Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Innovative Leadership

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 different languages.

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 to.

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.


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 of potholes.

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 revenues.

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 a difference.


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.


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, 2005 

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