Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Keeping the Middle Class

Communities across our nation are searching for ways to deal with the worst fiscal crisis we've seen in decades. And New York City is no exception. We're facing a $4 billion budget deficit. We've lost 50,000 jobs already, and it seems like every day we learn of more layoffs in the financial sector and beyond.

You may hear many competing theories on how to improve our economy, but one thing is clear: The surest way to guarantee that our economy gets worse is by allowing our basic quality of life to deteriorate.

If we let an economic downturn erode our commitment to things like education and safe streets, we'll see the middle class begin to flee our city, just as they did in the 1970s. And when they leave, they take their tax dollars with them. But it won't just be residents -– we'll see tourism decline as well, costing our city millions in revenue and countless related jobs.

Soon we'll find ourselves having to raise taxes on those who remain, making the city less affordable and doing little to dig ourselves out of our quality of life hole. And before long, it will become a vicious cycle that gets harder and harder to escape.

Securing Our Services

That's why it's so critical that while we look for ways to tighten city spending, we keep investing in strong schools, safe streets, efficient mass transit, clean parks and public spaces. Smart planning on the part of the City Council and the Bloomberg administration, like paying down billions of dollars in future debt, has prevented us from having to make more drastic cuts so far.

The council has already fought successfully to protect things like police classes and classroom funding. We are also going to need to do without some programs that may be good but have to give way to the services that are the most essential.

But if we're going to continue to fight for these shared priorities and core services, we'll need to find additional revenue somewhere. The first step is creating a balanced tax approach, coordinated with the state to avoid piling on any one group of taxpayers. To the greatest extent possible we need to avoid taxes that are too onerous on businesses and threaten to drive commerce outside of the city.

And we need to make sure we're not squeezing middle-class New Yorkers and that we keep money in the hands of those who are most likely to spend it on necessities, fueling economic activity. At the same time, we'll ask those who have benefited most from the opportunities New York City offers to give a little back while we weather this storm. That's why I've proposed reforms to the city's income tax structure to create three new tax brackets for New Yorkers making over $300,000 a year, while easing the burden on those making the least.

Additionally, we'll look to the federal stimulus funding that's been directed to states and municipalities for exactly this purpose to help us invest in our infrastructure, create jobs and avoid laying off police officers, firefighters and teachers.

We're currently working with the state to see exactly how much of that stimulus funding will be directed down to New York City. But we're hopeful that Albany will recognize the importance of giving New Yorkers their fair share. New York City is the main economic engine for New York State, and the state government has as much stake as anyone in seeing that we continue to thrive.

Wall Street to Main Street

Now just as we're at the center of economic activity for the state, we are also at the epicenter of the fiscal crisis for the entire nation. As the home of Wall Street, New York City has felt both the rise and fall of high finance in recent decades, and we have as much of an interest as anyone in seeing Wall Street recover.

The Obama administration is working to reform the financial industry. We have great faith that it will create a regulatory system that strikes the necessary balance –- restoring stability and investor confidence in the market, without creating an environment that stifles innovation.

Wall Street will rebound, and the global economy with it. Meanwhile, we in New York City need to focus on diversifying our economy outside of finance. For too long, we've been overly dependent on Wall Street to fill our coffers and fund our growth. Now we're being forced to look around at areas we may have neglected.

New York City is home to 220,000 small businesses that account for 50 percent of all private sector employment. We need to make it easier for those businesses to stay afloat and for new ones to open. That's why I recently announced "Open for Business," a series of proposals to support the small business community that came out of the council's conversations with real business owners.

For example, we'll make it easier for new businesses to start up by streamlining the application process for city permits and waiving permitting fees for a 12-month period. We'll also better coordinate agency inspections, to keep business owners from waiting months before they can open their doors.

We'll support businesses that already exist by keeping more local dollars in our local economy. We'll work to change state contracting law, to allow us to give preference to qualified local businesses, and launch a campaign to promote hubs of retail, dining and entertainment around the five boroughs.

And finally, we'll eliminate red tape and help keep government out of the way of business growth. We'll start to evaluate the effects of new rules and regulations on small businesses –- before they get passed –- and we'll create a temporary late fee amnesty for small businesses that are drowning in unpaid fines.

Drawing in Emerging Technologies

In addition to supporting our small businesses, we need to start investing in new and growing job sectors that can further contribute to the diversity of our economy. Many of these industries already exist in New York City, and with a little help, they have the potential to grow by leaps and bounds.

For example, we're already a home to cutting edge research for the biotech industry. But when it comes time to turn that new discovery into a new drug or a new medical device, biotech companies often leave our city for other places –- places with aggressive programs to court these companies.

Thanks to the Bloomberg administration, we've already started by creating more commercial laboratory space. And recently, I proposed a City Biotech Tax Credit that will help dozens of biotech companies equip their facilities and train their staff, encouraging them to locate, and stay, right here. By becoming more competitive, we'll create nearly a thousand new high-tech and high paid jobs.

We're not going to climb out of this recession overnight. But by targeting resources to key job sectors and maintaining our commitment to a high quality of life, we can begin to rebuild. We can ensure that New York remains an international city, one whose top-tier colleges and career opportunities attract the brightest talent from around the world. And we can help our city to emerge from this economic crisis stronger than ever before.

Christine C. Quinn has been speaker of the City Council since 2006. She represents Manhattan's 3rd district and is running for re-election.

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