Mayor Michael Bloomberg wistfully touted his achievements as he outlined his final, $70 billion budget proposal on Tuesday, and he warned that whoever follows him will likely face the same difficult budget constraints that he has.
He sketched the outlines of the way he wants to be remembered, listing consistent investments in education, infrastructure spending, and fiscal policies that built ongoing savings into the budget.
“Our school system is better than ever. Ask the president or Arne Duncan, or the parents who vote with their feet and want to send their kids,” Bloomberg said in front of the power point slides laying out his $70 billion proposed budget. “We’re a more desirable place to live, record population. More desirable place to visit, record tourism.”
But, he said, continually increasing pension costs and covering those expanded education costs have captured those budget savings.
“All of the savings have been eaten up,” he said. “It is a constant challenge, and why it’s fair to say next year, whoever succeeds us is going to have a similar kind of problem to go and keeping doing more than less.”
But several of his would-be successors immediately criticized the mayor, not so much for his budget—which does not contain tax hikes, big borrowing, or massive service cuts—but for the $250 million hole left by the mayor's failure to reach a deal with teachers on evaluations.
“I’m simply not going to stand by and allow us to lay off teachers or have attrition rates that are unusually high because that will mean less teachers in the classroom which will mean overcrowding, even worse, which would mean less good education for children,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a leading Democratic candidate for mayor. “We’re not going to go there because we don’t have to go there. We’re not going to go there because the council under my leadership has never gone there and it’s not going to start now.” Unlike her Democratic rivals, current and former city comptrollers, John Liu and Bill Thompson, and the public advocate, Bill De Blasio, who had even sharper words for the mayor, Quinn is a direct player in budget negotiations.
For his part, the mayor accused the state of walking away from the city on education funding, and he called other teacher evaluation deals a sham. They city's failure to reach a deal with the teacher's union cost the city $250 million dollars in state aid, which the mayor cut from his budget by assuming staff attrition, fewer substitutes, and cuts to art and music programs.
Even as striking school bus workers picketed outside City Hall and the city teachers continued blaming him for the lost state aid, Bloomberg described labor relations as honest, yet pragmatic.
“I think the unions understand that what I’ve been trying to do is protect workers to at least have jobs.” Bloomberg said, “Our labor force would like to have raises, most people would like to have raises. The bottom line is it’s a struggle.”
The primary complaint about the mayor’s budget proposal, though, is that so many of those future labor costs remain unresolved.
“I think it leaves the next mayor with a problem,” said Ronnie Lowenstein, director of the city’s Independent Budget Office. “Right now the budget gaps that we're looking at are quite modest, but they don't take into account the fact that virtually all of the city's unions are negotiating without contracts.”
Teachers, firefighters, police and other civil service workers are all working on expired contracts. A December IBO report found that the city could face a liability of more than $5 billion if those contracts include backpay once they’re settled, because the city has spent down its reserves for labor costs.
“Now, this mayor doesn’t plan on doing retroactive pay increases,” Lowenstein said. “But that’s not to say that his successor may not have a different viewpoint on it, particularly if his successor is seeking union support for a mayoral run.”
And many of those candidates piled on to the mayor’s proposal, criticizing his tone with unions and his failure to resolve those contracts. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu, and former Comptroller Bill Thompson all criticized the mayor’s tone with labor, as well as his failure to reach these deals.
Bloomberg's position does have the backing of the Citizens Budget Commission, a business-backed budget watchdog, who maintains that retroactive pay is not warranted or wise.
“The bargaining period that we’re discussions is really that which encompasses the recession,” said Maria Doulis, Citizens Budget Commission's Director of City Research. Still, she said the farther away the worst of the recession gets, the more difficult it will be to negotiate based on that crisis. “The longer the contracts stay expired, the longer it’s harder to connect to that reality."