DiNapoli Says He’s Yet To See A Contract For Buffalo Billion Investigator

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli in a radio interview on Thursday said he was yet to see a contract for the independent investigator hired by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration to review contracting and payments in the Buffalo Billion economic development program.

“As of yesterday, we have not,” DiNapoli said on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom. “Whether something is happening today, I don’t know.”

Cuomo in May announced he had hired Bart Schwartz, a former federal prosecutor, to review contracts in the economic development program, which has come under scrutiny by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office.

Schwartz’s role has not been fully defined, nor has it been disclosed how much he is being paid for his services. The Times Union reported this week Scwhartz would have subpoena power granted by Cuomo under the Moreland Act powers.

In the interview, DiNapoli pushed back against initial assertions his office was to blame this month for a delayed payment to contractors under the Buffalo Billion program which nearly once again led to a round of layoffs.

DiNapoli insisted his office was asking “basic questions” to determine where the money was going and whether proper safeguards were in place.

“When some of these payments come through, the other work we do which is payment approval or making sure the minimum requirements are in order, that’s part of our due diligence we’re going to continue to provide,” he said. “To a certain extent, I think our office was unfairly beat up last week that we were withholding the payments. Well, we have some basic questions we have to ask.”

Among those questions is whether Schwartz reviewed and approved the payment.

“Did he look at this before the payment came to us? The PACB has some as part of the approval has some added disclosure and oversight,” he said. “Is that being followed? Those are the kinds of basic questions we should be asking. And if it takes an extra day or two to do that, that’s our job.”

At the same time, DiNapoli indicated his office would continue to exercise what power it has to review the program as well as additional economic development spending. An audit on the Excelsior Jobs program is due out soon, DiNapoli said.

“No one is trying to hold up a payment or have workers laid off,” DiNapoli said. “To send something over and you have to approve it yesterday and not respond to basic questions quickly, that’s a problem for us.”

Audit Finds State’s Homeless Shelters In Poor Condition

An audit of homeless shelters outside of New York City found many are in poor condition, facing health and safety issues, according to a report released Thursday by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

The audit, conducted in conjunction with county comptrollers from Albany, Dutchess, Nassau, Onondaga, Suffolk and Ulster counties reviewed conditions at 200 emergency shelters as well as 187 hotels and motels.

Overall, auditors found 320 facilities to be in “generally adequate” condition.

However, 67 facilities that provide shelter services to the homeless were found to poor or very condition, ranging from issues such as mold, dirty restrooms and vermin. More than 60 faciltiies were found to have fire safety issues such as lacking a fire escape, inadequate fire extinguishers or missing smoke detectors.

At 37 facilities, there were personal safety issues such as restroom doors that do not lock, unsafe playgrounds and staris, while 20 locations had poor bedding and not enough toilets.

“Homelessness is a problem affecting communities in virtually every corner of the state,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “Despite our best efforts, there continue to be run-down – and sometimes even squalid – shelters that pose a real danger to the health and safety of families and individuals that have nowhere else to go. It is clear that greater action is needed to ensure that all homeless shelter facilities provide safe accommodations for some of New York’s most vulnerable residents.”

Even among the facilities deemed to be in overall good condition, there are still persistent issues that should be corrected.

The report was conducted after Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his January State of the State address called for a new homeless housing push that gave the state never oversight of the shelter system.

The Office of Temporary and Disability Services, the agency responsible for administration of the housing and service programs for the homeless, is also in charge of monitoring local oversight and inspection of shelters, but has delegated authority for smaller facilities to county social services departments.

16d3 by Nick Reisman

Pension Fund Posts Worst Rate Of Return Since Recession

The state pension fund posted its worst rate of return since the financial crash of 2008, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office on Monday announced.

The pension fund earned a 0.19 percent rate of return in the 2015-16 fiscal year, the worst performance since 2009 when the fund’s return dropped by nearly 25 percent.

The total value of the fund stands at $178.1 billion, with the value reflecting the $10.9 billion in benefits paid out during the fiscal year.

DiNapoli earlier this year indicated the pension fund’s performance amid a volatile financial market would be less than robust.

The state’s pension fund at the time was valued at around $184.5 billion, one of the largest retirement funds in the country.

The virtually flat rate of return is potentially problematic for local governments whose contribution rates have skyrocketed over the last decade.

