Reopening Albany's Books
Edwin S. Rubenstein's insightful analysis of the state's precarious fiscal condition ["Opening Albany's Books, Winter 1991] debunks the rhetoric that blames the national recession for our financial problems. The recession may have worsened our fiscal ills, but it did not provoke the onset of our state's financial malaise.
Since Governor Cuomo took office, state budgets have been routinely "balanced" by taking billions of dollars from nonrecurring special-revenue funds. Last May, the 1990-91 state budget was balanced by using more than $1.8 billion in revenue one-shots. Less than six months later, lawmakers were called back to Albany to fill a $1 billion deficit in that same budget. Only days after the Legislature adjourned, the state comptroller reported that a deficit of $500 million still remained. And the trend continues; the deficit for the 1991-92 fiscal year is estimated between $4 billion and $6 billion.
Financial shenanigans of this type have earned New York a dubious reputation. Money magazine has dubbed New York the nation's number one "tax hell" among states, and Financial World ranked New York 43rd in the quality of state management because of our "buy now, pay later" philosophy.
The Governor would like everyone to believe that the national recession, not the Cuomo Administration, has caused our financial problems. But the facts are abundantly clear. New York State's Comptroller Edward Regan and others who have closely scrutinized New York's recent fiscal history assert that New York's financial crisis is a product of uncontrolled state spending, unrealistic revenue projections, counter-productive tax policies, fiscal gimmicks, and excessive borrowing.
Peter M. Sullivan
Contrary to popular belief, New York's governors have not always been big spenders--a point that becomes clear if one compares the spending record of Governor Cuomo with the record of his predecessor, Governor Hugh Carey, also a Democrat. During the Cuomo years, state-funded spending rose by 97 percent, almost three times inflation of just 34.5 percent. Governor Carey, however, kept growth in state-funded spending during his two terms to only 79.5 percent, significantly below inflation of 95.7 percent during that period.
Between just 1980 and 1982, Carey item-vetoed $1.3 billion in spending. In contrast, Governor Cuomo, who points to the State Legislature any time spending is mentioned, item-vetoed only $81 million over his first two terms.
Governor Cuomo's failure to make the tough choices comes with a price tag--namely, extraordinarily high taxes. Governor Cuomo and his apologists like to point out that New York's tax rates are the lowest in 30 years. But where we've been is less important than where we are. According to the latest United States Commerce Department data, New York's per capita income-tax burden, despite the recent tax cuts, is the highest in the nation. Not surprisingly, over 267,000 people have left the state on a net basis since 1982.
New York needs further tax cuts. To set the stage for such tax cuts we need spending restraint.
Senator Joseph L. Bruno
George L. Kelling's excellent article persuasively argues against the misguided notion that the subway system should double as a shelter for vagrants, the mentally ill, and the homeless ["Reclaiming the Subway," Winter 1991].
However, there is another part of the story that Mr. Kelling does not deal with in this article. While the actual chances of becoming a victim of violent crime may be no higher in the subways than on the city streets, the perception is otherwise. In any event, there is far too much crime in the subways and on the streets. Therefore, there is a pressing need for creative initiatives to combat violent crime in the subway stations and on the trains.
The subway system was not built with defensibility in mind, but the time has come to think seriously about how ideas about "defensible space" developed in other contexts could be applied to the subway. The time has come to make an investment in new security devices and procedures that would reduce opportunities for predators and make it harder for them to escape identification and apprehension.
This might mean closing off some entrances to high-crime subway stations, cordoning off cavernous areas in certain stations, improving lighting throughout the system, experimenting with alarm systems and video cameras, and more strategically deploying transit police on and off the trains. The same kind of task force that Mr. Kelling worked with to deal with the disorder caused by disturbed, mentally ill, and homeless populations in the subway should turn its attention to the challenge of making the subway system as defensible as possible against predatory criminals.
James B. Jacobs
George Kelling is right: Contrary to recent outrageously inaccurate press accounts, the Transit Police Department is vigorously restoring order to the subway.
During the last three months of 1989, prior to my appointment as Transit Police Chief, transit officers ejected 5,531 persons for rule violations. During the last three months of 1990, we ejected 33,645 persons. The number of people using the subway for shelter in key stations has declined from an average of 3,098 a night in 1989 to 2,076 a night in 1990. The number of persons who accepted referrals to shelters in January 1991 also increased by 126 percent in comparison to a year earlier.
All of this is part of our commitment to restore order, reduce fare-beating, and reduce serious crime in the subway. There were 14 percent fewer robberies and 11.5 percent fewer felonies in December 1990 than in December 1989.
We are taking back the subway for its passengers. This is occurring because we are attempting to use the minds and talents of all the members of the Transit Police Department: from civilians to chiefs, from officers in special units to patrol officers, from district commanders to supervisors.
