January 11, 2002
By Richard Steier
Key union leaders took a cautious view of Mayor Bloomberg's early push for austerity as he ordered city agencies to prepare cuts of up to 20 percent in their spending as he tries to eliminate a projected deficit of $4 billion for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who also heads the Municipal Labor Committee, said she was reluctant to comment without knowing more about what the new Mayor is seeking from the unions to help plug the budget hole.
But she also said that union financial consultants had indicated to her that the deficit may be smaller than anticipated, pegging it at roughly $2.85 billion. She noted that on Dec. 31, Mayor Giuliani disclosed that an additional $500 million in revenue had been found.
"We'll look to see what is really the scope of the problem," said Ms. Weingarten, noting that she had been playing "telephone tag" with the new Mayor in trying to arrange a meeting.
"I'm not saying that $2.85 Billion in not a problem, but it's a manageable problem," she added.
Beginning with his inaugural address Jan. 1, when he invoked the mid-1970's fiscal crisis that produced nearly 50,000 layoffs and fundamentally altered the way the city did business, Mr. Bloomberg made clear he would be asking employees "to do more with less."
He promised at that point to reduce staff in the Mayor's Office by 20 percent; by the following day, Deputy Mayor for Operations Marc V. Shaw had sent a memo to most agency heads asking them to lay out how they would make a similar reduction.
Uniformed agencies and the Board of Education were asked to prepare cut lists that would reduce spending by 10 percent, as well as trims they were prepared to make if required to pare just 5 percent from their budgets.
Mr. Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman who self-financed his $69-million campaign for office, made clear that he did not consider tax increases a viable option at a time when the city must guard against businesses relocating in the fallout from the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.
As Mr. Shaw's memo began to circulate, the new Mayor personally attempted to contact major municipal employee union leaders to arrange meetings to discuss the budget situation. For unions such as the UFT and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, those sit-downs are also expected to deal with their unresolved wage contracts.
Hints at Lag Payroll
During one television interview on his second day in office, Mr. Bloomberg made reference to the possibility of deferring some compensation for employees. It was not clear, however, whether he was referring to the sort of lag payroll that has been used in recent years by the state and in Nassau County, under which workers deferred one payday for each of five pay periods, leaving them with a week's pay that would be received after they left city service, Such a lag was last used here during the mid-1970's.
It is unlikely that the PBA or the UFT would be receptive to such a plan at a time when they are arguing that recent problems recruiting enough qualified cops and Teachers are largely the result of inadequate salaries.
Ms. Weingarten declined to discuss any specific issues pertaining to what Mr. Bloomberg might ask of the unions, explaining, "My sense is it'd be wrong for me to start a new relationship with the Mayor by communicating through the press."
PBA Won't Bite
"We have no details of any plan," said PBA President Patrick J. Lynch who added that he expected to be meeting with the new Mayor in the coming weeks. "But what has to be done is not a reduction and not a lag, but a real increase that will provide cops with a living wage."
Ironically, Mr. Bloomberg himself drew attention to the NYPD's problems in both recruiting new employees and retaining veteran cops in responding to a reporter's question about what cuts the department might have to make to meet its budget target.
"We have had so much attrition, and our recruitment efforts have not gone as well as we like, that the department has been reduced by natural forces," he said.
As to agencies where the vast number of employees are civilians, the new Mayor said, "my hope is we can get through without any layoffs."
In dealing with the unions, he said, "I want them to understand what the city's problems are. They are part of the solution."
DC 37 Administrator Lee Saunders said he was gratified by that comment, but he also urged the Mayor to reconsider his contention that tax increases could not be part of the budget balancing. He said the city's commuter tax, which was eliminated a couple of years ago largely as a product of political maneuvering involving a single State Senate seat in Orange County, should be reinstated by the Legislature.
'Can't Just Make Cuts'
"We clearly can't look solely at cuts - the impact on public services would drastically diminish the quality of life in the city," Mr. Saunders said in a statement. He also said that the deadline for bringing the budget into balance should be extended beyond the start of the new fiscal year.
Asked where he believed the unions could be most helpful, Mr. Bloomberg said, "Work rules are one of the things that will be most important in any future negotiation."
The Giuliani administration sought more stringent work rules and a more flexible disciplinary process in its unsuccessful negotiations with the UFT. It did not push as hard over the years for work-rule changes for police of the sort championed by the Citizens' Budget Commission, which had urged that cops' workdays be shortened so that they would be compelled to work additional tours to satisfy state law governing the hours they work annually.
During his 14-minute inaugural address, Mr. Bloomberg spoke of forging "a new partnership" that would include the state and Federal Governments, the business community, and municipal labor. He made clear that he was banking on President Bush to live up to his promise to Mayor Giuliani in the wake of the Trade Center attacks to provide the city with $20 billion in Federal relief by thanking the President "for all you have done and all that you will do to fulfill that explicit pledge."
But where his speech also called on corporate leaders "to strengthen your commitment to New York," his most explicit requests for sacrifice were tendered to labor.
And he pointedly noted the following day, "It's not going to be equal pain and equal contributions."