The latest Comptroller debate took place in central Brooklyn, hosted by Brooklyn for Barack. Lead organizer Jordan Thomas said the Comptroller debate is “part of a series of activities designed to keep people engaged after the historic 2008 election of Barack Obama.”
Organizer Amanda Thompkins said planning for the event began when voters were asking themselves who they would vote for. Knowing there is not much information in voters’ minds regarding what the Comptroller does, Thompkins presented a brief overview of the office’s duties: to ensure the financial health of New York City by advising the Mayor, the City Council and the public of the city’s financial condition; making recommendations for city programs and operations, fiscal policies and financial transactions; analyzes and approves the budget; audits the agencies; approves the contracts; manages the pension funds; and manages a staff of 700 people, including administrators, accountants, attorneys, computer analysts, engineers, claim specialists, budget and financial analysts.
The event’s moderator was lead organizer Yoruba Richen, who gave each candidate in attendance (Council members David Yassky, David Weprin and John Liu) a different question related to the Comptroller’s office.
First to arrive was Council member David Yassky. He began by encouraging voters to get engaged in this year’s election. He believes as last year changed national politics, change can take place in the city as well, “not just change in politics, but change in results, with the ultimate goal of getting something done for the people we are serving.” For example, Yassky said when luxury development was to take place on the Brooklyn waterfront, he wrote into it affordable housing. Yassky said he sued Exxon to clean up their oil spill in Greenpoint and worked to require developers to pay full property taxes. He introduced a bill to make taxis gas and electric hybrids.
Council member David Weprin said of all the people running, he is the only one with both public sector and private sector financial experience. He served in Governor Mario Cuomo’s administration as Deputy Superintendent of Banking, the state bank regulatory agency regulating $2 trillion in assets in commercial banks, savings and loans, credit unions and licensed lenders. He had a 20-year career as an investment banker and chaired the Securities Industry Association of New York district, the trade union for Wall Street. In 2001, when elected to the Council, he became the Chair of the Finance Committee.
Weprin said he is committed to bringing the Office of the Comptroller to the people by opening 5 borough-wide community offices. These offices would deal with predatory lending, mortgage foreclosure, contract and pension issues. He said he would be independent of the Mayor and has demonstrated that independence by leading the fight against congestion pricing, tolls on the bridges, and the change in term limits without a public referendum.
Richen asked Yassky what would be his top agenda as Comptroller and how would it affect the lives of everyday New Yorkers. Yassky said his three priorities would be to have audit in-house management consultants to look for 10% waste across city agencies in order to pay for the things residents need; develop sectors other than Wall Street, such as film and television production, bioscience and green technology; and reigning in cost overruns on construction projects.
Yassky was asked is there anything the Comptroller’s office can do to prevent the problems on Wall Street from happening again. He said he didn’t think the city could have headed off the national recession. Follow up question: The Comptroller oversees the Commercial Banking Division, how can you ensure that banks headquartered in NYC actually lends to NYC businesses and residents? Yassky’s answer: the Comptroller works with every major money center bank in the city, both as a depositor and as an underwriter, and is in a position to strongly request that banks be responsive to the community’s needs. He would follow the state Comptroller’s example by setting aside a portion of funds to lend directly in the city. When asked about term limits, Yassky said he thinks it is bad policy, but disagreed with how the Mayor went about changing them.
Richen asked Weprin about the relationship between the Mayor and the Comptroller. Weprin said due to the nature of the position, it is very important that the Comptroller be independent of the Mayor. Independently elected. The Comptroller is in charge of auditing all city agencies, which are under the control of the Mayor. It is the Comptroller’s fiduciary responsibility to be independent. Weprin was asked about the situation with Alan Hevesi, the former city and state Comptroller. He said Hevesi, as state Comptroller, had some advisors who sold access to management of the pension funds. The corruption was because of the sole-trustee structure of the state Comptroller’s office. “He doesn’t have to answer to pension boards. Some people around the Comptroller said ‘I am best friends with the Comptroller, I can get you the business.’ It was pay to play. At the city level, that is less of a problem because of the five pension boards, with $80 billion in pension money, with their own trustees and financial advisors. He can make the decision where investments go. I prefer, from a potential corruption point of view, the city structure, although here are problems with the city structure. It takes so long to switch allocation of assets, to move money around, to take advantage of changing financial markets. I would like to keep the city structure, but streamline the process.”
Regarding the Atlantic Yards development, Hevesi said he “supports some form of development. It is very important the community have input. Regarding I know there was a Community Benefits Agreement. There were commitments that were supposed to provide housing. From what I understand, there is some disagreement whether that commitment is being fulfilled. I have questions about where the project is going. I have reservations about the project’s size and scope and a situation where we throw good money after bad money. It happened after ground zero. Nothing there is happening sufficiently after 8 years. I would hate to see that kind of situation happen at Atlantic Yards. As a citywide official, the Comptroller can use the bully pulpit, but the Comptroller does not have direct control in that particular development, per se.”
