New York mayor Bill de Blasio has spent recent months field-testing his new slogan, “There’s plenty of money in this country; it’s just in the wrong hands,” on television, in speeches, and at sparsely attended candidate forums in New Hampshire and Iowa. The motto may not launch him to national political stature, but it has already gotten a good workout in New York over the last five years, as applied to the city’s budget process. With a strong stock market, steady job growth, and robust real-estate valuations pumping revenue into the city’s fisc, de Blasio has never had to budget, in the householder’s sense: to choose between competing priorities or to cut back on luxuries. New York City’s luckiest mayor has enjoyed a spending spree, eager to satisfy the whims of any constituent organization or voting base. One of his first acts in office was to settle a long-standing lawsuit by the Central Park Five, whose 1990 convictions for rape, riot, and assault, affirmed on appeal, were vacated in 2002. The mayor, fulfilling a campaign pledge, reversed the city’s decade-long refusal to settle, paying $41 million to the men whose taped confessions had satisfied two juries of their guilt.
Around the same time, the mayor capitulated on a long legal battle regarding alleged discrimination against blacks seeking to become firemen. The plaintiffs claimed that their failure to pass a standardized test required for the position demonstrated that the test was racially discriminatory. De Blasio ordered the city to pay $98 million in “back pay” to these firefighters—who had never been hired.
The mayor also awarded back pay to New York City teachers, whose union had been locked in a contract dispute with the city. Though the teachers had received automatic cost-of-living pay adjustments during the years that they worked without a new contract, the mayor accepted their argument that they were owed a retroactive raise. Totaling more than $5 billion, this payout was too much for the city to afford at once and had to be amortized into the future. The city will make the final lump-sum payment in October 2020.
Under de Blasio, New York City’s budget has expanded by some $20 billion, and is expected to total about $93 billion for the coming fiscal year. Expenditures have ballooned three times as fast as the rate of inflation. One of the main cost-drivers has been personnel: the mayor added about 35,000 employees to the city payroll, each entitled to free health care, courtesy of the taxpayer. Growth in social services has been particularly vigorous, with spending on homeless services more than doubling, to $3 billion annually. Homelessness itself, however, appears to be getting worse: half of the city’s unsheltered (or “street” homeless) population lives in the subway system, according to current estimates. Many have serious, untreated mental illnesses, but ThriveNYC, the mayor’s signature mental-health initiative—run by his wife, a former publicist—is focused on helping mildly depressed but functional New Yorkers get therapy. This anodyne program has cost $565 million; its own administrators are unsure where all the money went.
Other major initiatives have similarly foundered. New York Works was supposed to create 100,000 “good-paying jobs.” After shelling out $300 million, the program can point to 3,000 jobs that can—perhaps—be credited to its efforts. De Blasio reversed Michael Bloomberg’s policy of shuttering failing schools, instead vowing to turn them around. Consisting of intensive resource allocation—including, in some cases, the installation of laundry facilities, so that parents would have a convenient place to wash the family’s clothes—the Renewal Schools program soaked up $750 million before the mayor announced that it hadn’t worked. Every year, de Blasio asks the city council to provide $42 million to school-bus companies to supplement the wages of drivers. This unusual arrangement, which may be illegal, is meant to make up for some drivers’ loss of seniority protections when, under Bloomberg, old transportation contracts were put out for bidding.
The list goes on and on: the expansion of the mayor’s senior staff, with dozens of “special assistants” making six-figure salaries; $100 million a year to advertise the availability of primary-care clinics to illegal immigrants; the addition of thousands of new vehicles to the city’s fleet; the provision of free lawyers for people fighting deportation cases in regional detention facilities, many of whom don’t even live in New York City. When you’re convinced that money is “in the wrong hands,” moving it around is easy.
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