Open NY’s October Update: “Continuous Expansion”

New York State’s Open NY initiative published its third report on the progress of the open data portal earlier this month. Since its launch in March 2013, state agencies have uploaded 957 data sets to Open NY, which won accolades from the Center for Data Innovation over the summer. The report highlights Open NY’s efforts to engage the open data community with contests for using open data to solve health care problems and meet local community needs.

We are pleased that, for the third consecutive quarter, the Open NY team has updated New Yorkers on the progress they’ve made. Uploading hundreds of data sets and explaining the state of the open data initiative is no small feat, and we’re excited to see this commitment from the Open NY team.

Lawsuit to Stop Diversion of Clean Water Funds for New TZ Bridge

Action taken to discourage further attempts to raid funds, and ensure due public process for future projects

NEW YORK – October 28, 2014 – Riverkeeper, Waterkeeper Alliance and Environmental Advocates of New York have filed a lawsuit against New York State officials, seeking to ensure that urgently needed federal Clean Water Act funds will not be illegally used to fund the new Tappan Zee Bridge construction project or for other ineligible projects in the future.

The suit was filed in State Supreme Court in Albany County by Pace Law School’s Environmental Litigation Clinic, representing the groups. It names New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Environmental Facilities Corporation, Thruway Authority and Public Authorities Control Board, as well as approximately eighteen individuals in their capacities as board members and executives of these agencies.

The lawsuit seeks to invalidate New York State’s proposal to apply $511 million from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) for bridge construction projects that include dredging, pile driving and demolition. Governor Cuomo rushed his plan through with virtually no oversight from the public and no green light from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which provides most of this funding to the states in the form of annual capitalization grants. In a September 16, 2014 letter, EPA rejected the vast majority of this loan – $482 million of the total. The legal action seeks a court order that will enforce EPA’s decision and discourage any further attempt to divert clean water funds for improper purposes.

For more see full press release.
Lawsuit complaint can be downloaded here:  10.28.14 TZB/Clean Water raid lawsuit complaint

NYC’s Open Data Year 3: Good Successes and Untapped Potential

Today, Reinvent Albany provided the following testimony to the New York City Council’s Committee on Technology as part of a hearing on the continued implementation and oversight of the Open Data Law of 2012. Video of the hearing is here, our full testimony is here, and our report on Year Three of the NYC Open Data Law is available here.

Overall, we are excited about the progress of the Open Data Law, which is still in its early days. We believe the City’s open data efforts are robust, healthy, and improving. The implementation of the Open Data Law is fundamentally strong, though much work remains. First, here’s what’s working:

  1. The City has five fully funded, dedicated open data staff. This is probably more than any state or local government, and gives the City the capacity to rapidly improve and expand its open data efforts.
  2. Open data has strong support from the Mayor and City Council and has a synergistic relationship with the Mayor’s Office of Data Analysis (MODA) which ensure it is sustainable.
  3. Open data has an expanding group of public stakeholders, including businesses, academics, advocates and government who use the data.
  4. The quantity and quality of the data available continues to expand, and with it, so does use of that data.

We especially applaud DOITT for its sincere and energetic efforts to get agency data published. DOITT is clearly meeting the spirit of the Open Data Law, and their staff has strived to make it work.

The Open Data Law calls for a new way for government to share information with the public, going forward, forever. One way to think about it is that we are in year three of a permanent change lasting for centuries. Every year, the City needs to get a bit better at Open Data – and fortunately, we have the resources and commitment to succeed.

In the next year, we hope the de Blasio administration advances open data in four key ways:

First, the Mayor’s Office of Operations needs to get agencies to put the most frequently FOILed and requested data on the Open Data Portal. Most agen- cies still do not understand that the Open Data Law is intended to help them reduce FOIL requests, reduce 311 requests for information, and help them get information to the public at a lower cost with less hassle.

Second, DOITT needs to create a public feedback process for the Open Data Portal which results in more and better city data being put online. When data errors are discovered and reported by the public, the responsible agency should correct those problems. DOITT should ensure that the public can track the progress of those corrections.

Third, the severe problems with the search function of the Open Data Portal have to be completely fixed. Despite repeated, emphatic, requests from the Transparency Working Group and other many open data stakeholders, it took DOITT more than two years to correct crippling flaws with the search function – flaws that severely reduced the usefulness of the Open Data Platform, and undoubtedly kept people from using the data on it. This kind of funda- mental usability problem, cannot be repeated, and cannot take so long to fix in the future.

