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The Temperature Of The City

by Mark Berkey-Gerard, Jan 27, 2003
 

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In his State of the City address at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg talked about what he accomplished in the last year, mainly that crime is at the lowest point in 40 years. He laid out his future plans: cracking down on sex crimes, developing the west side of Manhattan, marketing the city's image around the world, and improving education. And perhaps inspired by the budding flowers in the arboretum, the mayor even took time to mention the little things that could be seen as positive: the Bronx Zoo buys 400,000 hamburgers and hotdogs a year and there are some 340 songs about New York.

But more than specifics, the mayor tried to present an optimistic view of the future.

"Right now, it's winter in New York," the mayor said. "I'm here to tell you spring - and a time of renewal - is on its way."

After the speech, many public officials in the audience seemed to share the mayor's sunny forecast.

Council Speaker Gifford Miller praised the mayor for calling for a commuter tax. Councilmember David Weprin was happy that new bridge tolls were not mentioned. Even Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who has been engaged in an ongoing battle with the mayor to preserve her job, said Bloomberg's speech was "full of hope."

The mayor's Republican colleagues, who are still fuming over the recent 18.5 percent property tax increase, offered the harshest criticism.

"Pausing for a moment to feel the people's pain over the property tax was nice, but it didn't go far enough," said City Council Minority Leader James Oddo. "If we raise taxes again in June, it won't mean much."

While the details of the mayor's plans will be laid out more soberly in his budget proposal this week, the address offered a broad vision of how the mayor sees the city. (Read the full text of the mayor's speech.)

Bloomberg focused on five major themes

This is what the mayor said, what he sees as his accomplishments, what he plans to do in the future, and what his critics say he hasn't done or shouldn't do.

PUBLIC SAFETY

"The first responsibility of city government is public safety," the mayor said in his speech. "The NYPD is simply the best police force in the nation. Despite a smaller department, the realities of the post-9/11 world, a recession, the NYPD has brought down crime to the lowest levels in 40 years."

Context:

While crime rose nationwide, New York City's crime rate reached its lowest level since 1963, down 5 percent in 2002. According to the police department, most serious crimes ­ murder, robbery, assault, and car theft ­ have continued to decline. Rape is the only violent crime in New York that has been on the rise, increasing 5 percent in the last year.

Even though the statistics say New York is safer, many New Yorkers don't feel safer. A November CBS/New York Times poll found that nearly a third of New Yorkers say the city is "less safe" than it was four years ago.

What The Mayor Sees As His Accomplishments:

Last July, the mayor launched Operation Spotlight to target the 10,000 low-level criminals - drug offenders, shoplifters, and prostitutes - who repeatedly commit quality-of-life crimes. The mayor says that the number of offenders who do jail time has increased by 50 percent.

In an effort to fight noise, which is the most common complaint to the police quality-of-life hotline, Bloomberg launched "Silent Night," designed to quiet unruly neighbors, curb drag racing on city streets and silence car alarms in 24 of the city's noisiest neighborhoods. (Read more about the city's crackdown on noise.

Not all areas of the city have experienced the same drop in crime. In January 2003, the police department put 800 officers on patrol in 61 of the city's high-crime areas. Because of this effort, the mayor says, serious crimes in these areas have decreased 45 percent in the first three weeks of the new year.

What The Mayor Hopes To Do:

The mayor said he will respond to the increase in rape with a new program called Project S.T.O.P. (Specially Targeted Offenders Project). The plan calls for a new DNA tracking database in order to help in prosecuting sexual crimes and specially trained prosecutors who will make home and workplace visits to high risk sexual offenders.

The Critics:

The mayor's critics question how much funding he can cut from the police department budget and still keep crime down.

"Telling the police department to do more with less is an invitation to rising crime levels," said Queens Councilmember Hiram Monserrate and former police officer. "It took 15 years for the department to recover from the cuts made in the last fiscal crisis of the 1970's."

Earlier this month, Police Commissioner Ray Kelley said he might have to cut as many as 1,000 officers and forgo hiring another 500 to cut $94 million more from next year's budget. Since then, the mayor and commissioner said they had come up with other ways to reduce costs without layoffs. But given the city's fiscal crisis, the possibility of layoffs will remain an option.

FISCAL CRISIS

"Taxes and frugality are far better than crime, filth and abandonment. And as to the short-term political fallout, I would rather be less popular, knowing that New Yorkers are safe, than promise a rose garden I know we can't deliver."

Context:

The major challenge for the mayor has been the city's $7 billion deficit, what has been called the "worst fiscal crisis in the history of the city." To date, the mayor and City Council have reduced the budget gap by $2.5 billion through borrowing, cuts to city services, increases to fees like parking tickets, and an 18.5 percent property tax hike.