William J. Bratton
The True Cost of Trash
Mark Cunningham ["Trash Can Traumas," Winter 1991] amply illustrates what happens when recycling becomes an end in itself, rather than one of several means to handle solid waste. What Mr. Cunningham does not discuss is the perverse effect that uneconomical recycling has on city budgets and, yes, even the environment.
While New York's program will raise some revenues through the penalties against offenders of its recycling laws, one wonders whether they will offset even the basic costs of the program itself (let alone the enforcement costs). A recent review of Chicago's recycling programs in high-density areas, which are similar to many parts of New York City, showed costs running at over $800 per ton of recyclables collected. Early numbers for New York's program appear to be $400 to $500 per ton.
Let's put this into perspective. Landfilling the same trash in Chicago would cost just over $37 per ton. Even the most expensive landfills in the nation cost no more than about $170 per ton, still well below these pricey curbside recycling programs. With cities like Chicago and New York already facing serious budget woes, this additional cost is particularly burdensome and unwarranted.
Are the benefits to the environment worth it? Recycling aluminum cans makes a lot of sense, because it takes about 95 percent less energy to reprocess them than to turn bauxite into aluminum. Since energy costs are a big part of overall aluminum production costs, this means enormous savings.
But reprocessing other recyclables yields fewer benefits. Paper recycling is both energy- and water-intensive, and produces some toxic waste. Moreover, since most supplies of wood for virgin paper come from tree farms, not forests, reducing demand for virgin wood will likely result in fewer trees as those farms are converted to other productive uses.
Mark Cunningham is more right than he knows. While the city's efforts are heavy-handed and misdirected, as Cunningham demonstrates, New York's solid waste approach is flawed on a more fundamental level. The city has ignored the root causes of the current trash and landfill crisis and applied a solution (recycling) that solves no problem.
Eventually the city will recognize that it subsidizes trash. By providing taxpayer-funded trash collection and insulating the public from the real costs of waste management, New York provides no incentive for voluntary waste reduction. Why be careful about how much you put on the curb if it is a free service?
If the goal is to reduce the amount of trash, there is a better way: market pricing. Over two years ago, Seattle began charging its residents a market rate for trash collection. Residents pay $13.75 for the first can of trash and $9 for each additional can. Charging individuals directly for their waste provoked a market response--those who previously couldn't be bothered to recycle or adopt other forms of trash reduction suddenly found the time. (Seattle has a small recycling subsidy: Materials to be recycled are taken away at no charge.) The program reduced the amount of garbage trucked into Seattle's landfills by 23,946 tons in 1988 alone. A similar program in High Bridge, N.J., reduced trash by 25 percent in 1989.
Political management has distorted the market at the other end of the waste stream, too. Since most landfills are government-owned, and governments are subject to political pressure, no new landfills have opened to replace the ones that have been filled.
Over half of the nation's 18,500 landfills have closed since 1979. And the problem is getting worse; the EPA expects only 4,000 landfills to open by 1995.
While Cunningham points to incineration as a possible solution, it is subject to the same political forces that oppose new landfills. And since there is no way to dislodge the "not in my backyard" position from politics, incineration is a partial solution at best.
New York's recycling laws and regulations are another example of the city's attempt to shift society's responsibility onto building owners. The city has attempted this with window guards and water meters as well. Unfortunately, children continue to fall from windows when unsupervised, and tenants continue to use more water than ever because they do not have to pay for it. If the city continues its efforts to fine owners for their tenants' failure to recycle, the entire program will ultimately fail, and the city will miss its chance to reduce the volume of waste going to its landfill.
I would like to correct one statement Mr. Cunningham makes in his article. The Rent Stabilization Association has never advocated the use of private carters by building owners to avoid sanitation fines for tenant actions.
John J. Gilbert III
Levine and His Critics
In his article "The Right Man at the Met" [Winter 1991), David Wagner comments, "It is hard to find a responsible music critic who thinks Levine is a positively bad music director." I hardly consider myself irresponsible for having taken Levine to task for his heavy-handed musical approach ["Why Levine?" The New Criterion, April 1990]. Levine's conducting is generally characterized by fitful and disorienting stops and starts. It is not often that he is able to achieve musical coherence-even in such well-known staples of the repertoire as Tosca or The Flying Dutchman.
Few would quibble with Wagner's claim that the Met rightly concentrates on the operatic "canon." It is the way in which this canon has been staged, of late, that is the issue. Otto Schenk's Ring is a good example of an undistinguished Met staging. Reflecting that director's gifts for the intimate gestures of the cabaret stage, the production may have its moments on television, but in the opera house it is hardly memorable.
David Wagner replies:
As to the Ring, the Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen production does not depend on television to make its effects. It features excellent use of intimate gesture, as Ms. Mack acknowledges, but these can be equally effective in a "symbolic" production, as was demonstrated by Chéreau at Bayreuth. The great step that the Met's production takes is to put such direction into eye-filling, representational stage-pictures. This is appreciated much better in the house than on television.