A Taxing Idea: Make Commuters Pay

Mayor Bloomberg, owner of homes near and far, once again has let it be known how little regard he has for those awful little people who live in tacky duplexes and Cape Cods and split-levels out yonder in the suburbs. According to news accounts of a meeting the Mayor had in late February with foreign journalists, Mr. Bloomberg said that companies thinking of moving out of the city will soon find out just what kind of dreary people live beyond the five boroughs. “You’re not going to get the best,” he reportedly said.

When news of these remarks leaked out, the Mayor took pains to insist that he did not “diss the suburbs.” Why he would distance himself from this characterization is something of a mystery; after all, candidate Michael Bloomberg said pretty much the same thing last fall. Regular visitors to this space (hi, Mom!) will remember that a certain wise observer warned Mr. Bloomberg against gratuitous suburb-bashing, since a) the economy of the city and the suburbs is more intertwined than ever; b) many, if not most, inner-ring suburbanites are former city residents; and c) well, did you check out the home towns of many of the Sept. 11 heroes?

The fact is, many of New York City’s eight million people are passing through. They may be here for a couple of years, or they may be here for a few decades. But at some point they will leave, either because they can’t afford to raise a family here (yes, that’s me raising my hand) or because sunnier climes are better suited for the golden years. Of course, if global warming continues apace, those geezers won’t have any more excuses, except for high taxes, spotty public services, Al Sharpton, alternate side of the street parking, etc.

So on the subject of suburban residents, Mayor Bloomberg should maintain the discretion he observed at the Fire Department’s promotion ceremony on Feb. 27 in downtown Brooklyn. There were no casual asides about the lack of quality human beings out in Nassau and Suffolk counties, or up in Westchester, Putnam and Orange counties. No, sir: the Mayor spoke, with impressive sincerity, about the bravery of those assembled. Speaking off the cuff, he praised the firefighting families in the audience, many of whom traveled to the ceremony by car from, yes, the suburbs. (One fire officer’s wife was heard saying that the hour-long ceremony was shorter than her drive into downtown Brooklyn. But the drive was well worth it.)

Rather than assailing suburbanites, Mr. Bloomberg ought to be asking them for help. In particular, he ought to make the case for reinstatement of the commuter tax, that 0.45 percent levy stupidly repealed a couple of years ago not because it was regarded as an obstacle to economic growth, but because of moronic Albany-based political infighting.

The commuter tax used to bring in about $400 million a year, money that would go a long way toward bridging the huge budget chasm the Mayor confronts. It doesn’t exist anymore because the honorable public servants in Albany were trying to out-pander each other during a special election for the State Senate in Rockland and Orange counties. The Republican candidate started railing against the tax, the Democrat apparently had no choice but to say “Me, too!”, and so the State Legislature and the Governor removed the issue by removing the tax. The chief villains here were the city Democrats who run the Assembly. They decided that a special election-which they lost-was more important than the city’s financial health. Let that be a lesson to earnest political-science students hither and yon.

At the time, your dutiful correspondent forced himself upon drinking commuters at the bar off the Vanderbilt Avenue side of Grand Central Terminal. I asked the Westchester- and Connecticut-bound Metro North riders-most of whom, it seems fair to say, seemed more affluent than your average outer-borough resident-if they even knew they were paying a commuter tax. Most of them didn’t. At 0.45 percent of their income, the commuter tax wasn’t much more than chump change for these commuters, who spent eight to 10 hours a day or more enjoying the protection of the New York police and fire departments.

If ever there was a time when a Mayor could go east and north and ask commuters to consider not what the city can do for them, but what they can do for the city, surely this is it. Their prosperity depends on New York’s well-being, just as New York’s financial health depends on the suburbs’ well-educated work force.

If Mayor Bloomberg can make the case to the city’s neighbors, the craven lawmakers who represent the suburbs would be less fearful of their constituents, and therefore more likely to put their names on-gasp!-a tax bill.

It’s a simple matter of equity, and the Mayor should say so.

A Taxing Idea: Make Commuters Pay