Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
Year in and year out, New York City’s budget process works something like this: the mayor says the city has a deficit that runs in the billions of dollars; he uses the deficit as impetus to shed fire houses, reduce library hours, shrink subsidized day care centers and more; the city holds hearings and people protest; eventually — through negotiations with the mayor — the city council restores a significant portion of what the mayor proposed taking out.
The beginning of this spring ritual was on display at the release of Bloomberg’s executive budget earlier this month. “You have to wait and see what we do,” Bloomberg answered when asked about the loss of roughly 15,000 child care slots. “Like I told you, we will come to an agreement collaboratively with the city council on or before June 30th.”
Moments after his address, a group of protesters from upper Manhattan were on the steps of City Hall, decrying the loss of after school programs expected to effect 31,000 children, more than half of all those who use the programs.
Councilman Robert Jackson of Northern Manhattan told protesters this was start of the so-called budget dance.
“I’m ready to dance around the room and dance around city hall,” Jackson said. “As long as the services we need in Northern Manhattan and the city of New York are met.”
(Photo: Protesters denounce cuts to after school programs on steps of City Hall after Mayor Bloomberg's executive budget is announced. This will be a common scene until a budget is agree on. Cindy Rodriguez/WNYC)
Waiting for the Dance to End
But until there is a resolution, the cuts move forward, which means programs and services losing funding prepare to shut down, leaving clients stressed and scrambling.
At the O. Henry Learning Center in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, single mother Nisha Tarrant is exasperated. Like the employees of the Hudson Guild Beacon After-School Program which her 10-year-old daughter attends, she’s been told to prepare for the program to close. “My only option will be that my daughter walk to my job and sit down at my job. That would be my only option.”
Hudson Guild Director Ken Jockers said his program is one of several facing the same instability. “There’s no way to have this be anything but anxiety provoking for everybody involved,” Jockers said.
Spring’s Annual Budget Cut Offerings
The budget deadline is June 30. Until then no one really knows what cuts are all bluster and what cuts are real.
Part of the difficulty stems from the fact that each year some of the same cuts appear on the chopping block. Meals on Wheels for seniors, public libraries and child care subsidies are regulars at this political dance, getting traded and twirled about.
Teachers are also often threatened with layoffs. In 2011, Bloomberg proposed getting rid of 4,600 teachers but it never happened.
Fire houses have recently been regularly offered as possible sacrifice to the budget ritual. Doug Turetsky of the city’s Independent Budget Office said fire companies became a regular target in 2009. At first, he recalled, the mayor started small with a proposal to close five fire companies in the evening only. The next year, Bloomberg proposed closing 17 completely and, in 2011, he upped the number to 20 fire companies.
“The council restored that in negotiations with the mayor. [In] 2012, the same 20 were proposed for closing, the same restoration. And now, 2013, there’s a proposal out there for those same 20 fire companies to close again,” Turetsky said.
Most of the time, the city council only restores funding for a year — so programs and services only get a temporary reprieve — which is why some of the same cuts appear year after year. Budget experts add it’s rare for the mayor and city council to make permanent funding restorations.
Saving Programs, But Only Partially
Public relations expert George Arzt said this process, which produces anxiety for many, is actually beneficial to City Council members who are able to take credit for saving services and programs in their neighborhoods.
“You become a hero,” Arzt said. “For the moment. Until you screw up the next time.”
So, if cuts are ultimately going to be restored are all the rallies and protests really necessary? Arzt said it is crucial. Groups have to apply pressure or risk being ignored.
Still, even the most vocal and organized groups aren’t always completely successful.
As Stephanie Gendell, with the Citizens Committee For Children, explains it, the process is more like erosion. She noted there are 31 percent fewer child care and after school slots in the city now compared to 2009.
“It never restores us fully,” Gendell said. “It just restores part of the cut and so you continue to get it chipped away at and so it's not really just a budget dance. It's a budget dance where we lose ground every year.”