Adams’ pledge of government efficiency remains out of reach

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NEW YORK — Mayor Eric Adams’ administration is taking longer to close noise complaints, pruning fewer street trees and answering far fewer 311 calls within 30 seconds compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Shifting from the partisan rhetoric of his predecessor, Bill de Blasio, Adams pledged to transform the way municipal government delivers some of the most basic services encountered by New Yorkers during his successful 2021 campaign.

“When it comes to city government, we need to put in place real-time systems to inspect what we expect, tracking how well we’re delivering services to New Yorkers and identifying areas we need to improve,” Adams said shortly after taking office in 2022.

But a detailed analysis POLITICO conducted of 432 pages of recent metrics tracking the success of each city agency — from the turnaround time for in-person parking ticket hearings to the days needed to process senior rental assistance applications — shows a mixed record that fails to live up to the mayor’s promised efficiency. In fact, a sizable tranche of basic city services have regressed compared to pre-pandemic levels.

And New Yorkers tend to notice.

“It’s that baseline of service that really affects how people think about their government,” said Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York, a government reform group. “It’s not about speeches and the big issues; it’s about whether you’ve made a noise complaint and nobody gets back to you for a week.”

Letting the basics slip, she said, can feed into cynicism about government and create a perception that things are out of control and tax dollars are being squandered.

Adams’ most recent scorecard was delineated in the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, a tome released earlier this month that contains around 2,000 metrics tracking activities of city agencies between July and October of 2023.

Nearly 500 of those stats — required to be made public twice a year per the city charter — are marked as critical indicators, meaning they are especially important. POLITICO reviewed around 120 of them focused on government efficiency and service delivery and compared them to the 2019 Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report — the last publication before Covid upended city government.

The results show a nearly even split between metrics that improved and those that regressed, with a handful of others that remained roughly static.

The Adams administration, for instance, has upped the share of youth who receive mental health screening while in detention — an issue the mayor speaks about regularly — from 65 percent in 2019 to nearly 82 percent last year. It reduced the time it takes for the city to issue a property tax refund from 24 days to 18 days. And the average time to fix high-priority broken fire hydrants dropped to 1.8 days.

On-time Staten Island Ferry trips, the duration for satisfying a pothole complaint and park cleanliness were among the records that matched pre-pandemic levels, the report showed.

But other services are slipping.

Noise complaints submitted to the Department of Environmental Protection took an average of 5.4 days to close, two days longer than in 2019.

Operators at 311 answered 68 percent of calls within 30 seconds, 20 points below 2019 levels.

And 19,351 street trees were pruned by the Department of Parks and Recreation between July and October last year, a decline of 31 percent.

Recent reports have also found police response times increased in the latter part of 2019 and that the city was taking far too long to process cash assistance.

That is not the message Adams has broadcast since taking office — and not a helpful record as he gears up to seek reelection with potential rivals already lining up.

“While companies and corporations are constantly saying, ‘I must build a better product so I can bring my customers in,’ governments inherently don't believe that,” Adams said at an event hosted by Salesforce, a business software company, in December 2022. “And what I must do as the mayor, I must bring a competitive edge to say, ‘I have to have a good customer experience so our citizens will constantly want to be a part of the services that we provide to the city.’”

City Hall pointed to several trends that show government service improving. Crime on public transit and in parks has fallen compared to the period covered in the pre-pandemic management report. There have been fewer pedestrian fatalities and higher enrollment in the Summer Youth Employment program. And the city has reduced the time necessary to clean catch basins — which when clogged can contribute to serious flooding during heavy rainfall — from 6.2 days to 2.1 days.

Spokesperson Liz Garcia noted the pandemic was enormously disruptive to city government, and that despite those lingering difficulties Adams has delivered on his core promise of lowering crime (overall index crime is trending downward but still above levels contained in the management report covering 2019), rebuilding the economy and making the city more livable.

“Two years later, the data shows that the administration has delivered on that promise, and in major categories like crime, housing, and quality of life, we have exceeded pre-pandemic baselines,” Garcia said in a statement. “While we will always have more work to do — and as the mayor has said, results won’t happen overnight — this administration is on a steady path toward delivering some of the most efficient government services this city has ever seen.”

To aid in his quest to break down silos and make government more efficient, Adams created the position of chief efficiency officer to track service delivery and agency budgets with an eye toward cutting red tape and, somewhat paradoxically, formed two additional offices dedicated to the issue.

One of those, the Office of Municipal Services Assessment, is a low-profile outfit that reports to Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Phil Banks and was initially run by a deputy inspector on loan from the NYPD.

Just three months into his tenure, however, Miltiadis Marmara was sent from that role back to the police department. City Hall has subsequently declined to answer basic questions from POLITICO about who is running the operation, though multiple people with knowledge of its activities said Tim Pearson — who recently got into a scuffle with security staff after attempting a surprise inspection at a city-run migrant facility — plays a leading role.

For Lerner, head of Common Cause, the city’s recent budget cuts — coupled with a struggle to fill vacant positions and a hiring freeze — could hurt the Adams administration’s ability to maintain the nuts and bolts of city government. Frustrations over those basics became palpable for her last year when a fire hydrant on her block began leaking in the summer.

Repeated calls to 311 eventually led to visits from the fire and building department personnel, but they failed to stop the flow. Despite repeated follow-up calls, the hydrant continued to leak for months. Eventually, her neighbors inundated local elected officials with calls complaining about the lack of city responsiveness.

"And guess what,” Lerner said. “In two weeks it got fixed."