This is an exciting time to be in city government. City government is
where the rubber meets the road in terms of providing services. There's
no ducking, or very little opportunity to duck, and if you try ducking
you quickly get caught up in the press's relentless questioning until
you definitively give an answer. I talk to the press roughly five times
a week, and we take roughly twenty questions or so. They can ask about
anything, and I don't know any other level of government that is as
accessible to the press as the level of government that I am lucky
enough to work at.
I work with 300,000 fellow city employees. Together, I think we
probably do deliver a reasonably decent service to the public. I hope
they are happy. We're actually doing a test of that, and I'll give you
an answer on November 8th.
New York is stressing productivity
and prevention and accountability, and we're trying to find answers to
problems that have for too long been impossible to solve. You have to
come into this with the fundamental understanding that there are no
simple solutions to complex problems. If there were, somebody would have
found them long ago. There is no right and wrong, and whatever you do is
going to please some people and not please everybody.
I've always thought that efficiency and honesty have to start right
at the top, because the public's willingness to pay taxes and see those
taxes go to provide services depends on a basic belief that they are
getting their money's worth. They may not agree every time that every
service should be provided, and they clearly would like to see somebody
else pay the bill. But if they think that the government is efficient
and honest, then they are certainly more willing to do what I think is
right and be compassionate and build for the future and do the kind of
things that we should be doing if we are going to keep our cities the
place where people want to come and have opportunities and are safe.
In New York City, the economic crisis actually
started five quarters before 9/11 with the end of the Internet bubble.
We're very dependent on one industry and that's Wall Street, and when
the Internet bubble ended, the city's tax revenue declined
precipitously. And we've had to do more with less.
When I first came into office, smoke was still coming out of the
World Trade Center. Conventional wisdom was that every company was going
to move out of the city or at least move half their employees out of the
city for diversification reasons, and that nobody would ever want to
live in this city every again. That hasn't proved to be the case, the
commercial vacancy rate in this city is as low as it is in any city in
the country, lower than most, and residential real estate prices have
almost doubled in all five boroughs in three years and those are real
measures of whether or not people want to be here.
But it has been a real challenge to continue to keep the streets safe
and spend the monies that we need to help those people who need help and
to ensure that the public is safe, the streets are clean, and the
quality of life is better.
When I first came into office, we had a $5 billion deficit. The next
year we had a $6.5 billion deficit. The numbers are staggering; this
city has a budget of roughly $50 billion, 300,000 employees, and 8.1
million citizens. We provide a service to people who contribute an
enormous amount to the city, but in some cases the cost of providing
those services is just greater than it would be elsewhere.
We've always been the immigrant port of entry for people who wanted a
better life for themselves and their families. They come and they
contribute an enormous amount to the city, but it also raises some of
your expenses, for example, we have to provide services in many
Our children in our public school system and their parents speak
roughly 170 different languages, and while you can't provide total
service in every single language, if you call 311 we will get someone on
the phone that can speak your language.
We've had to do more with less. Raising taxes - that is a
character building experience I would suggest for any mayor. But we made
the mistake back in the 1970s of reducing services. We stopped arresting
the bad guys, we stopped putting out the fires, we closed hospitals, we
fired 20 percent of every group of city employees, and the city fell
apart and the tax base left. We did not make that mistake this time.
Basically we have cut almost $4 billion out of tax levy expenditures
in this city; we've reduced the size of the work force by 16,000 people;
and I think it is fair to say that by any measure, the quality of life
in this city is better than it was four years ago.
I can give you some easy numbers; one is crime. We had to
reduce the size of our police force by 3,000 police officers. We
currently have 37,000 police officers of which a thousand are devoted to
counter terrorism and intelligence. Before 9/11 nobody ever thought
about either of those two things, but yet with 40,000 cops on the street
going after the run of the mill criminals we've brought crime to a level
that nobody expected. We've brought crime down another 20 to 35 percent
in the past three years. The murder rate is as low as it's been since
roughly 1963 and this year we're on track to do even better.
It's partly very hard work and very good leadership in the police
department; it is partly getting the courts to have special parts where
you have a judge that treats a certain kind of felony every single time,
so that you're penalties are consistent and the judge knows who can be
rehabilitated and who really needs incarceration. So we have a special
part for example, for firearms, for chronic criminals, for drug dealers.