Last year, DiNapoli announced the state would once again reduce contributions from 18.2 percent of payroll to 15.5 percent. The average rate of contribution for the police and fire retirement system declined by 2 percent — from 24.7 percent to 24.3 percent.

In the previous fiscal year, the rate of return stood at 7.16 percent, while in 2014-15 it posted a return of 13 percent as the economy was recovery.

Still, DiNapoli insisted that despite the challenges presented by the market, the fund was still able to remain in the positive area.

“Despite weak equity markets, the Fund’s diversified portfolio and our investment team delivered a positive return,” DiNapoli said. “We continue to have confidence in our asset allocation for the long term. Our investment team is focused on ensuring we remain one of the best funded and top performing plans in the country.”

DiNapoli: Opioid-Related Death Hit Record High In 2014

Deaths related to heroin and prescription opioid overdoses hit a record high in New York in 2014, a report released on Thursday by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli found.

The report fund overdose deaths in which heroin was considered a factor hit 825 in 2014, the most recent year data was available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The record is an increase from 159 deaths in 2013 and is an increase of 25 times from the number New York recorded in a decade ago.

“Heroin and prescription opioid addiction often come with disastrous consequences, tearing apart families and causing financial ruin,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “While New York state and some local governments have taken important steps to reduce heroin and opioid abuse, the costs associated with this epidemic are growing and the health, safety and prosperity of our communities are at risk.”

The news comes as state lawmakers are weighing action on a variety of bills aimed at stemming the heroin addiction rates in New York, along with plans to provide better access to treatment, prevention programs and strengthening law enforcement for dealers.

The budget approved in April included $25 million in funding for local governments to develop or expand current treatment and prevention programs as well as housing services.

Heroin and Opioids by Nick Reisman

DiNapoli: After Shareholder Push, Priceline Agrees to Diversity On Board

The Priceline Group. Inc. has agreed to include gender and racial diversity when seeking new members for its board following a shareholder proposal from the state’s pension fund, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli on Tuesday announced.

With the agreement from Priceline, the shareholder request from New York has been withdrawn, DiNapoli said.

“We encourage our portfolio companies to commit to a diversity of experience and thought on their boards because it is an asset to business,” DiNapoli said. “Fresh ideas can revive stagnant and homogenized boards, and companies with directors from diverse backgrounds are better positioned to generate long-term company growth. Priceline should be commended for pursuing board diversity.”

It’s another example of DiNapoli using the leverage of the state’s pension fund to encourage changes to how a company operates, either through transparency in political giving or through who the company incldues in its leadership.

Priceline in January added its second female director to an 11-member board.

Under DiNapoli, the pension fund is seeking similar diversity commitments from firms like FleetCor Technologies and LinkedIn. All told, similar proposals have come from 17 portfolio corporations since 2012.

Pgs Proposal by Nick Reisman

DiNapoli: Tax Revenue Declined In April

New York’s tax revenue in April declined during the first month of the new fiscal year compared to the same time last year, according to a cash report from Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office.

The state collected $8.2 billion in taxes last month, a reduction of $420.4 million, or 4.9 percent, to April 2015.

It’s a potential red flag for the state’s economy and the revenue picture for the state. Nevertheless, the revenue was more or less what conservative estimates given the expected slackening of the economy.

“April tax receipts were in line with more conservative projections compared to just a few months ago as the economy has shown signs of slowing in the first quarter of the year,” DiNapoli said. “New developments in the coming months and their impact on revenues must be monitored closely as the new fiscal year progresses.”

The decline year over year is due to lower estimated personal income tax payments that resulted from a weakened financial market.

New York meanwhile spent $10.5 billion last month, $2.8 billion more than last year during the same period.

DiNapoli Nudges ExxonMobil On Climate Change

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office is teaming up with the Church of England to pressure the company on the issue of climate change.

DiNapoli in a statement on Monday signaled he would use the state pension fund’s investment in the company to leverage a response out of its board of directors on how ExxonMobil will adjust to internationally driven policy of limiting the effects of climate change through a reduction of carbon output.

“Combating climate change presents risks and opportunities that ExxonMobil needs to address,” said DiNapoli, who is trustee of the New York State Common Retirement Fund.

