Tough Mayor Bares Budget Stripped Raw

The last time the city found itself in such perilous condition, the Governor of New York, a Brooklyn Democrat named Hugh Carey, found himself begging, cajoling, demanding and otherwise twisting the arm of another Brooklyn Democrat, Mayor Abe Beame, to get on with the pain and sacrifice, regardless of the political cost.

Today, New York has a Mayor who understands that pain and sacrifice are necessary, but he’s having a hard time persuading the Governor that difficult decisions have been postponed long enough.

At a grim news conference on April 15, Michael Bloomberg unveiled his not-quite-doomsday budget, which has as its premise the charming notion that Governor George Pataki will assent to such measures as a revived commuter tax to close a budget gap of nearly $4 billion. Should Mr. Pataki not abide by Mr. Bloomberg’s wishes, the Mayor will then begin implementing his doomsday contingencies, amounting to a billion dollars in layoffs and service reductions. These dreadful cuts will be phased in over time, rather like a hostage-taker who tosses out a body on the tarmac from time to time just to demonstrate seriousness of purpose. And so, should Albany decline City Hall’s invitation to demonstrate leadership, a Police Academy class will be eliminated; Fire Department overtime will be slashed; sanitation workers will be laid off; after-school funding will cease to exist; all city-run pools will be closed … one by one, the bodies piling up until the Governor figures out that this Mayor is serious.

A quarter-century ago, this kind of leadership had to trickle down the Hudson River from Albany to City Hall. With Beame paralyzed by the enormity of the crisis, Mr. Carey assembled leaders from the public and private sectors, from labor and management, to work together for the city’s benefit. “Carey felt compelled to step in. He couldn’t watch the city go down,” said William Cunningham, the Mayor’s communications director and a onetime Carey aide.

Now, however, leadership must travel upstream, from City Hall to Albany, against the prevailing current. Mr. Pataki, like many other state and local officials, believes or is told to believe that to tax is to die. Therefore, Mr. Pataki travels to friendly settings to rail on and on about the evils of tax increases. They are job-killers, he says, and nobody thinks to ask why jobs increased across the country after Bill Clinton raised taxes in 1993.

Mr. Pataki ran for re-election last year with a happy face and a pocket full of miracles. In spite of increasingly glum economic projections, he found billions to give to health-care workers, who supported him, and teachers, who supported him. On those few occasions when he came within earshot of a skeptical remark, Mr. Pataki recited lines that might have been written by Iraq’s Ministry of Information. In the face of frightening projections and gloomy statistics, Mr. Pataki insisted that all was well and that those who talked about $10 billion deficits were, well, the fat-necked bastard children of yammering hyenas. Or something like that.

Well, the election is over, and the deficit is more than $10 billion and the state budget is late as usual, and the Governor runs around yelling about job-killing taxes. And the Mayor is confronting a desperate reality with hard decisions and a desperate plea for help.

“By having a Mayor who is willing to tackle the problems forthrightly, Albany leaders have been spared from having to step in directly,” said Mr. Cunningham. “But the time is coming for Albany to step up and say what they’re going to do to help the city.”

“It’s essential for the city to have a new revenue stream now, because next year the State Legislature is up for re-election, and they’re not about to pass a commuter tax next year,” said Mitchell Moss, director of the Urban Research Center at New York University. “The city won’t get anything next year; it has to be done now.”

If it’s not done now, the Mayor said on April 15 that the city’s Human Resources Administration will do away with a food-assistance program and HIV/AIDS case management-so the poor and the sick will suffer. More than 100 staff members in the city’s Department of Homeless Services will lose their jobs-so workers and the homeless alike will suffer. There will be fewer police officers and corrections workers, and firefighters will make less money for lack of overtime.

“Albany has to understand that when the city suffers, the state does, too,” Mr. Moss said. “The problem is that there’s paralysis in Albany when it comes to the city. Political paralysis is the dominant characteristic of state politics today.” Back in the mid-1970’s, Albany was energized and City Hall paralyzed; Mr. Carey had the will, in Mr. Moss’ words, “to do what was good for the city even if it wasn’t good for him.”

Earlier this year, the City Council asked the Governor and other Albany power brokers to put aside their bitter partisan games for the sake of the state’s economic engine. Their appeal, while prescient, did not have the drama of the Mayor’s budget proposal. Mr. Bloomberg detailed, grimly, the consequences of inaction.

Governor Pataki has had the good luck in recent years to be seen at press conferences handing out cash money to labor unions, environmental groups and other interests. He revels in this kind of work, and who wouldn’t? His reputation as an amiable political genius is based on an eight-year tenure as placid as the waters of Lake Champlain. Save for Sept. 11 and its awful aftermath, there are few television pictures of Governor Pataki with his lips pursed and brow furrowed. He has been the Governor for happy days. He cuts taxes! He loves the environment! He hugs labor leaders! What fun it has been to be Governor George Pataki, a friend to everybody!

Michael Bloomberg is not having fun. Even if Albany demonstrates some measure of leadership, the Mayor is planning to eliminate jobs in the Fire Department, the Department of Education, the Administration for Children’s Services, and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He says he will have to eliminate programs like take-home weekend meals for poor senior citizens; he will even stop subsidies to zoos in Brooklyn and Queens. These and other measures will inspire citizens to wave signs and shout insults outside City Hall. And they will give headline-seeking politicians like Council member Charles Barron of Brooklyn no shortage of material for invective.

At City Hall on April 15, Mayor Bloomberg told Mr. Barron in no uncertain terms that he didn’t give a whit how the Council member votes. (At least it sounded like “whit.”)

They’re talking tough at City Hall. In Albany, though, they’re still insisting that the infidels have been defeated.