How are the billions in emergency aid to New York being spent?


A new dashboard posted yesterday on the Comptroller’s website could become the lens through which New Yorkers see how tens of billions of dollars in one-shot federal funding is being spent by governments at every level in the state.   

Federal pandemic-induced emergency funding to New York jurisdictions includes $12.7 billion to the state government, $14.7 billion to school districts, $9.9 billion to counties and cities, and $774 million to towns and villages. The aid comes with few strings, leaving public officials to make key determinations on how to invest an unanticipated windfall.  

Residents should be able to track those decisions so that they can hold leaders accountable.  

That’s why an emergency spending tracker is a great idea. 

A spending tracker should ideally address three questions: 

  • How much money is obligated? 
  • To whom has it been obligated? and 
  • On what is it being spent? 

For now, the dashboard addresses the first question, allowing users to see how quickly the state is getting funds out the door. Going forward, it should shed light on who is receiving the funds, and how they are being spent.   

Doing that requires the Governor’s Budget Office step up and partner with the Comptroller. Together, they could track funds from the top-down and the bottom-up; a top-down angle is best for tracking obligations and a bottom-up angle for following expenditures. 

The Budget Office could electronically “tag” emergency spending in its accounting system with a unique code that enables the Comptroller’s Office to automatically extract relevant data and create a public-facing database that shows when specific emergency program funds are obligated, to whom and in what amount.   

We know this can be done, because the federal government did it. The U.S. Treasury Department created a searchable federal COVID-19 spending tracker that allows the public to view data on emergency disbursements from a variety of angles. The federal Office of Management and Budget facilitated this by coding emergency spending with unique identifiers before Treasury sent it out the door.

A bottom-up approach provides the best lens on recipient use of funds. The federal emergency spending laws require New York’s school districts and local governments to electronically submit categorized reports of spending to Washington, DC. The Comptroller could collect and post these submissions on a single, publicly accessible site—or better yet aggregate the data in the individual reports into a publicly searchable database that allows users to see how funds are spent in their own jurisdiction and at the regional and state level.  

A wealth of important public financial data is already available on the Comptroller’s website. The dashboard could develop into an important new addition.  

We hope to see that maturation, so the public can better track the extraordinary gusher of emergency aid flowing to and through New York jurisdictions. 

Peter Warren is the Director of Research at the Empire Center for Public Policy.

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