Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

The Last Dance?

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced in the movies. Jerry Rice and Tatum O’Neil are dancing with the stars. But this year the New York City Council is trying to end the dance at City Hall.

Every year, the mayor and the City Council engage in a budget dance, a five-month battle. The mayor cuts programs in exactly the same way he had cut them at the beginning of budget negotiations the year before, and then the council restores those cuts in the same way that it had the year before. This maneuvering often arises from a lack of dialogue between the mayor and the council -- and contributes to it as well.

But it is not the best use of time or a particularly sound way to make budget policy. And so the Finance Committee, which I chair, is attempting to insure that funding for certain programs not be cut -- that the current year’s allocation serve as a “baseline” or “benchmark” for spending on those programs in the future. In other words, the funding for these programs could go up --- but not down. The hope is that this baseline will protect key programs and allow the council and the administration to avoid budget dances in the future.

This year’s preliminary budget contains over $320 million in hidden cuts to programs that were restored by the council last year. The slashing includes a cut of over $40 million from the city’s library systems, meaning library hours will again face possible reductions. Over $20 million has been cut from senior citizen programs, including $8 million from the home delivered meal program. There is a cut of over $20 million from the city’s cultural institutions, meaning programs, such as ballet, art, and theaters around the city will face reductions in funding. Finally, a cut of almost $26 million is slated for city education programs that provide worker education, computer training, and leadership education for our city’s youth. These are just some of the allocations that the council will attempt to ‘’baseline’’ this year in an effort to avoid the same fight, for the same allocations, for the same programs next year.

One cut in the preliminary budget that the council will especially focus on restoring is the reduction in funding for school capital projects. Similarly, last year the mayor’s preliminary budget contains no allocations toward financing the hole left by the lack of the funding called for in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. The governor in his state preliminary budget has again failed to allocate the funding mandated by court orders, and once again the city’s school children are left in overcrowded classrooms and without the tools necessary to learn.

The governor’s and, consequently, the mayor’s inadequate funding of our public school system has left the system $1.8 billion short of the funding needed to finish capital projects for fiscal 2006 (that’s this current fiscal year), and $1.7 billion short of the funding needed to complete school capital projects in fiscal 2007. The fiscal 2006 cut includes $849 million for new construction, which translates to 23 schools and 15,381 seats that will not be built. It also represents a loss of $238 million for repairs and $365 million for educational enhancements such as libraries, technology, and science labs. As a result, these projects will have to be pushed to fiscal 2007, 2008, 2009, or beyond.

When the mayor threatened to cut over $1 billion from last year’s education capital budget, the City Council refused to pass any budget that did not contain a full restoration of this money. As things stand now, the council and the mayor will dance the same dance again this year. At this point, the Finance Committee and speaker can follow one of two options: either force the administration to put back the full $3.5 billion, or accept the cuts. Since the latter option will leave 1.1 million New York City school children at an educational disadvantage, the council simply cannot accept it. Even though we are tired from dancing and our feet are getting sore, we will again kick off our shoes and fight a battle for the restoration of billions of dollars in capital funding for education.

Finally, the mayor announced $2 billion in surplus funds that will be allocated toward paying for the health benefits of retired city employees, a plan for addressing a financial cost that the city must face. This idea has some merit. Before committing to the proposal, however, the council will need to look into specifically where the funds are derived from to ensure that this does not disadvantage other programs.

As a team, the council Finance Committee and speaker will work to improve the fiscal process. Our long-term goal will be to modify the budget dance by working together to understand which programs and services need funding and then negotiating to baseline that funding. So while we can tap like Gregory Hines or shuffle like Dick Van Dyke, capture the imagination like Chita Rivera or spin like Baryshnikov, we hope that the mayor saved the last dance for last year’s council and last year’s budget. We hope that instituting budget baselines this year will allow the council and the mayor to sit the next one out and pass a responsible budget with ease.

Councilmember David I. Weprin is chair of the City Council Finance Committee and represents the 23rd District in Queens.

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