Gotham Gazette

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Bloomberg Delivers Muted State of the City

Photo Edward Reed

With far less fanfare and before a much smaller crowd than in years past, Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered his ninth State of the City address yesterday, promising to streamline the city's application process for restaurants and give struggling residents a chance to stay in their homes.

Set to the theme of "Recovery Ahead and the Strategy Behind It," Bloomberg laid out a plan for the first year of his third term in office, which he hopes will propel struggling New Yorkers out of the depths of the worst recession to hit the city since the 1930s. "Regular" New Yorkers, from small business owners to a former unemployed woman who recently found a job, sat alongside the mayor as he delivered his approximately 45 minute address. Each of the groups symbolized a certain part of his third term agenda.

"So let me make this commitment to you as we begin this new term: We will continue demanding and achieving progress in every area -- every single day," said the mayor, who entered and exited the Queens auditorium to a Spanish language version of "New York, New York." "We will continue going full tilt -- full time. And even as we face difficult budget choices, which will require painful cuts, we will continue insisting that government remain on the side of every hard-working New Yorker."

That agenda includes focusing on crime prevention programs targeting primarily black and Latino young men. It means testing a trial program to text message parents if their children are absent from school -- a proposal meant to tackle truancy -- and includes a pilot proposal to put GPS systems on school buses. And, Bloomberg said, the city will save cash by consolidating office space, departments and staff.

The address was a far cry from the mayor's speech a year earlier, which was punctuated with marching bands and a made-for-the-day documentary by Ric Burns. This year the mayor addressed a crowd of only 817 (in 2009 it was nearly 2,300) and the event's only celebrity sighting was a muted, brief introduction from Tony Bennett, who with his wife founded the Frank Sinatra School for the Arts in Astoria, which hosted the event.

Some attendees found the mayor's proposals as muted as the event. His goals, they said, seemed lackluster compared to those in his previous addresses.

"When you look at the big picture and what this city is facing, the employment issue, the financial crisis, the fact that people are really struggling in this city, and it calls for PlaNYC 2030 2.0," said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. "He didn't get to 2.0. We're still at 1.0, mayor 101."

Tackling the Financial Crisis

But it may come as no surprise to some that Bloomberg did not reveal any monumental policy shift or costly proposal.

Coming off of an unimpressive electoral victory, the mayor used the address to ensure the city could tackle the tough times ahead. The city faces an approximately $4 billion budget deficit this year. This week, Gov. David Paterson handed down his own budget proposal, which could slice away municipal aid for the city and its school system.

None of the mayor's proposals yesterday, at first glance, would cost taxpayer dollars, according to Comptroller John Liu.

Echoing the linchpin of his re-election campaign (helping New Yorkers through tough times), Bloomberg said Wednesday the city would use $10 million to set up a fund to provide loans to 1,000 struggling property owners, giving them a chance to save their homes from foreclosure. The loans, Bloomberg said, could help residents qualify for mortgage adjustments from their banks. Half the fund will be financed privately and the other half will come from the Battery Park City Authority.

The mayor also said the city would set up a public-private loan pool that struggling New Yorkers could use as long as they agreed to certain financial principles. The effort aims to give some New Yorkers a "fresh start." He said he would also set aside $750 million in the capital budget for a rescue fund for distressed apartment buildings.

To help small businesses, particularly restaurants, the city will streamline the application process so a new café in Astoria -- or elsewhere in the five boroughs -- will not have to go from the Department of Environmental Protection to buildings to the health department and on and on. The process will help restaurants, 4,000 of which open every year, begin serving meals 30 days sooner, according to Bloomberg.

Some attendees lauded the proposals.

"I know with the support of the mayor we're going to help businesses get open and stay open and put New Yorkers to work," said Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who had first suggested the restaurant application process last year.

While other officials praised some of the mayor's proposals, they also were skeptical.

"I hope that he's serious when he talks about helping small businesses survive and thrive in this city," said Liu. "For the past few years things have been made extraordinarily difficult for small business. I hope today marks a change in tone and a change in policy."

To help close the budget gap, the mayor also proposed consolidating offices, culling the city's car garages and repair shops as well as maintenance staff. Bloomberg hopes to reduce the city's office space by 10 percent in four years, which could save the city $36 million in lease expenses and $4 million in energy costs annually.

Already some in the outer boroughs are hesitant of the plan.

"There is a lot we need to do to stimulate the economy, pushing projects forward and creating new projects, and I didn't hear any of that," said Councilmember Leroy Comrie of Jamaica. "I am concerned… that everything is all of a sudden made Manhattan centric."

Beyond Finance

As part of his focus on juvenile justice issues, the mayor said the city would consolidate the Administration for Children's Services and the Department of Juvenile Justice. The merger, Bloomberg said, would put the city's youth detention and support service all under one roof.

Just hours after the address, the mayor's office announced the longtime head of the Department of Juvenile Justice, Neil Hernandez, had resigned. A spokesman for the department would not comment on whether the resignation was related to the consolidation of the departments, pointing only to the press release announcing Hernandez's departure.

Despite the muted style of the mayor's address, the event was not without humor. A brief reference by the mayor to the Jets victory on Sunday and their path to the championship prompted a rush of several teenagers on stage in head to toe Jets apparel. They immediately led the crowd in a "J - E - T -S" chant.

But of course, the light parts of the day never stick.

"I was with him on the Jets," said Councilmember Lewis Fidler. "I heard a lot of good stuff about at risk youth, but the devil is always in the details."

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