WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed Thursday a total city budget that exceeds $68.7 billion this year — restoring 2,500 teaching slots but cutting childcare and after-school programs and shuttering firehouses.
The mayor blamed a drop in Wall Street profits for a $352 million shortfall in revenue projections. He said Thursday that the $466 million settlement for the federal CityTime lawsuit would be applied to help make up for the decrease in tax revenue.
"The slow pace of national economic recovery and the uncertainties in the global economy have produced challenges in balancing next year's budget and presents challenges in the future we cannot ignore," Bloomberg said.
The budget relies on $300 million in federal and state aid for city schools. Bur the aid is contingent on the United Federation of Teachers reaching an agreement reaching an agreement on a teacher evaluation system by January.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew objected to how the mayor characterized the $300 million when he said the UFT “needs to agree” to a teacher evaluation system by January to receive that money.
“It’s an agreement on both parties behalf,” he said. “It’s not the UFT needs to agree, we both need to agree.”
Mulgrew said the teachers union wants an evaluation system that will help develop better teachers, and said the administration already left more than $70 million of federal aid on the table by refusing to negotiate a 33-school pilot program of the new evaluation system.
He did have high praise for the 2,500 new teaching positions that replace those lost through attrition in the past two years. But he was careful to direct his gratitude to the City Council, who he said fought to restore those positions which were cut in the mayor’s preliminary budget in February.
Childcare Takes a Hit
After school programs and childcare cuts continued to take a hit in the mayor's revised budget. If funding is not restored, nearly 50,000 slots for kids will be lost, child advocates said. The Mayor's office countered that the number of slots lost will be just above 41,500.
Soledad Hiciano, executive director of the Community Association of Progressive Dominicans, joined dozens of others on the steps of city hall following the budget address to protest the reduction.
"The majority of the people that you see up here today will not have a job come September. That also adds up," Hiciano said.
The City Council could still save some of these programs but advocates say restorations are rarely 100 percent. In 2009, advocates say there were more than 137,000 childcare and after school slots in the city. This year, the number is just over 94,000.
Firehouses in the Cross-Hairs
The budget also calls for the closure of 20 firehouses that were identified last year but saved from the chopping block by a budget deal.
“If we have 20 less fire companies, response times will increase around the city and operations will be effected throughout the city,” Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano told reporters. But he insisted the cuts could be made in a way to minimize the impacts
Cassano said the biggest budget hurdle for his agency’s overtime.
Due to a protracted court battle over the FDNY’s hiring practices, the department has not hired a new firefighter since 2008. As a result, the Department is down 475 firefighters and spending $41 million in overtime annually.
Bloomberg said that fire deaths are at the lowest they’ve been since the city started keeping track in 1916. But Steve Cassidy, head of the United Firefighters Union, said the city’s firefighters are busier than ever responding to fire and medical emergencies.
“I believe real public safety is not a luxury,” said Cassidy, “it’s a necessity.”
In a statement, Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the Council will work in the coming weeks to achieve a budget, “that protects the most vulnerable, ensures public safety, and provides all of our citizens with the kind of City in which they can flourish.”
City Council Finance Chairman Domenic Recchia, who is opposed to the firehouse closures, vowed to push for the release of a report on the city’s 911 call system redesign that the fire unions believe will show higher fire response times than the administration has previously circulated.
A Plan That Hinges on Unknowns
The budget also hinged on the sale of $1 billion in new taxi medallions, an endeavor complicated by city comptroller John Liu’s vow to block the contract for the so-called Taxi of Tomorrow and two pending lawsuits.
"If we don't get the $1 billion, we're going to have to cut services dramatically," Bloomberg said.
The mayor painted the picture of the city’s economy as more reliant than the nation’s, and said it has regained 180 percent of private sector jobs lost during the recession. The nation has only reclaimed 40 percent.
Disappointing financial sector tax revenues were offset by robust numbers from the city's tourism, film-TV production, tech and higher education sectors.
Cindy Rodriguez contributed reporting