Weprin was asked about the Dept. of Corrections, one of the biggest vendors in the city. He said it is a city agency; the Comptroller can audit it. Weprin would like to “see an audit of the outside contracts. No-bid contracts have ballooned in all the city agencies to over $6 billion. Our entire budget is $60 billion. I would look to see that the outside contracts are competitively bid and make sure there is a lot of oversight. While we are at it, something has to be done about the outside contracts in the Dept. of Education. They have more outside contracts than anyone, $2 billion, most of which are no-bid contracts.
Regarding the credit crisis, credit card debt and keeping housing affordable, Weprin said through his proposed 5 borough-wide offices, those are issues he would deal with – rent issues, contract issues, job issues.
John Liu was last to arrive, having come from being endorsed by the 504 Democratic Club, which focuses solely on disability issues. Liu spoke about his career prior to being elected to the Council. He was a manager at Price Waterhouse Coopers, where he “gained a great deal of financial expertise.” He would bring to the Office of Comptroller his skill set to institute financial reforms, make sure to eliminate waste from our budget, use his pension actuarial background to shore up the pension funds and restore the confidence of city workers and retirees, and to use the procurement powers of the Office of Comptroller to ensure that contracts are actually used to create jobs for New Yorkers.
Richen asked about the financial crisis that was largely started by Wall Street. Liu said that as Comptroller, he would use the Comptroller’s contract and procurement powers to “use city employees as much as possible,” rather than contract out services at higher prices to do the same work. He would “ensure that more contracts would go to women- and minority-owned businesses, companies that have a proven track record of hiring people in our city.” Liu has seen the economic stimulus dollars are going to our City agencies, and going to the same relatively small number of companies that are not making a huge effort to recruit people from our NYC neighborhoods. He would use the powers of audit to review huge development deals. Regarding Atlantic Yards, that have announced promises of thousands of jobs, affordable housing and years later “I don’t see where all those promises are materializing. I would use the powers of audit to see how far short they are and put these projects on a strict timetable to make sure those promises are delivered to the people.”
Regarding Mayoral control and the provisions in the renewal that provides for the Dept. of Education to be audited, Liu said the Comptroller now has the authority to review DOE contracts, which the City Comptroller was not able to do before. The DOE has the single largest line item in the city budget, and was “untouchable” by the Comptroller. If elected, Liu said he would immediately use those powers to look at the Dept. of Education and audit the contracts, the operations and some of the products used by the DOE. “We have seen over the years that test scores have gone up. It is true that some scores have gone up, particularly state exams. The federal scores are actually declining. Why this divergence in exams that are supposed to access the same educational achievement? The answer is simple. There is more coaching, more teaching to the test on state exams. The state scores may be a reflection of the kids being taught to take tests more expediently, not learning the subject matter. Turning kids into test-taking machines. As Comptroller I would sink my teeth into that agency immediately.”
Richen asked both Liu and Weprin what they would do about the “behemoth, the MTA.” Liu said the NYC Comptroller does not have full authority to review all the operations of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. “It is a state agency. But the City Comptroller does have a tremendous amount of review over NYC Transit, by virtue of the fact that the NYC budget contributes hundreds of millions of dollars every year into the operating budget. NYC Transit is the largest piece, by far, of the MTA group of subsidiaries. As Comptroller, I would use my experience as the Council Chair of the Transportation Committee to review irregularities, such as when they were showing two sets of financial statements at the same time back in 2003 when they were looking to raise fares at an historically high level. There were hundreds of millions of unused capital dollars from previous capital plans while they were still claiming deficits.” Liu asked why eight years after 9/11, has MTA not terror-proofed the subway system.
Weprin said he would work with the state Comptroller regarding the MTA. He said he was the only elected official to testify at the last hearing when the MTA proposed draconian cuts and a huge fare hike. Weprin said he proposed “bringing back the commuter tax at 1% (it used to be ½%), with ½ % – about $700 million – going to the MTA to keep fares low, and the other ½ % going to NYC to help deal with basic services like police, fire, and sanitation, as well as all the other services the city provides that non-residents who work in the City benefit from. I think that is much fairer than fare increases and other tax increased that were proposed.”
During the candidate forum, Liu joked that he would run for President of the United States, once he serves as Comptroller. “I am hoping that Arnold Schwarznegger changes the U.S. Constitution so that I can run. I am an immigrant, and proud to be an immigrant.”