By Steven Wishnia
Calling him a “verified progressive” with an extraordinary record, mayor-elect Bill de Blasio announced Dec. 18 that he had tapped former Assembly fiscal advisor Dean Fuleihan to be the city’s budget director.
Fuleihan began working for the Assembly as a fiscal analyst in 1978 and was its lead staff negotiator on the 2011 budget. When he left that spring, Speaker Sheldon Silver said it felt “like I’m losing my right arm.” Since then, the Syracuse native has been an executive at the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Albany, where he helped develop an affiliated tech-focus high school.
“No one is more knowledgeable about how Albany works. No one is more knowledgeable about how budgeting works,” de Blasio said at the press conference introducing Fuleihan.
His job, the mayor-elect said, will be to develop a city budget that advances the agenda of reducing economic inequality while staying “fiscally responsible.” Its “centerpiece” priorities will be getting the state government to approve a tax increase on the rich to fund early-childhood education, directing economic-development subsidies to small businesses and the City University of New York instead of to large corporations and developers, and creating or preserving 200,000 units of “affordable housing” over the next 10 years.
This all has to be done when federal aid to the city for housing and mass transit has been declining for decades, de Blasio noted, and outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg left him with the gift of expired contracts for all 152 unions that represent city workers—the first time in the city’s history a new mayor has had that problem, he said. This leaves de Blasio with a tough choice: If he gives minimal pay increases, he’ll alienate the unions that supported him, many of whose members haven’t gotten a raise in four years or more. If he gives bigger raises, the city’s establishment will denounce him as fiscally irresponsible.
“Cost-saving measures will be our mantra,” de Blasio said. When negotiating with “our friends in labor,” he added later, “we’ll say ‘cost savings’ probably every other sentence.” One possibility, he said, was increasing preventive programs to save money on health benefits.
Fuleihan’s tech-college background fits well with one of de Blasio’s main initiatives to reduce inequality: to “train New Yorkers for the tech jobs that are available now.” The future budget director spoke of “public-private partnerships” and creating “good-paying tech-career paths for our youth.”
Left unsaid was what the incoming mayor plans to do to create jobs and improve pay for people who aren’t working in the tech field. De Blasio spokesperson Lis Smith said afterwards that he will also put “a lot of effort” into having the City Council pass stronger living-wage and paid-sick-days measures.