Sealed with a celebratory handshake and little fanfare, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council agreed late Thursday night on a $75 billion budget proposal, adding $5 billion more than last year’s budget for additional desk police officers, a pilot-free lunch program and efforts to fight what they said was rising income inequality.
But most importantly for the Orthodox community, $10 million was added to Priority 5 childcare vouchers, in a move advocates say is beginning the process of reversing a years-long trend of cutting the program.
The city released few details since making the announcement at a hastily arranged press
conference at 10:15 Thursday night. Several people close to the budget deal told Hamodia they will find out more details on Monday or Tuesday.
Several uncertainties include how many slots will be made available, if those already on the waiting list will be served first, and if they will have to reapply.
One reason for the ambiguity stems from the number of voucher programs that the city has. One gives $2,750 per child, another is worth $5,000 while a third can net $10,000.
“There’s a range for how $10million will be allocated,” Councilman Stephen Levin, a Williamsburg Democrat, told Hamodia.
All activists on the issue agree that more funding is needed to satisfy the growing number of low-income families who are eligible for the program. The victory on Thursday, they say, is the fact that it wasn’t cut, as it had been every year since 2010.
“This is the first step, and this is a very big step, toward undoing cuts the previous administration made to vouchers,” Levin said.
Isaac Sofer, the administrator of United Talmudical Academy in Williamsburg, the Satmar yeshivah, told Hamodia that an additional cause for relief was the fact that the funding will be funneled through the Administration for Children’s Services, rather than through the Department of Youth and Community Development.
ACS, Rabbi Sofer explained, gives the child a voucher, which follows him throughout his school years. The DYCD, however, goes through the school itself through a Request For Proposals process.
“A voucher follows the child, an RFP follows the institution,” Rabbi Sofer said.
The city helps low-income families work by providing them with childcare vouchers that are irrespective of which school the child attends. They go through various levels of hardship, with priorities 1 through 4 mandated by the federal government since they help welfare recipients.
For example, Priority 5 benefits families where both parents work at least 20 hours a week but are still within poverty guidelines. Priority 7, which was eliminated five years ago, is for those with significant needs, such as large families, where only one parent works.
Previously a strong proponent of increased vouchers, de Blasio, a former councilman who represented parts of Boro Park, had promised to restore both priorities 5 and 7 this year. He said earlier this year that while a lack of funding forced him to postpone his promise for another year, he will bring back some of the vouchers this year.
He attempted to do that in his budget proposal, released early last month. He proposed adding $1.7 million, something rejected by advocates such as Councilmen Steve Levin, David Greenfield, Chaim Deutsch and Mark Levine as insufficient. They demanded $17 million.
The deal on Thursday compromised at $10 million.
Councilman Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat who is part of the Council’s leadership team and an advocate for increased vouchers, said the deal “reflects a new commitment to work with families in all of our communities to provide the support they need. … The Priority 5 vouchers will make a difference for thousands of families who are currently struggling to make ends meet.”
Greenfield, who had promised to vote against a budget that did not contain the voucher, sent a press release in which he “declares victory in the fight to add funding to the Priority 5 voucher program.”
“For the first time in many years, funding will not only not be cut from the program, as it was under Bloomberg’s administration, but that it will be brought back to a funding level it has not reached in years,” he added.
The broader budget deal struck with the council, led by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Democrat and mayoral ally, avoids any city worker layoffs or tax hikes. It increases spending to schools and social services but does not include the council recommendation to hire 1,000 new police officers. It also includes measures to provide free lunches for all public middle-school students, whether they are rich or poor.
De Blasio said the budget deal was one of the earliest in recent history, a result of “the productive dynamic” he and the City Council have developed.
“A budget is a statement of values. It affects people’s lives in the grassroots every single day,” de Blasio said. “It signals a new direction for New York City.”
De Blasio’s first budget, which
benefits from growing city tax revenues, devotes more funding to education, helping to fulfill a signature campaign promise. Though his idea to fund universal prekindergarten with a tax hike on the rich died in Albany, the state government stepped in with $300 million for pre-K. However, it gave little for after-school programs, also a de Blasio priority. The budget now allocates additional spending to expand such programs for nearly 100,000 children.
It also devotes $32 million to aid inmates with mental illness and reduce violence in city jails and more than $19 million to the city’s public housing system, particularly to improve security after a recent crime spike.
Despite those public safety concerns, the budget does not include the council’s proposal to hire 1,000 new police officers. De Blasio has said he believes that the current headcount of 35,000 officers is adequate to keep crime low. However, it will hire 200 administrative aides who will take over desk jobs currently filled by police officers, who will then be freed up to be deployed on the street and in public housing.
Following weeks of negotiations, the deal was announced in a press conference that resembled a pep rally, complete with loudly cheering councilmen and a celebratory handshake.
The budget deal includes funding for a new contract for the teachers union, which was agreed to last month. The de Blasio administration has said it believes that deal, which includes small raises and back pay and will cost the city $17.7 billion over nine years, will serve as a template for ongoing negotiations with the nearly 150 other municipal labor unions working on expired contracts. Some unions have balked at the plan, casting uncertainty on some of the administration’s rosy fiscal projections.
The teachers’ contract also includes a provision to create $1billion in healthcare savings, which allowed the administration to spend more money elsewhere.
The tentative deal, which is for the fiscal year beginning July 1, includes about $150 million in additional spending since de Blasio’s executive budget proposal last month. It also increases spending about $5 billion over independent Bloomberg’s final budget, which was hammered out last year. But the process contained little of the acrimonious budget dance that came to define negotiations in Bloomberg’s final years in office.
“I remember many years when the process was filled with conflict, when it was filled with misdirection, when people struggled to get the most basic things for their communities,” de Blasio said. “We said we weren’t going to do any of that.”
To close budget gaps, Bloomberg would propose cutting services, such as closing fire companies or libraries, which would lead to heated protests on the City Hall steps. But this year, with increased revenue and a strong relationship between de Blasio and the liberal leaders atop the council, there were few areas of disagreement.
One was the school lunch program. The council originally wanted to fund meals for all public school students but a compromise was instead reached to spend $6.25 million for a pilot program to provide lunch solely for middle schoolers.
Additionally, the budget preserves the city council’s discretionary funds — known as member items — despite de Blasio’s hopes to ban them out of concern that they lead to corruption.
The full council has to vote on the deal by the end of this month.
With reporting by The Associated Press.