State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


New York City Government Struggles to Advance Sustainability Goals

There is always a large gap between public policy pronouncements and public management accomplishments. Policy goals pretend to provide answers and solutions when, in fact, public policy never solves problems or provides a comprehensive solution. Public policy takes problems and makes them less bad. It is always remedial, serial, and incremental—moving slowly away from problems rather than rapidly toward solutions. The air quality in America is less bad in 2023 than it was when the Clean Air Act was enacted in 1970. But the problem of air pollution remains. There are far fewer homicides in New York City today than there were in the 1990s. But 433 New Yorkers were murdered in 2022. The climate crisis will not be “solved” by New York City’s transition to renewable energy, that will take a worldwide effort. But a modern, renewable resourced–based energy system will be less expensive, more reliable, and less polluting than the current system. It will help the city compete in the global economy. It will take a generation to modernize our energy system.

The move toward environmental sustainability is progressing under Mayor Adams, as it did under his two predecessors, but it will never be fast enough for some analysts and advocates who correctly view the climate crisis as an urgent existential threat but have the luxury of not needing to house and educate recent immigrant or homeless children. Climate advocates and analysts can focus on one problem at a time. Mayors can’t. In an interesting piece of reporting in the Gothamist, Rosemary Misdary reviewed the mayor’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year and observed that:

“Last month, Mayor Eric Adams proposed a record-breaking $102.7-billion draft budget, but cuts to key departments could influence New York City’s ability to reach its climate goals. The reductions include both headcounts and funding for municipal agencies such as the Department of Buildings, which is tasked with implementing Local Law 97, an ambitious regulation that requires cuts to the metro area’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings account for about two-thirds of this pollution. For the second year in a row, Adams’ proposal falls short on a campaign promise to give the parks department 1% of the city’s total budget needed to maintain and expand greenspace to expand climate efforts with green infrastructure. The budget does include some support for climate goals. It calls for the hiring of chief decarbonization officers for various agencies to prioritize and streamline reductions in climate pollution in city operations. According to the mayor’s office, five positions were added in the 2023 executive budget to assist with implementation of the landmark law. But overall, the austerity measures could stymie climate progress, experts said.”

The problem with the analysis is it does not fully address the difficulty the city has in filling the positions that are currently vacant. Cutting positions is relatively meaningless if no one is sitting in them. These proposed cuts are not real since a larger staff is already authorized. The mayor’s budget simply cuts empty positions. It’s true that some of those positions are empty because the Office of Management and Budget uses hiring freezes to slow spending, but some are vacant due to the difficulty of filling them. The question that needs to be addressed is: What is causing this high vacancy rate? Is it a budget cutback, poor management, or possibly both? New York City Comptroller Brad Lander completed an analysis of city staff vacancy rates as of December 2022 and found that:

“Post-pandemic shifts in the labor market as well as decisions made by City Hall under the previous and current administration accelerated a national trend in declining public workforce. Seven large mayoral agencies have vacancy rates above 20%, and departments within agencies that provide essential services, such as inspecting buildings or administering childhood public assistance have vacancy rates between 29% and 46%. The overall city workforce vacancy rate is at 7.9%, driven by relatively low vacancy rates at uniformed and pedagogical services, with Fire at 2.2% vacant, Police at 5%, and Education at 7.4%. However, the 35 mayoral agencies with a headcount over 100 have a vacancy rate of 14.9%. The Department of Buildings (DOB), the largest agency with a greater-than 20% percent vacancy rate, has a vacancy rate of 22.7% with 437 unfilled, full-time positions. DOB is responsible for inspecting critical infrastructure for over a million structures, but of the 500 budgeted positions devoted to inspections, the agency only employs 355 (29% vacant). The Comptroller recommends measures to accelerate hiring, improve retention, and right-size the workforce more strategically to advance the City’s ability to deliver high-quality services to all New Yorkers. 

Anyone working in New York City government knows that filling vacant positions is difficult and time-consuming. Authorizing positions in the budget itself is only one element of program management. People must be recruited, hired, trained, and put to work. The budget itself must be compared to actual spending. Was the money allocated in the current year spent, and if it was spent, did it deliver the outputs and outcomes expected? Finally, while I agree that the mayor should fulfill his campaign promise of allocating 1% of the budget to parks, I assume, as I’m sure he does, that some of his proposed cuts will be negotiated away and replaced by increases after the City Council completes its review of the budget. Those restorations will allow individual council members to claim victories in generating increases in park funding in their districts. No one should ever confuse public policy or a government’s budget process with rational decision-making.

The issue for the Adams administration is not just resources but effective management of the resources it has. The decarbonization goals for the city are important and ambitious but are enormously challenging to implement. The city is filled with old buildings that will need massive retrofitting to decarbonize. I live in an apartment building owned by Columbia University that received a D rating on energy efficiency. The “D” sign hangs by the front door. My apartment is a wood frame brick building built at the start of the 20th century. Its steam heating system is over a century old. Decarbonization will happen, but it will take more time than climate advocates prefer. But let’s remember that we have people living on the streets in New York City. Housing that pollutes is better than no housing.

Misdary’s Gothamist piece does report significant increases in the city’s 10-year capital budget devoted to sustainability and—despite the dire tone of her report—provides substantial evidence of the city’s commitment to climate goals. According to Misdary:

“… the 10-year capital funding strategy commits 42% for infrastructure spread out over four agencies: sanitation (2% or $3.8 billion), environmental protection (19% or $29 billion), transit and transportation (21% or $33.3 billion). For transportation and environmental protection departments, this represents an increase over the previous capital budget that allocated 32% or nearly $32 billion for both. Sanitation will receive a little less percentage-wise, but overall it comes to a slight increase in dollar amounts. The parks department could potentially get nearly $9 billion over the next 10 years, which is an increase over the $5.6 billion it was slated to get. Resiliency and energy efficiency projects could receive just over $6 billion, which remains the same. The department of buildings and Local Law 97 are only mentioned in the capital budget in reference to emissions generated by city government activities, though public buildings will receive $2.6 billion.”

These are major increases in the capital budget, particularly focused on environmental goals. It proposes spending $6 billion over a decade on “resiliency and energy efficiency.” The city is not going to use its capital budget to decarbonize private buildings; its capital budget would be devoted to public buildings. And despite the tone of the article, there are plenty of vacant positions available in the Buildings Department to inspect and enforce the private decarbonization requirements of Local Law 97. Finally, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services also spends over $120 million a year on energy efficiency and has a $5.2 billion capital commitment plan for fiscal years 22-26, some of which will also be allocated to energy modernization of the city’s own 4,000 buildings.

The mayor’s budget is a political statement as much as it is a spending plan. But managing this city is enormously complicated, and reaching carbon reduction goals will be a matter of two steps forward and one step back. There are trade-offs we will need to make. Critical and competing goals will delay environmental accomplishments. But it is impossible to ignore the massive fiscal and policy commitment to environmental sustainability that is visible throughout the budget. It’s true that many areas that need increased funding don’t receive it, but that’s true in every area of every budget.

What is missing in the Adams decarbonization drive is the management innovation and reduction of red tape needed to bring our city government’s operations into the 21st century. Unless there is a visible and high-priority crisis, the entire city government moves far too slowly and with incredible inefficiency whenever it turns to a new task. The world is changing too fast for the old ways to continue, and massive management reform rather than massive new funding is what we really need to hasten the transition to environmental sustainability.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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