A Defining Bloomberg

Our Nice-Guy Mayor Makes Some Bad Budget Choices

I like Mike.

He's certainly more open and informed as mayor than he was as a candidate. I watched him do his budget press conference last week, as well as deliver a 45-minute overview at the Citizens Budget Commission dinner, and he conveys a personable and perceptive competence. So does the government he's assembled.

But his core budget plan is more placebo than remedy, more hope than help, more contradiction than vision. When all the borrowing of the current year and the proposed budget are added together, the city will be in hock for $2.6 billion—a half-billion more than 9-11 cost us. Though this is the first time since the city's near bankruptcy of 1975 that it's borrowed to cover operating expenses, Bloomberg calls his budget balanced, and warns that spending a relatively measly $100 million more than the planned $41.9 billion would force the city back into a state of legal emergency. In fact, he uses the threat of a Financial Control Board takeover—brandishing charts detailing the mass layoffs of the mid '70s—as a club against a City Council that has so far shown more creativity than he has, even slightly lowering the rate of new borrowing.

The mayor has taken more pilgrimages to Albany than walks across the rotunda at City Hall. Every time Speaker Gifford Miller or others in the council offer a way to help close part of the $5 billion gap with increased revenue rather than just cuts, Bloomberg says it'll drive people out of town. Even a boost in the liquor tax will supposedly send the rich to Secaucus or Stamford. Asked if the city had ever before attempted to close a sizable gap without any real new revenues, Mark Page, the Bloomberg budget director who's worked at the agency for 24 years, paused painfully at the podium searching fruitlessly for a precedent, and ultimately described the new debt as revenue.

It's not just that this year's budget contains no tax hikes (except on cigarettes), it's that Bloomy-One-Note's projections through 2006 offer none, relying instead on nearly $2 billion a year in service slashes for his entire first term. Since the city can raise only property taxes on its own, requiring Albany approval for other hikes, Bloomberg repeatedly cites his secret talks with state leaders as a rationale for resisting increases, saying they won't approve any. Yet when he offered a $500 million contingency plan last week—in case the state and federal governments don't approve a series of initiatives he's seeking—it was all ominous cuts again. Even when he's trying to get Albany to aid the city at little or no cost to itself, he will not use the leverage of tax threats.

He talks about everybody sacrificing, but he will not push his party partners, George Pataki and Joe Bruno, to end the commuter free ride. He will not join the council or the Independent Budget Office in asking the comfortable—particularly those earning over $250,000 a year—to temporarily pay a higher personal income tax, though he, uniquely, can make that case to members of his class. His budget prefers imposing garbage-pickup charges on all of us to even considering an extension of the life of the Fresh Kills landfill, a bow to his Staten Island base reminiscent of his predecessor.

Even as the mayor spells out in budget graphs for the first time just how vast the city's workforce is—with 365,000 people on part-time or full-time municipal payrolls—his budget only contemplates reducing it by a thousand. Pressed to explain, he alludes to his need for a partnership with the unions. While the IBO insists that millions could be saved at the fire department with more flexible staffing—cutting night hours, when fewer fires occur, for example—the new administration appears prepared to keep filling FDNY and other agency vacancies (except police) as they occur.

Similarly, Bloomberg's budget lists no gap-closing total for anticipated productivity concessions from the unions, asking only that labor support a $284 million stretch-out of the financing of cost-of-living increases for retirees, essentially a loan from the pension funds. With the retirees getting the same benefits despite the stretch-out, and no work-rule improvements even contemplated, the only union contribution expected is a vaguely described reduction in health and welfare costs. This no-sacrifice labor plan extends to the United Federation of Teachers, which is close to finally settling on a new contract. Almost a year and a half after the expiration of its last contract, the union and the Bloomberg administration have agreed on the economic terms of a deal, both sides accepting the 15 percent raise over a 27-month period recommended by the Public Employees Relations Board (PERB). As costly yet understandable as these partially retroactive wage hikes may be, it is the mayor's apparent willingness to grant them without pressing for any other contractual changes that is most troubling.

As much as Bloomberg has made school governance a cornerstone of his first few months, it is the UFT contract that runs city classrooms, and no shift in Board of Ed appointments will change that. The contract, for example, makes it virtually impossible to get rid of bad teachers, setting up procedures so arduous that principals rarely bring teachers up on charges, or even rate them unsatisfactory. The contract also bars paying math and science teachers more, perpetuating shortages in skilled subjects, and allows the best teachers to choose their own schools and assignments, dooming poor kids to weak, often uncertified, teachers in bad schools. That's why there were only nine certified math teachers in all of Bed-Stuy's District 16 last year.

It's the contract that sets the daily school agenda, mandating prep and other free periods, as well as the number (180) and length (six hours) of school days, less than any other major urban system. Because of these requirements, city teachers spend on average only two-thirds of their time in a classroom, also earning expensive year-long sabbaticals every nine years. All Bloomberg is looking for is a 20-minute longer day in exchange for the largest salary hikes in decades, hoping ostensibly that he can get more in 10 months, when this long-overdue new contract expires.

The generosity is another concession to the Albany masters who are setting so much of Bloomberg's agenda. It is astounding to contemplate, but the teachers union has given $332,700 to the Assembly Democrats and $219,000 to the Senate Republicans since 1999, with another $145,000 thrown in for the State Democratic Committee. In exchange for mayoral control of the system, they will soon force Bloomberg to sign off on a contract that takes care of teachers without changing anything for children.

With a new state-budget agreement also expected to dump hundreds of millions of new dollars into city schools, the proposed Bloomberg cuts may wind up largely rescinded, paving the way for a budget agreement with the education-fixated council even if there are no tax hikes. Only 11 of the 51 councilmembers got UFT contributions in 2001, totaling a mere $15,925; but the council, too, may wind up part of the UFT-engineered consensus soon to emerge.

One of the widely appreciated advantages of this billionaire mayoralty is its claimed independence from special interests. But, elected without a cent of anyone else's money, Bloomberg is nonetheless proving that his, too, might well become a compromised government, a captive of the relationships that grip the governmental partners any mayor must accommodate. That contagion is in the Albany air, and as clean and on the merits as Mayor Mike might want to be, even his billions can't immunize him from its crippling effects.

Research assistance: Annachiara Danieli, Jen DiMascio, Lauren Johnston, Peter G.H. Madsen, Jess Wisloski

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