Getting the Rich To Share Our Pain

Baseball season is upon us again, and my hope is that our billionaire Mayor steps up to the plate and acts more like a mensch .

Michael Bloomberg is fond of saying that all New Yorkers must be willing to sacrifice. So far, it looks as though he is exempting his own class of well-heeled New Yorkers from the pain.

While workers get socked with a cigarette tax, an 18-percent real-estate tax increase, a subway-fare hike, a water-tax hike, an increased parking-fine tax, and now a proposed East River bridges toll tax, wealthy New Yorkers haven’t been asked to do their share.

Mr. Bloomberg can start with the deadbeat owners of the Mets-who owe the city $3 million in back rent-to fulfill his pledge about “shared sacrifice.” This would be a welcome change from his threats of layoffs and service cuts and his reluctance to battle Governor Pataki and President Bush for the city’s fair share of revenue.

We can expect the Mayor at Opening Day ceremonies at Shea and Yankee stadiums in a few weeks, breaking bread with George Steinbrenner and Fred Wilpon. But Mr. Bloomberg shouldn’t need a scorecard to keep track of the myriad special deals that wealthy New Yorkers seem to think of as a birthright. When he’s in the company of other elite New Yorkers, the Mayor should hand out new business cards reading: “Hi, I’m Mike the Mayor. The party is over. Pay up.”

Wouldn’t it just be grand-and a great morale-booster for a weary town-to see the Mayor arrive at Shea with the city sheriff on Opening Day and clean out the till for the money the Mets owe us? City Comptroller William Thompson recently released a report showing that the Mets did a major cooking of the books to chisel the city. If Mr. Wilpon doesn’t want to pony up, the Mayor can just padlock the premises. He can then tell Mr. Wilpon that he wants givebacks similar to those he is demanding from city workers.

But maybe not. You wouldn’t want Mike to negotiate the same deal he gives the Yankees at the municipal ferry terminal in Manhattan. There, his Transportation Commissioner allows an oversize banner to hang from the rafters advertising the Staten Island Yankees, with a phone number for those wishing to buy tickets. The price for this ad, which reaches 11 million people a year? Nada. In the land of “let’s run the government like a business,” the privately owned Staten Island Yankees get free publicity, courtesy of City Hall. The money that banner could bring in-let’s say $300,000 a year-might be enough to buy better transmitters for undercover cops. The Mayor, let’s remember, didn’t become rich by giving away his computer terminals.

Mr. Bloomberg should also put the arm on his other crony, Charles Dolan, the owner of Cablevision, who is so tapped out that he can’t afford to pay the $11 million real-estate tax on Madison Square Garden, an exemption granted by Ed Koch in 1982! The last time we heard from the Dolan family was at a meeting of the titans at Mr. Bloomberg’s house. But when a deal was struck between representatives of Mr. Steinbrenner and Mr. Dolan to show Yankee games on Cablevision, the other billionaire in the room-Mr. Bloomberg-demanded nothing for the city coffers, even though the games take place in a city-owned stadium.

ButwhatMr. Bloomberg really has to do is to gather up a thousand of his rich friends and ask them to forgo interest payments on their tax-free municipal bonds for a year or two. (This year’s interest-which is driving the deficit-is nearly $5 billion.) He can lead by example, since he owns $40 million worth of such bonds. If enough of his friends and major banks agree to postpone their interest payments, that would obviate the need for $600 million in “givebacks” from our city’s workers.

We could even sponsor some sort of competition for them. The tabloids could run their photos and accompanying text: “Hello there. I am worth $100 million. My income is $10 million this year. I will wait a few years for my interest payments so the city can survive these turbulent times.”

In the end, New Yorkers have to redefine the importance of valid contracts. If a labor contract can be changed, then so too can contracts for bond payments, Con Ed and Verizon bills, oil companies and everyone else who makes money off the city. It’s not about stiffing anyone; everyone will get paid eventually. Mr. Bloomberg has to follow the model of Brazil (which restructured $80 billion in debt) and a hundred other countries that say: You know, we don’t have the money this year. Can you wait while we pay the folks who make the city run?

Only then will the pleas for fairness be heeded throughout the five boroughs.

Terry Golway will return to this space next week. Getting the Rich To Share Our Pain