A Lean, But Not Mean, Budget

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $59.1 billion budget is a model of discretion and restraint, the sort of document one wishes former Governor Eliot Spitzer would have presented last January. Unlike the former governor, the mayor understands that government must adjust to economic reality, and that reality is, for the time being, grim.

“We are living beyond our means,” the mayor said when he released the proposed budget on May 2. No politician enjoys saying those words, so when they are uttered, attention must be paid. Mr. Bloomberg has proposed no appreciable increase in spending (compare that to the 5 percent spending increase Mr. Spitzer proposed), although he found money, in the form of unanticipated tax revenue, to propose paying down city debt. This prudent move would free up public funds for something other than debt service in the next few years, when the city may still be dealing with the effects of a recession, which some economists fear will be deep and prolonged. In fact, Mr. Bloomberg’s budget forecasts deficits of $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2010 and $4.6 billion in fiscal year 2011.

As part of his lean offerings, the mayor wants to reduce his school spending plans by $400 million, and analysts believe schools in middle-class neighborhoods will be hardest hit, since poorer school districts can patch together programs with federal dollars for which the middle-class schools are ineligible. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein acknowledged that cuts are in the offing, but he hopes that good management will reduce the pain. That’s critically important, because the city’s schools have performed well during the Bloomberg years. It would be a tragedy if those improvements are now compromised by the mayor’s budget.

Mr. Bloomberg’s budgetary menu is not entirely made up of good-for-you vegetables and low-fat entrees. There’s a little something for homeowners, who will continue to get property tax rebates of $400, a politically popular gimmick we would frankly like to see shelved. Property taxes as a whole will fall by 7 percent, although Mr. Bloomberg believes a property tax hike will be required next year.

The plan will now go to the City Council, where adjustments will be made. Generally, council members examine the budget to see where they might be able to tuck in some pork-barrel spending to ensure their reelection. This year, however, the Council may find itself obliged to act with discretion and good judgment, however unfamiliar members may be with those concepts. The Council’s propensity for funding nonexistent community organizations has captured the attention of law-enforcement officials, who surely will be watching this year’s budgetary drama with great interest. If the Council’s various committees could summon the energy to act as true overseers of the budget rather than as compilers of add-ons, it will be the first step toward salvaging the Council’s reputation.