Only 48 hours after the satirical Surgeon General-like warning in my personal/political email last week, our “amazing” #45 said some things that warranted a real public health alert to counteract. Sarah Cooper is brilliant.
Maybe he misheard Dr. Fauci talking about an “abundance of caution” and thought he said “a bundle of caustics.” We get old. We hear things funny. But I have to tip my hat to The Onion for reporting this latest news a whole month before it actually happened.
Tough times for parodists to keep ahead of the sorry reality. Here’s some real news from Seattle about a proposal to levy a 1.3% charge on the 2% of local companies whose payrolls exceed $7 Million (excluding grocery stores), to be put toward coronavirus relief and eventually permanent affordable housing. Deb and I are proud to say that’s our son Harry, next to the left railing and second from the top on the steps to City Council, at his Transit Riders Union group’s rally in support.
Now for the much longer “seriouser” about what we can and need to do at County government. Very soon we need to start thinking hard about the future of our finances and how to obtain additional revenues, attain immediate savings, and invest in things that bring us long-term savings, while striving to reduce the inequities in our society that have been so brightly highlighted during this time of crisis. Chairman Boykin said in his first speech this year that our Board would be taking bold action to assert the power entrusted to us by the electorate. Accordingly, I have recommended that we should start talking about these things now:
Fair Revenue Increases
Wealth taxes: graduated real property transfer taxes, starting somewhere in the $800K to $1M range; annual property tax surcharge on highly valued homes, possibly starting in the $1.5 to $2.5M range; luxury/excise tax on private, in-ground swimming pools, yachts, non-commercial vehicles over $75K.
Red light cameras per White Plains study showing more serious accidents reduced and raising revenue from those who impose the social costs of their dangerous driving upon all of us. And people near the Bronx River Parkway have complained about drag racing, so how about speed cameras too? (These go hand and glove with logical part of bicycle/pedestrian safety laws that I have proposed, including requiring developers’ construction of safe streets and bike parking in the vicinity of their projects as a condition to IDA, HIF or Land Acquisition funds.)
Resolution for our state and federal delegations to push for funds to county and local government, and specifically demand that the State cover full funding of the State share of Medicaid as every other state does (fed and state being able to raise income taxes by increasing marginal rates on those in the highest income tax brackets; eliminate FICA withholding ceiling; enact a securities transfer tax with additional benefit of discouraging speculative, short-term trading).
Prudent Budgetary Savings
Corrections: For many years the average daily population hovered around 1,400 then dropped in more recent years to approx. 1,100 in 2018 and 1,000 in mid-2019, down to the 800s apparently as we approached budget time last year. Vera Institute says our jail was down to 643 early in 2020 (pre-COVID) and 364 at last count this month. The Department’s own report ten days ago said 501, presumably also including probation, state and federal detainees. The DA’s newsletter this week says 261 pre-trial defendants are detained. The number of employee positions in the Department, however, has barely budged: a total of 887 in 2011; then 878 in 2013; and then 877 (of whom 819 are Corrections Officers) in 2016 and every year thereafter up to the present time.
Crime rates have been trending downward for decades and there is little evidence for a dramatic upward spike. There is now no plan for an academy class this year, which we didn’t know at budget time, and there would not appear to be the need for one for several more years. In fact, a substantial reduction in personnel would appear to be warranted. If we need the State to come and certify the need for a smaller number on duty at the facility, then let’s get them down here to look at it without further delay.
In addition, last year’s renewal of the contract with medical service provider Wellpath (formerly known as Correct Care Solutions) contemplated an average population of 1,000, and provided for an equitable downward adjustment of their payments in the event the population dipped below 900, which we have been certainly well below now for at least 4 months. We need to work on that adjustment right away if this has not already been done. Granted, COVID may have resulted in more visits to the infirmary but surely Wellpath doesn’t treat, I hope, but rather ships patients across the street to the Medical Center right away. What about the food services contract in the light of the drastically reduced number of meals required? Do we need to keep replacing vehicles and other equipment one-for-one?
