De Blasio Devotion

De Blasio Devotion

August 26, 2015

This has not been the Summer of de Blasio. Among the most biting criticisms that the mayor currently faces – on the Legionnaire’s outbreak, the Uber fight, his feud with the governor – are those focused on his handling of New York City’s social services. 

The New York Post’s editorial page has recently been decrying the city’s “surging vagrant population” and the publication has lampooned those who prioritize housing for the homeless over mental health considerations. National television pundit Joe Scarborough reinforced this narrative on Tuesday, blaming the mayor’s “misguided liberalism” for the city’s “homeless epidemic.”

But in spite of the recent bad press, leaders of the city’s human services nonprofits remain largely committed to the mayor and his vision. 

James Parrott, deputy director and chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute, says this broad support stems from the administration’s overhaul of the annual budget process as it relates to nonprofit organizations. 

“For the last several years under Mayor Bloomberg, nonprofits complained bitterly – and justly so – about the annual ‘budget dance’ in which the mayor dropped from his proposal hundreds of millions of dollars in social service contracts that the council had secured in the prior year’s budget,” Parrott explained. “Advocates were then forced to lobby and rally throughout the spring to get the council to restore the cuts. Mayor de Blasio has not only done away with all of that, but he’s boosted funding by hundreds of millions of dollars for enhanced programming in a number of areas.”

Parrott says the Fiscal Policy Institute’s recent tallies show that city funding for human services has increased 14 percent since de Blasio took office, compared with a 5.5 percent increase in federal funding and a 2.9 percent decrease in state funding. 

“The contrast with the previous administration – as well as with the state government – in this regard could not be more stark,” Parrott said.

Nonprofit leaders across the human services spectrum, from homeless services to education advocacy, say the budgetary changes have translated into substantial gains in programming.

“This administration has made significant progress toward ensuring that all New York City children have access to high-quality, affordable early childhood education and after-school programs – opportunities that we know help close the achievement gap and lift families out of poverty,” said Michelle Yanche, assistant executive director of Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit that offers school-based services and has been a vocal advocate for after-school education funding. “In conjunction with community-based organizations, an expected 70,000 kids will be enrolled in pre-K this year, and more than 100,000 middle school students will have access to enriching after-school programs,” Yanche said.

Christy Parque, executive director of Homeless Services United, also says that her agency has recognized a remarkably positive shift, despite public perception that the homeless population is growing. “The expansion of Homebase, the consolidation of legal services at the Human Resources Administration, the expansion of funding for eviction services – these have been critical and smart moves by the administration to stop the growth of homelessness in New York City,” she said.

Parque argued that these expansions should not be forgotten in the face of questions from the media about the efficacy of the city’s efforts to decrease the homeless population. “The barrage by the tabloid press has simply perpetuated the myths and stereotypes about who is homeless, defining the problem incorrectly,” Parque said. “In reality, we have made huge gains with this administration. We are within arm’s reach of solving veterans homelessness in New York City, for example.”

However, while human services leaders praise the mayor’s overarching progress, many have raised specific questions about the administration’s management of funding and program implementation.

Yanche cited a recent battle to restore $24 million in grants to community organizations – including Good Shepherd Services – that was initially removed from the mayor’s executive budget. While the funding was restored in June, allowing programming for thousands of underserved middle school students to go forward, it took a massive mobilization on the part of advocates and providers, including rallies and letter-writing campaigns.

“There is still progress that our city needs to make to ensure that summer programs continue and are not forced to fight for funding, as they were this year,” Yanche said.

Human services nonprofits have sparred with the administration on many issues on which they were previously aligned. Advocates for universal free lunch for middle school students, for instance, have expressed befuddlement at the mayor’s decision not to expand this past year’s pilot program.

“The participation in middle schools this past year was really strong – 10,000 more students eating per day, which is a 9 percent increase in participation,” said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates, a nonprofit that led the Lunch 4 Learning campaign for free universal lunch. “We saw those numbers as a great success and were very surprised that the administration did not decide to expand the program in the final budget.”

In his executive budget briefing, the mayor said the city would “continue to work on the pilot program from the first year and hopefully get better results,” with the hopes of expansion by fiscal year 2018.

Accles says the administration’s prolonged path to expansion is confusing, and a missed opportunity to lead.

“Leading up to the final budget, we were stunned that the administration had such a different interpretation of the data,” Accles said. “I do think that they are philosophically aligned with us, which is actually the core of the frustration. Expansion of the program will actually save money for the city, due to available federal subsidies. … Why wouldn’t the city want to fully embrace the clear blueprint provided by the success of the pilot program?”

Nonprofit leaders have also expressed concerns about the implementation of the recently won cost of living adjustment for contracts with the city. While the 2.5 percent increase for city contracts was welcomed as a victory by the sector, details of its rollout have yet to emerge.

“While we were very excited to get the commitment, the implementation details have been slow,” said Michelle Jackson, associate director and general counsel of the Human Services Council. “Providers have been waiting to get a sense of the details because without them, nonprofits are unable to put the changes into their budgets.”

Jackson was also concerned that the cost of living adjustment implementation could have unintended consequences for nonprofits.

“We’re concerned that there could be unfunded reporting requirements,” Jackson said. “Nonprofits have limited ability to meet new administrative requirements, especially when contracts provide low overhead rates.”

City officials maintain that the implementation is being handled methodically to ensure maximum efficacy, and that the changes will be retroactive to the beginning of the fiscal year.

“The city is actively working with the nonprofit service provider community and the appropriate city agencies to ensure that implementation covers all the intended employees and programs, and that it is done in an efficient manner that doesn’t place any undue burden on providers,” said Amy Spitalnick, director of public affairs for the city Office of Management and Budget. “We take these concerns very seriously and are addressing them at the beginning of the process. By working upfront with the providers, we are ensuring the easiest and most efficient implementation process – rather than months of review after the fact.”

Parque agreed that process has not appeared to be completely seamless to nonprofits, but expressed understanding for the challenges involved in adjusting thousands of contracts.

“Yes, more clarity on the rollout process would have been helpful,” Parque said. “To be fair, though, I remember similar challenges the last time we had a cost of living adjustment.”

Parrott added that the administration should be cut some slack, given the scope of its achievements with human services nonprofits.

“Like many others, I would like to see things happen faster,” Parrott said. “But I also have the luxury of looking across the entire city budget and seeing what’s going on. While I may feel impatient at times, I understand that there has been very ambitious implementation, from universal pre-K to housing. This administration is taking on huge problem areas.”

Jeff Stein