The Bloomberg Budget

Restore the Commuter Tax

As New York learned to its dismay a generation ago, tax increases or consistently high taxes drive people away. Since the fiscal follies of the 1970’s, New York tax policy has been fairly sane. The city, while hardly an isle of low taxation, has resisted tax hikes with newfound discipline since the Koch administration.

Sometimes, however, a tax increase is necessary to make sure that services don’t slip, that crime remains low, that the garbage gets picked up. We are in the midst of such an emergency.

Faced with a budget gap of $1 billion and a staggering $6 billion deficit in the next fiscal year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed a revival of the city’s late, lamented commuter tax. Actually, the Mayor’s plan is a good deal bolder than simply asking for revenue the city used to receive until idiotic state politics led to the tax’s abolition in 1999. Mr. Bloomberg wants commuters to pay precisely what residents will pay under his hard-time budget. Instead of paying a minuscule 0.45 percent, top-earning commuters would pay more than 2 percent. A commuter who earns $100,000 a year and who paid $450 under the old commuter tax would now pay about $2,400. At the previous level, the commuter tax brought in about $400 million a year.

Commuters and their representatives in the State Legislature-which must approve the tax hike-are furious, but they are wrong. They owe their jobs and often their high incomes to New York City. Indeed, the incomes earned in Manhattan are the economic fuel that drives up suburban house values. It’s only fair that New York ask them to help pay for services. If a Nassau County resident has a heart attack in midtown, an FDNY ambulance will provide first aid. New York police allow New Jersey residents to feel safe attending theater in Times Square. The city’s subsidized subway system moves upstate commuters to and from Grand Central Terminal. Why shouldn’t those lucky non-residents pay their fair share for those services, especially when city residents are being asked to sacrifice?

The commuter tax should never have been repealed. This is one of those few cases when a tax hike is not only necessary, but also just.

Don’t Gamble With Safety

Taxing commuters is a good idea; having fewer cops on city streets is not.

Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to reduce the New York Police Department by 1,900 cops to save about $75 million would likely result in an increase in crime and a lower quality of life, both of which would deliver a severe blow to the city’s already shaky economic base. The $75 million saved will be spent several times over if the crime rate starts to climb and millions of dollars must be diverted to keep families, tourists and businesses from leaving the city. Yes, the crime rate for 2002 is down another 6 percent from 2001’s already impressive numbers, but now is not the time to get clever with the police budget.

New York’s hard-won low crime rate did more to revitalize the city in the post-Dinkins era than any other factor, and keeping crimes such as murder, robbery and rape low is reason enough to maintain the force at its current level of 39,110 officers. And New Yorkers don’t need reminding that there is a new criminal threat to the city, a threat which grows daily as the Bush administration prepares to wage war against Iraq. The men and women of the NYPD are the city’s front line against terrorism; relying on the F.B.I. and C.I.A. to protect New York from Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups is naïve at best. Mayor Bloomberg already reduced the Police Department by 1,600 cops this year; further cuts may hinder Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s ability to bust criminals of the local and international variety.

The irony is that Mr. Kelly is being punished for doing a great job-because crime has continued to fall while he’s assigned 1,000 officers to counterterrorism units, the Mayor is gambling that the commissioner can continue to work wonders with a smaller force. If the Mayor goes ahead with his cuts, the Independent Budget Office estimates that by 2004, with attrition, there will be almost 6,000 fewer cops on the job than in 2001-not a comforting thought. Indeed, the city must avoid even the perception that it is easing off on the fight against crime. Safety is the one thing that everyone is willing to pay for.

MSNBC’s Terror Schlockmeister

Turn on a cable news channel these days and you stand a pretty good chance of seeing a “terrorism expert” holding forth on the latest threat to the country from Al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein. But who, exactly, are these people? Should viewers believe anything they say?

On the Nov. 15 broadcast at 7 p.m. of MSNBC’s Countdown Iraq , a featured guest was “terrorism expert” Harvey Kushner, who has also been a regular presence on CNN, the Fox News Channel and National Public Radio. But if the producers at MSNBC had watched the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather just prior to their own broadcast, they would have witnessed CBS News correspondent Mika Brzezniski, in a segment titled “Profiting from Fear,” debunking Mr. Kushner as a schlocky salesman of anti-terrorism equipment. That’s right: While Mr. Kushner is going on TV whipping up fears of terrorism, he’s also opened a store in lower Manhattan called Safer America-a few blocks from Ground Zero-to exploit and capitalize on those fears. CBS described the store as “the profit center of an emerging new doomsday industry.” Mr. Kushner’s store hawks such dubious items as a $900 parachute for people who work in tall buildings, a $495 biological protection suit for infants and a $150 radiation detector, called Raditect, which Mr. Kushner claims can warn you of a terrorist bomb. Terrorism specialist Jeffrey Schlanger told CBS News that the Raditect was “useless” and “essentially amounts to a piece of junk.”

MSNBC should be ashamed of itself. How did Harvey Kushner become one of TV’s terrorism pundits? His credentials apparently impressed TV producers hungry to fill air time. When he’s not on TV, Mr. Kushner is chairman of the department of criminal justice and security administration at Long Island University. He graduated from Queens College of the City University, and has a master’s and Ph.D. in political science from New York University. Mr. Kushner says that he has advised the F.B.I. and U.S. Customs Service, and he has written books with titles like Terrorism in America and The Future of Terrorism , put out by obscure publishers.

Even if Mr. Kushner had attained some prior credibility as a terrorism expert, his decision to profit from people’s fears makes it a conflict of interest for any reputable news channel to put him on the air as a trustworthy source of information. MSNBC, CNN, Fox News and NPR should refuse to take part in Mr. Kushner’s seedy efforts to cash in on terror.

With “experts” like these, who needs enemies?

The Bloomberg Budget