The New Mayor’s Mission


And so the real work begins.

The campaign posturing, the preening, the pleading and cajoling, the maneuvering for advantage, the payback for slights real and imagined that became the hallmark of this bitter race—all of that now ends.

What is left is the business of the city itself and a stark confrontation with those gloomy assessments of the future that have been a steady, dirge-like undercurrent to the high-pitched political wrangling of the past eight weeks.

The new mayor begins shaping his administration in a city experiencing its worst fears in a generation. He must secure and reassure a populace deeply fearful of new terror attacks. He must begin addressing a budget deficit expected to dwarf that of the 1970s fiscal crisis. He must facilitate the rebuilding of the blasted earth that was once the World Trade Center. He must persuade businesses and tourists that the worst is now over and that the city is already rebounding.

These are only the most pressing, front-burner problems, placed there by an altogether unexpected tragedy. Right behind them are all the issues that plagued the city long before September 11 and which were supposed to be the main task of the next administration. Many of them are the leftover business of the Giuliani administration, those matters that were considered either too costly or too thorny to address, or which reflected the needs of a portion of the citizenry that his administration opted not to represent.

The new mayor must negotiate new contracts with cops and teachers, assemble a plan for educational improvement, start the wheels turning toward affordable housing solutions, assist those facing deadlines on welfare assistance, and implement new job training programs. Perhaps most difficult of all, the new mayor must convince New York’s fractious ethnic and racial groups—made even more mutually suspicious by this election—that he harbors no favorites and that his door is genuinely open to all.

And he must start work on all of that very quickly.

“Election night is for all of the thank-yous,” said city comptroller and former mayoral candidate Alan Hevesi. “But within a few days of the election, the next mayor is going to have to give a major address, and connect immediately with the citizens of New York. He’s got to let them know that someone strong is in charge, that he is beginning immediately to address a series of issues, and that while there will be substantial pain in the short run, things will improve. ”

Last summer, Hevesi was considered something of a gloomy Cassandra when he warned that the city’s then looming fiscal troubles were, as he called them, “a ticking time bomb.” City Council Speaker Peter Vallone dismissed the characterization as sensationalist, suggesting instead that coming economic woes were closer to “a firecracker.”

But most fiscal experts now agree that at least two-thirds of the huge $4 to $6 billion city budget gap projected for next year would have occurred even without the calamity of September 11. The city’s unemployment rate in September did not reflect the impact of the World Trade Center attack, and it had hit 6.3 percent.

“The U.S. economy was already slipping into a recession, but since it was centered in the manufacturing sector, it just hadn’t reached New York,” said Ronnie Lowenstein, director of the city’s Independent Budget Office. “In the wake of September 11, it has now been centered in the financial services industries and tourism. This is a turning point. It is reasonable to assume that tax revenues will come in more slowly and spending will rise,” she said.

No one has suggested so far that Hevesi’s estimate, made in early October, that the trade center collapse could cost the city’s economy $90 to $105 billion by June 2003 was too pessimistic. If anything, other studies of the attack’s impact appear to bolster that analysis. In a study last month, the union-backed Fiscal Policy Institute estimated that some 105,200 jobs were lost due to the attack. It is the equivalent of losing an entire year’s worth of job growth in the city, and the lost wages represent some $9.3 billion to the city’s economy, according to James Parrott, the institute’s deputy director. About 25,000 of the lost jobs—most of them in financial services—moved out of the city, the study found. Another 80,000 workers were laid off as the ripples of dislocation grew. Most of those who were laid off were lower-wage workers employed in restaurants, hotels, building services, and retail stores. Nearly 76,000 employees, most of them employed by apparel manufacturers and car services, managed to avoid layoffs by agreeing to work fewer hours and taking home less pay.

How to cope with that crisis without plunging the city deeper into decline?

Diane Fortuna, president of the Citizens’ Budget Commission, told The New York Times that the solution would be to cut the “traditional suspects,” including parks maintenance, street cleaning, libraries, affordable housing, and capital projects. It is a chorus familiar to anyone who lived through the 1970s fiscal crisis.

There are other echoes. State Comptroller Carl McCall last month convened a meeting with Hevesi, financial experts, and leaders of the municipal unions to begin a discussion of whether multi-billion-dollar pension funds—which were used to purchase city bonds in the 1970s—could be used again to bolster the economy. Addressing New York Law School last month, District Council 37 administrator Lee Saunders said his union was open to working on such solutions, “provided we are at the table.”

Others suggest that if the new mayor truly wants to bring New Yorkers together, the pain will have to be shared far more equally than it was during the fiscal crisis that resulted in massive layoffs, hospital closings, new college tuition costs, and the deferment of basic maintenance of the infrastructure.

“What’s needed is a simple algorithm of shared sacrifice,” says Harvey Robins, who served in the Koch administration and was director of operations under former mayor Dinkins. Throughout the Giuliani years, Robins was a frequent critic. He advanced as many proposals for labor concessions as he did for raising new tax revenue from businesses and other powerful interests. To help close the fiscal gap now, Robins would not only reinstate the city’s tax on commuters—eliminated last year by the legislature—but double it, from a 1/2 percent of payroll to 1 percent. Universities, hospitals, and foundations, now exempt from property taxes, should be asked to make contributions, he said. Owners of single-family and two-family homes, who shoulder the least of the city’s property-tax burden, would be asked to “pay their fair share,” he said. Municipal union members, Robins said, should be asked to pay larger copayments for health benefits. Lower-wage workers need expanded unemployment benefits and an increase in the minimum wage to $6.75—legislation that has stagnated in Albany, but has been approved in 10 other states, he says.

“If we are going to just do business as usual, then those who traditionally take from the city will just keep taking, while the rest of the city suffers,” says Robins.

Both mayoral candidates campaigned on their reputations as innovators. “No time for politics as usual” was Mike Bloomberg’s catchphrase. “Let’s unite to rebuild” was Mark Green’s post- September 11 mantra. Posturing? The coming months will tell.