Naturally, with any elected office, contrasts will be drawn between its former and sitting leaders, for better or for worse. So, when it comes to New York City’s Comptroller, Scott Stringer, and his predecessor, Bill Thompson, perhaps the most obvious difference is visibility.
Very few will argue that Stringer– formerly the Manhattan borough president for eight years and a 13-year member of the New York City Assembly—hasn’t done an impressive job conducting (and publicizing) the various reports, audits and financial summaries of our city’s agencies.
However, aside from issuing reports and managing the accountancy and pension system for the city, the role of the controller also includes working with the mayor to market bonds, visit rating agencies, as well as forecasting budget and spending into the next two decades. In fact, the comptroller’s role and influence on the city’s management and operations is a lot more expansive than many New Yorker’s realize.
In this up-close-and personal interview with the Brooklyn Reader, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer—now into his second year in office– gives us insight into how audits work, what his office has achieved so far, and his plans for the years to come.
The Brooklyn Reader: Economic equality was a big issue for Mayor Bill de Blasio during his campaign for mayor. Now that you’re both in office, what has been done so far in addressing that for New York City residents?
Scott Stringer: There are two immediate ways to close the income equality gap and spur economic opportunity in our communities. First we did the study on raising the minimum wage $15. Studies show that if you raise the minimum wage $15, you will pump $10 billion into the hands of people living on the lowest rung of society—lifting people out of poverty, enabling them to pay more money for rent, to take care of their kids. But also, while raising the minimum wage, you also need to have a small business plan, so that savings for the businesses can go to the employees. That’s the first step. The second step is to support the businesses that will invest in our economically challenged communities.
BR: Speaking of community-based businesses, in a recent report from your office, “Making the Grade,” you assessed agency spending with minority- and women-owned businesses (M/WBEs) in FY15. What did you find?
SS: Basically $18 billion is spent by the city on buying goods and services. That’s a lot of money. Of that amount, only 4 percent go to women and minorities. In 2012, it was 5 percent! It’s time to break the barrier down once and for all. So, my office looked at all of the city agencies and published a scorecard, so that you can see how much they are spending. Overall, I gave the city government a “D.” I looked at our own agency spend and gave it a “C.” So now, if you are a certified M/WBE, you can see who spends and who doesn’t.
BR: Yes, I saw that. It’s a great transparency model. But how does that compel an agency with a C or a D to change, when every other agency has the same grade or worse? Where’s the push for accountability if there are no punitive measures in place?
SS: So, already, commissioners have come to us and asked, ‘How can we get a better grade?’ I appointed the city’s first chief diversity officer and deputy diversity officer: We have a dedicated staff now that is looking at these issues, and we are working with the administration to spur them to action. So we’re going to hold them accountable. So if you got an “F” last year, that “F” is talked about, every other agency and every reporter can look at that and see how the agency is doing. And, let me tell you– we know that the agencies are working on this.
BR: Can you tell me a little bit about the audit process? How does the comptroller’s office decide which agencies/aspect of operations warrant an audit? And what are the outcomes of audits?
SS: Audits take a year and are complicated. An audit is not a gotcha process. We actually work with the agencies throughout the process. We do our audit, and then give them findings. Then the agency says, ‘Look you’re right about this; we think you’re wrong about this,’ and then we’ll modify the audit. We’ll work with the agency for over a year, and then we’ll make recommendations. Sometimes the agency will take our recommendations, sometimes they won’t.
We also spur the agency to action, because they don’t want the comptroller to get out in front of them. When we found there were 2,800 missing computers at the NYC Department of Education– many in closets that were never opened– we learned the DOE had no inventory system and no idea where the computers were. They then committed to creating an inventory system to finding those computers. Now kids have a shot at getting the high-tech education they need to be successful. So our job is to work with an agency to get results—except for NYCHA, which just denies everything. But we do our own economic snapshots and investigative work to give to agencies.
BR: How is an audit initiated? Is it always an internal decision, or can a group of citizens get involved in petitioning for an investigation?
SS: Sometimes the best audit ideas come from our constituents. Like with the Sandy [Hurricane] audit, we held audit meetings in the impacted Sandy areas, stood for 12 hours and listened to hundreds of people testify about lost paperwork and all of the problems they were having, and that informed the audit we just released a month ago. So communities come in, meet with us. Sometimes we say ‘Look, we can’t do an audit; an audit’s not appropriate here. But this is what we can do.’ I want people to understand that this office is now the people’s office. It is the counterweight to the government; the counterweight to business. Our job is to protect the people in our communities and we are building a powerful vehicle to do that.
BR: What has been the greatest part about serving as comptroller, as it is quite different than your previous role as a borough president?
SS: I came from a political family, so I grew up going to protest marches, trying to get petition signatures to impeach Nixon. When I was in my 20s, getting arrested outside Mobile Oil Co., protesting apartheid, while the pension system was divesting from South Africa… It was something that I admired that the comptroller was doing at the time in the 80s, working with Mayor Dinkins. So the fact that you can go from being arrested for civil disobedience and work as the comptroller playing a significant role in a lot of these issues, I say is living a dream.
There was a time when I thought I would be comptroller without a serious primary. But then there was a period of time where I was so far behind in the campaign with Elliot Spitzer that I had the real sense I would lose the opportunity. But that gives me a greater appreciation for this time. The reason we’re out there now and not wasting a day is because term limits create turnover and new energy, but they also tell you that you don’t have that long until you’re a lame duck.
BR: Any surprises in your role as comptroller?
SS: I think that this office has a lot of ways to participate in government day-to-day that I didn’t fully appreciate. But our economists and budget experts are shaping our ability to weigh in on proposed mayoral budgets. We’ve been able to work through our accountancy to do a lot of interesting work that may never be on The Brooklyn Reader, but it does make a difference. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the different tools we have and my job is to maximize every one of those tools.
BR: Do you want to share anything about your future political aspirations?
SS: I’ve always taken the view, Do the job you have and not the job you may want one day. I’m a politician, so I’m not going to pretend I’m not. But if you want to do something else, you have to do a great job at the one you have first… What did they say about the tortoise and the hare?
BR: The more haste, the less speed? Or the slow and the steady one wins the race?
SS: Yes, I’m the tortoise *laughing*. I get there eventually.
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