Budget Minuet Begins As Mayor Offers Plan for 2005
Henry J. Stern
On Monday, April 26, the mayor presented his executive budget for fiscal year 2005, which begins on July 1, 2004. The state’s fiscal year started April 1, but for the 20th year in a row, no state budget has been agreed upon, although Albany helps determine what the city must spend and where the money will come from. Incidentally, the federal budget year begins October 1. The calendar year, which has started on January 1 since Pope Gregory XIII decreed it in 1582, coincides with none of the three fiscal years.
The budget, written more in sand than in sandstone, is a digital image of where the city is today financially, as seen by the mayor and his OMB (Office of Management and Budget). It contains projections of tax collections that inform decisions as to how much money may be appropriated. The city usually spends every penny it can, and often then some, relying on time-tested techniques that are part of the budget director’s esoteric craft.
It is an irony of elective politics that the chief executive gets much more media exposure than his hungry rivals, but he is the one held most responsible by law for a balanced budget. (The federal government’s budget, as most of you know, is chronically unbalanced, and that is why the national debt now exceeds seven trillion dollars. Don’t bother fixing on that number; the debt has increased by an average of almost $1,700,000,000 every day since September 30, 2003.)
Since city services are popular and taxes are unpopular, there is usually political pressure to provide additional services and maintain existing programs while simultaneously reducing taxes. The outs say this can be accomplished by various efficiencies, such as turning off the lights when no one is in a room. (No kidding: the Council’s financial plan included a multi-million dollar reduction in the city’s electric bill.)
Some civic, business and taxpayer groups like the Citizens Budget Commission feel the mayor’s budget is too high, and that insufficient attention has been paid to eliminating the overlapping evils of waste, inefficiency, duplication and parasitism in the city’s huge workforce.
The mayor resists this critique, although his theory of “commissioner management,” while working in stronger agencies like Police and Parks, does not deal as effectively with the soft underbelly of the bureaucracy, places like Human Resources, Housing (HPD, HA and HDC) and Youth & Community Development. Other agencies could also benefit from somewhat closer management and a stronger Mayor’s Office of Operations.
Nonetheless, the mayor’s fiscal reins are far tighter than the City Council would like. The Council, somewhat weakened by the departure of its chief of staff and another key official, proposes substantial budget increases for popular vote-getting programs (seniors, youth, fire, parks, cultural institutions, et al.), while demanding a deeper real estate tax cut than the mayor offers.
But how do you spend more, tax less and balance the budget at the same time? The usual devices are to increase estimates of receipts, and to minimize reserve funds. Tax receipts often exceed mayoral estimates, providing additional revenue that may be used for other purposes.
How, for example, will the city be able to pay for wage increases that are likely to be negotiated this year, following the three percent settlement just agreed to with DC 37, the city’s largest union?
When the speaker of the Council responds to the mayor’s budget, his theme will be how much better he could do at balancing the budget while restoring the mayor’s cuts.
There is no legal requirement that his remarks be balanced. The truth is that with rising revenues, some of the cuts are likely to be scaled back, and the mayor and the Council will compete for credit for the restorations.
The City Charter directs that budgets be submitted on certain dates. So the city proceeds, without knowing what state aid, if any, it will receive for FY 2005. It would be daunting for a private firm to make responsible financial decisions while subject to such contingencies, even if a single CEO determined the budget. For the city, with 51 legislators who represent local interests, the process is even more difficult. But even though most of the budget consists of mandatory expenditures (pensions, interest, leases, etc.), or items carried over without substantial change from previous years, the proposals by the mayor and responses by the Council do indicate what these leaders are thinking about the budget, or, at least, what they want the voters to believe that they are thinking about the budget.
Those of you who have read this far on this subject deserve praise. I trust that now you will be better informed on the budget than you otherwise might be. Let us search for truth and justice in the miasmic mist of municipal mathematical manipulation. Veritas.
Henry Stern was NYC Parks Commissioner for 15 years and a Councilmember for nine. He is founder and director of NYCivic, a good government group. He can be reached at: email@example.com