Gotham Gazette

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Another Term Awaits

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The two term mayor, clad in his standard dark suit and red tie, and the affable turned go get 'em comptroller stood side by side last week beneath a fresco in the El Museo del Barrio's theater.

They were there for the first of two general election debates -- an hour-long glimpse for thousands of New Yorkers into a campaign that has been full speed ahead for months.

They covered term limits ("In the end, on Nov. 3 what really matters is a vote between two candidates," reasoned Mayor Michael Bloomberg). And they went over Comptroller Bill Thompson's alleged pay to play campaign contributions ("Mike," Thompson warned, "you know better than that.")

Politics was starring. Public policy was cast as this show's understudy.

Little discussion has centered on what these two candidates are pledging to do in the next four years. The Bloomberg campaign has put out 11 proposals -- an agenda that covers identify theft and tracking shoeprints to solve crimes. Thompson has released a few (far fewer) of his own -- proposing a moratorium on rezoning manufacturing areas, for one.

Fast-forward to January. What kind of agenda would our mayor implement to get New York City through a Grand Canyon-like recession, a damaged housing market and confront a climbing homeless population?

That all depends on whom you ask.

For a breakdown of where these candidates stand on the city's most important issues, see our chart here.

The Economy

A few days after the first mayoral debate, Thompson appeared in front of another crowd -- a far less friendly one.

Standing on stage at a Crain's breakfast at the Grand Hyatt, Thompson went over what he would do to close the city's looming $5 billion budget gap. He would conduct "a top to bottom review" of unnecessary spending, look at the Department of Education's contracts, take aim at capital spending by the Department of Environmental Protection and look to Washington for additional revenues.

"Looking at the city of New York and looking at all of our agencies and creating greater savings there, eliminating what doesn't work, I think those things start to close the budget gap," said Thompson to muted applause.

Thompson, who as comptroller is responsible for auditing all of the city's agencies, declined to go into greater detail. He said the city should start by eliminating waste and then turn to layoffs or buyouts.

He did say the mayor's sales tax increase earlier this year was a mistake. Instead, the comptroller wants to increase taxes on those that make more than $500,000 annually by .6 percent and by 1 percent for those bringing in more than $1 million. A similar proposal was approved by the state legislature earlier this year, and some advocates say an increase by the city would be overkill.

"Raising taxes is counter productive and counter stimulative," said Carol Kellermann, president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a conservative fiscal watchdog. "It's not a panacea. Other things are going to have to be done. You can't deal with this by raising taxes."

Like Bloomberg, Thompson has been trying to court small businesses by pledging to coordinate the city's inspection process (a proposal that was first floated by Council Speaker Christine Quinn) and make health insurance more accessible to the smaller employer (He cites projects like Brooklyn HealthWorks -- an affordable health insurance plan for small businesses -- which also has been praised by the Bloomberg administration). He wants to create a database of available commercial space less than 5,000 square feet, restrict chain stores in certain neighborhoods and offer a tax credit for businesses under the S Corporation tax -- a form of double taxation for small corporate shareholders.

Thompson has also said he would deny public subsidies to developments that do not pay their workers a living wage, and wants to invigorate the city's manufacturing industry by placing a moratorium on new rezonings there. Bloomberg has not signed onto a similar pledge.

The mayor has, however, committed to pursue a fifth pension tier reducing benefits for new employees -- a proposal Thompson has refused to support.

"It's great to support manufacturing," said the Manhattan Institute's Nicole Gelinas of Thompson's plan. But, she added, "If you're maintaining unsustainable public sector benefits, it doesn’t really matter what kind of business it is."

Under the Bloomberg administration both spending and pension costs have skyrocketed. In 2002, the city's budget was $41 billion and its pension contributions were less than $2 billion. Now the budget is flirting with $60 billion, and pension costs have more than tripled. Absent from the mayor's re-election campaign (and from Thompson's) is what he would do to control these day-to-day costs.

"Where is it going to come from?" asked Kellermann. "The mayor isn’t saying either. He's saying what not to do. That means you have to do some cuts."

Bloomberg has pledged to not raise taxes in the next year. He made a similar pledge in his 2001 election campaign, but later raised property taxes.

The centerpiece of the mayor's economic proposal is his "Five Borough Economic Opportunity Plan" -- a pledge to create or preserve 400,000 jobs. That plan compiles many of the proposals the Bloomberg administration has adopted throughout his second term -- touting job creation projections from rezonings in Harlem to Willets Point and from the city's capital projects.

Just last week the mayor's office announced it had placed New Yorkers in 6,802 jobs in the third quarter of 2009. They say they have secured 17,000 jobs in 2008.

Some advocates have questioned these calculations.

"Are you going to count Yankee stadium, if they were just moved across the street?" asked Bettina Damiani, project director at Good Jobs New York, an arm of the Fiscal Policy Institute. "The city's calculation of jobs gives me pause for concern."

As part of his recession-proof plan, Bloomberg has said he would work to diversify the economy, boost industries like biotechnology, film and tourism. Thompson too has signed onto this proposal.

Mayoral Control

For the most part, educators and experts say the city's Department of Education is in better shape than the city's fragmented former Board of Education.

Nonetheless, Thompson has made it part of his campaign to attack the mayor's school governance policies and commit to getting more oversight and parental involvement. In March, the comptroller released a proposal that would have replaced the Panel for Educational Policy with a nine-member school board. It also called for an independent body to audit test scores and graduation rates and ensure the department's contracts are fair and awarded competitively. As part of the renewal of mayoral control by the state legislature this summer, the comptroller and the Independent Budget Office won auditing and oversight power.

