“Even in this wealthiest of American cities, fiscal austerity is too often the implicit mantra, as core government services remain starvation diets while wealthy institutions fatten themselves. That works well for the very well-off, and not so well for the rest of us.”
In the next few weeks, New York’s Mayor Eric Adams will finalize negotiations over his first budget for New York City. It will not offer a pretty sight.
He has largely failed to break with the decades-long practice by which finance houses, real estate barons and elite institutions take captive our political and civic culture. Even in this wealthiest of American cities, fiscal austerity is too often the implicit mantra, as core government services remain starvation diets while wealthy institutions fatten themselves. That works well for the very well-off, and not so well for the rest of us.
We regular New Yorkers and activists must force the mayor and state legislators, and yes even some labor leaders who too often defend archaic work rules, to re-calibrate and instill our city with a new sense of public ambition and public purpose. Sadly, decades of disinvestment have been intentional choices.
I offer here a few signposts for this struggle. I come to this task as a New Yorker, born in Brooklyn. I served as director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations for David Dinkins. In the depths of the deepest recession in the past 80 years, the mayor gave us a seemingly contradictory charge. We were to identify cuts and savings—even as we sidestepped deep cuts to core neighborhood services, and redirected capital spending to focus on building and rehabilitating affordable housing in undeserved neighborhoods.
In those darkest of times, as tax collections spiraled downward, we expanded hours at libraries, after-school programs and health clinics, and extended evening hours at indoor pools and recreation centers. We removed abandoned cars that cluttered our parks, streets and highways. To address blight in selected neighborhoods we expanded vacant lot cleaning and adopted targeted street cleaning strategies. Working with local churches and neighborhood and non-profit groups, we redirected capital funds to rehabilitate Bradhurst, a neighborhood of Northern Harlem: it now is an example of a thriving neighborhood, once written off.
How did we do this? We embraced relentless innovation. We merged agencies, slashed overtime spending in the Police and Corrections departments, cut back on fleets of city cars, and challenged archaic union work rules. And we measured every inch in the Mayor’s Management Report. Unlike today’s pasteurized version of this report, ours was a ruthlessly honest report card. If an agency failed, we pointed that out to the city’s reporters.
So where to start now? Let’s keep in mind that despite all the pandemic-borne suffering of the past two years, New York City remains wealthier than most American cities. Its budget is $100 billion and climbing. We have choices—if we care to act. For far too long we’ve hewed to an austerity model of policy that leaves billions off the table of so-called polite discussion. This “don’t touch that!” approach creates perennial side shows. Corporate heads of the city’s “non-profit” universities, hospitals and museums, have guarded their minimal property tax “contributions” as if that is the upper most rates the city should burden them with.
We can begin by making New York a fairer and more just place by addressing the tyranny of working conditions experienced by so many. More and more of our private sector jobs are part-time, offering unstable work hours and days while offering employers “flexibility.” This embedded instability wreaks havoc on hundreds of thousands of New York’s workers and leaves them with too little income and erratic shifts, a sweatshop reality for more than one-million residents.
On top of that, employers fail to pay mandated wages and overtime—an often unpunished theft estimated at $1 billion per year. Massive and long-standing abuses have been cited in the city’s building trades, with millions in earned salaries and overtime being denied to its workers. Predatory employers particularly prey on hiring and exploiting immigrant workers.
Mayor Adams should put his considerable charisma to work lobbying his fellow politicians in Albany and writing tougher labor laws. And we need to add hundreds of inspectors to enforce wage and hours and working conditions. This could well pay for itself. All of this will send a strong signal about who government works for.
We can also turn our attention to our city’s glories, more than 30,000 acres of the grandest urban parks in America. Yet for decades too many have deteriorated. Included in this funding level would allow for the maintenance and enhancement of our playgrounds at our public schools and NYCHA. Of late, advocates for green space have mounted a sustained effort to force the city to allocate 1 percent of its budget to our parks, which is another way of saying allocating money to the working and poorer classes, for whom parks are the lungs of the city.
