Opinion: This year’s budget was a weird one

four nyc councilmembers voted against city budget
Four Brooklyn councilmembers voted against the city’s new budget during a late-night session on Monday night.
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New York City passed its budget this week, as it does every June 30. This year was rather different than most, though. It was the first budget in more than a decade that decreased spending from the previous year, due to the massive contraction of our economy from the coronavirus pandemic. It’s also the first city budget to occur in this new era of widespread anti-police sentiment.

These factors have created a very strange budget that seems to me the most opaque in several years. The NYPD’s budget was cut for the first time in a very long time — as much as some council members wanted and more than others were willing to stand — but the ways in which it was cut seem to be accounting or administrative tricks rather than real cuts. School safety agents were moved out of the organization chart of the NYPD and into the authority of the Department of Education. Two of the year’s four police academy classes were canceled, and a new police station projected to cost hundreds of millions has been mothballed.

It’s a tough situation, because if the department had had to institute layoffs, it would have fired the newest cops first, who are the most diverse in the department and quite possibly the least repressive. Still, this budget is a disappointment.

It has been over a decade since the budget was cut, an always painful process, but just what the city council voted to cut remains unclear to the public. Andrew Rein of the Citizens Budget Commission noted that this budget is “precariously balanced” while Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said, “In a moment when New Yorkers, with the entire nation, are demanding a reimagining of public safety, a reckoning with systemic injustices and inequities, the city falls far short with a budget that misses the moment of need.”

I’m surprised the City Council vote wasn’t closer than its eventual 32-17. Nine of the “No” votes were from the Left, demanding a more substantial cut to the NYPD, while eight of the “No” votes objected from the Right: the council members couldn’t countenance any cuts to the police department at all.

But if this budget is likely to be unpopular from each angle, why did so many vote for it? I can think of three reasons. First, council members feel that voting for the budget is part of their job. Second, council speaker Corey Johnson is a skilled legislative leader, and he likely was careful to produce lots of inducements to vote for the budget. Third, the overwhelming majority of politicians are fundamentally herd animals, who want to go where the others are going.

Eighteen months from now, this city will be run by a completely different herd.

Nick Rizzo is a Democratic District Leader representing the 50th Assembly District and a political consultant who lives in Greenpoint. Follow him on Twitter @NickRizzo.

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