Michael Bloomberg came to Albany on Monday asking for money, and painting a grim picture of what New York City would look like if he didn’t get it.
One third of all senior centers, shuttered; thousands of public school teachers, laid off. city government, inefficiently down-sized.
While asking for money to keep New York City’s government operating this year, Bloomberg is lobbying for a series of technical changes in state law that he said could prevent the city from facing future cash problems of its own. Among them are changes to city pensions, teacher seniority rules, and canceling $12,000 annual supplemental pay for uniformed retirees.
The mayor — who traveled to Albany with a cadre of aides — said he was there to “explain to Albany how they can help us reduce our costs elsewhere, without costing the state one dime.”
Like Governor Cuomo —a fiscally conservative Democratic governor — Bloomberg is using the state’s fiscal problems to push through structural changes he said will help lawmakers avoid future cash crunches.
The mayor wants the state to change a law that requires teacher layoffs to be done based on seniority, rather than merit. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose support is crucial for any legislative action in the capitol, said he was open to finding some “objective” criteria, other than seniority, to decide which teachers are laid off.
But another element of Bloomberg’s legislative push — the elimination of $12,000 supplemental pay for retired cops and firemen (sent on top of their pensions) — hit a speed bump.
During his testimony to the joint Finance Committee, Bloomberg was asked if he needed a “home rule” message — a formal vote of lawmakers — from the New York City Council before asking state lawmakers to consider canceling those payments.
“I don’t know if it’s necessary” Bloomberg told the committee. “I can tell you this. Unless you tell us you’ll do it, I’m not going to fight that battle. I was asked by the legislature, with congestion pricing, to come up with a home rule message. We did,” and, Bloomberg said those City Council members who took a vote on the controversial bill were left “twisting in the wind” because state lawmakers never followed up with a vote on the same legislation.
“I’m not going to let that happen again,” said Bloomberg.
Later, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Democrat and ally of Bloomberg, told the committee that a home rule message was “likely” needed in order to cancel those $12,000 payments. Afterwards, Quinn told WNYC the issue was still being researched by her staff.
The mayor told reporters eliminating the $12,000 payments could save the city enough money to prevent thousands of teachers from being laid off. And that equation, he said, would be powerful argument in the City Council, if the issue needed a vote there.
“I think the City Council is going to have to sit there and say, '10,000 teachers or a home rule message.' That seems to me something that'll carry pretty quickly,” Bloomberg said, “but I don't even think it's needed."
After testifying in front of a joint Assembly-Senate budget committee, Bloomberg told reporters “We are going to get less money, New York City is, from New York State. I'm not happy about it. But that's the real world. That's the only way the state is going to get its budget under control.”
“If they don’t give us an alternative on how we can reduce the effect of the cut, not the cut…it’s going to be virtually all in personnel,” the mayor said. “And senior homes is personnel because the expenses is not the rent of the buildings. It’s the people that work there.”
He also said, “Make no mistake. Those will close. We don’t have the money.”
But, Bloomberg said, there are restorations to Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget that legislators need to make.
“We're not up here like you'd think we'd be, asking the state 'Don't cut, give us the money.' We're asking for it to be equitable, which I don't think it is."
Those restorations include $300 million in aid to municipalities, which was zeroed out last year and is proposed to be zeroed out in Cuomo’s budget. Also, Bloomberg said there is $650 million that Governor Cuomo’s predecessor, David Paterson, “promised” to send to New York City. Bloomberg says Cuomo has an “obligation” to honor that commitment.
“I think every administration has an obligation to honor previous administrations commitments, because otherwise, nobody could make long-term commitments,” Bloomberg said.
His comments on that subject came minutes after Cuomo’s budget director sent out a statement disputing Bloomberg’s calculation about how much of a cut in funding New York City is slated to get from the state.
“The Mayor's budget assumed a double-digit percentage increase in education aid,” which Megna said “was obviously not realistic.”
Megna — who was also Paterson’s budget director — said, “Governor Cuomo's budget does not cut $1.4 billion in education aid to New York City. Rather, on a year to year basis, education aid to New York City is cut $579 million.”
When asked about the discrepancy with Megna’s figure, Bloomberg said the city was banking on $650 million that Paterson promised. Then, Governor Cuomo’s “budget cuts us $650 million from where we were before. You add those two numbers together…you get $1.3, $1.4 billion.”
Megna’s push-back against Bloomberg’s calculation was a reminder how, sometimes, Albany can be an inhospitable place for the mayor.
His well-orchestrated push to enact congestion pricing in Manhattan died — without a vote — in the Assembly, which is led by a Democrat from Manhattan, Sheldon Silver. The mayor has angered Democrats in the State Senate by funding their Republican counterparts — who support Bloomberg’s resistance on taxes, but have dragged their feet on other portions of his agenda, including congestion pricing and non-partisan redistricting.
For his part, Bloomberg said the reception he got was positive. When asked about a closed-door meeting with Democrats in the State Senate, Bloomberg told reporters, “There was no argument whatsoever” and “I walked around, shook hands with everyone, and everyone seemed please to see me there.”