City government watchers have plenty to keep them occupied these days, including Scott Stringer, New York’s new comptroller. In remarks before the City Council last week, Stringer echoed the Tale of Two Cities theme of the new administration. He argued that some redistribution of wealth here is not only morally responsible but also fiscally responsible.
Stringer testified at the council finance committee’s oversight hearing on the mayor’s preliminary budget for the upcoming fiscal year, and in between congratulating council members over their new committee positions, he took the opportunity to lay out a progressive agenda.
Among other things, Stringer reiterated his call to establish a citywide minimum wage, painting an economic picture that he said justified an increase. In spite of the fact that the city has gained back even more jobs than it lost in the recession, wages of workers have not kept up with the cost of living—for the fifth year in a row, he said.
The state minimum wage is $8 an hour, scheduled to rise to $8.75 at the end of this year and another 25 cents an hour in 2015. “The divergence between stagnant wages and costs of living is why I suggest a higher minimum wage,” Stringer said. “No one who works a full week should have to live in poverty.”
After Stringer’s testimony, Councilmember Mark Levine of Manhattan said that while he supported increasing the minimum wage, he was afraid of pushback from the business community.
Without missing a beat, Stringer responded: “You can be progressive and be fiscally responsible,” adding that increasing the minimum wage to $11 an hour would add annual income for families who would then spend that money in the city.
“The minimum wage is not just to lift up people, but it’s also good for business,” he said. “We have got to have a conversation with business, or we will never close the income gap.”
The testimony came toward the end of a long day of budget hearings at City Hall. Sringer spoke without hesitation, his chin jutting out as he addressed the council members in its wood-paneled chamber.
After praising Stringer, Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo said she had one cause for concern, which was his proposal to reform how so-called member items, or money set aside for community organizations, were distributed.
Currently, individual organizations must apply for funds, and the council then decides whether to approve the applications. Councilmembers must disclose any conflicts of interest.
Stringer proposes distributing the same amount of money to each council district, or based on a formula that takes a district’s population and economic need into account.
Cumbo said that as the former leader of a nonprofit, she knew some deserving organizations didn’t have the ability to adequately express their needs, and so as a council member familiar with the organizations in her community, she would be able to better determine how the money should be spent.
Stringer said that he thought reforms would actually address that issue, and also remove council leadership’s power to punish members by withholding funds. “Why should $800,000 go to the Upper East Side, while [Washington Heights representative Ydanis] Rodriguez, because he has a big mouth, gets $300,000 for his poor neighborhood?” he said. “It takes the politics out of member items but gets money to the little leagues.”
Stringer also spoke passionately about getting more revenue back from the state. He singled out the state’s resistance to share its revenue with the city as unfair and as a missed opportunity for potential income. An analysis by the Rockefeller Institute of 2010 state spending found that New York City, home to 43 percent of the state’s population, paid out 45 percent of the state’s income tax collections but received just 40 percent of state expenditures.
Stringer said that New York was the only city in the state that did not receive funding from Albany through revenue sharing, and that as a result, had lost out on almost $1 billion over the last three years.
“We send a whole lot more money to Albany that we get back,” he said. “We never expected it to be quid pro quo. We know New York City is the economic engine of the state. But it’s getting to the point where it’s real discrimination against New York City children and programs.”
After Stringer finished testifying and the hearing was closed, he walked over to the council members to chat, and shared a big hug with new Councilmember Vanessa Gibson.