What The Mayor Sees As His Accomplishments:

The mayor says the city is doing more with less.

The mayor has cut funding from every city agency ­ with the exception of homeless services. Bloomberg instituted a hiring freeze for all city agencies and instructed the fire department not to bring in the next class of recruits. He laid off 103 members of the Sanitation Department and agreed to cut 450 jobs at the School Construction Authority and 150 jobs at the Board of Education facilities division.

All of these cuts are necessary, the mayor said.

The mayor also convinced the City Council to approve an 18.5 percent property tax hike that will generate about $1.7 billion a year for the city budget.

What The Mayor Hopes To Do:

First, the mayor is calling on city workers to increase their productivity in hopes of saving some $600 million. He told unions they should not expect raises. "The stringent budget we're proposing assumes no compensation increases whatsoever," said Bloomberg.

Second, City Hall is also looking to Albany for $1.4 billion in aid in the next year. The mayor called on Governor Pataki and the State Legislature to pass a personal income tax on people who work in the city but live elsewhere ­ in effect, reinstating a commuter tax. (Read arguments for and against the commuter tax.) Bloomberg is also asking the state to pay a larger share of its share of Medicaid costs.

Finally, the mayor argues that help must come from Washington to pay for counter-terrorism efforts and rebuilding lower Manhattan.

THE CRITICS: The unions argue that the city workforce must not be cut and that their workers need raises to keep pace with the cost of living.

"Our members are not sacrificial lambs to be offered up on the altar of productivity," said Lillian Roberts of District Council 37. "We will fight any efforts to balance this budget on the backs of our members."

Social service providers say the most vulnerable New Yorkers ­ the poor, elderly, and children ­ are being asked to shoulder too much of the burden.

Others ­ particularly the mayor's Republican colleagues ­ argue that more tax increases will be worse than cuts.

"This is not a revenue problem, this is an expenditure problem," said Council Minority Leader James Oddo. "We have to cut spending."

Others argue the mayor is too optimistic about aide from Albany and Washington and needs to lobby harder. Governor George Pataki said he will not approve a commuter tax or any other tax increase. And President George W. Bush's recent economic plan did not include the aid to state and local governments that many hoped.

"He's still being awfully charitable to the president and the governor," said Brooklyn Councilmember Bill deBlasio.

"The signs from Washington have not been good," said Rep. Jarrold Nadler.

MORE EFFICIENT GOVERNMENT

"The voters have a right to know what their elected officials said they'd do -- and they have a right to know what they've actually done. The public should hold their elected officials accountable for results. And they can start with me."

Context:

Bloomberg believes he was elected on his business background and his promise to bring an "outsider's" perspective to government.

What The Mayor Sees As His Accomplishments:

Bloomberg made his billions off of a computer system and media company that provide financial news and information, and he has used technology as a tool to reform government. New Yorkers can now pay parking tickets, view property statements, obtain birth and death certificates, or report housing code violations online.

The mayor also streamlined the annual management report from a multi-volume document into a 186-page report and launched an interactive online feature called "My Neighborhood Statistics," which allows New Yorkers to type in their address and generate a web page with maps and statistics about where they live.

What The Mayor Hopes To Do:

The city's new 311 non-emergency phone number, set to launch sometime in February, will centralize the 8 million complaints that currently come in to 41 different hotlines. The new call center will also be equipped with technology to make agencies more accountable. Each of the requests will be documented so that there is a record of how well and how quickly city agencies respond. Satellite technology will give the operators information about the location that each person is calling from, so that the 311 center can create a map of New Yorkers' complaints.

With the city struggling to close its budget gap, the mayor is calling on the City Council and State Legislature to pass tort reform that would limit the city's liability in lawsuits. Last year, New York City paid out almost $600 million in claims and judgments as a result of lawsuits, up from $21 million in 1978.

The mayor also says the city's contracting procedures are too costly and too antiquated. And he hopes to merge different city agencies, like the Department of Correction and Department of Probation.

In the next few weeks, Bloomberg has promised to release a list of every promise he made during his campaign so voters know what has or has not been accomplished.

Many expect the mayor to revisit the idea of non-partisan elections, an idea he pursued this year but was that rejected by his own Charter Commission. For the Democrat-turned-Republican mayor, not having a political party next to his name on the ballot would constitute a major government reform.

The Critics:

While most agree the city's 311-call center is a good idea, implementing it will be a major undertaking.

Based on the experience of other cities, the number of complaints is expected to double. And while it will be easier to complain, that may not mean things like potholes, burned out streetlights, or run-down buildings will be fixed any more quickly.

