No city agency — not even the NYPD — has been spared from recent budget cuts. Photo: Igor Omilaev on Unsplash

You’d be forgiven for thinking that migrant arrivals have single-handedly blown a hole through the hull of the rapidly sinking city budget, based on both Mayor Eric Adams’ public pronouncements and the coverage of the ongoing budget crisis. As a refresher, the administration has ordered successive rounds of budget cuts over the last year or so, with the latest coming just this past week, some with immediate impact. No city agency is fully spared, with even the NYPD now joining the Department of Education and libraries in slashing costs. In just one instant upshot, library branches around the five boroughs announced they were cutting Sunday service.

In most communications about cuts, the administration has referenced the ongoing influx of asylum seekers, which has left it with something like 65,000 migrants currently in its care, or around half of all those estimated to have at some point gone through the city’s shelter system in the last year (we’ve previously explained in more detail why and how this is all playing out, if you’re curious).

It’s undeniable that these costs are a significant budget issue; the city estimates an expenditure of about $11 billion over two years, and while I have been among those questioning the administration’s math and projections, there’s no way you slice things where the spend doesn’t reach into the billions, even for a $107 billion annual municipal budget, that’s not nothing.

It is, however, not everything either. Migrants and the sinister southern governors who have sent some of them north make for effective foils and easy scapegoats politically, but they are not the sole cause of the city’s budget woes. It struck me as kind of amusing that the city is in the midst of a public debate over the NYPD’s plan to fully encrypt its radio communications, largely over critics’ charge that the move is an affront to public transparency that would allow the police to avoid scrutiny. Hardly mentioned has been the $500 million price tag, which made me catch my breath even though I’m used to the department’s tendency to get a blank check. We’re talking about radios here, yet this comes out to some $16,000 for every single officer on the force. Why? I have no idea. This is the same NYPD projected to spend $740 million on overtime alone this fiscal year.

A couple of weeks ago, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli sent a communication to the city about concerns over a multibillion-dollar budget gap over the next couple of years that could threaten city services. Migrant spending featured heavily in the warning, to be sure, but it went well beyond that. For example, the state legislature’s recent class-size bill alone, which lowers maximum class sizes in public schools, was expected to cost $1.3 billion annually in an unfunded mandate. A decline in school enrollment declines (yes, despite the arrival of tens of thousands of migrant children, NYC public school enrollment is sharply down from a few years ago) threatens to reduce state and federal funding, which is mostly allocated on a per-pupil basis.

Then there’s NYCHA, where rent collections have cratered since the Covid pandemic as capital and maintenance costs have soared. As we’ve written before, capital costs for the system have skyrocketed to a frankly eye-popping almost $80 billion, including over $37 billion in immediate needs. Meanwhile, rent collections have hovered around 60%, sharply down from the average 95% annual collection rate preCovid. The public hospital system, meanwhile, continues to strain to provide services related to said pandemic, while its labor costs have gone up and federal funding has proven inconsistent. And so on. The basic upshot is that migrants are but one slice of the pie.

The city’s response to this has essentially been that these are the types of shocks that were more or less predictable, and which it could plan around, while the migrant costs are totally out of left field and could not be accounted for with standard budget tweaks. Perhaps there’s some truth to that, but it also feels a bit too convenient to suggest that everything would be just fine and dandy were it not for this one admittedly unusual circumstance.

It’s also the case that the specific levels of migrant spending aren’t set in stone. Costs haven’t climbed only because the raw number of people in the city’s care has climbed; the per capita costs have risen, too, even as the city is presumably leaving behind its emergency posture and finding efficiencies in its management of the arrivals. Per-migrant per diems have risen to an average $394 as of October, well over the baseline of $254 for migrants in Department of Homeless Services shelters as of last November, and even further above the $188 for adult families with children in the so-called traditional — i.e. non-migrant — shelter system.

This climb baffled City Council members at an oversight hearing last month, where they grilled representatives from the Adams administration on the costs. Brooklyn Council member Justin Brannan — who was just reelected in one of this election cycle’s only real competitive races (although it turned out to be not that competitive, as he blew challenger Ari Kagan out of the water) — pressed for a breakdown of this average, but was told it encompasses multiple services including transportation and housing, and couldn’t be easily disaggregated. In general, administration officials maintained that they couldn’t really take advantage of economies of scale or anything along those lines because the resource they need most — space — is so limited and at such a premium in NYC.

That’s sensible enough, though it falls a little flat when you consider that the administration has, for example, failed to actually utilize space freely offered by houses of worship. Its efforts to also place migrants in other localities have mostly fallen flat, largely because those localities have fought tooth and nail against it. Of course, the federal government has more or less told NYC to drop dead, refusing to send anything more than pocket change to deal with arrivals or intervene on the logistics of placing them.

On Monday, Adams ordered a $2.1 billion reduction in projected spending on migrant services. It’s left to be seen how that cut is handled; the administration could, for example, find alternate shelter space instead of using comparatively expensive for-profit hotels, which might lower costs without leaving migrants out in the cold. Or it might just slash and burn, cutting the availability of shelter and wraparound services altogether.

In any case, as the budget conversations continue, just remember that a fifth of that big reduction could be achieved just by cutting the plan to buy new police radios. The migrants might be front and center, but there’s a lot more going on with the budget.

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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