City Council members went after Mayor Eric Adams’ spending cuts during their first preliminary budget hearing Wednesday — arguing that the mayor was jeopardizing the city’s recovery by cutting agency budgets when revenues appeared to be higher than expected.
Finance Chair Justin Brannan was among the first to critique the plan during the virtual hearing, arguing that city agency service cuts were ill advised amid a still fragile recovery and with tax collections better than anticipated. Adams introduced his budget earlier this month, calling for 3% cuts per agency known as “program to eliminate gap,” or PEG. The cuts would roll back some sanitation services and cut funding for schools among other trims. Adams also eliminated 3,200 vacant positions for this year. The city Department of Correction were exempted from the cuts.
The hearing illustrated where the big debates over the budget will likely focus in the coming months, before the budget is adopted in July.
“The dissonance of budget cuts amid the reality of a robust recovery is hard to wrap our heads around and difficult for this Council to explain to our constituents,” Brannan said in his opening remarks. “Moreover, unintended austerity will jeopardize the progress of our recovery.”
Jacques Jiha, the director of the Office of Management and Budget called the budget “cautious” given the slow economic recovery, empty commercial buildings and still present threat of COVID-19. He also pointed to the concerns over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which he said could lead to rising costs. He also saw the PEG cuts as prudent to ensure a balanced budget.
“The PEG was a success, achieving nearly $2 billion in savings for Fiscal Year ‘22 and ‘23,” Jiha said, adding there’s no plan to implement the program in future fiscal years.
Council Speaker Adrienne Adams decried the $215 million cut to the city Department of Education budget for schools facing enrollment reductions. Those proposed cuts come as the DOE begins to address pandemic-related learning loss.
“Don’t schools need as much additional [support] as possible and education be made a priority?” the speaker asked. “Will there be boundaries put around what schools can cut?”
Jiha suggested the cuts could have been deeper since OMB relied on federal stimulus funding earmarked to the DOE. He argued that with a drop in enrollment, a drop in funding is justified.
The speaker also took issue with the lack of increased funding to the Department for the Aging — that included a $53 million cut to its meals-on-wheels program — especially DOC were exempt from any cuts.
Public safety in schools served as a worry for some members concerned that the headcount for school safety agents was reduced. Jiha justified the cuts, saying there was not enough interest to fill the positions.
Headcount reductions in the city Department of Buildings and housing preservation was a top concern for Councilmember Pierina Sanchez, the housing chair, who said unfilled positions will delay the time it takes inspectors to review conditions across the city’s buildings.
Comptroller Brad Lander, in his testimony, projected that the city will have $1.4 billion more in anticipated tax revenue and $800 million in the following year than currently estimated. Lander did throw support behind the PEG cuts, though he said the Department of Correction budget should have been included.
There were some glimmers of possible funding increases. Councilmember Selvena Brooks-Powers criticized Adams’ allocation of $75 million for the Fair Fares program — $31 million short of what Council Speaker Adrienne Adams sought. Jiha said he’s open to re-examining those funds.
“If ridership were to increase and there’s a need for additional resources, we will work with the Council at the time to adjust the budget to reflect the increased ridership and increased needs,” Jiha said.
The article has been updated to reflect the NYPD was not exempt from a PEG.