The turnstile justice we used to have before, where somebody would come
in, the police would arrest them, they'd come in, and they'd be right
back out on the streets continuing to commit crimes has ended in this
city. And that I think is why we've been able to make this the safest
large city in the nation.
If you take the 210 cities with a 100,000 population or more in this
country in all fifty states and you rank them highest crime to lowest
crime, New York ranks somewhere 18 or 19 from the bottom of the list.
The cities that are safer than New York per capita are cities for the
most part, that most people have never heard of. They are very nice
cities, but they are very small.
We've also instituted 311, which we call the citizens
service hotline; it is just celebrated its second anniversary. I can
tell you that we are currently averaging more than 51,000 calls a day.
During a snowstorm recently, we got more than 100,000 calls in one day.
New York has clearly loved 311, and it's great for the public who can
never find ways to interact with government. If you look in the phone
book there is something like 11 pages with listings for New York
government. And I defy anyone to guess which agency they should go
But if you call 311 with service in 170 languages, we can probably
get you a reasonably accurate answer or access or tell you where to go.
And we have a lot of questions about things that the city does not do -
private things, state and fed government programs, and we can at least
tell people where to go. It is also a great management tool for the
mayor and for the administration because we can tell when we're doing a
good job and we can tell what the public cares about.
Noise, for example, is the number one complaint on 311 and you know
where it is. When somebody calls in with a serious emergency we call
911 or ship them there by pushing a button. But if it is a quality of
life complaint the operator types in the complaint into a computer and
the computer figures out which police precinct is responsible and it
buzzes on the desk of the sergeant at the police precinct. Now there is
a record and that sergeant, he may have everybody out you know chasing a
serial ax murderer, but when they get time, there is now excuse for not
following up. So from a management point of view, you make everybody
accountable, and I can look and see how long it takes to go and make
sure we provide services.
STREETS AND POTHOLES
Our streets are cleaner partially because of
311. When I drive down the streets and see some trash on the side, I
call 311. (I don't give them my name, I give them somebody else's name)
and next time I drive by it is cleaned up. You try it and you will find
that they don't just respond to the mayor. I once called 311 and used
my own name and they asked me to spell my name. No matter how big your
ego is, they can bring right down to reality.
Our streets are cleaner than they've been in 30 years. We have an
independent part of city government that goes out and in 59 sanitation
districts across all five boroughs we look at a street and a vacant lot
and a sidewalk to see if we're doing a good job. We fix potholes, 311
is invaluable there, this city has 6,300 miles of roads, so you could
have a road to L.A. and back and still have some left over. Needless to
say, with the constant change in temperatures and plowing, we have a lot
Today we fill 97 percent of our potholes in thirty days. That might
not sound to you like doing a good job, but five years ago only 65
percent of the potholes were filled within thirty days. And what we've
got to do now is to shorten the time frame and set a more ambitious
target and keep improving city services.
In the past, there was no way to know what the public
wanted and whether or not we were doing a good job and if you don't have
any measures, than nobody can be held accountable. And if nobody can be
held accountable, than nobody pays any attention, and I think it is
pretty clear what happens when nobody pays any attention.
The city, because crime is down, because quality of life is better,
because our cultural institutions and parks are doing better, because
we're doing a lot of things to make the city more business friendly and
economically diverse. Unemployment has been falling; it is now down to a
level last seen before 9/11. It is 5.9 percent, it is still much too
high, but we're going in the right direction. What we've got to do is
make this a place where people want to live so that companies who need
the best employees in the world will bring their business here. Also we
have to make it friendly for businesses to know that they can deal with
the bureaucracy - not get any special favors, businesses don't want
special favors - what they want is a set of rules that are clear and
enforced and that they can understand and then they will deal with that.
And that is why for example, an equal opportunity human rights outreach
so that employees if they have complaints know where to go is in
business's interest because they can adjudicate any problems right away
and people will know where they stand.
