Bloomberg at the Crossroads

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

Gifford Miller, the City Council Speaker, issued an alternative financial plan that theoretically balanced the budget without mentioning "union concessions," instead explicitly embracing the off-the-point propaganda of District 37's white paper on excessive city consultant contracting. Miller's budget director, Larian Angelo, offered a technical explanation for why the concessions were omitted and added that the council believes it is "necessary for the unions to help the city as they always have," adding that "$600 million sounds like about the right number."

Miller spokesman Chris Policano said the council hasn't commented on the concessions because it tries to stay away from collective-bargaining issues. But the council's alternative plan nixes Bloomberg's proposal to save $12 million a year by reducing some five-man engine companies by a man, which is a union-contract issue linked to excessive sick leave.

The council has no position yet on a union surprise in the mayor's budget—the "emergency" suspension of some teacher sabbaticals, fiercely opposed by Weingarten, who insists Bloomberg is trying a $35 million end-run around the contract. The mayor isn't counting either sabbaticals or four-man trucks as part of the $600 million in union concessions, though they certainly require sacrifice by union members. He won't list them as concessions because he's trying to implement them without labor's consent, employing a strict reading of the contracts to justify it.

Such linchpins of Miller's leadership team as councilmembers Christine Quinn and Bill Perkins actually joined the recent Weingarten-orchestrated anti-Bloomberg press conference on the steps of City Hall. And borough presidents like Virginia Fields, Adolfo Carrion, and Marty Markowitz, as well as Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, issued press releases that mimicked Miller's mantra, assailing the state without asking anything of the unions.

It was not always this way for liberal Democrats. When Mark Green was Public Advocate and Ruth Messinger borough president—both preparing for eventual mayoral runs—they suggested union concessions in analyses they issued during Giuliani budget crunches of the mid '90s. In fact, Messinger, who is now out of politics, told the Voice that many of the unions made her "an object lesson" of what happens to a Democrat who does, backing Rudy against her in the 1997 elections. Green, who lost to Bloomberg in 2001, says he'd be seeking the $600 million if he were mayor but faults Bloomberg for "not approaching his natural economic enemy thoughtfully," saying that "labor feels insulted" by Bloomberg's "inflexibility."

What Bloomberg wants are concessions like the city administration of welfare funds, which costs workers nothing but could save $150 million, requiring only that union leaders give up 104 separate power bases to avert punishing layoffs. Like minimal co-payments on medical coverage, Bloomberg's welfare fund initiative is an attempt to get city workers in line with most other public employees, including the state's. But police and fire union leaders have made it clear they prefer layoffs, especially since they know it won't be their members, but rather those of DC 37, the mostly minority civilian workforce disproportionately punished in Bloomberg's first pink-slip list.

What Bloomberg wants from Albany is the passage of its own tax—apparently about to be delivered—to pay for billions in restorations over the governor's veto—as well as the authority for the city to add a tax. He and Miller have their own differing commuter taxes, with Miller's making far better sense, since it also rewards suburban governments with revenue from city residents who commute to work out there.

But if the Albany stonewall continues—and Silver won't even reinstitute the old, extremely low, commuter rate he cravenly repealed, putting the ball squarely in the GOP's court—then the mayor seems ready to do other taxes. To avoid adding a city income tax hike to the state levy the legislature may adopt, he might want to consider a half-penny stock transfer tax, which he has so far criticized, without examining how every other major stock exchange manages to live with one.

His hand is still steady on the city controls, using all those "numbers, techniques, gizmos and gadgets on the instrument panel," as he recounted in his memoir's account of the flying crises. "There's still something," he wrote, "about arriving safely that's very satisfying." This time, we're hoping he'll land us all.


Research assistance: Cathy Bussewitz, Alexa Hinton, Felicia Mello, Solana Pyne, E.B. Solomont, and Steven I. Weiss

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