Bloomberg at the Crossroads

With a Budget That Will Define Him, Mayor Mike Pushes Pataki, Unions

When Mike Bloomberg, alone in a rented helicopter in the mid '70s, heard the engine explode and saw thick black smoke billowing into the cockpit, he had a few seconds to respond before going down. He hit the "push to talk" button to give his location to the active local radio tower he was already monitoring. Riding high enough over water to make it to nearby land, as was his studied practice, he was able to disconnect the engine from the transmission and let the overhead rotor spin free, carrying him softly toward the ground. Just a few feet from landing, he changed the pitch of the blades to generate lift and again break the fall.

Years later, shortly after takeoff in a Piper Cub with his nephew aboard, "the governor in a propeller" popped, he wrote in his 1997 memoir, Bloomberg by Bloomberg. That dangerously flattened the propeller blades since the governor controlled the oil pressure that usually kept them at an angle, robbing the plane of any thrust. Bloomberg managed to glide back to Westchester Airport, saved a second time because he'd gained altitude so quickly he was high enough to land even though his plane had no thrust.

The lessons Bloomberg learned from these self-described near-death experiences may well be guiding him now, as his city faces its own. "Don't panic," the memoir lectured. "Do what you were trained to do. . . . There's no hypocrisy, no 'fudging.' All pilots learn to make a commitment and stick to it, follow the book, and depend on others to do the same. Consistency in thought and conduct in the aviation world is required to live. In our everyday life, it's important for success as well."

There was no sign of panic when Mayor Mike announced his second budget last week, though he acknowledged the perils facing a city whose Wall Street engine is dead, and whose propeller "governor," as he put it in his book, offers "no forward drive." Just as Bloomberg attributes his life-saving navigation to preparation and steadiness, he believes he's spent his first 16 months in office readying the city for this stark test.

To avoid the crushing cuts revealed in this budget, he's focused every pressure he can muster on state and union officials, who he is convinced can, without great harm to themselves, close the city's looming gap. He wants the governor's education cuts and Medicaid swap reversed, a tax on transients, and $600 million in real labor savings. He's refused to listen when either the Albany triumvirate or the union brass has said no, as they've taken turns doing in recent weeks. He's confident his demands of each are fair—a doable return on everything he's done for them since taking office.

He waited, for example, until November, just days after the governor's re-election, to modify his budget, impose a hiring freeze, and enact the largest property tax hike in NYC history. That delay helped George Pataki get the biggest slice of city votes of any GOP gubernatorial candidate since Nelson Rockefeller, even as it deepened the city's fiscal hole. He sold the city to the White House for the 2004 convention, securing a national stage for Pataki's national fancies, and making a clean and safe NYC a GOP goal for the next 17 months or so. He even became the first mayor to throw a high-priced fundraiser for a governor, luring high rollers to his East Side townhouse, while flying the other two men in Albany that matter, Joe Bruno and Shelly Silver, to his Bermuda estate for a little schmoozing in the sun.

No union leader has hitched a ride to Bermuda on the mayor's private jet, but he has flown them to Albany, where he expects their record-setting lobbying and campaign contributions to add to the heat on the three decision makers. He's also given Randi Weingarten, the teachers' union president who also heads the Municipal Labor Committee, the most expensive labor contract in city history, with raises of up to 22 percent. He even let the governor join the settlement press conference—an unprecedented appearance and a prelude to the union's equally unlikely endorsement. A long overdue police contract followed, as did, unnoticed by the media, a new agreement for school supervisors just last week, in the middle of all the budgetary saber-rattling.

He didn't seek serious productivity improvements in any of his early labor deals, though the unions who benefited backed his 2001 opponent. His first budget, which covers the fiscal year that will end in June, called for $500 million in union concessions but settled for $220 million. Even that was merely a "no skin off my nose" union acquiescence to a stretch-out of new cost-of-living payments to the pension funds that the state mandated the city make, an interest-heavy loan that adds to city costs in the long run. That first budget slashed services by $1.9 billion, but was designed to spare top union players like Weingarten.

Mostly, though, he thought his willingness to absorb the public drubbing in the tabloids and the polls over the November tax hike, taking on the national anti-tax gestalt with Nixon-to-China boldness, would stand him in good stead with the unions and their Albany allies. Instead, his critics, like Silver, who ironically sat out the gubernatorial election last year, blast him for not blasting the governor harshly enough, though he has, without rhetoric, turned Pataki into a bull's-eye.

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