Bloomberg’s Terrifying-Yet-Optimistic Budget

There is plenty of bad news in the budget Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed today, but–hard as this may be to believe–it could have been worse.

The strategy from City Hall seems to have been to soften the blow, at least on the surface, of having to close a $4 billion budget gap by reducing city spending by $1 billion through various city agencies and sprinkling in a number of small revenue generators, rather than beating people over the head with one massive tax bill.

The most nakedly awful part of his budget–the 23,000 layoffs–is hard to soft-sell. One labor leader, Greg Floyd of Teamsters Local 237, told me afterwards, “If there is a budget worse than this, we’re finished.”

The real reason it could have been worse has to do with the fact that it counts on money from elsewhere.

Federal stimulus money from Washington is heading to New York, and will be distributed by state lawmakers in Albany, providing Bloomberg and lawmakers here with a potential way to mitigate what would be a catastrophic firing spree. Give New York City a cut of the federal stimulus money. That would drastically reduce the potential number of firings to about 9,000.

“It cannot get worse than 23,000 layoffs,” said City Councilman Lew Fidler of Brooklyn, a frequent critic of the mayor. If the state comes through with the federal aid, as Bloomberg outlined in his budget, “an awful-news budget becomes a bad budget,” said Fidler.

The chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, David Weprin, said yesterday he was expecting a “bloody” budget from the mayor. After being briefed on it today, Weprin had many concerns, but said of the new taxes and fees, “I don’t think there was any one thing that kind of jumps out at you that is so objectionable that is going to put people in an uproar.”

When asked about the reaction from the public, Weprin said, “I don’t know about massive, but I think you will hear from people on the steps of City Hall.”

Financial analyst Nicole Gelinas of the conservative Manhattan Institute said the mayor is banking on economically sensitive taxes to grow by Fiscal Year 2011, which she said “seems fairly optimistic at this point.”

“That makes it seem like next year’s deficit is going to be smaller than it’s going to be,” she said. “But you’re looking at a $2 billion bigger deficit if that doesn’t happen.”

There are other signs that the city was straining for optimistic projections.

One optimistic projection was the $100 million the city expects to rake in from charging people 5 cents for each plastic bag they use at stores. That’s up from the $19 million they estimated it would bring in two month ago.

Why the five-fold increase?

An administration official said they simply looked deeper at the numbers, and discovered New York City residents use about 1 billion plastic bags annually. (This prompted one reporter to joke during a background briefing that the whole budget problem could be solved by charging residents $1 per plastic bag used. The administration official jokingly said they considered that too.)

But the most optimistic projection from Bloomberg may have been delivered when he was asked how difficult it would be to get support for his budget given that this is an election year.

“I hope and I expect that the fact that this it’s an election year will not enter into it at all, because they don’t have any choice, nor do I. We have to address the issues.”

Bloomberg’s Terrifying-Yet-Optimistic Budget