The Mayor vs. Mr. Miller: Economics 101

If you were asked to pick an adjective to describe the city’s economy, surely the word “uncertain” would spring to mind. Yes, things seem better than they were a few years ago, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg was forced to raise property taxes and close firehouses to keep the city on a sound financial footing. As budget talks gear up in earnest at City Hall, it’s clear that the painful medicine prescribed in 2002 and 2003 has worked. But it would seem equally clear that matters could easily take a turn for the worse very quickly.

The Mayor is decidedly cautious, which is not only prudent, but brave as well. After all, Mr. Bloomberg is up for re-election next year, and his recent poll numbers indicate that he has lots of work to do . What better way to drive up his popularity, and scare off potential opponents, than to announce that the crisis is over and that there is free money to be had from City Hall?

Unfortunately, not every ambitious city politician shares Mr. Bloomberg’s restraint. Council Speaker Gifford Miller, not far removed from his days as a backbencher who was a spectator during budget talks, has decided that happy days are here again. And to celebrate the city’s improved finances-and court voters for his expected Mayoral run-the Speaker wants to make everybody happy by hiring teachers, reopening firehouses, cutting taxes for property and business owners, and even going easy on parking-ticket scofflaws.

Mr. Miller’s staff believes that the Mayor is too pessimistic about revenue in the new fiscal year beginning July 1. The Council’s revenue predictions are more than a half-billion dollars higher than the Mayor’s, and Mr. Miller says the city will end the current fiscal year with a surplus of about $319 million. Mr. Miller can’t wait to spend that money. To support his position, he notes that the Independent Budget Office agrees with his forecast.

That’s true enough, but the budget office, like the Mayor, is not looking at the economy with Mr. Miller’s rose-colored glasses. The I.B.O. and Mayor agree that the next fiscal year will bring lots of uncertainty-perhaps $2 billion worth of expenditures that weren’t there this year. In addition, state and federal governments may not provide the aid they’ve promised.

What’s more, if the city is, in fact, about to enjoy better times, it should be spending money on its aging infrastructure-bridges, roads, tunnels-before things really start falling apart. Mr. Miller seems unaware that there are billions of dollars’ worth of deferred maintenance that could eat up city budgets for the next 100 years. Not to mention future pension costs.

In other words, this is hardly the time to start rolling out sweeping new spending programs. The Mayor has it right: Caution is the order of the day. Perhaps with a drop of guarded optimism.

Comptroller Thompson Chops City Trees

Thanks to some bureaucratic nonsense from City Comptroller William Thompson, Manhattan as well as parts of Brooklyn and Queens will be deprived of the annual tree-planting rites of spring. And if Mr. Thompson continues to meddle in the work of the Parks Department, New Yorkers will see fewer trees in their neighborhoods in the future. Furthermore, it will cost the city more money to plant those fewer trees. See what happens when bureaucrats are left to think for themselves?

How did Mr. Thompson get the city into this mess? In the past, the Parks Department hired gardeners at $15 an hour to plant the trees. Suddenly last summer, the comptroller declared that the city must instead hire laborers to do the work-at $40 per hour. Mr. Thompson claims that the planting of trees is actually “construction,” and thus must be done by a laborer rather than a gardener. Never mind that gardeners have been doing the job just fine for years-and costing the city a third of what the laborers will charge.

Because of the comptroller’s absurd ruling, the 650 trees which the Parks Department planned to plant this spring won’t be planted until the fall-and even then, it’s likely that only 400 trees will be planted, given the higher cost. Could Kafka have made this stuff up?

The city’s parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, has rightly pointed out the folly of Mr. Thompson’s position. Mr. Benepe notes that if the comptroller’s decision is allowed to stand, the city will likely fall behind in its efforts to plant enough trees each year to replace those which die. “We were staying ahead of the dead-tree curve,” he told reporters. “The bottom line is, there will be more trees dying than replaced.”

While fewer trees may not seem like much as a practical matter, the cumulative effect on the city in terms of beautification would be significant. Trees also help soften the noise, cool the air and provide a sense of nature in our urban environment. Voters will not embrace the sight of dying trees in their neighborhoods and in their parks. Mayor Bloomberg needs to step in and support his Parks Department, and tell Mr. Thompson he’s barking up the wrong tree.

No TV for Tots

As television more and more becomes the nation’s primary caretaker for infants and children, research is showing that long-term effects may be severe. According to a new study conducted by the Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, which examined over 1,300 children ages 1 to 3, every hour of television watched daily increased by 10 percent their risk of having attention-deficit problems by age 7. The study’s authors conclude that early television exposure may rewire the brain permanently. The recent surge in the number of kids and even adults being diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder-which results in trouble concentrating and restless behavior-may very well be linked to parents’ reliance on television as a way to distract their children so they themselves can get a break. And it may indeed seem like television is a harmless pacifier, with children’s programming filled with entertaining music, uplifting story lines and imaginary figures designed to appeal to kids. But no matter what the content of a TV program is, according to the study, the rewiring of the infant and toddler brain results from the medium of rapid-fire visual images.

Every parent knows that there is no substitute for direct human contact with his or her child, and also knows that occasionally one needs a break-a break easily provided by the trove of children’s television programs or videos available every hour of the day. But perhaps now more parents will think twice, realizing that by relying on TV now, they may have a real problem on their hands later.