Fighting the Good Fight
In the final days of the most punishing city budget battle since the '70s, Speaker Gifford Miller and his council colleagues are now wrestling with a wish list of desperately needed restorations, oblivious to the reason they are faced with such dire choices.
Once the state legislature found $2.7 billion for the city, and the mayor added another $90 million in restorations, most New Yorkers thought the crisis was over.
But the Bloomberg budget still contains hundreds of millions in cuts that neither he nor the council wants to see happen. It lays off 2,615 school aides and paraprofessionals, shuts a dozen child health clinics, threatens day care services for thousands of children, closes two zoos, drives several foster care agencies out of business, forces cutbacks in library hours, and slashes infant mortality programs. The firehouse closings and sanitation layoffs have already happened and appear on the books of the current fiscal year, which will end June 30, though some in the council would like to resurrect those issues.
Bill Cunningham, the mayor's communications director, told the Voice why most of these cuts still must happen: "The agency cuts we are discussing with the council now are a direct result of the fact that we have nothing to show from our negotiations with the city unions. There would be no $600 million agency program of cuts if we'd gotten the expected $600 million in union savings. It is that $600 million that is the subject of our council negotiations right now." As incontrovertible as this assessment is, no one at the council ever mentions it.
Though Miller and his fellow councilmembers howl daily about the painful consequences of these cuts, they never issued a public statement, throughout the bitter months of negotiations, urging the unions to make real and recurring concessions. Nor will they say anything now connecting the cuts to the breakdown of those talks.
They compounded this error last week with a unanimous rush to judgment on the clothing tax, passing two tax-free weeks within hours of the mayor's urging them to do it. Cunningham says the $47 million price tag on that action "counts as an expenditure and goes against" whatever total in restorations the two sides agree to in the budget talks. Had the council waited on the clothing tax until negotiations ended, they could've weighed it against a host of alternatives, such as the rehiring of the school aides and paras.
As dismaying as the council's handling of the underlying budget issues has beenwith Miller dodging and weaving every time the Voice tried to get him to come to grips with the unions' rolethey have been forceful and resolved about preventing the worst of the cuts. Led by Council Health Committee chair Christine Quinn, they assembled on the steps of City Hall on Saturday to demand the salvaging of the child health clinics. Miller pointed out that 75 percent of the 43,000 visits to the 30 city clinics occurred at the 11 chosen for closing (and a 12th that will not reopen after a renovation). Quinn stressed the asthma services in the midst of an asthma epidemic, and noted that several of the clinics are located in major Housing Authority projects, accessible to the children who need their services.
Though Bloomberg has used his smoking ban to position himself as a public-health advocate, his health cuts, including the elimination of city aid to six Communicare clinics, cloud that image. Instead of including the $2.9 million he saves by closing the child clinics in the restorations he announced unilaterally a couple of weeks ago, he listed items like the $2.3 million restoration of full Staten Island Ferry service. Maintaining the free ferry-every-15-minutes schedule (rather than extending it to every 20 minutes) was more important to him than keeping open child clinics in neighborhoods like Harlem, where a recent study found a 25 percent child asthma rate.
The only explanation for a choice like that is politics. The ferry maneuver, like Bloomberg's early restoration of the senior citizen information and referral grants, was as crass a political calculation as any he has made since taking office, a clear indication that he intends to play hardball between now and the 2005 election.
Another example of hardball was the mayor's decision to refer a contract vital to the unionsthe award of a five-year medical and hospital insurance contract for all 400,000 employees and retireesto the city's Conflict of Interest Board for review. City labor commissioner Jim Hanley says that he told the Municipal Labor Committee, a coalition of unions led by teachers' union president Randi Weingarten, that he was formally asking the COIB to investigate charges tainting the selection process that were raised in the Voice "The Big Enchilada," April 9, 2003].
The charges focus on the hiring by one bidder, HIP (Health Insurance Plan), of a former union official, District Council 37's Roslyn Yasser, who helped prepare the city's request for proposals for the contract as well as HIP's final response. Yasser was the head of an MLC committee overseeing the contract and wound up appearing as a HIP representative at three meetings convened by the MLC and the city's Office of Labor Relations, which jointly select the winner of a contract valued at up to $1.7 billion a year. DC 37's associate director even said that Yasser "would have seen the bids" submitted by HIP's major competitors.
The problem for the COIB is that it is only empowered to probe conflicts involving city employees, and Yasser, who was paid $138,099 by HIP for six months' work last year and is listed under her maiden name on state filings, has never been one. The agency is supposed to reply this week to Hanley's request, but is expected to throw up its hands. The more appropriate venue would've been the Department of Investigations, but it is headed by Rose Gill-Hearn, whose father, James Gill, is chairman of the board at GHI, a primary competitor for the contract.
HIP is favored by the unions to win the hospital contractnow held by Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Weingarten, who once chaired HIP's board, is so tied to the provider that one of her union's vice presidents, Ron Jones, sits on its board. Her former law firm, Stroock, Stroock & Lavan, earned $3 million in fees from HIP last year, and her mentor at the firm, Charles Moerdler, personally represents both the company and Weingarten's union. Arthur Barnes, the husband of American Federation of Teachers president Sandra Feldman, is listed on state filings as HIP's $340,000-a-year senior vice president for external affairs. Feldman was Weingarten's predecessor at the New York union and installed Weingarten here when she took over the national.
Despite this intertwine, the MLC selected Weingarten's union as one of the four that now sits on the committee to pick the winner of what may well be the largest contract ever awarded by the city. DC 37where Yasser and Leslie Strassberg, who heads the HIP bid team, once workedis another member of the selection committee. While the eight-member committee also consists of four city representatives, the union preferences are given great weight, since the contract involves coverage for their members.
The unions consider this contract their own to such a degree that Communication Workers Association 1180 president Arthur Cheliotes says that the unions wanted to count the $100 million savings he maintains the city would achieve from this contract as a union "concession." Governor Pataki is also salivating over the contract because HIP is expected to go public as a for-profit corporation once it gets the city deala conversion, like Blue Cross's, that Pataki estimates will deliver a billion dollars to state coffers.
The union attempt to lay claim to whatever savings result from this contract is just one more indication of how bizarre the labor bargaining with Bloomberg has been. It's also one more signal that a City Council anguishing over the cuts should focus at least a bit of its ire on the union stonewall that led to them.
Research assistance: Zoe Alsop, Michael Anstendig, Phineas Lambert, Naomi Lindt, Brittany Schaeffer, and Jessica Silver-Greenberg
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