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New York’s Quality of Life Budget: Focus on Improving Conditions for Everyday People First

New York Daily News

July 2, 2023

With no little fanfare, the City Council passed legislation requiring New Yorkers to separate their food waste for composting. Unmentioned amidst the claims for environmental progress was the fact that, even in a less aggressive plan included in Mayor Adams’ budget, the city would have to add 158 collection trucks to its sanitation fleet, at a cost of $76 million.

It’s a small but telling example of the denial-based budgeting in which both the mayor and the Council are engaged. Even as data of which both are well aware tell a story of looming budget deficits that cannot help but reduce basic services, the city continues to add what can only be described as luxury goods to the just-passed $107 billion budget. The migrant crisis and its costs get the immediate attention — but the long-term threats to essential services are the greater problem.

Instead of adding new, marginal services such as composting, the time has come for the city to develop a “quality of life” budget — one that emphasizes clean and safe streets, schools that truly educate, reliable public transit and well-maintained parks and playgrounds. These are the essentials that will give the city a fighting chance to stop the flight of high-end taxpayers and the public safety threats to residents, rich and poor.

Economists from the NYU Stern School, Columbia Business School and the National Bureau of Economic Research have set the context: declining commercial real estate property taxes linked to an office vacancy crisis that shows no sign of ending pose the risk that Gotham will fall into a “doom loop.” Those familiar with Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis have seen this movie before: falling tax revenues hollow out services, residents flee and revenues fall still further.

This is actually not news to either the mayor or the Council. In his executive budget, the mayor anticipates a $7 billion deficit by fiscal 2027, the result of what it notes are falling Wall Street profits that have dropped 50% since 2021, average home prices and ongoing office vacancies. Even that bad news is based on some rosy scenarios, such as hotels returning to full capacity, as tourism rebounds. (Using hotels for migrants may undercut such hopes).

Yet public officials continue to whistle past this fiscal graveyard. Generous increases in public sector union contracts — including the most recent, that for teachers in a school system that’s been losing enrollment-are characterized as “fair wages” in the budget — but assume that revenues will be adequate to support them while maintaining essential services.

Put broadly, projected spending continues to increase as if good times are rolling. Many new programs seem unassailable — tele-mental health for high school students, expanding free income tax preparation for low-income households, culinary training for school cafeteria workers — but, in a realistic budget assessment should not be sacrosanct. They add up.

New York, far more than other city governments, acts as an engine of income redistribution — through city-funded affordable housing, rent stabilization, free broadband access for public housing and much more. As attractive as these can be, they are, for core budget purposes, simply not as vital as the public services which affect the quality of life for all New Yorkers.

The Parks Department budget will increase (to some $638 million) but pales in comparison to the $1.4 billion Housing Preservation and Development budget — which supports the high per-unit “affordable housing” construction which inevitably serves a fortunate few. The Buildings Department budget will increase but only to $219 million — even as parking garages collapse as a result of intermittent inspection. And, of course there is the city’s right to shelter — unique in the nation — which both accommodates and encourages claims of homelessness and lead the city to spend $4.1 billion on homeless shelters which the truly homeless — those sleeping on the street — seek to avoid.

Much of what city elected officials — especially Council members — prioritize are initiatives aimed at uplifting the marginalized and historically oppressed. Well and good. But as austerity looms and the city’s core fiscal capacity comes under threat, it is time to remember that it is the poor, more than the rich, who need safe parks — they don’t have summer homes. It is the bodega owner not the Upper East Side doorman building that needs police protection. It is the children of the poor — not those able to afford private school — who need schools which can demonstrate success.

There are headlines in adding new services to a growing budget. But this is not the time to do so.