The Chief
January 16, 2004

No Plan for Raises

Union Blind Spot In City’s Rosier View

By Deidre McFadyen

The municipal unions last week were relieved to find themselves out of Mayor Bloomberg’s gunsights in his “State of the City” address. But to their dismay, they were so far out of the frame that even as he announced that the city’s improving economic fortunes made it possible for him to give $400 rebate checks to homeowners, he did not acknowledge the need of city employees for an overdue wage hike.

While union leaders refrained from criticizing the Mayor’s largesse, which will benefit many of their members, they expressed disappointment that he failed to mention the stalled contract talks that have left almost all of the city’s 250,000 workers working without contracts.

‘Why Not a Wage Deal?’

“Certainly I’m happy about the rebate for homeowners, but let’s turn around now,” said Harry Nespoli, president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association. “If the Mayor feels that he can rebate the real-estate tax, I’m sure he should be ready to work out a contract for my people.”

Laying out his policy agenda for the coming year in a 52-minute speech, Mr. Bloomberg Jan. 8 said he would authorize a new Police Academy class this month—six months ahead of schedule—and end social promotion for third graders in public school.

In a departure from his usual monotone delivery and business-manager demeanor, Mr. Bloomberg talked back to his critics.

“The naysayers, the ‘doom and gloom’ crowd, those who have attempted to gain personal publicity or political advantage by trumpeting bad omens and embracing negative thinking have been proved wrong once again,” he told 800 invited guests including fellow politicians, union officials, policy advocates and business leaders at Silvercup Studios in Queens.

While warning that the cash-strapped city is not “out of the woods,” Mr. Bloomberg, who will release his preliminary budget on Jan. 15, marshaled an array of statistics to make the case that the city’s economy was on the rebound.

In a clear bid to revive his lagging poll numbers in the outer boroughs at the mid-way point in his four-year term, he offered to return to homeowners a portion of the proceeds of an 18.5-percent property tax increase that he instituted in late 2002 to help close a $6 billion budget gap.

The one-time rebate to 600,000 owners of co-ops, condominiums and family homes, which needs the approval of the City Council and the State Legislature, would cost $250 million, while the city still faces a $2 billion deficit in the coming year. Owners of commercial real estate and apartment buildings will not receive rebates.

“We’re close enough to the edge of the forest that we can begin to reduce the tax burden on the New Yorkers who have sacrificed the most,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

Unions Ready Tax Plan

Saying that a one-time tax rebate was not sufficient, United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who chairs the Municipal Labor Committee, revealed that the municipal unions were working on a proposal for a fairer tax structure.

“Now that the Mayor has proclaimed that the city’s economic recovery is under way, we should reduce reliance on the property tax, spread that burden more appropriately across the city’s economy, and generate new funds for services, including raises for the city workers who helped keep the city functioning during the downturn,” she said.

District Council 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts noted that her 125,000 members contributed to the improvements in city services that Mr. Bloomberg touted in his speech—quicker pothole repair, cleaner parks, top-quality public hospitals and clinics, and the new 311 city-wide information hotline.

‘Show Some Gratitude’

“It would be good if the Mayor would show his gratitude to the city’s work force—not in words, but by negotiating a fair contract now,” Ms. Roberts said.

New York City AFL-CIO Central Labor Council President Brian McLaughlin, a Queens Assemblyman who is said to be considering a mayoral bid in 2005, chided the Mayor for ignoring the wage talks.

“We must call a foul on Mayor Bloomberg today for continuing to not deal with the critical need for long-overdue raises for our 250,000 municipal work force members,” he said.

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch seized on the brighter economic picture to press his union’s demand for higher wages.

“The Mayor is fond of saying that he wishes he could pay New York City’s police officers more,” he said. “Now that the economy is turning around evidenced by a well-deserved real estate rebate, we’ll see if he is sincere in that statement,” Mr. Lynch said.

Mr. Bloomberg noted proudly that crime continued to decline last year, even with the economic downturn. Saying that “we dare not become complacent,” he announced that a new class of 730 police recruits—half the size of the class that just graduated on Dec. 30—would enter the Police Academy ahead of schedule.

‘Standard From Now On’

“Hiring two classes—one in January and one in July—will now become our standard practice,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

By splitting the academy into two, the city will not increase overall headcount but will be able to take better advantage of $90 million in Federal funding to help pay for the new officers, officials said.

PBA spokesman Albert O’Leary said the expedited class would do little to replenish a force that has fallen by 5,000 officers since 1999.

Mr. Bloomberg also noted that the Fire Department has more firefighters today than it had on Sept. 11, 2001, when 340 firefighters lost their lives in rescue efforts after the terrorist attacks.

“Meeting that goal would normally have taken four years—we’ve done it in two,” he said.

Mr. Bloomberg concluded his speech by underscoring his commitment to the school reform plan on which he has staked his mayoralty.

On that front, he announced the end of social promotion in the third grade. Education officials later estimated that 15,000 of the city’s 74,000 third graders might be held back in June as a result of the new policy.

The Mayor said that it made sense to phase in the policy starting in the third grade because by that year, students should know how to read. Third grade is also the first year that students take standardized reading and math tests, he said.

The city has sought to curtail social promotion in the past, most recently in the late 1990s, under Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew. Teachers could consider test scores, attendance and class work in deciding which students to hold back. That flexibility, school officials said, allowed many students who were not performing at grade level to nonetheless advance to the next grade.

The new, stricter policy will rely solely on standardized reading and math tests. Students who score in Level 1—in the four-level state scoring system—would be required to repeat the grade, school officials said.

Ms. Weingarten said that the UFT has long supported ending social promotion and offered to help Mr. Bloomberg implement the plan.

To ensure that the new attempt succeeds where others have failed, she warned, the Department of Education must provide struggling students with “dramatically lower class sizes, highly qualified Teachers, a specialized curriculum, and enough support services.”