Thirty years ago, eight city officials-the Mayor, the Comptroller, the City Council president and the five borough presidents-would sit around a solid oak table on the second floor of City Hall every other Thursday, deciding how to spend tens of millions of dollars on city services.
The table was in the hearing room of the old Board of Estimate chamber, where citizens were permitted to testify on any calendared item. Today, that room is the much-touted Mayoral “bullpen,” where the public is most assuredly not welcome and where the opinions of ordinary folk are held in contempt while decisions are made in secret, guided by the whim of the Mayor.
As those public meetings dragged on late into the evening, a borough president (Donald Manes comes to mind) would battle with then-Mayor Beame and his budget director over a pet project that was in danger of being derailed by the municipal bean-counters. “What are you complaining about, Abe? It’s federal money,” Manes would protest. “If we don’t spend it, we will lose it!”
Today, the ghost of Donald Manes, who killed himself in 1986, haunts Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station and other places where suburbanites gather.
Thanks to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who helped repeal the commuter tax at a cost to the city of nearly $500 million a year, these suburbanites are no longer required to pay less than $450 a year on an income of $100,000, and-worse-the city is about to spend billions to make their lives more comfortable.
The difference between then and now is that those federal dollars at least had some benefits that accrued to New Yorkers. Today, the rush to spend seems designed to help out-of-towners and developers.
Let us count the ways that downtown is being “developed” with federal money as we approach the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority wants to build a $750 million Fulton Street transit center to connect 13 subway lines and, just coincidentally, construct an underground mall-thereby draining the city’s streets of life-that will connect to the underground mall at the new World Trade Center, when and if it ever gets built.
The Port Authority wants to whisk New Jersey residents to a subway so they are not inconvenienced by having to actually walk on a city street. Cost: $2 billion. Meanwhile, the Port Authority, controlled by Governors George Pataki and James E. McGreevey, is spending your toll money on newspaper ads inviting New York companies to leave the city and lease space in Jersey City, in buildings built with more of your toll money.
Lower Manhattan landlords, stuck with 17 million square feet of empty office space, are lobbying for a downtown connection to the Long Island Railroad and the John F. Kennedy International Airport, as if that’s the reason why companies and people don’t move downtown. Cost: $6 billion.
Mr. Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg want to spend at least $6 billion for what is called the “East Side access” project, a plan to save Long Islanders 10 minutes by having their trains stop at Grand Central instead of Penn Station. Add another $2 billion for the extension of the No. 7 line, which is nothing more than a train to the Olympics.
The total estimated costs for these deals is nearly $17 billion, which of course doesn’t include the costs of mob and labor payoffs and consulting fees to Al D’Amato. How that money will be spent is anybody’s guess. You want numbers and progress reports? Under the leadership Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, and the businessman Mayor, Mr. Bloomberg, it has taken nearly 11 years to rebuild the South Ferry terminal after it was destroyed by fire, an above-ground job that is millions of dollars over budget.
Deutsche Bank is getting $166 million to tear down a building on Liberty Street, while $350 million in surplus funds from the Battery Park City Authority-where maintenance fees have risen more than 30 percent in some apartments since 9/11-will be used to build a football stadium, which will gobble up $600 million in city and state funds. How many football fans live on the West Side of Manhattan?
Liberty Bonds, supposedly to be used to revitalize downtown, are being proposed for a New York Times tower in midtown, a power plant in Queens and a new basketball arena in Brooklyn. Are New Yorkers benefiting from these projects?
It is a pretty safe bet that the Mayor and the Governor will be standing at President Bush’s side in August, praising his commitment to spending $20 billion to rebuild our town, while looking out for their well-born big-business supporters and white suburban voters.
The shameless flag-waving will not bring one more customer to a downtown restaurant, and will do nothing to improve the lives of people who actually live in New York City.