Rohatyn Honored as NYC Watchdog Follows the Money for the PeopleBy
Citizens Budget Commission also recognizes Charles Schumer
Nonprofit’s scrutiny encompasses subway fares, Port Authority
Octogenarian investment banker Felix Rohatyn had just been honored for helping save New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970s when forty-something Shola Olatoye brought the Citizens Budget Commission’s annual dinner into the 21st century.
The chief executive and chairman of New York City Housing Authority came to the stage of the Pierre Ballroom Thursday night in recognition of NYCHA’s digital initiatives. These include an app for residents to schedule and track maintenance requests and a handheld mobile device for field staff.
The different honors hint at the varying scope of the Citizens Budget Commission as it patrols New York state and New York City finances and public authorities. The nonprofit group, which identifies itself as nonpartisan and independent, funded mostly by its membership dues and proceeds from its annual dinner, looks after the big picture and the granular.
"Our goal is to try to make sure taxpayers’ money is wisely and effectively spent," said Carol Kellermann, CBC’s president, during the cocktail hour."We focus on actual delivery of services at the state and city level. They’re things that have either large expenditures in the budget -- personnel, healthcare, and education -- or things that are very important to the economy. That is why we focus on the MTA and the Port Authority. We want them to be run efficiently too."
One of the CBC’s reports suggested ways the Port Authority could improve its financial reporting. "We acted on many but not all of their recommendations," Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority, said at his dinner seat. "CBC is one of the most thoughtful of the good-government groups. They’re driven by financial transparency and accountability."
In recent months, the group has weighed in on increasing the distribution of education funds to poorer communities, the rising expense of homeless services in New York City, keeping subway and bus fares affordable for low-income New Yorkers, and a 5-cent fee on plastic bags.
Stephen Berger, chairman of private-equity firm Odyssey Investment Partners, said CBC’s position is "that you have a right to be concerned and to be conservative on the spending of money, because it is not endless, and it has to deliver public good."
Berger said a lot of people on the left only focus on the public good, and a lot of people on the right only focus on how much money is being spent. The CBC aims to consider both perspectives. "This is a forum organization," Berger said. "It is driving the spending to improve the lives of the people."
Olatoye said Kellermann takes every opportunity to probe her. "Carol and I run into each other often when I’m dropping my kids off at school, and I’m harried, and she’s asking me about complicated questions, and I’m like, ‘I’m late, I have to go,’" Olatoye said.
NYCHA’s CBC Prize for Public Innovation was presented by CBC trustees Justin Steinberg of Steinberg Asset Management and Thomas Brodsky of the Brodsky Organization, co-chairs of the prize committee. The award citation noted the aim of the digital efforts "to increase efficiency, reduce operating costs, and improve public service," as part of NYCHA’s 10-year strategic plan.
The first-ever Felix G. Rohatyn Award went to the man it was named for. It will subsequently be awarded not necessarily annually to a person who embodies his service and leadership.
"Felix kind of epitomizes the principles behind the CBC, being a responsible citizen in the private sector who makes a contribution to the public life of the city," said Kellermann, as the Rohatyn family posed for photographs early in the evening.
Senator Charles Schumer received the Medal for High Civic Service after sitting for dinner with CBC chairman Ed Skyler, Merryl and James Tisch and Rodgin Cohen.
"Here is my pitch to you," Schumer said in remarks. "I hope it’s a little bit apolitical, even in this political moment, when I’m in a political situation. I hope we will all help move this country to policies which level the playing field, and give a leg up to working families, the middle class and those struggling to get there, which is the majority of America and the majority of our city."