By Zander Kurita
New York City, New York
New York City’s comptroller is the CFO and monitors the city’s budget and contracts as well as the $240 billion pension fund. The current comptroller, Scott Stringer, is running for mayor after completing the maximum two consecutive terms. Without an incumbent, the race has been crowded and fierce. Many councilmembers and assemblymen have tossed their hats in the ring and are polling higher with their preexisting constituencies. The Iris spoke with one of the candidates, Terri Liftin.
Liftin grew up on Long Island and received her B.A. in economics from Barnard College and M.A. from NYU. Her first job was at the Port Authority of New York reviewing economic policies and monitoring investments. She went on to get her law degree and worked in firms reviewing complex court cases following state and federal financial regulations. For the last fourteen years, Liftin has served as Chief Legal Officer and Chief Compliance Officer at several private investment firms. These jobs involve programming audits, which monitor contracts and expenses, and negotiating on behalf of investors. While she has never worked in government, Liftin is well-versed in the economic rules and regulations of New York City.
So, how do these qualifications fit the role of comptroller? As the city’s CFO, the comptroller is responsible for examining city contracts, the investments of pension funds and the auditing of city agencies, but what does that look like? Liftin said the greatest responsibility of the comptroller going forward is “to ensure that taxpayer money and federal relief plan money is not wasted.” The comptroller identifies instances of financial waste and advocates for solutions to the problems at the root of such waste. The position, however, is not solely reactive; the comptroller holds great sway in city politics, can focus on a preferred issue when conducting audits and must act as a fiduciary for city employees and retirees.
Throughout her career, Liftin has worked in similar capacities. She said that her experience is her greatest tool and that “I couldn’t imagine interviewing for a job if I didn’t have the skills for that job.” She plans to operate in a much more data driven manner to foster a connection between government and businesses, both big and small.
At the forefront of Liftin’s campaign is COVID-19-related economic recovery. Many believe that the solutions lie in countless city agencies, and the comptroller's ability to work across agencies is crucial for the magnitude of the recovery. As more people get vaccinated, transportation and public safety is necessary to get people back in the streets because “small businesses rely on infrastructure,” Liftin said. Liftin believes that small businesses would greatly benefit from the guidance of business leaders. She plans to foster relationships between small and big businesses, so the small business leaders can learn how to adapt to the new way of doing business.
Liftin said that “there are city inspectors coming in, trying to hassle them over complying COVID rules, which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but oftentimes [small businesses] don't even know what the COVID rules are. Right now, small businesses don’t need to be harassed, don’t need to be fined; they need to be supported in every way the city can do it.”
Liftin plans to use her experience as a fiduciary to ensure that investments from the city’s pension fund go to sound causes. “The problem comes when the pension funds are used to advance political goals, no matter how worthy…the fiduciary standard (putting the client first) gets compromised to the extent you’re thinking of social issues before performance.” Because of unsound investments, there has been a large gap in investment yields against the required percentage of a retiree’s pension. Liftin gave us an example of how this gap occurs:
“If I’m required to pay out 8% to a city retiree on their pension, and I make an investment in affordable housing and as a result I only get 4%, we have a 4% gap. And the way the city makes up that gap is by using taxpayer funds to plug that hole, These days, that gap, that underfunded amount is about 10 billion dollars a year.”
Liftin said she is very experienced in this area of reviewing “who are the managers and what is the best strategy that will on a risk-adjusted basis the best return for our retirees.” With that additional $10 billion, because of better investments, city programs could greatly benefit without raising taxes.
Liftin plans to evaluate agencies on sustainability, so New Yorkers can better understand exactly how their practices affect the environment. Liftin said she would not only be reactive but also incentivize agencies to employ environmentally friendly practices. Under her plan, agencies would be rewarded for their efforts and would gain funding if sustainability efforts were more expensive.
Liftin is for a housing first approach, which would place emphasis––and funding––on keeping people, especially families, in homes instead of shelters. Liftin said, “It is less expensive to keep families in their homes than to pay for their place in shelters,” as the city is paying $3 billion a year on shelters. Liftin would establish performance metrics for shelters to better understand where the money is going and where it is needed. With her housing first approach, Liftin would ensure shelters continue to be funded and evaluated, but the city would allocate more funding towards keeping families in their homes.
Liftin wants the city to become more data driven in recognizing problems and finding better solutions. On the jobs front, she has seen that there are many open jobs right now but not enough people with the proper qualifications to fill them. She would partner with CUNY to provide a path to leadership positions and encourage upward mobility in government.
“We have the talent here,” Liftin said. She does not believe that the government has all the answers; “the people who have been left behind,” Liftin believes, are the ones with the potential to fix the problems. Liftin said that this is the time to “seize the moment and bring more people on board.”
The race for comptroller is filled with candidates coming from the City Council, State Assembly and Senate, as well as numerous outsider candidates. Many believe that Liftin’s resume stands out because of the similarities between her past jobs and that of comptroller, but she lacks a strong constituency, which many of the other candidates have.