Mike Bloomberg Gets Mixed Report Card on Massive Spending

Mike Bloomberg met Diana Taylor at a luncheon of the Citizens Budget Commission, a business group known for its salty independence and telling assessments of city budgets. Diana was a trustee, and Bloomberg became a fan of the group almost as quickly as he became Diana's number one fan, all well before he became mayor.

By all accounts, Bloomberg actually still likes the group, which so tormented predecessors like Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch that they barred their commissioners from attending CBC events.

So you would think someone in the New York media would pay attention when CBC issues a "mixed" report on Bloomberg's eight-year expenditure of $63 billion on capital construction projects. It's the biggest price tag on any single government expenditure in the Bloomberg years, and the $8 billion a year towers over what any prior administration spent. Yet no one wrote a word.

CBC answers the question of what we got for this huge capital outlay -- and since it's borrowed money that has to be repaid, one giant bit at a time, out of the expense budget that covers day to day operations, we should all care.

The good news is that bridges, schools, and parks got better.

For example, the number of bridges rated in bad condition dropped from 8 to 3, and the number of bridges rated good or very good increased from 296 to 329. A hundred new schools with 95,800 seats were built. The city was improving only 322 acres of parkland a year in 2004, and that soared to 739 acres by fiscal year 2007, although parkland improvement dropped in the latest fiscal year to 457 acres.

Not so good with roads, with the number of streets rated good dipping from 82 percent to 70 percent.

And the real disaster was water mains and sewers. CBC says that the number of miles of new water mains "plummeted to an estimated 21.7," from 107.6 when Bloomberg took office. Similarly, 33.6 miles of sewers were constructed and 38.5 miles were reconstructed in 2002, but only 8.8 miles and 7.5 miles were constructed and reconstructed in the latest fiscal year.

Without really commenting on the city's capital funded housing program, CBC assessed the biggest new growth area in the capital budget -- economic development, noting that Bloomberg spent $2 billion on these projects. Another $2 billion is slated to be spent in the next four years -- on controversial development projects like Willets Point and Coney Island. CBC's Maria Doulis tells the Voice that this is twice the city's economic development expenditures in the prior eight years, and that "even indexed for construction cost increases, it's still higher by 55 percent."

"The rationale for making such investments is that they will generate new economic activity," says the mayor's favorite budget group, "however, little or no analytic evidence of such benefits is publicly available."

I gave City Hall several days to respond to the CBC findings, and Marc LaVorgna from the press office never addressed the boom in economic development costs.

He did explain the sewer and water main decline by pointing to the enormous growth in other water system capital expenditures, including $2.5 billion on the third water tunnel, which LaVorgna said "is more than the five previous administrations combined." Federal mandates also required the city to construct "the $2.8 billion Croton Filtration Plant and the $1.6 billion UV Disinfection Plant," he said. "We already have had to raise water rates higher than anyone would have wanted to cover costs from those projects, and the rates would have gone far higher if we spent more on water mains and sewers. We have been somewhat handcuffed by those extraordinary costs."

LaVorgna said the city projects "a significant boost in funding for water mains and sewer replacements" over the next five years. He insists that CBC's overall findings show a "turnaround" under Bloomberg, reversing decades of decaying infrastructure and inadequate investment. But the report actually found a "mixed" record, and concluded that "the city has not made substantial progress in overcoming its maintenance backlog; in fact, it may be falling further behind" in some critical areas.

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