Scott M. Stringer
Scott M. Stringer believes that in addition to serving as the financial watch dog for the City’s agencies his office can also help uplift more New Yorkers into the middle class by ensuring that billions of dollars in spending are allocated equitably.
In addition to auditing City agencies to weed out waste and fraud, and overseeing the $160 billion public employees’ pension fund –the 4th largest in the U.S. and 12th in the world– Stringer, elected comptroller two years ago, has launched two major initiatives; an annual report that grades City agencies on their spending with women- and ethnic minority-owned enterprises (MWBEs) and a national corporate accountability project.
In “Making The Grade,” the comptroller’s recently released report that rates spending by agencies–the second report since he came into office– Stringer finds that only 5.3% of the total $14 billion New York City spent with vendors went to WMBEs, a slight uptick. City agencies spent $168 million with Asian-owned companies, $41 million with women-owned firms, and a mere $19 million with Black-owned businesses, the report says.
The comptroller’s report awards an average D-plus grade for New York City’s 32 government agencies. In his first report for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, the comptroller awarded the agencies a D grade; spending with MWBEs was only 4% of the total spending then.
The comptroller’s report says the City currently does business with 46,000 vendors, of which 4,100 are certified WMBEs — only 2% of those WMBEs have contracts with the City.
“When you talk about income inequality, well talk is cheap unless you’re willing to invest in our small businesses,” Stringer says, when interviewed by The Black Star News in his lower Manhattan municipal building offices, before the release of the second “Making The Grades” report.
Stringer hired a Chief Diversity Officer, Cara L. Wallace, in the comptroller’s office –the first time the City has created and filled such a post– to show the importance he attaches to the matter, he says.
“How are you going to create jobs if you are not willing to spur the economic growth?” Stringer says. “If you invest in women and minority-owned businesses, let’s face it, you’re investing in parts of the City that doesn’t have much opportunity for economic development.”
He adds: “And if you’re going to lift our entire City, you can talk about it and you can think about it, but you’ve got to do something about it.”
Stringer says his work is guided not only by the City’s four-year plan but with a vision of how this multi-ethnic city will look 20 years from now.
The comptroller has also spearheaded a national campaign, the Boardroom Accountability project, for “more diverse, independent and accountable directors” by pushing for direct election of board members of major U.S. companies –including the Fortune 500– by stakeholders with at least 3% shares for three years.
Launched about a year ago, Stringer partnered with other large pension funds like California’s giant Calpers to make the demands on the companies.
As it now stands, when companies send out director election forms they already have a slate of candidates and no other choices. “It’s the biggest economic justice issue facing America,” Stringer says, pointing to the paucity of ethnic minority directors.
Stringer says 87% of asset managers are White males; or as he puts it, “too male, too pale and too stale.”
Insisting on inclusion and diversity in the Fortune 500 companies isn’t just a question of “civil rights,” he says. “Every study shows that when you have more diverse boards you have better conversations around the table and the companies end up being stronger, and when I invest in companies that are stronger well that’s gonna help 700,000 people that I represent,” Stringer says, referring to beneficiaries of the pension fund.
Asked about diversifying the roster of companies that manage the City’s assets Stringer says it’s a “work in progress” and that his office is looking at more emerging managers.
Separately, Stringer has also been pushing for $15 per-hour minimum wage, which he says would increase incomes by $10,000 on average.
If New York’s spending with vendors was equitable, and if corporate boards were to become more inclusive, and add to that the hike in the minimum wage, New York City “would lead urban cities across America,” he says.
The comptroller has been very vocal in criticizing waste at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). An audit by his office revealed that the agency had failed to meet a number of goals that would have entitled NYCHA to $700 million in funds that could have been used for repairs and upgrades, Stringer says.
The revenue would have been available had NYCHA: met energy efficiency requirements; converted 8,400 units of public housing into section 8; met property management benchmarks; and, executed other cost-saving measures.
“The culture of incompetence at NYCHA is an insult to residents and all New Yorkers at a time when the Authority needs all the funds it can get to help fill its crippling funding gaps,” Stringer says.
“NYCHA will not admit that they do anything wrong,” he says, referring to the agency’s reaction to the comptroller’s audit. “But then when you talk to the people in public housing they have a lot ti say about apartments in disrepair, about so many broken windows in NYCHA. That’s the broken window crises.”
Stringer says an audit found broken windows had gone up by 956% at NYCHA housing. “In Laguardia’s time, public housing was a shining example of housing for everybody and today we’ve let it fall into disrepair and I’m going to continue my work on NYCHA housing,” he says.
He notes that he’s addressed the NYCHA crises for nearly 15 years, including when he was a state assemblyman and later as Manhattan borough president.
Stringer says he’s not a purveyor of bad news and that his audits always include public policy recommendations — solutions.
In the case of NYCHA, since the agency is always short of funding, he’s proposed that a revolving fund of $400 million –$40 million over 10 years– be created for capital work, from projected surpluses from the Battery Park City Authority.
Stringer contrasts NYCHA’s reaction to the New York City Department of Education’s, following an audit that showed waste, including revelation that 2,800 computers had been warehoused, instead of being made available in classrooms. The department of education officials admitted that they didn’t have an inventory system but said they would create one to eliminate similar problems in the future, Stringer says.
An audit isn’t a “gotcha” exercise, it takes a year during which information is exchanged back and forth between his office and the agency being audited, Stringer says.