People said that we couldn't stop crime - that we couldn't go
any lower. They also used to say that the city government couldn't
influence the economics of a city, when in fact the city government has
a lot to say. What we are trying to do is to make sure that our economy
is more diverse. We are much too dependent on Wall Street, We love Wall
Street; we want it to make a lot of money and pay a lot of taxes, but we
want to make sure that if Wall Street has a downturn, there are other
industries on different economic cycles that will continue to employ the
people that live here and give us a future and a consistency in our tax
Last year, we created 37,000 new private sector jobs. This year,
we're on track for over 50,000, and if we continue to work on the big
projects, construction jobs will provide enormous opportunities in this
city, particularly for people where the school system has failed them in
the past or immigrant groups that come here and don't have either
language skills or college degrees or some of the things that other
kinds of businesses would require.
But we're very lucky to have a constant flow of immigrants
into the city who are hardworking. To think about the sacrifice and the
courage of somebody coming from elsewhere in the world, giving up
friends and in some cases families and everything they know and
language, to come here and build a new life - that's exactly the kind of
people you want coming into your city.
But we got to make sure that we have the jobs that match their
skills, so service industry jobs, for example, which is why we're
focusing on making sure that we have a year-round convention business.
The construction industry is another one of those. We have had problems
that have been here for many years, one of which is human services. What
we've tried to do is to focus on prevention rather than after-the-fact
coming in and trying to help people who are already hurt.
The smoking ban was controversial in the beginning. I
think it's fair to say today that it is generally accepted. The
industries that people worry about being hurt, namely restaurants and
food and beverage industries, have managed to come through it and are
stronger than ever. That was the same experience that California had
when they put in the smoking ban.
People here, when we were going to put in the smoking ban, kept
saying to me, "Well, the Irish are never going to come here for vacation
anymore." For those of you who don't know, Ireland put a smoking ban in
for the entire country about six months ago, and I gather that it is
actually working. People also said the Italians would never come here
for vacation. Well, Italy put in a smoking ban, and it is working. The
surrounding states, Connecticut and Massachusetts have done that, and
New Jersey is talking about it. The state of New York, after the city's
smoking ban, went and passed a smoking ban. These things really do make
Life expectancy in New York City today is higher than it is in
the country as a whole. Think about that; it's an amazing number.
People think of cities as being dangerous, quality of air issues, and
all of the big city problems, and yet by doing a lot of things - our
Health Department has been very pro-active, going out and encouraging
people to try to get early examinations and to be cognizant what things
can prolong their life and what things can hurt their lives, and the
smoking ban - all these things put together, as well as improving our
private hospitals. We have 11 public hospitals, which are ranked by the
National Accreditation Board as good as or better than our teaching
hospitals. They are the jewels in the crown of New York City if there
ever was one. And we have eleven public hospitals for nursing homes and
150 clinics, and as a group they run it almost break even, which is just
amazing if you know anything about the economics of delivering
healthcare services today. But all of that adds up and goes into that
number of life expectancy going up.
We do have a problem with homeless, like every big city
does, but we are trying to address the homeless problem. It's a problem
that we've grappled with for more than 20 years in this city. It's
caused us to create the largest and most expensive shelter system in the
nation. And to a great extend, we are the victims of our own good
intentions because what's happened in many cases, the only solution for
homelessness was to go into the shelter system. So last June, our
commissioner for homeless services, Linda Gibbs, and Shawn Donovan, who
runs the agency that builds public housing, together we decided to see
if we couldn't do something to take the homeless problem on a different
path and prevent homelessness. We made a commitment to dramatically
reduce the numbers of homeless that we have to shelter by working with
people and making sure that they get the services before they become
homeless or try to adjudicate problems within families and help them get
the medical care that would let them continue to stay as a family and
stay in private housing.
We've worked hard with the courts. This is a city where the courts
have an enormous influence in running every agency in the city. And in
many cases, we've been able to convince the courts that we're doing a
good job, and that they should turn the services back over to the
elected officials, which I think is where they should be. People have
said there is nothing you can do about the homeless problems and about
children who don't have family structure. They're wrong. In the same way
we can do something about crime, we can do something about homelessness.
And we can do something about improving our school system.
We have a school system with 1.1 million children. That is bigger than
the population of Detroit. We serve 850,000 meals a day in the school
system. We turn out Rhodes Scholars, who eventually go on to become
Nobel Prize winners. We also turn out tens of thousands of kids who
don't learn how to read. It's one of the disgraces of society that we've
allowed our public school system - and it's true worldwide, and it's
certainly true nationwide - to fail too many students.