"In the end, people are still looking for a human to help them, not just a computer," said Queens Councilmember Leroy Comrie, who likes the call center, but doubts it will decrease the number of complaints he receives from constituents.

On the issue of tort reform, citizen advocates like the national public interest group Public Citizen argue that it serves as a check on municipal recklessness. The State Legislature and City Council have been reluctant to pass measures that would be seen as protecting government, not citizens.

On non-partisan elections, critics argue that the issue has not been studied enough, it may decrease voter participation, and will only benefit only minor political parties.

ECONOMIC GROWTH

"We'll continue to transform New York physically -- giving it room to grow for the next century -- to make it even more attractive to the world's most talented people. We'll invest in neighborhood livability, cultural organizations, education, research and medicine."

Context:

The city's jobless rate has risen to 8.5 percent, the highest point since 1998. The New York economy ­ dependent in large part on Wall Street and still trying to recover from the terrorist attacks of September 11 ­ is losing businesses and jobs.

What The Mayor Sees As His Accomplishments:

New York City will play host to the 2004 Republican National Convention. And with the mayors' support, the city won the U.S. bid for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.

WHAT THE MAYOR HOPES TO DO: Bloomberg hopes to convince the state and the Port Authority to adopt his vision for lower Manhattan including parks, residential areas, and improved transportation. (Read the details of the mayor's plan for downtown.)

The mayor also used his State of the City speech to reiterate his ideas for developing the west side of Manhattan, including expanding the convention center and building sports facilities. Part of this effort involves the extension of the 7 subway line, which Bloomberg says will create 15,000 construction jobs.

The city also has an ambitious $3 billion plan to create and preserve more than 65,000 homes and apartments in neighborhoods over the next five years. Approximately 25,000 new housing units would be built and an additional 38,000 would be preserved in existing buildings.

In the future, the mayor hopes to do a better job of marketing New York City around the world. He will soon appoint a Chief Marketing Officer who will organize a "road-show" to sell the city's image. The first stop will be in London in March.

The Critics:

Critics worry that preparing for the Olympics could take resources away from other vital development projects, including rebuilding downtown. Some economists question the plans to cover the city's costs through a controversial financing scheme. Residents of the far West Side, which would be home to the new Olympic Stadium, say it could destroy their neighborhood.

And not everyone is convinced that extending the 7 train is a good idea.

"There has been absolutely no study . . . about the benefits of extending the No. 7 line for transit riders," said Joe Rappaport, policy advisor for the Transport Workers Union Local 100. "If you wanted to improve service to the West Side you could do that much more quickly through bus rapid transit which would cost in the hundreds of thousands to implement, or a light rail system which would cost in the tens of millions, as opposed to extending the No. 7 train, which would cost in the hundreds of millions."

Overall, many public officials said the State of the City speech did not provide enough new ideas for economic development, especially for the outer boroughs.

"I didn't hear anything new or fresh for the Bronx," said Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr.

IMPROVING EDUCATION

"The best advertisement for our city will be when we're able to say that all 1200 of our public schools are success storiesĹ . We focused on creating a new and accountable administrative structure, instituting a standardized curriculum for more than 80 percent of our schools, and making the school system parent-friendly."

Context:

Most New Yorkers agree that something must be done about the city's public schools. Three out of four city schools do not perform adequately. Seven out of ten eighth graders failed this year's state required reading exam. And only half of New York City high school students graduate in four years.

What The Mayor Sees As His Accomplishments:

Mayor Bloomberg proposed the most sweeping changes in education in 30 years. He gained control of the city schools in January and recently released his plans to set up a standardized curriculum for the vast majority of schools, eliminate community school district offices, establish a parental liaison person in every school, and replace community school boards. (Read more about the mayor's education plan)

What The Mayor Hopes To Do:

The mayor said in his speech that gaining control of the city's schools was the "easy part." Now he must win state and federal approval for the parental involvement and curriculum. The true test, the mayor said, will be "giving all our students the education they need and deserve."

Critics:

While the United Federation of Teachers has endorsed the mayor's education plan, many education advocates and parents say it is too heavy handed.

Carolyn Prager of the Advocates for Public Representation in Public Education called the plan "management by intimidation" and feared it would drive teachers, principals, and educators from the system.

Just how parents will be involved in the process is still unclear. Former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer said, "No mere change in structure will repair the problem that parents feel that schools are not open to them." (Read Ferrer's ideas about parental involvement in schools). The City Council has also proposed its own plan for involving parents in the process.

G. Reid Lyon, an advisor to President Bush, told the New York Times that the chancellor's phonics-based reading curriculum had no track record and may not get approval from the federal government. "We can find no published research indicating that this program has been tested with well-defined groups of kids and shown to be effective," Lyon said.

Read the full text of the mayor's speech.

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