Some of the city’s “heroes” have yet to make their sacrifices. George Steinbrenner and Fred Wilpon are still canoodling with their mayor sweetheart to get their golden-goose stadiums. Tourism czarina Cristyne Lategano is still canoodling with the same mayor sweetheart to fleece the city for millions in Broadway ticket subsidies at the same moment that Rudy’s final budget modification turns the lights off in public libraries across the city. Randi Weingarten is still talking 22 percent teacher raises. The NYPD and FDNY are still overdosing on overtime, even as hospital bedpan workers are already getting laid off.
Can we hope Mike Bloomberg, using 9-11 as his rationale, will put an end to the era of such ironies? Will the challenge that grips the city permit a strong yet fair mayor to make hard choices equitably, so the giving to come is as shared as the tragedy was? Bloomberg has already demonstrated a deft and flexible hand, appointing an impressive corporation counsel he never met before the job interview, recycling the city’s finest sanitation commissioner ever, rejecting Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington for Dennis Walcott, and lobbying in Washington for the $20 billion a self-serving Giuliani won’t demand. Here’s the agenda for a progressive first year:
1. Tax great wealth. The Independent Budget Office estimates that a 1 percent income tax surcharge on New Yorkers making over a half million a year could produce a half billion a year in new revenue. Yet individual taxpayers would only be paying an average of $24,000 in additional taxes. The Bush tax cut will deliver a $53,000 annual break to this bracket. Bloomberg has already told a Heroes Award Breakfast for generous fat cats that there are “many people in the city who need our help” and that “we have to make a difference.” This is their chance “to go that extra mile,” as the mayor-elect put it.
2. Draw down every available federal aid dollar. The Community Food Resource Center estimates that a concerted Bloomberg attempt to “promote access” to four income and nutrition assistance programs could pump a billion and a half federal dollars into the city’s poor communities. The Giuliani team did everything it could to discourage people from seeking food stamps, leaving 800,000 eligible New Yorkers without this assistance. Similarly, 230,000 low-income workers are eligible for the earned income tax credit, 100,000 kids qualify for school meal programs, and thousands of pregnant women could be getting WIC (Women, Infants and Children) benefits. Bloomberg has to recognize the economic significance of this revenue stream and galvanize outreach to these recipients through nonprofit contractors.
3. Cut debt-service costs by streamlining capital construction. With nearly 20 cents of every city tax dollar going to pay debt costs, Bloomberg has to drastically reconfigure the capital budget, starting with the near billion dollars in Giuliani’s 10-year plan for jails, the $240 million for Lincoln Center, and the $158 million for three museums. Nearly a half billion in new court facilities, as well as $6 billion for bridges and highways, also have to be cut. Bloomberg’s goal should be to preserve education and housing as capital priorities, while reducing the load that construction debt is imposing on the expense budget for day-to-day services.
4. Create a new jobs program for the 9-11 dislocated. As improbable as this sounds, the Community Service Society and the Fiscal Policy Institute have identified a mix of funding for such a program from existing sources, including a $1 billion state rainy day fund called TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). Aside from rebuilding downtown, the gravest crisis facing the new mayor is the hemorrhaging of low-wage jobs, particularly in the hotel, garment, restaurant, retail, air transport, and building-service industries. A 50,000-job program, focused on $8.50-an-hour placements with public and private employers, could also be financed by exploiting federal Workforce Investment funds the Giuliani administration never used.
5. Win meaningful productivity improvements from municipal labor. Avoid layoffs by returning to four-man fire trucks, re-assessing free and prep periods for teachers, eliminating police wash-up time, centralizing health and welfare benefit management. Labor may be willing to give on these long-recognized excesses when they see everyone else sacrificing. If there is no tax hike for the rich, or if there is no crunching of the supervisory bureaucracy that ballooned under Giuliani at the NYPD, FDNY, and elsewhere, unions will be unwilling to bite the bullet alone.
6. Force difficult service changes rather than accept harsh service reductions. Chancellor Harold Levy has indicated that $300 million to $400 million in Board of Ed expenditures could be saved if special-ed regulations were modified, a shift that would require mostly state actions. With 12 percent of city schoolkids in special-ed classes, the program is devouring a quarter of the budget. Long before 9-11, the Giuliani administration was smashing every overtime record in history. Extending the use of the Fresh Kills landfill would save hundreds of millions in garbage export costs. Closing it prematurely was always more politics than policy; if Bloomberg falters here, it will only be because of the decisive votes he won, just like Giuliani, on Staten Island.
7. Lean on Albany to either reinstate the commuter tax or allow the city to charge tolls on the East River bridges. Bloomberg could line up the major CEOs who employ commuters, buttressed by studies of what it costs to deliver city services to them, and force his Republican allies upstate to go along with a minimal tax that could return half a billion to city coffers. Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver must play a critical role in this. Albany must likewise restore either the stock transfer tax or the funding the state paid in lieu of the tax for decades. That’s another $140 million in revenue, just taken from us a year ago.
8. Change one of the two key funding formulas in Albany: Medicaid or education. The state took over CUNY senior colleges, court expenses, and other costs in the fiscal crisis of the mid ’70s, as financially troubled as it was itself. It must now take over a larger share of Medicaid, as virtually every other state does. Or the Pataki administration and the courts have to combine to give the city its fair share of education aid, as one judge has already found they’re not doing. The city’s grim crisis, which extends far into future budgets, requires significant state action even more than that of 1975.
9. Use the authority already won in the emergency bonding legislation passed in Albany to borrow funds to support the expense budget. The city has borrowed only to finance construction since the ’70s, but this crisis mandates a return to the market to pay expenses, even if only for a year or two. In addition to ordinary repayment schedules, this debt should be pegged to future city surpluses, requiring the kind of accelerated pay-downs that should have occurred during the Giuliani boom years but didn’t.
10. Challenge the legitimacy of the Pataki/Giuliani Reconstruction Authority and develop a democratic plan to rebuild Lower Manhattan. An 11-member authority with virtually no minorities, a single representative of the downtown residential community, and no appointees of the new mayor is by definition illegitimate. Bloomberg must develop his own rebuild strategy, listening to the voices of the neighborhood as well as corporate leaders. What’s good for Wall Street is what’s good for a city whose prosperity is dependent on financial services, but the balancing of interests in this herculean revival will not occur unless the elected mayor is pivotally involved. How can Giuliani and Pataki—who have railed for years that the mayor must control the Board of Ed—create a rebuild authority that locks him out?