'Murky Waters' Cloud De Blasio’s First Budget Address

Mayor de Blasio could not resist slinging some mud during his first budget address on Wednesday arguing the city faces “murky waters” created by the Bloomberg administration’s “unprecedented failure” to resolve open labor contracts with city workers.

“I think the previous administration was given an artificially high level of credit for management,” said de Blasio pointing to 152 expired municipal labor contracts left for his administration to negotiate.

Those open contracts combined with uncertainty around state and federal funding were the risk factors that de Blasio used to frame his $74 billion budget proposal, which he delivered in the City Hall Blue Room along with his new Budget Director Dean Fuleihan.

While the city is projecting balanced budgets in 2014 and in the preliminary 2015 plan, some of the murkiness de Blasio faces is of his own making: his budget plans for $530 million of revenue to pay for universal full-day pre-kindergarten from the yet-to-be-passed tax increase on city residents who make more than half a million dollars.

That tax hike must be passed by state lawmakers, who've expressed skepticism or outright opposition to the plan. And, Governor Cuomo continues to push his own statewide pre-k proposal funded through the budget, as an alternative.

De Blasio’s preliminary plan contains funding for programs that are central to his progressive agenda. There’s money for the new NYPD Inspector General who will oversee court-ordered stop and frisk reforms; paid sick leave implementation and enforcement; expanded homeless services; and the municipal ID cards the mayor called for during his State of the City address on Monday.

The Mayor also said he's ending the so-called "budget dance" with the City Council, that annual back and forth where the mayor proposes cuts, the council and advocates wage a public fight to restore them. For example, funding is included in the mayor's preliminary budget for 20 firehouses that had been the chopping block in past budgets.

De Blasio also set aside $1 billion for the Retiree Health Benefits Trust Fund, a rainy-day reserve that the Bloomberg administration was on track to drain. And, he plans to set aside $600 million for the city’s general reserve.

While that money could be used to begin contract negotiations, de Blasio would not commit to the proposal Wednesday. Many of the unions have been working on expired contracts for up to six years and all have asked for retroactive raises, which could carry a price tag of up to $7 billion.

Teacher’s union president Michael Mulgrew called the preliminary budget a “welcome departure” from the Bloomberg administration. Mulgrew also cited the mayor’s comments about negotiating contracts in “an atmosphere of partnership.” But Mulgrew also signaled there was still a long way to go.

Harry Nespoli, head of the Municipal Labor Committee was more blunt. He said the mayor’s budget “vindicates our long held position that the City is running a budgetary surplus and is financially sound.”

But he also offered caution against reading too much into those reserve funds.

“Though it is important that surplus money is being set aside the actual amount does not reflect any agreement with the City’s unions on what is necessary to resolve the more than 150 open labor contracts,” said Nespoli.