A Bleak City Budget, But What Did You Expect?

It’s not as though he didn’t warn us.

When Mayor Bloomberg stepped to the podium to deliver his bad-news budget the other day, the only people who seemed surprised to learn about massive teacher layoffs and other painful cutbacks were members of the City Council, who reflexively denounced the Mayor’s difficult decisions. That is their right. But it is their responsibility to provide reasonable alternatives. The Council’s track record on this score is not encouraging, but it is springtime and so hope springs eternal.

Mr. Bloomberg’s budget calls for the elimination of 6,100 teachers, the bulk (4,100) through layoffs, the others through attrition. That is an extraordinary number–if it remains intact, fully 5 percent of the city’s teachers will be out of a job at the end of the school year.

That’s not the end of the bad news. Mr. Bloomberg’s plan also calls for the elimination of 20 fire companies. That means taking on the politically powerful and highly popular firefighters’ union, not to mention residents of 20 neighborhoods that will see a reduction in their fire protection and emergency services.

Not all the news was bad–the Mayor wisely avoided broad-based tax hikes and the effect on the Police Department was relatively harmless. Tax hikes would have only made the situation worse, stalling an already fragile recovery. And it would have been criminally reckless to order cuts at the NYPD at a moment when our terrorist enemies are looking to avenge the demise of Osama bin Laden.

The school layoffs, combined with job cuts in other departments, would reduce the number of city workers to 289,000, a nine-year low. But it is also important to note that city spending in that time has grown from $41 billion in 2002 to $65.7 billion in the Mayor’s proposed 2011-12 budget. Nobody could seriously argue that city services have increased in proportion to spending hikes. Skyrocketing pension and benefit costs along with debt service and Medicaid costs have driven the increase in spending to unsustainable levels. Mr. Bloomberg must continue to agitate for genuine reforms in municipal pensions and health benefits. Otherwise, the city will drown in red ink in the years to come.

Likewise, the Mayor needs to revisit his campaign to eliminate the absurd union-approved policy of determining layoffs by seniority. Last-in, first-out means that the city’s youngest and presumably most energetic teachers will lose their jobs, while older teachers will be protected regardless of merit.

Now the budget process moves to the City Council. Speaker Christine Quinn, a presumed mayoral candidate in 2013, has said that she and her colleagues will do “everything in our power” to prevent teacher layoffs. Contentious public hearings loom. But Council members will have to do more than fulminate for the benefit of media and activists. If they wish to alter the Mayor’s plan, they have to provide alternative spending cuts that are responsible and reasonable.

That will require seriousness of purpose, not just demagogic news conferences and public hearings. Nothing else, in this crisis, will suffice.