Also, as Legislator Nancy Barr had said at the time, the way we Legislators stumbled onto the Acquisition & Contracts Board’s below-radar renewal of the contract for the nationally controversial Wellpath showed the need for our greater oversight of large contracts in terms of effective use of the tax dollars entrusted to us.
Public Safety/Parkway Police: Again, crime is way down in all jurisdictions in the county. Academy classes could be smaller and/or less frequent. Automotive traffic is also down. People are learning the pleasures of walking and biking, and maybe we expand hours and days when cars will be banned from the Bronx River Parkway. Again, make it safer overall for pedestrians and bikers by requiring developers to provide for bicycle storage and complete streets construction in the vicinity of their projects if they want County benefits. Write stuff like that into our model codes.
District Attorney’s Office: Again, crime is down, low level drug offenses are not prosecuted, and we have juvenile justice reform, but the DA’s office has gone from 200 positions in 2016 to 252 in 2020. This is, to put it mildly, counter-intuitive.
Board of Elections: Three sets of elections on three different dates were scheduled for this Spring (village, Presidential primary and other state/federal primaries). Now, one of them has been cancelled and the other two could be consolidated to one date, so there must be some savings there. No decision to purchase any new voting machines should be made until we have had a full year’s assessment of early voting and more liberal and pervasive voting by mail. We can push for seasonal workers to process mailed-in voting. We should resolve to change whatever rules are necessary to provide for fewer poll inspectors on duty on “election day” if substantial numbers of people vote early in person or by mail. From 2009 to 2020, the Board of Elections has gone from 74 personnel positions to 106, and certainly our county population has not increased by that 43% amount and, even with increased voter participation since 2017, fewer people have turned out to vote in the past decade than those before. Meanwhile, over the same time period, the County Clerk’s office which has a similar function (collecting, counting, certifying) has reduced its numbers from 86 to 67 as its volume of material handled – passports, lawsuits, real estate sales, mortgages – regularly increases.
Wages and Salaries: Inevitably, the unions will ask for increases in upcoming contract negotiations but not only can we not afford that, we may need to defer increases built into current contracts, along with cutting overtime, but it’s only possible to do that if we cut back the increases we granted to non-union management level people at the end of 2019, at least for the foreseeable future – and that would mean County Legislators too, going back to some number between our old and new for our base and stipends.
Long-Term Investments that Save
Public Health needs more trackers and tracers (of those in closest contact with infected persons, then the next concentric circle of contacts, then the next) for this pandemic, its next wave(s), the next epidemic etc.; maybe some of the additional lead detectors we need would have similar skill sets; maybe retired law-enforcement and other public safety personnel would have the detective skills to do this type of work. Testing and tracking are now acknowledged to be the most important elements in this fight. And the fight against a second wave of this disease. And the next contagion that threatens us in our interconnected world. The lives we save may be our own and the dollars may be those of the taxpayers, if we can reduce the medical costs by heading off disease at the pass. Or even more so, the dollars of medical insurers, which raises the question: Why has government not requested, or required, that the insurance companies do the tracing and tracking to save lives and money?
Quality Early Childhood Care is one of the top, long-term monetary investments the government can make and yet our financially struggling day care centers have been put in an increasingly dire condition by the pandemic. Fully fund them now. The money required now to help kids grow up to be better citizens is a pittance compared to what we are spending to correct those who don’t turn out so well. Other social services also have big pay-offs in the long run and the recent increases to nonprofit partners under this administration are minor in relation to the trimmable expenses of the generously staffed departments mentioned near the top of this memo.
Infrastructure and Affordable Housing: Similar concepts apply. Fix stuff before it breaks so it won’t cost much more later. If you need some more of something, build it (e.g., housing) to avoid an expensive temporary fix (homeless housing). “Housing First” should be our motto and we should keep issuing those long-term, low-interest bonds in partnership with smart and responsible developers.
Criminal Justice Diversion and Probation: Small investment in community-based treatment and services saves big money on other, more expensive criminal justice and public safety costs. Maybe there’s even the opportunity to re-tool and re-assign some Corrections personnel here.
Be safe. Be well. And please do send your comments.