Bloomberg’s $2.5 Billion: Don’t Blow It

At first glance, some might take the news that the city is ending the fiscal year with a $2.5 billion surplus as cause for celebration. Thanks to a robust real-estate market and the attendant rise in tax revenues, along with healthy profits on Wall Street, the surplus exceeds by $1.5 billion the Independent Budget Office’s projection back in December, and is the largest surplus since 2001. And you can bet that City Council members have already come up with elaborate, pork-friendly items they’re aching to spend that surplus on.

But if Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council care about the economic stability of New York, rather than blowing that money on election-year handouts, they will use it to pay down the city’s short-term debt. Only by doing so will the city be able to weather the storm clouds which are gathering at the intersection of George W. Bush’s risky fiscal policies and George Pataki’s profoundly foolish mismanagement of the state’s finances.

One hopes that Mr. Bloomberg, though facing a bruising re-election campaign in November, will keep to his practice of fiscal restraint. With the exception of a $400-per-household property-tax rebate, which has cost the city $250 million, the Mayor has for the most part shown that he understands what needs to be done to secure the city’s long-term health. He’s trimmed the municipal work force by 18,000 employees, slashed $3 billion from city agencies and increased property taxes. He has also refused to give raises to union members without productivity gains. All of this, combined with his success at keeping the streets safe, has resulted in a surging real-estate market, healthy tourism revenue and a sense of optimism which was hard to imagine during the bleak period following 9/11. But high-priced co-ops and full hotels tell only part of the story.

Last year, the state’s Financial Control Board concluded that the city’s finances were “structurally unbalanced” and that even with a healthy budget surplus, there would be “deterioration in the city’s fiscal condition” over the long term. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York issued a rare warning about the city’s long-term financial health, noting that New York is far too dependent on Wall Street as a source of revenue through income and corporate taxes. These revenue streams, after all, are highly volatile. Meanwhile, the costs of Medicaid and pensions for city workers are rising at an alarming rate, and more than 500,000 New York City kids-over 25 percent of our city’s children-are still going to bed hungry every night.

Rather then rest on the budget surplus, the Mayor and City Council should be burning the midnight oil searching for increased revenues, such as imposing a $4 toll on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro bridges, all of which are owned by the city and none of which currently asks motorists for a penny. Such a toll would bring in an estimated $500 million a year-the same amount of money which the Mayor is hoping to receive from Albany this year. And city officials, along with Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, should apply immediate pressure on Governor Pataki to reinstate the commuter tax of 0.45 percent which he allowed to be repealed in 1999. That would bring another $400 million annually into the city’s coffers; indeed, a more equitable commuter tax should be 1 percent, from which the city would realize $1 billion a year.

Unless the Mayor and City Council make tough decisions, billion-dollar surpluses may quickly become a memory. It’s no use counting on Washington or Albany. Thanks to Governor Pataki’s mismanagement, the state is facing projected budget deficits of $6 billion for the next fiscal year and $7.7 billion for the year following. President Bush has let the national treasury fall into ruin, presiding over the transformation of a gigantic surplus into a yawning deficit. With Republicans from the South and Southwest in charge of the White House and Congress, we can’t hold our breath waiting for increased aid for issues of concern to urban America, such as mass transit, affordable housing and health care.

In short, prudence, not profligacy, should guide municipal spending.

New York’s Air Patrol

What’s in the air that we New Yorkers breathe? We’re going to find out, whether we like it or not.

Dr. J. Craig Venter, who has tackled complex scientific topics like the human genome, has his sights set on decoding what sort of microbes and other material we inhale every day. To accomplish this task, the J. Craig Venter Institute is taking samples of the air in midtown, where researchers have deployed a filter at the top of a 40-story building.

Our air is, as Dr. Venter pointed out, an “unseen world.” In this age of pollution and terrorism, it’s important that we get a glimpse of that world. Dr. Venter’s staff already has been able to take such a peek-in December, researchers took their first samples from midtown. The result, the doctor said, was “stunning.” Within 24 hours, the filters were “darkly covered.” Now the question is, covered with what?

Once the material is gathered, it will be put through rigorous tests similar in scope to those which led to the decoding of the genome. This is an example of 21st-century science being used to better understand a legacy of the 20th century-polluted, and even toxic, air. The findings may shed light on the upsurge of asthma in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Part of the experiment is very much a product of our post-9/11 world. The researchers will analyze how contaminants might be carried through the air in the event of a bioterror attack. Dr. Venter’s findings may also form the basis for new federal efforts to continue to clean up the air in New York and other cities. The Clean Air Act has helped reduce the stifling air pollution that covered New York and other industrial areas as recently as the 1960’s. But as science reveals more from that “unseen world,” legislators and regulators may want to use 21st-century science to expand on the spirit of the Clean Air Act.

This ambitious project receives not a dime from city government. Instead, it’s being funded with a $2.5 million grant from a private organization, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Dr. Venter’s efforts to map the air we breathe no doubt will make New York a healthier and safer place to live. Clean air is as vital to quality of life as clean water. He deserves the city’s support, and thanks.

How Happy Are You?

It has sometimes been said that it’s the little things that drive a person crazy. It turns out that it may be the little things that make a person happy, too. Researchers at the National Institute on Aging have come up with a way of measuring happiness which they call a “National Well-Being Account,” a sort of emotional version of the Gross National Product. In a recent study of 909 working women (average age, 38) in Texas, they used a tool called the Day Reconstruction Method: Rather than ask such broad questions as “Are you happy?” or “Have you accomplished your life’s goals?”, they asked the subjects to reconstruct what they’d done the previous day and how they felt when they did it.

What made the women most happy were interactions with friends and loved ones. (Being with their kids came in fourth.) Near the top were sex, watching TV and praying or meditating. What made them least happy was being around their boss, not getting enough sleep and having to commute to work alone.

The results led the researchers to suggest that people should take time to analyze their activities of the previous day; they might find that seemingly minor interactions or events have a much greater impact on one’s sense of well-being than previously thought. The researchers also found that women with higher incomes were not appreciably happier than other women, and pointed to the phenomenon the “hedonic treadmill”: the sense of never being satisfied, no matter how large an income one earns or how much property one owns. A phenomenon which, of course, we seem to read about every day here in the city.

Bloomberg’s $2.5 Billion: Don’t Blow It