City agencies across the board are bracing themselves for budget cuts. Photo by Lukas Kloeppel

In the face of his latest round of budget cuts, which order agencies across the city’s bureaucracy to make three rounds of 5% budget cuts over several months, starting late last year, Mayor Eric Adams has found himself with plenty of political enemies and dropping approval ratings.

Among the responses was an op-ed by City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams and Budget Committee Chair Justin Brannan raking the mayor over the coals for the widespread and unfocused nature of the cuts, instead imploring for a “surgical” response. They and others have coalesced around this message of more responsible cuts as an alternative to what they see as Mayor Adams’ slash-and-burn approach.

What the critics are saying is basically this: if you have a budget crisis in your own household, you’re probably not going to fix it with across-the-board percentage cuts to your expenses, i.e. you’re not going to cut the same 10% from your clothing, food, childcare, entertainment, and travel spending. Some costs are basically fixed — maybe rent and loan repayments for you, labor obligations, debt service, and other things for the city — but the rest need to be looked at hierarchically. You’re going to trim where it makes sense; perhaps you can find a few dollars to save on your grocery bill, but it’d be ludicrous to go without proper nutrition in order to maintain your level of movie nights out.

Mayor Eric Adams has been accused by City Council members of being unfocused in his widespread proposed budget cuts. Photo: NYC Mayor’s Office

Obviously, the municipal budget of a globally significant city of 8.5 million is orders of magnitude more complex than a family’s household budget, and there are few real luxuries in it; the spending goes to agencies that provide services that New Yorkers of all types rely on. To Adams’ mind, if the cuts need to be made, then it makes more sense to soften the blow by spreading things out over the totality of the city bureaucracy instead of burdening any particular series of agencies with steeper reductions, especially if each agency gets the chance to find where it makes sense to cut. During a recent conversation, Mayor Adams somewhat sarcastically noted to me that no agency had raised its hand to volunteer.

The counterpoint is that, while no service is unimportant, there are hierarchies of need here, with some cuts having a deeper and less recoverable impact. For example, the city has for years now failed to deliver timely services to hundreds of thousands of students in city public schools who’ve been deemed disabled and are legally entitled to specialized programs like speech therapy. It’s been sued more than once by parents and advocates, leading to a court-appointed monitor, who’s issued dozens of recommendations for improving the system. Now, the cuts are endangering the Department of Education’s ability to comply. More broadly, the DOE’s District 75 — unlike the others, not a geographically defined school district but a specialized citywide one for students with complex disabilities — is bracing for up to $1 million in cuts per school, for programs that often already feel burdened.

if you have a budget crisis in your own household, you’re probably not going to fix it with across-the-board percentage cuts to your expenses,. Photo: Igor Omilaev on Unsplash

If these cuts ultimately hinder students’ ability to get their needed programs, there’s no real turning back the clock. Plenty of research points to learning losses being hard to simply address later and ultimately setting students, particularly younger children, back for life on earnings and other metrics. That’s particularly acute for disabled students. So, the argument goes, there is an order of operations when it comes to government funding of services, oriented roughly around two axes: 1) what is essential to New Yorkers’ everyday living and quality of life; and 2) what is, to borrow a phrase from legal jargon, irreparable injury ( i.e. it cannot be made up later).

To draw this distinction more plainly, something like frequent street sweeping is arguably significant to quality of life, but not particularly irreparable. If streets get swept at double the intervals they do now, people might notice and be annoyed at the greater accumulation of filth, but it’s not likely to fundamentally impact their lives and can be resolved by increasing the sweeping again at a later time. The special education of disabled students, meanwhile, won’t notably affect millions of New Yorkers who aren’t in those families, but is to some extent irreversible.

What the budget critics want, in a nutshell, is for the city to more meticulously analyze services across this matrix and make more concerted decisions about where to trim. If something is of extremely high generalized importance for living in NYC, it might be worth keeping even if it’s reversible, and vice versa. Most things fall somewhere in between, and some things would score pretty high on both, with an obvious example being emergency services and dispatch. These things are crucial to life, and their absence irreparable.

Bolstering this argument, it’s really not that hard to find instances where the budget seems unnecessarily bloated. Overtime spending for NYPD officers in subways grew almost 4,000 % year-to-year, with the 2023 overtime spending of $155 million equaling more than six times what is being saved on library cuts (without even getting into broader NYPD overtime). The New York Post reported that City Hall had hired 293 so-called special assistants during the mayor’s first fiscal year in office, many of them with vague roles and unclear responsibilities, and so on.

The administration would parry by saying that they have made certain accommodations — police, fire, and sanitation were exempted from one of the rounds of cuts — and are allowing agencies to figure out how they want to allocate their cuts. Budget Director Jacques Jiha has directed agencies to avoid cuts that impact social services, though that language has subtly softened with each iteration. Still, though, the mayor’s office can hardly deny that the 5 % cuts for everyone isn’t a bit of a blunt tool, and obviously agencies can only minimize service reductions so much when budgets are being slashed.

Beyond the question of how to distribute the cuts, there’s the disagreement over the extent to which they’re necessary in the first place. The generally well-regarded and historically accurate Independent Budget Office has concluded that Mayor Adams’ projections for future migrant spending are off by up to $4 billion under the administration’s $10.8 billion two-year forecast, backing up Brannan and Speaker Adams’ claims. The latter have also heavily criticized the mayor for continuing to utilize expensive emergency contracts rather than moving to something more sustainable in the long term.

As we’ve explored before, the city’s budget woes are downstream from much more than just migrant spending, and the mayor counters some of these criticisms by asserting that the city was overspending anyway and he needs to cut down. I asked him directly last week if he would have pursued an agenda of budget cuts even in the absence of the migrant costs, and he said yes unequivocally, that the city was overspending and that his predecessors had lived large on temporary dollars.

This helps explain the disconnect here. One side is seeing the cuts as a kind of acute response to an acute situation, which should be mitigated and targeted as much as possible. Mayor Adams, on the other hand, saw his mandate of economic stewardship as to make cuts anyway. So maybe, in the absence of the migrant spending, the across-the-board cuts would have been smaller, but they would have come nonetheless. That is proving perilous political ground to walk on.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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