On Friday afternoon, the city’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) convened an emergency virtual meeting with the city’s community boards.
The meeting was called with 30 minutes notice, and only District Managers — the paid staffers who oversee their board’s day-to-day operations — were invited. Board Chairs, Finance Committee members and City Council Members were not.
“This meeting was a stealthy one, to say the least,” Dealice Fuller, the Chair of Brooklyn Community Board 1, wrote in a letter describing the incident to local Council Members.
At the meeting, an OMB staffer announced the city was cutting $3,628 from each Board’s FY2021 budget, and $8,153 from their FY2022 budgets, citing coronavirus-induced fiscal challenges. Boards were responsible for identifying the savings themselves, the staffer said, and must submit revised budgets by Tuesday, December 29th.
The move was part of a broader effort by Mayor Bill de Blasio to trim the city’s spending in the face of looming financial uncertainty. The coronavirus relief bill recently passed by Congress did not include aid for states and municipalities, leaving the city without help as it stares down a $3.8 billion deficit in the upcoming fiscal year.
Accordingly, the Mayor has asked nearly every city agency, with the exception of Health + Hospitals and NYCHA, to find savings totaling 1% of their total budgets for the fiscal year ending on June 30, followed by another 2.5% next year.
The cuts to the city’s 59 community boards, which consist of a volunteer board that issues advisory votes on local matters and a few paid staffers that liaise between residents and city agencies, would save about $695,000 over two years, a relatively small drop in the city’s $88 billion annual budget.
But several Brooklyn board leaders said the cuts would have an outsize impact on their operations and potentially force layoffs, and expressed frustration that they were being asked to downsize despite an ever-increasing workload exacerbated by the pandemic.
“We at Brooklyn Community Board 8 are disappointed and outraged that the City continues to target the miniscule budgets of Community Boards,” Michelle George, Brooklyn CB8’s District Manager, said. “Our current budget needs to be increased, not reduced. Most boards serve over 100,000 residents, and yet we continue to be asked to do more with less.”
Community boards’ baseline budgets previously stood at about $257,000 each. In recent years, the City Council has supplemented that amount with grants that enabled the boards to invest in things like community outreach, technology upgrades and research reports (though rules around the grants were tightened after Brooklyn CB1 controversially used the money to buy a car). The grants were eliminated in the 2021 city budget passed this June.
“The City’s focus at this moment may be on surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, however, everything else doesn’t just stop,” Fuller wrote in her letter. “Issues continue, problems still need tackling, and unfortunately, business still runs as usual in these quite unusual times. And again, we must answer the call to battle, and fight for our community to survive.”
She called the cuts to Community Board budgets “apparently arbitrary, capricious and downright unfair.”
In October, OMB asked community boards to participate in a “voluntary layoff plan” to reduce costs, which many Boards declined to do, citing already small staff sizes. And multiple District Managers pointed out that budgets and staffing for community boards have largely relatively flat in recent years, even as other city agencies have dramatically expanded.
A fact sheet provided to Bklyner by Brooklyn CB14 said that community board staff citywide had grown from 156 in 2015 to 168 last year. According to the city’s Independent Budget Office, community board staff citywide grew from 156 in 2015 to 168 last year. In that same time, the Mayor’s Office staff increased from 899 to 1182. The headcount at several other city agencies, including the police, fire, health and child services departments, grew by thousands.
“So when they get cut, they’re getting cut from an increase and are back to their original baseline,” said Brooklyn CB14 District Manager Shawn Campbell at a recent Board meeting. “Whereas we’re getting cut from our baseline.”
Campbell told board members she would not respond to OMB’s request to identify savings; she said doing so would indicate “tacit consent” for the cuts.
“They’ll just have to take it from wherever they see fit,” she said.
Bklyner reached out to several City Council Members, who serve as ex officio members of the Community Boards that overlap their districts and who appoint many of their members, but did not receive responses by press time. District Managers said OMB told them at the Friday meeting that Council Members had not been informed in advance of the cuts to Community Board budgets.
The office of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, which oversees the borough’s Community Boards and also appoints members, said it also was not made aware of the cuts before they were announced.
“Our community boards deserve more proactive engagement, notification, and respect from City Hall and OMB, no matter the economic conditions we face,” Jonah Allon, a spokesperson for the Adams’ office, said.
The Mayor’s Office, meanwhile, cited comments de Blasio made in a press conference yesterday morning.
“What has been put out there initially is simply to get ideas and proposals back from agencies,” de Blasio said. “It’s not the final plan by any stretch. That will be developed for the [budget] presentation in January.”
“The big X factor,” he continued, “what I hope and believe will happen, that President Biden will come in and really focus on a serious, large stimulus. But until we know that we have to prepare for the worst.”