Posted by Doug Turetsky, March 1, 2013
Public hearings on the Mayor’s budget plan get underway next week at City Hall. These hearings are the opening steps in what has become known as the “budget dance” between the Mayor and the City Council. The dance begins with the Mayor proposing budget cuts to a mostly routine group of programs and ends with a typical set of restorations negotiated by the City Council.
While the dance involves funding for services that many New Yorkers find crucial—and are crucial to the budgets of many service providers—there are many who probably wish the annual ritual had faded with the Macarena. For all the angst kicked up by the annual dance, the process revolves around less than 0.5 percent of the city’s $70 billion budget.
That there are cuts in the proposed budget that would affect city services may come as a surprise to those who got their budget information from the city’s social media feed. On the afternoon the Mayor presented the preliminary budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the City of New York’s Twitter feed brightly chirped: “Today Mayor Bloomberg presented FY2014 Budget which will not increase taxes or cut services.” NYCgov’s Tumblr post proclaimed that there’s “no reduction in city services” in the budget plan.
Social media assertions aside, some of potential service reductions in the budget plan were in plain sight. Consider for example, a new $10 million reduction in funding for after-school programs that would eliminate about 3,600 slots from the 2014 budget, the $8.1 million cut in subsidies for cultural groups, or (speaking of plain sight) the elimination of all $2.8 million in funding for eye exams for kindergartners and first graders.
Besides such newly proposed spending cuts that would lead to service reductions, other cutbacks were introduced by the Mayor in previous budgets and embedded in the financial plan for 2014. In most of these cases, the programs had temporarily escaped cuts through City Council-initiated restorations for one year at a time. This is the heart of the dance: the Mayor proposes a cut for the upcoming budget year as well as for the subsequent years of his four-year financial plan; the Council restores the funds only for the upcoming year; but the cut remains in the financial plan for the ensuing years, to be negotiated again and again, sometimes with additional reductions.
Take, for example, the Mayor’s recent proposal to reduce after-school spending by $10 million next year. To offset a cut proposed to take effect this year, last June the Council restored $50.6 million to the Out-of-School Time program for 2013, but only for 2013. (The Council only can vote on changes in the current year’s budget and, come June and the final negotiations with the Mayor, the budget adopted for the upcoming year. The Council has no control over the remaining years of the Mayor’s four-year financial plan). So no money was added to the plan for 2014 through 2017 to cover the funding cutbacks for those years. That means that the new $10 million reduction introduced for 2014 would come on top of the previously scheduled cutbacks. If the new and underlying cuts are not restored, the number of Out-of-School Time slots would shrink from 56,000 this year to 21,500 next year.
Over the past five years, the Council has made changes totaling more than $300 million annually to the Mayor’s budget plan, reversing proposed cuts as well as funding some of its own initiatives. But as the Mayor’s proposed cuts have mounted, the Council’s ability to fully restore cuts or maintain or start new initiatives has become more difficult.
As the partners line up for the opening strains of this year’s budget dance, Council Speaker Christine Quinn has already said she intends to prevent the loss of 2,500 teachers that are part of the Mayor’s budget plan, which will cost about $160 million (although a legal challenge now underway could prevent this cut). She has also announced her intention to restore funding for 20 fire companies ($44 million), once again avoiding a cutback that the Mayor has been pursuing since his preliminary budget for 2010.
Then there are some of the other routine restorations which grow more expensive each year when you count the newly added cuts for 2014. It will take $102 million to avoid a cut to libraries, $78 million for youth services (including Out-of-School Time), and $77 million for child care. Already the list comes to more than $400 million, and that’s without restorations to other Council perennials such as cultural programs, health services, parks programs, legal services, domestic violence programs, and senior services.
This is the last go-around on the budget for Mayor Bloomberg and the current City Council. Only time will tell if it’s the last dance.