Then there’s the question of how to pay for this? Here too the road map is there, if only we care to pick it up. Let’s start with our temples of sport. In the 1920’s, as Michael Powell of the New York Times reminds us, the owners of Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field paid property taxes. The owners of Madison Square Garden, home to the Knicks and Rangers, opened in 1968 and its owners paid property taxes until lobbyists persuaded city officials to cut its property taxes to zero in 1983.
Over the past decades, these “billionaire” subsidies have cost the city millions in lost revenues. So let’s start by revoking tax exemptions for Madison Square Garden, Barclays Center, and the Mets and Yankee stadiums, and force each to pay $50 million annually in property taxes, which roughly covers the average of their tax breaks. Consider a new motto: millions contributed by the sports venues, to support millions enjoying glorious parks and public spaces!
With this accomplished, we can turn our attention to the city’s gilded non-profits, and demand that these elite institutions—ranging from Columbia and New York Universities to museums like the Metropolitan and MoMA to hospitals like Mt. Sinai and Northwell—pay some level of property taxes. Unfair you say? Google the 990 federal tax form for these nonprofits and ogle at the gilded salaries and benefits for top officials. We could also ask our universities and hospitals to start paying taxes on its housing for faculty and staff. Columbia University and its hospital system alone are the city’s second largest property owners.
Reclassifying these institutions could add $1 billion a year in city revenue. So we begin to take a fair portion of our city’s gilt for the largest number of New Yorkers. Making land pay for us for a change would capture this policy shift.
Our banks, too, offer an instructive target. The city deposits billions of dollars in banks that Paul Krugman described as “looters in loafers,” banks with long records of predatory and racist lending practices. J.P Morgan Chase and Bank of America come to mind of long standing abuses. The city should seek authority from the state to create a public bank dedicated to meeting the banking needs of the city’s lower income communities and making loans for affordable housing and to neighborhood businesses.
While awaiting Albany action, the city, along with the municipal unions, as well as private non-profit hospitals, universities and museums and foundations, could begin now to move millions of its dollars to credit unions and other community financial institutions committed to their communities’ needs. Redirecting the city’s funds would make it clear that public money should work for the larger public good, not for private gain. Redirecting and reinvesting in public needs is a long awaited public action.
I am a believer in unions and their role in bettering the lives of so many New Yorkers. It’s also true that too many unions have grown too calcified in their thinking and practices, and that city leaders need to establish themselves as a firm progressive force at the bargaining table.
What is to prevent us from guaranteeing living wages tied to consequential workforce changes? Soon nearly all the city’s contracts with municipal unions will have expired. A settlement for a relatively modest 3 percent a year for three years would cost the city nearly $4 billion a year by 2026, according to the Citizens Budget Commission. That’s on top of the more than $53 billion the city expects to spend this year on labor. These settlements are momentous. The city spends more than half its budget on labor. That’s fine and fair.
What’s not fine and fair are ossified labor rules that cost us billions and undermine the provision of services for New Yorkers. For example, unlimited sick leave for corrections officers—some 1,000 of whom have been calling in sick each day—wastes millions of dollars and threatens health and safety in the city’s jails.
Restructuring the municipal workforce is a major operational undertaking. Yet maintaining the status quo solidifies wasteful resources and undermines opportunities for innovation.
Taken together, these steps—just a few among many options—would soften our city’s harsh edges and make it a better run and more progressive city. All require enormous structural changes. None of this is impossible but it requires a culture shift from self-interest to the collective good.
From the budget choices made, we will know if the “corporate apple chart” will be checked. We will know whether the donor class will be asked to share in the burden of the city’s recovery and invest in its future resilience. We know from history that power concedes nothing without demand. Should burden sharing be demanded, we will also see how the donor class responds and how the mayor leads.
This can, it’s important to stress, happen. None of this is impossible. Before the fiscal crisis and retrenchment that began in the 1970s, we saw a commitment to the public good. The City University system offered free tuition and our public housing was a national model. The city should look to its traditions of social, economic and political justice to form a government today that is dedicated to the well-being of all its citizens and communities.
For over 40 years, Harvey Robins has worked in various positions in city government, non-profits and foundations, including at the NYC Human Resources Administration, Board of Education, the Mayor’s Office Of Operations, Children’s Aid Society and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.