The New York Times

December 9, 2002


Firehouses, Good Cop and Bad Cop

By JOYCE PURNICK

A T first it radiated a cheerful, Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland quality, this year's conference of the Citizens Budget Commission. We'll all go into the barn together and close that $6.4 billion budget gap.

The fiscal critics took issue with some of City Hall's strategy, but without rancor, and an affable Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg gave the keynote speech and drew warm applause. Then, halfway through Saturday's conference, the mayor's top deputy took to the microphone, uttered a few unpleasant truths, and forget Mickey and Judy. It was good cop, bad cop.

Those still trying to figure out Mr. Bloomberg might want to consider Saturday's performance at the conference, held in a town house on East 68th Street. It demonstrated what Mr. Bloomberg has always contended: that he is a devoted delegator. He certainly delivered bad budget news in his remarks, but mainly, he did charm. Then, Deputy Mayor Marc V. Shaw did stern.

"I think people are unrealistic in their assumptions if they think either the white papers of the C.B.C. or white papers of the labor movement are going to solve our problems," Mr. Shaw said. "I know I sounded like everything has not worked so far. I did that sort of to put a reality on a little of this."

And that was after taking on the Fire and Police Departments in tones so sharp that the audience, accustomed only to praise for the city's emergency workers since Sept. 11, all but gasped. "I meant everything I said," Mr. Shaw said yesterday, when asked if he spoke out of turn.

His remarks on Saturday, administration officials said, were intended to sound the alarm about a budget gap that has already generated cuts and tax increases, and more pain is coming. Saturday signaled that — with a walkout by transit workers possible next week because of a contract offer the union considers miserly — City Hall is trying to lower the expectations of municipal unions, and to reinforce the message that the unions will have to pay for any raises with productivity.

So, Mr. Shaw said that the administration had to follow the money, that a lot of it was with the Police and Fire Departments, and that the city still expected to close some firehouses by March, a plan some thought moribund.

"We punted on it at the end of the day," the deputy mayor said. So now the issue will go to a blue-ribbon panel, the standard defuser of municipal controversies. It will "make sure we do the right thing here, but the truth is that it was also a political punt from the perspective of the politics of the moment not yet being ready to make those tough decisions," Mr. Shaw said.

This did not sit well with the Fire Department and its firefighters' union. And that's not all. Mr. Shaw said that the city had to find these methods of making the Fire Department more efficient because firefighters fight fires only 5 percent of the time and "are hanging around doing nothing the other 95 percent of the time."

HE then went to the Police Department. Echoing, in sharper terms, the mayor's remarks during his speech, Mr. Shaw complained about a September arbitration decision about the police — one that rejected the administration's plan to have police officers work more, but shorter, days each year, with savings going to wage increases.

Mr. Shaw blamed the police union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, for the arbitrator's decision. "Whether it was because he was afraid of P.B.A. or got talked into it by the P.B.A. on the merits," Mr. Shaw said, "the truth is the P.B.A. made a decision to say, `We don't want to be productive in New York City now, even if you give us 100 percent of the money back.' "

This remark did not make Mr. Shaw any friends in the union.

Tone aside, nobody who understands city politics would argue with his premise that the police union is politically powerful or that efforts to consolidate fire services stir up emotions. They always have.

There is no arguing, either, with Mr. Shaw's contention that the Fire Department has a very strong culture that resists change — for good as well as ill — but Mr. Shaw emphasized the negative. He said that culture was the main reason that efficiency efforts going back decades — most recently merging emergency services into the Fire Department — have been what he called "a total failure."

"I was probably too relaxed in terms of my choice of words, but I wanted to make a point," Mr. Shaw said yesterday. "Everything I said was accurate." And he, the bad cop, got the Bronx cheers. The good cop? He got a standing ovation and left early.