“We need to know if ExxonMobil is taking into account the growth of lower carbon economies and taking steps to protect the long-term value of our investments. Earlier this year, the company tried unsuccessfully to get the Securities and Exchange Commission to keep investors from voting on these important questions at the annual meeting. ExxonMobil’s peers are stepping up to address climate risk, it’s time they did so as well.”

The effort is being joined by the Church of England, which has also invested in the company and has taken on a similar activist shareholder role.

“I am delighted investors will have the chance to vote on this motion at this week’s annual meeting, in spite of ExxonMobil’s best efforts to deny them that opportunity,” Edward Mason, the Head of Responsible Investment for the Church of England’s investment fund said. “With peers such as BP and Shell agreeing to report on climate risk, the company is in danger of being increasingly out-of-step with the mainstream on this issue.”

The announcement comes as Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office is reviewing Exxon’s impact on the environment and climate change. The AG’s office last week blasted a letter sent by House Republicans seeking more information from Schneiderman’s office as well as 16 additional attorneys general who are gathering information in the case.

Per Diems Posted, CHA Consulting Gets High-Speed Rail Payment

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office on Friday posted the three months’ worth of per diem and travel reimbursement data for the members of the state Senate and Assembly.

At the same time, the office has posted per diem and travel data for lawmakers from 2013 through 2015, breaking down how much each lawmaker received in air travel, daily expenses and per diems.

Among the spending approvals was $83,000 to CHA Consulting Inc. for high-speed rail design. The company was found to have paid Joe Percoco, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, between $20,000 to $50,000 in 2014, according to a financial disclosure form.

Percoco, along with lobbyist Todd Howe, are under investigation by federal prosecutors as part of a broader probe into economic development spending. Percoco also claimed he received income from COR Development, which the companies denies ever paying him. CHA Consulting says it is cooperating with the investigation and does not believe it to be a target.

DiNapoli’s office office also announced it approved $34,000 in spending for the Assembly to continue working with Rossein Associates, the firm hired to develop a sexual harassment policy and conduct investigations.

An additional $5,000 was also approved in spending for the Assembly to retain Roemer Wallens Gold & Mineaux LLP, which is also providing outside counsel related to investigations of sexual harassment.

DiNapoli: Settlements, PIT Bolster State Finances

New York ended its 2015-16 fiscal year with $1.9 billion more than initially estimated, thanks in part to major financial settlements and strong personal income tax collections, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office found in a report released on Friday.

Spending overall grew 4.7 percent from the previous fiscal year, far less than anticipated and from final projections. Overall, the general fund ended with $8.9 billion.

“New York state ended the fiscal year with cash in the bank largely thanks to billions of dollars in settlements received over the past two years,” DiNapoli said. “As personal income tax collections in April of 2015 drove higher collections for the year, my office will be looking closely at this April’s results to see how the new fiscal year starts off.”

The state has since April 2014 received $8.5 billion in major settlements from financial institutions who have been hit with regulatory penalties and settlements. In the previous fiscal year, those fines amount to $3.6 billion into the state coffers.

Tax collections grew by 5.1 percent, attributed to strong growth in the real-estate transfer and estate tax collections.

Debt service spending was nearly $5.6 billion, declining by 9.5 percent.

year_end_fy2015-16 by Nick Reisman

DiNapoli Report Recommends Changes To State Spending Practices

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli recommended a series of changes to how the state spends and borrows money, moves his office says would enhance transparency in the state’s fiscal policy.

The report released Wednesday includes recommendations for reform to discretionary lump sum spending, restrictions on so-called “backdoor spending” through public authorities and further limits on state debt through the constitution.

“Too often New York’s approach to budgeting obscures spending and borrowing,” DiNapoli said. “The Governor and the Legislature deserve credit for putting the state on stronger financial footing, but it is time to fix the persistent problems and improve New York’s fiscal practices. Adoption of the reforms I am proposing would help put our state’s finances on a stronger path forward.”

The report points to the billions of dollars in discretionary pots of funds that are approved in the budget without clear details on where and how the money will ultimately be spent. At the same time, DiNapoli says the state should bolster its reserve funds, also known as “rainy day” funds in order to better prepare for the economic downturn.

Despite a debt reform measure in 2000, the state’s debt burden continues in part due to economic conditions. The state should ban “backdoor borrowing practices” with the state the second most indebted since California.

Fiscal Reform 2016 by Nick Reisman