Bill de Blasio took steps both symbolic and substantive toward putting money behind his progressive agenda when he unveiled his preliminary 2015 budget on Wednesday.
The mayor’s presentation, delivered in the Blue Room at City Hall, was laced with invective about the Bloomberg administration and shadowed by uncertainty surrounding municipal labor contracts, decisions in Albany and federal aid.
“The budget must reflect a progressive agenda. It must reflect what New Yorkers needs right now,” the mayor said. “Ours is a progressive administration. Our budget will be a progressive budget—one that puts us on the road to giving hard-working New Yorkers a fair shot.”
De Blasio’s $73.7 billion budget plan includes money—starting in the current year and extending into fiscal 2015, which begins July 1—for a new NYPD inspector general and the implementation of an expanded paid sick-leave law.
He also ended a long-standing budget quirk that had the city’s public housing authority, NYCHA, which has been hobbled by funding cuts at all levels of government, paying the city for police services. That mov e will go a significant way to eliminating NYCHA’s operating deficit.
The de Blasio administration will also spend $1.3 million to upgrade two homeless shelters, including one that figured prominently in the December New York Times series about homelessness in Michael Bloomberg’s New York.
And under an agreement with Gov. Cuomo he’ll cap rent in HIV/AIDS housing at 30 percent of tenant income, something advocates have sought for years. (Jim Lister, a VOCAL-NY leader living with HIV/AIDS who pays 72 percent of his disability income towards rent, lauded this move in a statement: “I take 32 pills every day and have two and a half shelves full of medications in my kitchen. I don’t know how I would manage all of that and my other health needs if I was in a shelter, but that’s where I would end up if not for this agreement.”)
But those initiatives pale in size or importance to the UPK/after-school plan, which puts a $530 million question mark on both the revenue and expense side of the budget. Cuomo and Republicans who share control of the state Senate are resisting de Blasio’s calls for a tax on high-earners to fund the program.
As if the fight over that money weren’t enough to keep everyone busy, the mayor today called for the state to make good on a court ruling that found it had systematically underfunded city schools. His budget calls for an additional $500 million from the state.
In keeping with custom, reporters asked de Blasio what he’ll do if the state doesn’t come through on either count, and de Blasio refused to countenance that possibility.
What de Blasio did do—a lot—is criticize Mayor Bloomberg: his lack fiscal prudence in depleting a fund for retiree health expenses, his questionable transparency in presenting budgets and his handling of labor negotiations. The new mayor must have set a record for the number of times a former mayor’s name was uttered at a budget briefing.
The criticism began with de Blasio reading—for dramatic effect, he said—a list of hospitals that closed during the Bloomberg era and a roster of facilities that are now under threat. The obvious implication was that Michael Bloomberg had fiddled while hospitals closed. But de Blasio suggested the fix for the problem was a federal waiver, something Bloomberg had no more authority to give than de Blasio does. De Blasio is at least asking for the help.
Highlighting his decision not to threaten to close twenty fire companies or slash the budgets of the borough presidents and public advocate—proposed cuts that under the Bloomberg administration became an annual rite—de Blasio said he was taking first steps toward ending the annual budget dance: “We got the point that that was a game. We’re not playing that game anymore.”
He also said, “The previous administration was given an artificially high level of credit for management,” and de Blasio says credit was deserved on some counts “but the way they budgeted was not appropriate.” He added later: “I have not made a secret of the fact, that in the final year or two of the Bloomberg Administration, there was a particular interest in burnishing the mayor’s legacy.” And on Bloomberg’s contention that there was no money for retroactive raises for city workers: “The previous mayors’ statements ring hollow in that there was not an honest effort to find the kind of cost-savings that could have led to resolution of these outstanding contracts.”
De Blasio’s election was a repudiation of Bloomberg, and his mayoralty so far—from ending the stop-and-frisk litigation to expanding sick-leave—has turned the page quickly and decisively on the Bloomberg era. Now that de Blasio has etched his first budget, which is the ultimate statement of priorities and strategy, it’s probably getting near time to close the book on the former mayor. De Blasio’s vision is big enough, and New Yorkers are smart enough, for the differences to be obvious from here on out.