By Frank Quinn
From 2014 to 2020 Kathryn Garcia was the 43rd Commissioner of the largest sanitation department in the world. Before that she was Chief Operating Officer of the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, and an interim Chair of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). She grew up in Brooklyn as an adopted child in a multi-racial family.
Garcia thinks voters are most concerned about the economy and affordability. “Housing costs seem very high and burdensome. And People, especially from my generation and older, are concerned about a return to the 70s and 80s when crime was high and you couldn’t take the subway after 8PM.” She believes voters want balanced police reform and are worried about the cultural and restaurant base, often because they know someone who works in a small business.
Garcia describes her support as grassroots without backing from major corporations or PACs. She’s received endorsements from five unions including the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, demonstrating support from those whom she directly managed.
Garcia has an uncompromising view on housing; a perennial issue that residents expect the mayor to solve. Building new housing creates affordable options, supports the tax base and alleviates homelessness. We asked how she would confront the intractable problem of developing new housing in the face of community opposition.
“I’m a lifelong New Yorker so I understand resistance to change, but we have a need for future homes. We should change the paradigm of the conversation to describe new neighbors who are coming because we want them here to make the city dynamic and interesting.”
At NYCHA Garcia says she’ll execute on rebuilding plans because “we know what needs to be done.” When asked why this hasn’t already occurred she says New York City was slow to embrace the federally sponsored RAD program. “Many cities moved fast but we’re just beginning. NYCHA has been underfunded, and we can use RAD to leverage private dollars and make transformative renovations to our properties.”
The RAD program is designed to improve public housing by attracting private investment. It’s controversial because it can lead to forced relocations and possible eviction. Garcia acknowledges there’s a trust issue. “There are examples where NYCHA said we’ll build you a new building, then residents were moved out but it was years before the new building was completed.”
A local RAD program at The Fulton Houses in Chelsea is just such an example, with tenants opposing each other over the plan. Garcia explains “although a private developer will manage the project, NYCHA maintains certain control. The tenant association gets the same amount of money, and tenants get the same rental agreement and rights of succession. We understand why residents are fearful, and that’s why the plan at Fulton Houses will provide a new building before anyone has to move.”
The next mayor will have to confront the size of the municipal workforce given the city’s massive budget deficits. When asked specifically if she thought the municipal workforce was too big she says “my belief is that efficiencies can be found.” As an example she described the mayor’s office having four Chief Officers for cybersecurity, technology, data analytics and Information, each with their own staffs and none of whom report to each other. “In 1980 the sanitation department had 13 thousand workers – today they’re down by about half. You can look to do that in other parts of the government.”
Garcia says New York City provides a more robust set of services than most other places, but that technology can help reduce the size of the workforce. She also mentioned certain direct services she supports, such as Mayor de Blasio’s pre-k initiative, noting “If we want classroom sizes to be small, there’s a certain number of teachers you need to do that.”
Defund The Police was loudly proclaimed in the village during numerous protests, and local City Council member Cory Johnson led the effort during last year’s budget negotiation. When asked for her views on the subject Garcia said “I believe the NYPD needs reform, but I think we need our patrol strength and I would not reduce the number of officers because we’ve seen an uptick in crime.”
She’s taken the position that new NYPD officers should live within the five boroughs. When asked to respond to the patrolman’s union who said any discussion about residency requirements must address police officers’ pay Garcia said “of course we always sit at the table and discuss what you think you should be paid, but most police officers do quite well, not dissimilar from other city workers except they end up making more over time based on the way their contract is structured.”
She reiterated her position that like all big agencies the NYPD can find efficiencies, and that she’s well qualified to reform the police because she understands how a uniformed workforce thinks. “Some tactics used during the protests were horrible. Kettling doesn’t work – I was out there. But it wasn’t the officer on the front line who made that decision. And you get what you measure. If you don’t measure the ability to interact with the community, you don’t get community interaction. We shouldn’t just measure the number of arrests. We should think about how police ensure solutions for people; that police provide a service.”
And Garcia proposes a large plan to improve both the environment and criminal justice, converting Rikers Island to a compost and renewable energy facility. “It could streamline the collection of 1/3 of the waste stream while moving prisoners closer to the courts, which is important for due process.”
The Democratic mayoral primary is June 22, 2021.
Frank Quinn is a media executive, parent and musician. Linkedin.com/in/frankjquinn