Four, DOITT needs to clearly show the status of data sets to be published, or which have been delayed or removed from the open data plan. Overall, it’s hard for the public to tell if the City is meeting its own data release targets. For example, a dataset essentially disappears from view if it was scheduled for release in the 2013 plan, delayed, and then not included in the 2014 plan.

DOITT and City Hall are easily capable of achieving these goals, and we look forward to assessing their progress at the 2015 oversight hearing.

The Biggest Transparency Story of 2015

Most Americans take it for granted that their state and city governments should reveal how they are spending tax dollars. Many states and cities meet this expectation by putting information about budgets and spending  online. But oddly, one of the fastest growing areas of local government spending is usually hidden from public view, and is often effectively hidden from state legislators. In New York State, state business tax credits have tripled in the last decade to $1.7 billion each year, and this does not include credits provided by local governments. Watchdog groups are enormously concerned about this secretive spending and the risk of corruption and pay-to-play.

The good news here is that this shadow spending may be getting a massive dose of sunlight. In a move with huge implications for local government transparency, the obscure but very powerful Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) is inching towards new rules that will require that states and local governments disclose the cost of all “tax abatements” starting after December 15, 2015. Under GASB’s definition, this would include business tax credits and economic development subsidies.

According to the national subsidy watchdog group, Good Jobs First, GASB will have a three month comment period on the new policy starting in November 2014. Good Jobs says it appears that GASB will propose giving governments the option of disclosing individual deals or overall program costs. Transparency advocates should be asking GASB to mandate the most specific possible reporting on individual deals. Disclosing overall program costs is not particularly informative or useful, and will allow states to spend billions without identifying who the beneficiaries are or what they have done with their subsidies.



Testimony for City Council Committee on Economic Development

Last Thursday, October 2,  the New York City Council Committee on Economic Development held an oversight hearing on “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Tax Incentives Offered by the New York City Economic Development Corporation.”

Reinvent Albany provided testimony, along with ALIGN, Good Jobs New York, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and South Bronx Unite. A brief write-up of the hearing can be found on GJNY’s website.

Below is Reinvent Albany’s testimony:

Increasing EDC and NYC IDA Online Transparency

Recommendations for the Economic Development Committee Oversight Hearing

October 2, 2014

Prudence KatzePolicy Coordinator, Reinvent Albany

Good afternoon, my name is Prudence Katze and I am the Policy Coordinator for Reinvent Albany, which co-chairs the New York City Transparency Working Group.

Thanks to the tenacity of Good Jobs New York and other advocates, the EDC has made major strides towards making its activities more transparent. However, the overall goal is to make it as easy as possible for the public and City Council to see what the EDC and IDA are doing with public property and funds. A clear and transparent process allows us to better understand how well EDC subsidies are working, and ensure that investments are not at risk for corruption.

We have four basic requests for improving EDC Online transparency:

1.  Create a unified database of “deals” facilitated by the EDC and the IDA which includes all forms of subsidies to a business or project.

It is still murky how subsidies are distributed and to what entities they go to. EDC needs to create a single database which includes all forms of subsidies provided by the EDC and the IDA and is downloadable in a CSV, or other machine-readable, format. This database should have a bottom line total subsidy value which includes, the full market value of land sales and land leases, discretionary funding distribution, tax-abatements, and other financial incentives. Currently, some of this information is published online in separate spreadsheets, and some information, like operating subsidies, are not publicly viewable at all.

2.  Fully share EDC and IDA data with NYC Comptrollers Checkbook NYC website.

We commend the EDC for the initial step of sharing its data with the Comptroller’s Checkbook NYC site. However, we would also like to see IDA data represented, as well. Checkbook NYC is an important repository because it is equipped with an API which allows data to stream immediately into websites maintained by watchdog groups. We would also like to see the actual vendor names in Checkbook NYC to which payments and contracts are made to. As of today, there are 387 spending transactions listed under the EDC section of Checkbook NYC, and 198 are under “To Be Announced.” That means that offer half of the vendors are anonymous.

3.  Release EDC and IDA data on NYC’s Open Data Portal

Real Estate listings, Economic Snapshot data, and other tabular data available in a spreadsheet form should be published on the city’s Open Data Portal to ensure its maximum availability and use.

4.  Webcast EDC Board Meetings as the IDA started doing as of this year

We believe that a culture of transparency is best fostered by example on the leadership level. We request that EDC board and committee meetings be webcast live and archived for later viewing. As of this year, the IDA started to webcast and archive their board meetings, while the EDC meetings are currently only archived via .pdf meeting minutes.