We did not become the “People’s University” without resources.
At Brooklyn College, the political science department in which I teach has lost seven full-time faculty members in the past decade. None of those positions have been replaced. In the meantime, even as we increasingly rely on underpaid part-time, adjunct faculty to teach our classes, our adjunct budgets are also being slashed and our courses canceled, sometimes just days before the semester starts. Our building infrastructure is in such disrepair that, as but one example, two of the three sinks in my office’s bathroom are inoperable.
We are working to increase student enrollments for the coming year, but we cannot do so without offering the courses and facilities they need for their college education. Among CUNY’s community colleges, more than one hundred faculty who left since the start of the pandemic have not been replaced.
The budget cuts will also hurt services like food stamps, right after pandemic-related federal assistance ended. The result is, as one New York Times headline put it, a “catastrophe.” The Human Resources Agency is supposed to process food assistance applications within a thirty-day window. In fiscal year 2021, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the Mayor’s Management Report reported an on-time rate of 92 percent. In December 2022, the on-time rate was 22.4 percent. Those eligible for housing vouchers face similarly long delays, resulting in some being evicted from their homes as they wait.
Meanwhile, Mayor Adams just announced a contract giving the city’s largest police union $5.5 billion in raises. This means that a cop with five and a half years of service could earn $131,500 a year. (By contrast, teachers with five years on the job and a master’s degree earn $72,076 a year.) Further, many cops earn as much $50,000 to $80,000 a year in overtime pay on top of their salaries; a recent recording obtained by Gothamist features police officers bragging about “milking” overtime.
The city has overspent its police overtime budget by nearly $100 million thus far this year. The new contract will make these numbers even more dramatic; the new overtime rate of $93.75 an hour is 50 percent more than the current one.
The city’s recent cuts reflect little rhyme or reason. Although New York City’s preschool programs for three-year-olds (“3-K”) were seen as a national model, the Department of Education allowed thousands of precious seats to sit empty as many families remained unaware of the programs. It could have used federal COVID-19 money on outreach but did not.
Early childhood education should be universal and is a bargain in the long run; it yields returns of as much as $16 for every dollar invested in the form of less crime and fewer social services needed in the future. Instead, the administration plans to significantly contract the program and pay the consulting firm Accenture $760,000 to “map out needs and future seats” in 3-K.
The city administration should roll back these wholesale budget cuts. City councilmembers must hold Mayor Adams accountable and reject any executive budget with such austerity baked in. City agencies need more time and resources to strategically plan for the medium term. New York State must pay its fair share to the city, especially for services to newly arriving asylum seekers, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the billions of school funds it still owes from the 2001 Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York decision.
And New Yorkers should demand a more democratic budget process — one in which everyday residents have a say in the city budget’s priorities. Dozens of community groups, including the Professional Staff Congress-CUNY union I am a member of, Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), Jews For Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ), and the local Democratic Socialists of America are already organizing to make this demand through a coalition called the People’s Plan, which came together to forward alternative visions for the city budget and for how we could have a better budgeting process.
Public budgets are moral documents that reflect specific values and theories of government. Mayor Adams is relying on his team and allies to decide a budget for all of us, and in doing so, he’s depriving the city of so much insight from what makes New York great: New Yorkers. By opening up the process, he can get fresh ideas that help the city thrive. Everyday New Yorkers deserve a budget that gives them the resources to address their needs and the right to help shape what that means.