The New York Times

June 4, 2003

To Embattled Mayor, Tickets Are the Hottest Issue in Town


The Bloomberg administration has been under attack for weeks from critics who claim the city is trying to fix its fiscal problems with a ticket blitz that has swept up people for violating obscure laws. A pregnant woman resting on subway steps was handed a $50 summons for blocking commuters. A Bronx man sitting on a milk crate on the sidewalk was given a ticket — fine to be determined — for unauthorized use of the crate.

New Yorkers have vented their anger in news reports and in letters to the editor, with many seething that this is just one more sign of how the mayor is insensitive, out of touch, and too willing to balance the city's budget on the backs of the hard-working men and women of the five boroughs who are already having to swallow tax increases and service cuts.

Except, according to statistics that the mayor and his aides have repeatedly cited, there is no ticket blitz. The overall number of summonses has not gone up. Silly summonses for minor offenses can be highlighted by the news media at any time, under any mayor, they said, offering news clippings to back it up. And the city is not making any special effort to bring in revenue from summonses because, frankly, they said, with the exception of parking tickets, writing tickets is a money loser.

Still, three weeks after the issue first surfaced, it has yet to die down, having been tangled up in raw emotions about Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's style, his perceived vulnerability based on his low standing in opinion polls and the public's frustration over rising taxes and fees that cannot close a seemingly bottomless budget gap.

All of which has led political analysts and some of the mayor's own people to conclude that, in the battle between perception and reality, Mayor Bloomberg has lost the public relations war on this very sensitive issue.

"On the numbers side of the argument, the mayor wins," said Harvey Robins, a mayoral aide to Edward I. Koch and David N. Dinkins. "But it becomes an easy and unfair hit on him because so many people are feeling put upon by government. They're hearing about cuts to zoos, to libraries, to senior centers. Their property taxes have gone up. It just becomes a way to vent, `The mayor is wealthy, so he's out of touch.' "

Other pundits said they believe the issue took on a life of its own in part because the mayor has relied too heavily on numbers and reason in defending himself, instead of focusing his own outrage at reports of the more dubious tickets.

"The mayor is once again running into the problem of defending reality against perception," said Douglas Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College's School of Public Affairs. "His approach is if you talk about the reality enough, the perception of that reality will somehow be altered. And that's not necessarily the case. The numbers don't matter when you see a pregnant woman getting fined for sitting on down on the steps. Something that dramatic unfortunately resonates much more than reality."

Word of a "blitz" originated with an article in The Daily News on May 13 that included complaints from the police union that officers were being pressed to write summonses, and lots of them. It was the latest salvo in the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association's trying to portray rank-and-file officers as overly burdened with excessive ticket writing. In fact, the union even ran newspaper and radio ads criticizing the mayor for being behind the blitz.

The newspaper has run several more articles since then, quoting association officials and also from memos from police supervisors. And local television stations and other newspapers — including The Los Angeles Times, which last week ran a front-page story under the headline, "Big Apple Ticket Blitz Takes a Bite Out of New Yorkers" — picked up on the reports.

On the steps of City Hall a group of black and Hispanic New York City Council members, responding to the stories, said the so-called Bloomberg ticket blitz has disproportionately affected their neighborhoods. Allusions to his perceived lack of empathy for the common man abounded.

"If you want to start giving summonses, let's give it to your good old boys in limos double-parked in front of buildings," said Councilwoman Helen Foster of the Bronx, alluding to the mayor.

By Monday, however, The News said the mayor was "technically" right that ticket agents in the city have not issued more this year than last year.

But the damage appeared to have been done. Yesterday, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly was still addressing the matter, at a Crain's New York Business breakfast forum, according to The Associated Press. And Mr. Kelly did not sound sympathetic.

He said that Crystal Rivera, the pregnant woman cited in the subway, was part of a group of teenagers blocking the stairs. "Her inconsideration for people trying to exit the subway suddenly became a cause célèbre," Mr. Kelly said.

Mr. Bloomberg is not the only mayor to take heat for perceived blitzes. At a news conference last week he read from a Daily News article of December 1996 that described people ticketed for seemingly innocuous offenses.

Mr. Bloomberg did not read the response from the mayor at the time, Rudolph W. Giuliani, but the former mayor had offered a similar line of defense as Mr. Bloomberg's, that ticket writing is more about boosting quality of life than city coffers.

"There is no strategy to raise money through the increase of tickets," Mr. Giuliani is quoted as saying. "No matter how often I say it, you want to write it or somebody else wants to write it."

Edward Skyler, Mr. Bloomberg's press secretary, said he understood why people might accept the possibility of a blitz. "At first blush," he said, "it makes sense to people, that `Oh, the city is so cash strapped it's trying to find a buck anyway it can.' " But, Mr. Skyler added, "The numbers don't lie."

For instance, he said, overall summonses for blocking subway movement are down by 29 percent for the first months of this year. Similarly, he said, parking tickets were down by 17 percent and moving violations were down by 7 percent.

The figures are through April of this year, but Mr. Skyler said he did not expect May data to alter the result.

"We've issued far fewer tickets than we did last year and even the Independent Budget Office confirmed that tickets are not moneymakers," he said, referring to a report released last week that said New York City typically spends more money than it collects from summonses. The only money-maker was parking tickets, and the city plans to issue more of those in coming months.

Mr. Skyler said: "If we relied on tickets to balance our budget, the city would have gone out of business a long time ago. It just doesn't add up."

Mr. Skyler was less understanding of what he considered a falsehood spread by the P.B.A. president, Patrick Lynch, who is running for re-election. Mr. Bloomberg and his aides have suggested that Mr. Lynch is trying to promote himself as a defender of beleaguered officers. There are no ticket quotas, Mr. Bloomberg said, but, yes, officers are judged in part on how well they enforce the law.