New York City

RIOC’s Proposed Budget for 2021-22 Hinges on the Unthinkable

RIOC’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, starting April 1st, hinges on the unthinkable… the end of Tram service for Roosevelt Island. Partly, that’s the result of the state’s original sin, failing to embrace democracy.

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island News

RIOC’s ongoing mistake, persistent and unyielding, is hardcore resistance to involving residents in its governing process. The state collects a shadowy RIOC tax that pays for most of the business, but the community gets almost no say in how the roughly $19 million gets spent.

RIOC's proposed budget puts at risk the treasured  Roosevelt Island Tram.
Sunk in RIOC’s proposed budget is a magical ploy financing Tram operations.

And that leads to political mistakes like the proposed budget for 2021-22. It covers the fiscal year starting on April 1st.

Decisions are based, not on community values or goals, but on hermetic internal politicking having nothing to do with what residents want.

That’s operating without consent of the governed, those who pay for it, and it’s as un-American as the Bolshoi Ballet.

RIOC’s Proposed Budget, General To Particular

Aside from clipping a pair of managers associated with completing infrastructure projects and oddly turning messaging over to the Youth Center director, next year’s budget is pandemic free.

It’s like it never happened, and it also fails at dealing with bloated staffing.

Internal politics outweigh common sense, and risks for residents are very high, RIOC sacrifices minimal.

Missing the obvious…

Staffing excess, especially in Public Safety, is as apparent as efforts to hide it.

In its recent newsletter, for example, RIOC notes 45 officers, but its own budget counts more than 50. And 55 is the number given by a senior executive.

And the PSD budget, when all’s taken into account: $4 million, and that’s better than 10% of the agency’s total.

No one wants PSD disappearing, but right-sizing, down to about half of its current staffing makes sense.

We know PSD, no many how many officers, can’t be counted on for controlling even bicycle traffic, and as for most policing services, residents already pay for those in state and city taxes.

But put that aside for now because the real horror is in the magic.

Keeping the Tram alive through magical thinking…

Magical thinking is childlike projection of wishes upon reality. It’s sort of sweet, but when grownups do it, it’s unhinged.

Here’s what we mean…

“Tramway revenues are projected to remain at same level as the Approved Budget FY 2020‐21,” according to RIOC.

Let’s be clear about what that means. RIOC expects as much revenue from Tram usage as it did last year before the pandemic.

There’s no other way to say this, except that it’s nuts and incredibly risky.

The risk: shutting down the Tram and Red Buses.

How RIOC’s proposed budget invites the death of the Roosevelt Island Tram…

RIOC’s 2021-22 budget anticipates $6,356,000 in Tram ridership income, and that includes a hefty profit. The excess goes to things like free bus service. Without it, there is no other source, and what if there’s not enough for the Tram itself?

Disaster.

Weigh that number against the projected actual income for this year of $1,408,000, and the difference knocks your socks off. It’s cataclysmic.

And here’s another important revenue number: $4,526,290. That’s income from the previous, pandemic-free fiscal year, but RIOC says we’ll get over $6 million next year, post COVID-19.

We mentioned magical thinking…

In a rare instance of due diligence in the September meeting, a couple of directors questioned including that figure in the proposed budget, and CFO John O’Reilly had an answer.

With a coronavirus vaccine coming in October or November, RIOC expects New York City’s return to full activity, just as before, by April.

And then, after jaws dropped…

That projection isn’t just unrealistic, it’s spectacularly unrealistic. It’s not going to happen, not even close, and the only explanation is magical thinking.

Or is it…?

In context, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control, told Congress yesterday that general distribution of a vaccine is not anticipated before the middle of next year. And it will be the end of 2021 before a return to normal is a reasonable expectation.

So, why the preposterous revenue projection embedded in RIOC’s proposed budget?

Next, consider that John O’Reilly is a responsible CFO and one of RIOC’s best ever hires. He does not initiate fantasy numbers.

The $6 million+ figure is almost certainly a politically demanded number put in place to mask the unthinkable and avoid the thinkable. And pressure for doing it likely resides in Albany, placating Hudson-Related, for which the Tram is golden marketing material.

Conclusion

RIOC plays fast and loose with these numbers and the Tram’s future. It’s certain that New York City will not be up and running at full speed, tourists and all, by April.

It’s ridiculous, and so, what happens then?

Well, O’Reilly had an answer for that. RIOC cannot sustain a $3 million dollar loss, as it will this year. That is, in short, the corporation can no longer pay for the Tram and the free buses associated with it.

Because RIOC fails at solving a pending crisis realistically, depending instead on fantasy numbers, it boxes itself in.

Where do they go when revenues fall far short of $6 million, as they surely will? Will the corporation suddenly take a meat ax to overstaffing, especially at PSD?

Or will they pass the burden on to residents with no sacrifices of their own? What do you think, based on past experiences?

Will RIOC’s irresponsible proposed budget come back to haunt with drastically reduced or ended Tram and Red bus services?

One thing we know, only a change in culture at the state agency holds out the prospect of working together on solutions, but nobody realistically expects that to happen.

Fasten your seatbelts because RIOC’s rushing us forward without shock absorbers.

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