State of the Planet

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Questioning Mayor Adams’ Commitment to Protecting NYC’s Environment

Mayor Adams is a superb advocate for environmental quality and environmental justice, but the city government he runs doesn’t always seem to follow through. The Buildings Department is inadequately staffed to implement the pathbreaking decarbonization Local Law 97. The mayor has failed to allocate 1% of the city’s budget to the Parks Department as he promised during his campaign. And, most recently, his administration has proposed restoring rent charges to the city’s Water Board. Are all indicators of Mayor Adams’ lack of commitment to New York City’s environmental quality. His intention often seems sound, but his words are often contradicted by the government’s deeds. The latest example of this is the ill-advised effort to charge New Yorkers more for water and then divert funds away from the water capital budget to the city’s general fund.

According to an excellent piece of reporting by Dana Rubinstein of the New York Times:

“The city plans to charge its own Water Board more than $1.4 billion in rent over four years to lease its water and sewer systems from the city… The city’s Department of Environmental Protection, in turn, is now proposing that the Water Board raise its rates for homeowners and landlords by 8.5 percent in July, according to a proposal released Friday by the board. The proposed rate increase — which, if approved, would be double last year’s rate hike and the highest in 14 years — would only pay for a portion of the rent charges. Some of the rest are likely to come from funds that typically finance capital upgrades to the water and sewer system, potentially leaving the city more vulnerable to critical breakdowns. The funding gimmick had been used by New York City for decades, but was discarded in 2017 (only to make a temporary, partial reappearance during Covid before it disappeared again)…Following years of deterioration, city and state officials created the Water Board in the mid-1980s to establish a reliable revenue source for the water and sewer systems and enable them to be self-sufficient. At the time, there was a pile of outstanding water-and sewer-related debt backed by the city’s general fund, and the officials agreed the Water Board would pay for it with rental payments…The construct works like this: The Water Board leases the water and sewer systems from the city, levies water charges and uses the revenue to underwrite those systems, which are managed by the Department of Environmental Protection.”

Those old debts are long gone, so the rental charge is not needed. In essence, the city is stealing money from the water system’s capital budget to add money to the city’s annual expenditures. This is a version of the bad old days of New York City budgeting when we used the capital budget to pay for routine annual expenditures. It’s like using a credit card to buy household necessities and allowing the bill and interest payments to accumulate before you find the money to pay the bill. Since the revenue stream will come from water bills intended to maintain the water system, we are starving the water system’s capital budget. As the Times story indicates, we are doing this at a moment when climate change is adding stress to the city’s infrastructure—including our water system. Funding is needed for green and gray infrastructure to hold water and prevent flooding during extreme weather events. Anyone watching the evening news knows that America is experiencing massive flooding due to our hotter and wetter atmosphere. In addition to the need for climate resiliency, several of the city’s sewage treatment plants need upgrading, and lead pipes are over 100,000 privately owned lead service lines in New York City.

Then, there is the massive, heavy lift to implement Local Law 97 over the next several decades. This law sets deadlines for large buildings to reduce carbon emissions by adopting energy efficiency measures, electrification, and renewable energy. The law is quite complicated, as is the variety of New York City’s stock of large buildings. Some building owners have sufficient resources to comply, but some are co-ops or condos that will struggle to meet the costs of compliance. The Department of Buildings will need an aggressive outreach effort to explain the law and work with building owners to facilitate compliance. While the Department of Buildings has been staffing up a Sustainability Bureau, a report on the Department of Buildings published on March 11, 2024, by the New York City Council’s Finance Division was critical of the Department’s commitment to Local Law 97. According to the City Council report:

“In the Sustainability Bureau, there are currently 66 budgeted and 62 active positions, spread out over five units. DOB staff across multiple units administer Local Law 97, the keystone of the Climate Mobilization Act that enforces certain limits on emissions from buildings. The largest is energy and code compliance, with 44 budgeted positions. Other units cover policy/legal, outreach, and building efficiency, as well as the Office of the Deputy Commissioner for Sustainability. The Preliminary Plan…reflects a total of 84 budgeted positions in Fiscal 2025. However, only 11 DOB staffers are responsible for conducting compliance reviews in the over 50,000 buildings covered by the law, underscoring a potential lack of commitment towards its implementation. Seven unfilled enforcement positions remain to be filled. It would be difficult to claim the Administration is moving too quickly on staffing the Sustainability Bureau for implementation of LL 97. The limited headcount caps the Department’s ability to engage property owners, assist them with making the transition, and evaluate thousands of complex reports.” https://council.nyc.gov/budget/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2024/03/810-DOB.pdf

I am not echoing the views of those environmental activists who, in the Fall of 2023, criticized Adams’ plan to provide more time for building owners to comply with elements of Local Law 97. The critics accused the mayor of being in the pocket of the real estate industry and caving into their lobbying efforts. My view is that Local Law 97 will be difficult to implement and will require custom-tailored enforcement and compliance strategies to minimize unanticipated negative impacts certain to result from the costs of compliance. We don’t want to cause buildings to be abandoned or stimulate rent increases that might cause homelessness. In some cases, buildings will need financial help from the government to comply with this law. In other cases, we are certain to find unscrupulous landlords ignoring the law, and it is far from reassuring to see that the Department of Buildings still has seven unfilled enforcement positions. The complexity of the law and our varied building stock require either hundreds of new staff or resources to contract out compliance assistance programs. The City Council report identifies the need for additional organizational capacity, and its absence leads me to question the depth of the mayor’s commitment to an environmentally sustainable New York City.

A third issue is the inadequate funding of the city’s parks. This past March, the Mayor helped secure a $117 million federal grant for the Queensway Greenway project. This is a wonderful project, and Mayor Adams will have a nice ribbon cutting ceremony when it is ready to open. But the problem will come when the Parks Department’s pathetic operations and maintenance budget comes under additional pressure to maintain the new park. When Mayor Adams was campaigning for office, he promised that 1% of the city’s budget would be spent on parks. He’s never come close.

The pattern we see is high visibility announcements followed by low visibility inattention to the details of administration. A legislator can take stands, make pronouncements, and advocate for policies and programs. As Mayor Adams often says, his job as our chief executive is to “get stuff done.” That can’t happen if he advocates for programs and then starves them of resources. And as any manager will tell you, it’s easier to do nothing than to get stuff done. The budget flimflam in water, the absence of money for parks, and the inadequate staffing in the Department of Buildings can pretty much guarantee that stuff won’t get done. While the policies look good, performance and follow-up are lacking. The boring details of public administration matter, and while there are examples of real progress underway, New York City’s water infrastructure, decarbonization, and parks need additional people and money.

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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