Since then, Thompson, who served as the president of the Board of Education from 1996 to 2001, has said as mayor he will promise to curtail no-bid contracts at the department, root out waste and stop teaching to the test -- which he compares to the George Bush era No Child Left Behind Act. Echoing education advocates, Thompson too has called for more parental involvement.

His first task as mayor, though, he has said would be to fire Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

On the campaign trail, the mayor has defended his oversight of the school system, consolidating his control in one simple statement: "If you believe that the school system was better when Bill Thompson ran it, you should vote for him."

Throughout his tenure, Bloomberg has touted higher graduation rates, reduction in school crime and better state test scores. Just last week, Klein appeared before the city's business leaders to present data showing the city's scores are improving more rapidly than elsewhere in the state.

In a third term, the mayor wants to double the number of charter schools, which would mean nearly 10 percent of all students would attend one. He has also pledged to get an additional 120,000 New Yorkers to graduate from our community colleges in the next decade.

Advocates and Thompson have long questioned the accuracy of the schools' performance. For the most part, though, they do not deny there has been improvement in city schools under Bloomberg.

"What Bloomberg and Klein have done pretty successfully, they have increased public confidence in the school system," said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University. "It's not a good idea for someone to run for mayor to undermine that and try to tear it down."

As for who's winning on education, Noguera said, "The edge goes to Bloomberg right now."

Housing and Development

In the past eight years, luxury condominiums have sprouted along the East River and the number of affordable apartments has declined by about 200,000.

Bloomberg defends his revision of the city skyline and streetscape, saying more than 100 rezonings have protected the current character of communities. The luxury high-rise development, he added, creates jobs and needed housing.

"Those rezonings give us a future," Bloomberg said at the first mayoral debate.

Thompson says they have made the city "uglier," crediting Bloomberg's development agenda -- and the towering condominium buildings that go with it -- with making New York more unaffordable and pushing out the middle class. As mayor, Thompson said he would review all of the city's rezonings, starting with Hudson Yards.

Throughout his tenure at City Hall, Bloomberg has touted his New Housing Marketplace Plan -- a commitment to create or preserve 165,000 affordable apartments. The administration says it is more than halfway there.

Thompson's housing agenda has been mostly sans specifics, except for his commitment to lobby the state legislature to repeal the Urstadt law, which would give the city home rule over rent control, and vacancy decontrol.

Bloomberg has not signed on to either of these proposals.

For their part, some housing advocates are in Thompson's corner for now, even if his plan to create affordable housing is short of details.

"His approach toward housing would be dramatically better than Bloomberg," said Mario Mazzoni, the Metropolitan Council on Housing's lead organizer. "Bloomberg doesn’t consider there to be a problem."

Health and Environment

Eight years ago you could light up in a bar and devour 2,000 calories in one sitting without guilt.

None of Bloomberg's policies have caught the nation's eye more than his pursuit of making New Yorkers and the environment around them more healthy. He banned trans fats and posted calories counts, cut out smoking and attempted (albeit unsuccessfully) to make every taxi a hybrid. He failed at getting congestion pricing in Albany approved, but he has started rolling out scores of the other 127 initiatives in PlaNYC 2030 -- his environmental agenda released on Earth Day 2007.

Bloomberg has spearheaded initiatives to get fresh fruits and vegetables in local bodegas and overseen the city's new solid waste plan, which moves the city's garbage around on barges and trains instead of noxious diesel trucks.

And in a third term, the mayor will attempt to ban smoking in public parks.

"The role of government is to lengthen and improve peoples' lives," said Bloomberg. "Nobody makes you not buy the Big Mac... at least people have that information."

Thompson, on the other hand, has not put out any proposals on the environment or health issues. In debates, the comptroller has said his administration would focus on health disparities and try to make preventative medicine more accessible.

Social Services

Bloomberg has probably seen the most criticism on his management of the city's social services, especially its homeless population.

After committing to reducing the homeless population by two-thirds in five years, the city is now seeing the largest homeless population in modern history. The year Bloomberg took office approximately 80,000 individual New Yorkers were shuttled into and out of shelters annually. Now that number is 120,000, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

"Simply put, under Mayor Bloomberg more New Yorkers have been homeless than under any mayor," said Patrick Markee, the senior policy analyst for the coalition. "There is no question that his policies have failed."

Despite these numbers, the mayor has not admitted defeat. At last week's debate, Bloomberg said, "Today nobody sleeps on benches. Today we don't bus kids around in the middle of the night... We've made the system better."

Under Bloomberg, the city has given homeless individuals one-way plane tickets to reunite with their families, and it has implemented harsher regulations at shelters, like curfew restrictions, which make it easier to evict homeless families. A staple of the Bloomberg policy was to no longer give homeless persons priority for emergency housing vouchers.

Once again, Thompson said he would give homeless individuals priority for Section 8 vouchers. He has said the city should focus on preventative measures and could use emergency vouchers to keep people in their homes.

As part of his campaign, Thompson has also said he would like to expand the number of senior centers and start to use these facilities for other programs, like for after school activities. The comptroller was a staunch opponent of the mayor's proposal to restructure the Department for the Aging, which would have consolidated the number of senior centers and Meals on Wheels programs. That proposal was eventually withdrawn.

While it did bring the ire of aging advocates, advocates say the administration is now more open to hearing their concerns and working with them.

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