Unveiling Budget, de Blasio Wants Priority 5 Made Permanent

Mayor Bill De Blasio explaining the New York City budget (AP)
Mayor Bill De Blasio explaining the New York City budget (AP)

Tackling what had long been the annual bane of activists for large Orthodox families, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday proposed making Priority 5 childcare vouchers an integral part of the budget, rather than something to be argued anew each year.

Unveiling his 2016 budget proposal, the mayor said he wants to allocate $12.6 million to the voucher program that aids two-income families who still struggle financially. That is less than the $17 million put forward by the City Council in their own budget, but potentially historic since it includes it in the baseline budget.

De Blasio’s $78.3 billion executive budget is a $600 million increase over his blueprint in early February. Since then, the city has learned it would have a $1.6 billion surplus in fiscal 2015 and 2016.

The two budget proposals must now be reconciled and voted on by the June 30 deadline.

Until now, the budget itself was approved, but the voucher was included in a separate pot of money which allocated funds to various constituencies or communities. The latter group was part of what de Blasio referred to as the “budget dance,” in which the mayor and council faced off in funding certain projects by threatening to defund others.

By “baselining” Priority 5, de Blasio not only restores a significant amount of it that was eliminated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he makes it permanent. As a city councilman representing parts of Boro Park and later as public advocate, de Blasio had led the fight to fund the voucher.

Afterschool vouchers are given to large families for supervised extracurricular activities on a sliding scale. Families under social service supervision are given higher priority, but many Orthodox families have qualified for some of the other priorities.

For example, Priority 5 benefits families where both parents work at least 20 hours a week but are within poverty guidelines. Priority 7 is for those with significant needs, such as large families, where only one parent works. That last grouping has not been funded in recent years, although it receives any money left over after the other priorities are funded.

By making the program a lasting portion of the city’s priorities, de Blasio has effectively fulfilled his last major campaign promise made to the Orthodox community prior to his election in 2013.

Using the average cost of $2,748 per voucher, City Hall estimates that de Blasio’s funding would support about 1,740 low-income vouchers.

The funding did not come easily, though. When the mayor announced a preliminary budget earlier this year, activists were concerned that there was no funding included for Priority 5, considered a lifeblood for many Orthodox families.

The battle for funding was led by Councilmen David Greenfield and Stephen Levin, which resulted in the mayor’s announcement Thursday.

Greenfield released a statement Thursday morning thanking de Blasio “for keeping his commitment to the Orthodox Jewish community.”

“I am pleased that these funds are being baselined so that we won’t have to fight about this every year,” Greenfield said. “Thanks to the mayor, we can now move on to the other key issues that the yeshivah community faces and have honest conversations.”

Levin called the mayor’s action “a major step for families in need of childcare in the communities I represent and throughout New York City.”

One item left out of the budget is a bill sponsored by Greenfield and co-sponsored by 47 other lawmakers to make private schools such as yeshivos eligible for school safety agents upon request. De Blasio said that he feels the police department is equipped to handle threats to all schools without the additional security.

Additional items in the budget includes boosting the city’s general reserve fund to what de Blasio called an “unprecedented” level of $1 billion, up from an average of about $300 million annually and the $750 million he suggested in February.

It also raises the retiree health benefit trust fund to $2.6 billion, enough to fund an entire year of employee healthcare costs, he said.

And it creates a brand new capital stabilization reserve fund of $500 million to “intensify capital spending” and allow the city to meet its debt service obligations in an economic downturn.

“We believe the reserves are going to be needed in the near term,” he said, echoing his warning in February that another economic slump or city-wide crisis could come at any time. “We’re trying to protect what we already have so we don’t lose it in a downturn.”

Even after nearly six years of economic recovery, 32 U.S. states still face budget gaps, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services said in April. When the broader economy suffers, the state and federal governments often reduce aid to cities and towns.

“If problems occur, we do not expect anyone to come save us,” de Blasio said. New York City’s budget is bigger than those of all other U.S. cities and nearly all states.

The mayor also outlined an $83.8 billion, 10-year capital plan for the city’s water and sewer systems, roads and other infrastructure, a 24 percent increase over what he presented a year ago. That blueprint would keep debt service costs below 15 percent of revenues.

Separately on Thursday, de Blasio said he is seeking to impose a “mansion tax” on sales of the city’s toniest apartments in order to build more affordable housing.

That plan would add a 1 percent tax on sales of condominiums, co-ops and other properties over $1.75 million, which would help generate $180 million to $200 million annually, he said.

The proposal, which requires state approval, would affect the top 10 percent of residential real estate transactions.