Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Assemblyman David Weprin wants to be the next fiscal watchdog for New York City. Since the post was created in the early 1800s only five of the 50 city comptrollers have been Jewish. If elected, Weprin would be the first shomer Shabbos Orthodox Jew to hold the post.

There will be a primary election next year on June 22, to be held with at least three other announced candidates: state Senator Brian Benjamin, 44, (D – Harlem, Manhattan), state Senator Kevin Parker, 53, (D – Flatbush, Brooklyn) and City Councilman Brad Lander, 51, a reform Jew (D – Park Slope, Brooklyn).

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“I would be the first Orthodox Jewish citywide official in the history of the City of New York,” Weprin, 64, (D – Holliswood, Queens) proudly told The Jewish Press. “I’ve been fighting my entire career for religious accommodations including in our correctional facilities.”

Weprin’s main focus for the campaign is going to be the money woes facing the Big Apple. During a 40-plus year career that comprises employment in the public and private sectors, including a quarter century on Wall Street, deputy superintendent of Banks in the 1980s under Governor Mario Cuomo, eight years in the New York City Council and 11 years in Albany as an assemblyman, he says he’s eminently qualified to fill the shoes of outgoing Comptroller Scott Stringer.

“We’re going to be in a fiscal crisis for many years,” Weprin said. “I’m the only candidate in the race that really has relevant finance experience both in the public and private sector. I chaired the finance committee of the NYC Council of Mayor Bloomberg’s first two terms and we had two major fiscal crises during that time. In 2001 the post-9/11 fiscal crisis and the 2008 economic recession and stock market collapse with another multi-billion dollar deficit and we turned that around before I left as chairman of the NYC Council Finance Committee in 2009.”

Weprin acknowledges that New York City government has both a spending and a revenue problem.

“There’s a lot of waste in city agencies,” Weprin said. “One of the functions of the Comptroller is the audit function. There should be annual audits of every city agency, not just every four years as required by law. What I would really like to concentrate on is the outside contracting budget of city agencies because there is so much waste in outside contracting in some cases in the hundreds of millions of dollars and I think that could be effectively done through the audit function.”

There are five pension boards that total $229 billion in revenue – two pension funds for firefighters, one each for police officers, general city employees and the teachers’ pension fund. The city comptroller has a seat on the board of each of the five.

“The pension funds have been doing well because of the stock market but at the same time I hope I can make a contribution in turning around the economy of the city,” Weprin noted. “Investments shouldn’t be based on political philosophies or decisions. The first obligation of comptroller is to make sure it’s a sound fiscal investment and taking that fiduciary obligation seriously and that’s something that I would always do. Your first priority should always be diversifying the portfolio, equities are an important part, no question, but you should also have hedge with bonds, private equity, with real estate. You want to have a diversified portfolio.”

Weprin is bullish on Israel Bonds.

“I certainly would support investing in Israel,” according to Weprin. “It’s high-tech companies. They’re very entrepreneurial. The high-tech companies in Israel that are doing well and will grow. Israel bonds have been a good investment. I would certainly support expanding our investments in Israel Bonds. Obviously it’s part of an overall diversification, but it’s certainly a sound investment and I would certainly look to expand that.”

The city comptroller is one of three citywide officers running for election next year including mayor and the public advocate. All 51 seats in the NYC Council are also up for grabs. The city comptroller’s office employs more than 800 people and Weprin says he would like to expand the payroll. Weprin maintains his proposal to increase the auditing function from every four years to every year is not an indictment that the Stringer administration was too lax in its auditing responsibilities.

“It’s just a question of emphasis,” Weprin said. “In the last year or two he’s beefed up his audits but he still doesn’t do an annual audit of every agency. There’s no reason why that can’t be done. If it means hiring more auditors, so be it because they’re going to save money. It may be laying out money on the front end but it’s certainly going to save money in city government so I think it is easy to justify hiring more auditors because eventually it’s going to save a lot of money for city agencies and for the budget.

“I think more can be done with auditing agencies like the MTA even though it is a state agency it is the only transportation system that most residents of the city rely on and there is a relevant audit function with the MTA for the city comptroller as well. That’s someplace where there’s been a lot of waste,” Weprin added.

To help get the city’s fiscal house in order, Weprin wants to reinstate the commuter tax, which he wants to rename a non-resident income tax, and set at a rate higher than one half of one percent.

“This tax offsets the costs of transportation, sanitation, police and fire services provided to people who work in the five boroughs but live outside the work area,” Weprin explains. “We need new revenue. We can’t tax the middle class. We can’t tax small businesses. The NYC economy is devastated. The middle class has been leaving the city. We certainly can’t tax our way out of the deficit. It’s really a non-resident income tax because we’re talking about taxing people’s income. It’s a progressive tax. You make more money, you pay more money. That’s probably the fairest tax to look at it. I would look at ways of creating new revenues through a tax on legalized marijuana sales and sports betting revenue including app-based betting.”

Weprin estimates each of these taxes could bring in close to $1 billion in revenue. He is also calling on the federal government to give aid to NYC to offset the deficit incurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

“This financial crisis is so bad, it’s worse than the 1975 fiscal crisis, the post-9/11 fiscal crisis, the 2008 recession all put together; it’s probably closer to the great depression, so I think we may have to do some borrowing as well, but it has to be done in the context of an overall plan, which includes federal aid, revenue (tax) increases and some borrowing but it has to be part of an overall plan to bail out NYC from this major fiscal crisis that we’re going to be under for a number of years. It would be a mistake to close the deficit only through borrowing,” Weprin said.

As part of an overall plan, Weprin also wants to create a red tape reduction commission to assist New Yorkers with getting through government bureaucracy more quickly.

“It’s to deal with the fiscal crisis,” Weprin said. “I’m not looking to create a permanent office and another bureaucracy but it’s something that should have some priority in the short term (in the next couple of years) to turn around the economy of NYC.”

Weprin has already qualified for government matching funds to finance his candidacy. “I already qualified for more than $1 million in matching funds,” Weprin revealed. “It reduces the influence of big money corporations. You can’t take corporate contributions. You can only take individual contributions. It gives the average citizen the availability of contributing and making a difference in a campaign. It reduces the interests of special interests.”

In the wake of the pandemic, as the infection rate skyrockets, candidates will have to begin circulating nominating petitions in February 2021. How that happens in a climate where mitigating health and safely concerns are paramount is anybody’s guess at this point.

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.