Michael Bloomberg has never been shy about telling us how he wants to be remembered. His fondest wish, he has said, is that historians will credit him with turning around the city’s public school system.
Perhaps they will. At the moment, however, it seems more likely that Mr. Bloomberg will be remembered for keeping the city’s treasury on an even keel during two tumultuous economic downturns. It has been a masterful, even historic, performance.
The mayor’s latest budget contains several painful but arguably necessary spending cuts, but in keeping with Mr. Bloomberg’s track record, it contains no plans to increase taxes. The mayor has managed to withstand a series of emergency-level budget crises by demanding creativity from his managers and productivity from the city’s work force rather than by relying on tax hike upon tax hike. His eventual successor will inherit that legacy and will be expected to show similar determination and common sense.
That is not to say that Mr. Bloomberg is a fiscal magician who has been able to close budget gaps like this year’s $2 billion deficit without pain and sacrifice. His new budget, which calls for $68.7 billion in spending in the fiscal year beginning July 1, will cut spending on libraries by over $70 million and slash funding to various cultural institutions by $40 million.
But there are no large-scale layoffs in his plan, no threats to eliminate hundreds of teaching positions in the city’s public schools. He has proposed eliminating 20 fire companies in his endless but clearly doomed effort to restructure the Fire Department to meet 21st-century realities, but the City Council can be counted on to keep the companies open. One of these years, perhaps, City Hall will figure out how to better deploy the FDNY’s resources at a time of record declines in fires.
Mr. Bloomberg has been in office long enough to have governed through two recessions—the decline that followed the dot-com bust and 9/11 and, of course, the ongoing great recession, which has cast a shadow over budget-making since 2008. There’s no question that the quality and quantity of city services has been affected. But the mayor’s emphasis on innovation, creativity and accountability—not to mention his common-sense approach to taxation—helped to minimize the pain.
In announcing his new budget plan, Mr. Bloomberg noted that “cities across the country have struggled to keep their heads above water—laying off teachers, police officers or firefighters, with a few having to declare bankruptcy. We’ve avoided those painful steps.”
Actually, the city has done more than simply avoid worst-case scenarios. It declined to live large when times were good—it’s hard to remember, but there were a few fat years in the middle of Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure—and it demanded reform and accountability in the face of hard times.
That’s not a bad legacy, even if it’s not the one Mr. Bloomberg prefers to leave behind.