New York Daily News

April 18, 2002

Mike's Budget Says Trouble Dead Ahead

Daily News City Hall Bureau Chief

Budgets are political documents as well as financial ones, and Mayor Bloomberg's offering yesterday was no exception.

For starters, nowhere in the 308-page document was there any mention of new taxes, outside of an aggressive increase in the city's cigarette levy.

What it did contain was a clear message to state and federal legislators, as well as the city's municipal unions: Help us now, or be prepared to shoulder the blame for even deeper cuts in city services.

It was a message that seemed to serve notice that Bloomberg, often discounted as a businessman with no taste for politics, was prepared to enter the churning waters of Washington and Albany, to say nothing of taking on the city's byzantine labor unions.

Whether he emerges with anything close to what he sought will be the first big challenge of his administration.

He's got a Republican governor in an election year, hunting for votes in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. He has an Assembly speaker in Sheldon Silver who has one hand on the state's purse strings and the other blocking Bloomberg's path to mayoral control of city schools.

And he has a new City Council that, if it ever coalesces, just might rise up and pass its own budget.

As for Bloomberg's demand yesterday that legislative and union leaders step up to the plate, it remains far from clear what they will produce.

The mayor is seeking $500 million in pension and other concessions from city unions, plus $800 million in combined state and federal initiatives — many of which are legislative changes that don't cost Albany or Washington anything.

If he doesn't get that help, he warned yesterday, the city will have to consider a $500 million laundry list of contingency cuts that includes eliminating dozens of youth programs, consolidating 15 senior centers, layoffs and scores of other cuts.

"The alternatives," he said, "are not pleasant."

About half of what Bloomberg is seeking from the unions is a change in the city's pension system that would not affect the take-home pay of any retirees. But other items are expected to strike at members' wallets — at a time when many unions feel like they've already given.

"It's outrageous to ask us to bear the burden of this problem when we were the ones who beared the burden of the World Trade Center," said Patrick Lynch, president of the 24,000-member Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.

That said, Bloomberg's legislative agendas in Albany and Washington strike many as achievable. The mayor is seeking $2.1 billion in combined state and federal aid but has said he needs $800 million to make his budget fly.

The feds have passed one debt refinancing bill that will save the city $150 million. Other measures aimed at freeing up grant money, welfare mandates and homeland security are given solid odds of passing.

"Some have already happened, others are in the pipeline and almost all stand a decent chance," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said yesterday.

Insiders in Albany said the heaviest lift for Bloomberg will be his bill to save $100 million through tort reform, an issue close to the heart of Silver (D-Manhattan), an ally of the state trial lawyers.

But most of the city's Albany initiatives are still "in play," insiders insisted, and will likely get hammered out as part of the Capitol's torturous budget process.