Jumaane Williams at the Public Defender’s Office (Photo: John McCarten/City Council)
Two years ago, public attorney Jumaane Williams used an obscure provision of the city charter to withhold his signature on property tax warrants to take advantage of changes to the city’s budget. The provision required Williams and the City Clerk to sign these warrants before they were executed by the city. But the city continued with property tax collection nonetheless, and ultimately, in March 2021, Williams filed a lawsuit that the administration had broken the law.
On Friday, State Supreme Court Justice Verna Saunders ruled in favor of Williams, finding that under Section 1518 of the New York City Charter, the city must receive the signature of the Public Advocate on property tax warrants, along with a countersignature from the City Clerk. But, at the same time, the judge ordered that the public attorney “must” sign the tax warrants he receives, preventing anyone in the position from delaying the city budget.
Even so, Williams sees new leverage in the decision and said she maintains crucial checks and balances over the administration.
“Obviously we’re happy with the decision,” Williams said in a brief phone interview. “We thought that was the power this office had, which is why we filed the lawsuit a few years back to begin with. And the decision states quite clearly that our authority here cannot simply be neglected and ignored as it was a few years ago.
“It embodies our authority to investigate and resolve any complaints we may receive in relation to tax mandates and so we take it seriously and we will take it seriously in the future,” he added.
In 2020, when Williams raised his initial objections, then-mayor Bill de Blasio and the city council were in the midst of heated negotiations over the proposed $87 billion budget, particularly funding for the NYPD. A mass movement to cut police funding had emerged following the Black Lives Matter protests and Williams was among those calling for deep cuts to the police budget and reinvestment of funds in social services. The public attorney has threatened to withhold his signature on property tax warrants, to stop the city from collecting property taxes unless there is an NYPD hiring freeze and reforms to the program. school safety.
“We plan to use our Charter powers to prevent the execution of the budget once it is passed,” Williams told reporters at the time. But de Blasio and the city council came to a budget agreement and passed it, and the city went ahead with subsequent business regardless of Williams’ maneuver. The city is particularly dependent on property taxes, which represent approximately 30% of the city’s total revenue base for the fiscal year.
“The court agreed that the charter is clear: the city council has the power to pass the budget, subject to the mayor’s veto,” Jonah Allon, spokesman for Mayor Eric Adams, said in an email. “As the city moves forward with its ongoing process of collecting the property taxes needed to fund essential public services, we look forward to the public attorney signing the tax warrants in accordance with his obligation under the charter.”
Friday’s ruling did not invalidate prior tax warrant deeds, but clarified that Williams was exercising her power under the Charter to require the administration to receive her signature. At the same time, the judge wrote that allowing Williams’ office “to prevent execution of the budget is not only improper, it is not in the interests of justice.”
“While it is not lost on this court that Mr. Williams’ efforts here stem from zealous advocacy for New Yorkers, efforts to thwart tax collection fall outside the scope and discretion of the role of the public advocate,” she wrote.
But Williams and the outside attorney involved in the case said the ruling would now force the city to take him to court to force him to sign property tax warrants if he hadn’t signed them. “And that’s an important step that was just overlooked before,” he said.