At a recent news briefing announcing the consolidation of the city’s technology agencies, Mayor Eric Adams leveled a time-worn accusation at city government, typically expressed by fiscal watchdog groups and disgruntled New Yorkers.
“Taxpayers are just not getting their money’s worth,” he told reporters on Wednesday, later adding without proof, “Trust me there's fraud and mismanagement in these agencies and we need to go after them.”
Under his predecessor, Bill de Blasio, the number of full-time city employees grew to more than 337,000 — its highest level in history — as the city’s budget rose to a record $103 billion with the help of federal stimulus funds. As he settles in as the chief executive of the biggest municipal workforce in the country, Adams has painted New York City’s bureaucracy in blistering terms, accusing its agencies of dysfunction, incompetence and mismanagement.
And in a sharp departure from de Blasio, a fellow Democrat, the new mayor has signaled that he intends to be a fiscal hawk, while promising an overhaul of city government at the management level.
“Everyone that is in managerial positions and high-end positions—they must be providing a service to the city,” he said. “You can't be there just going through the motions.”
“Everyone that is in managerial positions and high-end positions—they must be providing a service to the city. You can't be there just going through the motions.”--Mayor Eric Adams
Adams pointed to David Banks, the city’s schools chancellor, who recently reduced the size of his cabinet from 15 members to seven. “That’s the order that’s coming from me,” he said.
The mayor did not specify the size of the cuts he was seeking. All told, managers make up 3% of the city’s workforce, accounting for a little over 10,000 employees, according to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.
The mayor said he would not call for furloughs to any civil servants.
Broadly speaking, all government employees are described as civil servants. But roles that don’t require a qualifying exam—including attorneys, laborers, deputy commissioners and executive assistants—are not granted permanent civil service status.
A spokesperson for the mayor said that the budget process is still in a preliminary phase. Last week, the city’s newly appointed budget director, Jacques Jiha, ordered nearly every city agency to trim their costs by 3%. On Wednesday, Adams noted that Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who famously fired an employee for playing computer solitaire, issued a similar edict in his first term.
De Blasio, who argued that the city’s economic prosperity and rollout of more services justified a bigger budget, undertook only one such cost-trimming measure in his two terms.
All the same, New York City’s budget is not in as dire shape as some predicted, due to better than expected tax revenues along with $13 billion in federal funding. On top of that, Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday unveiled a record-setting $216 billion budget that seeks to deliver significant investments and funding in areas like education and infrastructure for New York City.
James Parrott, an economist with the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, said the state budget was in the best shape it has been in 40 years. The city stands to be a beneficiary.
The city has projected a $3 billion shortfall next year, but the Independent Budget Office (IBO), a nonpartisan group, estimated a notably smaller gap, that of a little more than $1 billion.
Still, experts say that uncertainties with the pandemic and the pace of job recovery make the city’s fiscal outlook more difficult to predict. Adams must also contend with contract negotiations with municipal unions and federal funding drying up for programs like universal pre-K and the summer rising initiative, a free camp program for all New York City children.
During a public presentation on New York City’s fiscal outlook on Thursday, Jonathan Rosenberg, a director of budget review at the IBO, said that having agencies examine where they can reduce costs is generally a good idea.
“Oftentimes things continue for years without being looked at,” Rosenberg said.
At the same time, he warned, “Using one tool across all agencies, and not allowing nuanced changes, is not always the right way to go.”
After the presentation, he elaborated by saying that rather than offering up real efficiencies, agencies may instead be incentivized to “offer up the low-hanging fruit.”
Not every agency will be required to make cuts. The Department of Correction, the city’s municipal hospital network known as Health + Hospitals, the Department of Health, and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner were exempted because of the challenges they continue to face amid the pandemic.
And as the city see an ongoing spate of violent crime, Adams left open the possibility that the NYPD, which was not named as one of the exempted agencies, could be excluded from cuts, as well.
All other agencies have been instructed to make cost-saving proposals for fiscal years 2022 and 2023 and submit them by January 21st.
According to the rules laid out by the city’s budget office, the cuts must not impact direct services or rely on issuing new fees or fines.
They also cannot be based on layoffs, a message that would appear to contradict what the mayor has said.
While Adams on Wednesday suggested the NYPD could be exempt from cuts, the former police captain also lamented that too many officers were being deployed to roles not critical to public safety, and thus a waste of resources. Citing the presence of NYPD officers at parades, he said, “Why aren’t you on patrol somewhere?”
Andrew Rein, president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan watchdog group, praised Adams’s attempt to weed out inefficiencies in city government.
He said that the mayor can reduce headcount without resorting to layoffs by electing not to fill vacancies and through natural attrition of the workforce.
Rein estimated that roughly 20,000 city workers leave their jobs every year.
“Change in leadership is very healthy,” he added. “It’s good to periodically review your structure.”