Shame on us. We have an obligation to go out there and to make sure
that every child gets an education; it is the first basic civil right
because if you don't have an education, you are never going to
participate in the great American dream. I can't guarantee that if you
get a great education, that everything is going to work out for you. But
the likelihood of it working out for you if you don't have an education
is small; we know what is going to happen to children that we fail.
We've got to make sure that we have the courage to go against
conventional wisdom and go against all of those people that say, "Oh
we'll just do more of the same."
More of the same just isn't working and it is time to try new things.
In our city we've ended social promotion in the third grade and the
fifth grade. We were promoting kids to the next grade up who didn't have
the skill sets that they would need to learn anything in the next grade
up. So they were going from a situation where they weren't learning to a
situation, where there is no chance of them learning. This has allowed
us to identify which children need extra help and we're trying
everything we can to give them that extra help. We have a summer
program, we have a Saturday's program; we have 8,000 fifth graders who
for 26 weeks attend a Saturday extra class at the school system. I can't
tell you this is going solve every one of these children's problems or
every one of society's problems but at least we are trying.
Let me just talk about one other thing and that is
Homeland Security, Homeland Security is of particular interest to New
York City. Some woman when I walked in gave me a book written in 1950,
by E.B. White about planes that could go into buildings in New York
City. Well we didn't learn our lesson then, and we had a bombing attack
on the World Trade Center in 1993, and we failed to learn our lesson
then. But the cost of not learning those lessons has been unconscionably
high and what we have to do is to make sure that we understand that this
is a different world - those oceans aren't as big as we thought, and it
may be sad that it's a different world - but never the less we have to
approach our safety in a different way.
That is why I'm devoting 1,000 of our police officers to intelligence
and counter terrorism, New York City has it's own police officers in
half a dozen cities around the world so we can get intelligence from
other intelligence agencies directly. We've worked very hard to make
sure that our relationships with the CIA and the FBI and other agencies,
Homeland Security in Washington, are as good as we can make them. We
have a full time police officer in Washington. We've got to make sure
that we get the information we need; we've also got to make sure that
the federal government distributes Homeland Security funds, not on the
basis of pork, but on the basis of need.
And the truth of the matter is that New York City - because it is
such a great city to live in and because it is the symbol of freedom,
because it provides people with opportunities they can't get elsewhere -
is also a target for people overseas. And that requires us to have a
level of security and awareness that costs a lot of money. The good new
is that the 9/11 commission clearly said that Homeland Security monies
should be distributed on the basis of risk, the president's budget asks
for monies to be distributed on the basis of risk and not on the per
capita basis that has been traditionally done where every state gets
some of the Homeland Security funds whether there is a great risk there
or not. And now it is up to us to make sure that Congress follows
through and that their distribution formula takes into account where the
risk is and where the threat is and where the vulnerability is.
And any of you if you want to do something for your city, do
something for New York City, just try to make sure this federal program
doesn't become a give away program. We're not asking for special
treatment, but for equality/ We're asking that where there are centers
of learning and culture and commerce, those cities on a hill, those are
the places that we've go to focus a lot of resources and as our cities
go, will go the entire country, even people who live outside of the
cities, even people in the cities that don't avail themselves of all the
services that the cities provide, have to understand that they and their
children will live in a world where the people who are getting those
services also live.
FUTURE OF CITIES
So we all have an interest in public education. We
all have an interest in helping the less fortunate who don't have a
place to live, who didn't get a good education are struggling to get a
job, and don't know anything but a life of despair. We're all in this
together, and the cities are where it all comes together. Cities are you
have to make decisions and provide the services; the cities are where an
enormous number of the people live. New York City is a place in
particular where people flock from around the world and will continue to
flock from around the world, but it's incumbent on all of us to make
sure that they are welcome and that they get equal opportunity and then
they in turn will go out and populate the rest of the country and bring
an enormous benefit to every state and every locale in this country.
Transcript of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's address at the conference "Urban
Conversations: U.S. Mayors and Innovative Leadership," at The New School University's Milano Graduate School, March 30,
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