By Brian Pascus
July 25, 2022
If you think the city has gotten dirtier in the past year, you’re not alone.
A May survey of 8,500 New Yorkers conducted by city Comptroller Brad Lander’s office found that 57% feel their neighborhood is dirtier than it was a year ago. The top complaints included overflowing litter baskets (24%), sidewalks obstructed by trash (19%), rats (17%), missed trash collections (15%), illegal dumping (15%) and derelict vehicles (10%).
And a review of 311 calls by the New York Post found that complaints about odor had increased by 54% in the first six months of the year compared to the first six months of 2021. In total, more than 5,700 odor complaints were placed between January and June.
“It only smells like marijuana, piss and beer around here,” said Tommy Greco, owner of K Rico South American Steakhouse in Hell’s Kitchen. “It’s like a frat party everywhere.”
The increased grime can be partially blamed on the fact that the public and private sanitation industries are struggling due to pandemic-era budget cuts of about $200 million. Perhaps most distressingly, rat sightings were up 54% in 2021 compared to 2020, according to a Crain’s data analysis.
“It’s been two or three really difficult years with budget cuts, lower revenues than previous years and protests when people were out in droves,” said Adam Ganser, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy group.
Mayor Eric Adams readily agreed with these sentiments during a July 10 press conference at which he announced a budget agreement that prioritized millions of dollars in new and restored funding for trash collection programs.
“New Yorkers, we heard you, and we listened: The streets are too darn dirty,” Adams said. “No one wants dirty streets, to live across from an unkempt lot or garbage and pests. And it’s just unpleasant to live [like that].”
Adams and the City Council have put $20.4 million toward restored funding for cleaning and mitigation services. But previous cuts, and the pressures of the pandemic years on trash collection, will make it hard for the city to climb out of the mess.
NYC cut sanitation funding after Covid hit
Sanitation funding was reduced during the de Blasio’s administration’s austerity budgets of the first two pandemic summers. The sanitation budget reached $2.1 billion in the fiscal year that began in July 2020 but has since dropped steadily to around $1.9 billion for the upcoming fiscal year.
“The budget for one of those functions, cleaning, was completely decimated through cuts, and anyone who looked outside could see the difference immediately,” said Department of Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch during a June 27 press conference. “I am a data-driven person, and the numbers tell a shocking story.”
The two fiscal years between 2019 and 2021 saw a funding decline across multiple program areas: Collection and street cleaning in each of the five boroughs fell by an average of $8 million, according to a 2022 budget function analysis. General waste disposal funding declined by $3 million, and landfill waste disposal funding declined by $11 million. Waste prevention, reuse and recycling funding dropped by $19 million in that same two-year period.
“They cut a lot of programs because of Covid, but sanitation was one of the bigger ones they cut,” said Carlos Castell-Croke, associate for city programs at the New York League of Conservation Voters.
The funding reductions took a toll on services.
The Department of Sanitation’s agency scorecard showed that the number of dirty sidewalk violations issued in the first four months of fiscal 2022, which began in July 2021, increased by nearly 3,000 compared to the same period the previous fiscal year. Missed refuse collections increased from 0.1% in 2019 to 0.8% in 2021; missed recycling collections increased from 0.1% to 0.7% in that same period.
“I think things have gotten worse,” Castell-Croke said. “They’ve reduced the amount of litter basket pickups, and I know for a fact, in terms of parks, last year was one of the dirtiest years on record because of the funding.”
Department of Parks and Recreation funding dropped by $41 million between the summer of 2020 and the summer of 2021.
Ganser noted that the City Cleanup Corps, a pandemic-era project funded by federal dollars, was not included in the new budget agreement. He said those workers within the Parks Department will be transitioned to seasonal employee positions and stay on the job through September, when those temporary positions end for good.
“That’s a substantial number of people. It averaged 1,800 on the Parks [Department] side,” he said. “They bridged the gap between a terrible budget season and one that’s improving.”