Fiscal Follies at the Budget Hearings

Budget hearings began yesterday in Chambers, and really dedicated Council watchers got to catch some truly fantastic moments of irrelevance and idiocy.

Commissioner of Finance Jacques Jiha did a nimble job of answering questions and concerns about the city’s tax structure, revenue collection, deeds, etc.  Then Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez launched into his now-familiar prologue to virtually any public comment he makes:

We know that you and many other commissioners…we know that you inherit some mess from previous leaders, and that it is now our responsibility to continue working, cleaning whatever could be done better, and at the same time to continue with the vision of this administration, which is to close the gap that divides our city between the 1% and the 99%.

Few councilmembers appear to have accepted so completely, and are as willing to cough up so frequently, this founding myth of the de Blasio administration as Ydanis Rodriguez.  He cherishes it as death row inmates may cherish a vision of the Gates of Heaven. 

Rodriguez asked a few questions about the money that the city keeps on deposit in various banks, insinuating that the funds, which the city uses to pay for ongoing expenses, should be rightfully “reinvested” in local communities.  The councilmember, among others, appears to believe that the bulk of New York’s tax revenue is ripped from the piggy banks and mattresses of the city’s poorest communities.  “Our big brothers and big sisters on Wall Street have done very well from us,” Rodriguez said knowingly.

Saving his best question for last, Councilmember Rodriguez opened his arms and declaimed,

We need you, we need the Department of Finance, to collect the money…that we are able to save the firehouses, invest in afterschool programs.  But, it breaks my heart sometimes when I see a single mother, who parked the car in a non-parking area on 93rd Street and Riverside Drive, and somebody is waiting to tow the car for the purpose that we will be able to collect the money.  So there is now a ticket given to that individual because she parked the car during the time she was able to go and pick up her daughter or son from school.  Is someone waiting to tow the car and collect the money?  How can we change that approach?

Commissioner Jiha pointed out that parking regulations are out of his scope, and that the question might be better directed to the NYPD or Department of Transportation.

Then Councilmember Laurie Cumbo had her turn.  Property taxes are a constant concern for local elected officials, but Cumbo had a unique twist on the old question of rising rates:

I have a question about property taxes and not-for-profit organizations.  [My district] is gentrifying rapidly, and property values are going up very quickly.  So I am finding situations in my district where not-for-profit organizations and their landlords, the way they structured their leases was that the landlords would pass off the property taxes to the not-for-profit organizations, and as taxes are going up…many of these not-for-profit organizations are finding that they can’t keep pace, and some are seeing increases of ten, fifteen, twenty thousand dollars a year.  Have you seen cases like this, where property taxes of private landlords were passed off to not-for-profit organizations?

Commissioner Jiha said he would look into the question, and Councilmember Cumbo followed up by asking,

Is there some type of tax forgiveness program, or some way where some not-for-profit organizations can become exempt, who cannot afford to pay taxes? …. They are exempt from paying property taxes, but if they signed into their lease that they would assume the responsibility for it at a time when the community was very different, now they are held liable for paying those expenses.

Laurie Cumbo founded and ran a not-for-profit museum in Fort Greene, and has close ties with members of the Brooklyn arts community.  It is pretty clear that some of her associates probably signed weird leases that require them to cover their landlord’s property taxes, and are annoyed that increasing property values, which they as renters are not even seeing the upside of, are making their effective rent go up.  So Councilmember Cumbo is, basically, trying to figure out if there is way to make the city pay their rent.

Single mothers who got towed on the Upper West Side, or not-for-profit administrators with dodgy leases—do not fear!  Your advocates are hard at work in City Hall.