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Council budget reverses cuts proposed by mayor

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Queens could get the new schools it was promised, but only if the mayor agrees to raise taxes.

The City Council, in its response to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s budget, added a $5 billion long-term capital plan, which would provide the funding to build 26 schools, adding 42,000 seats around the five boroughs. Some of the new schools had been put on hold last year due to a shortfall in the city’s school construction capital budget and proposed cuts in the mayor’s budget.

“Our theme for this budget is education,” said City Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis), head of the Finance Committee. “Education of the city’s children is a priority and we have dealt with the cuts in two ways.”

Weprin said the Council has restored the $344 million in funding that the mayor eliminated from the school system. The $190 million cut from the school districts was put back and the $154 million the Board of Education said it could trim in administration cost was also earmarked by the Council for individual school districts, he said.

The City Council plans to pay for the $5 billion capital plan, he said, by floating bonds. To pay off the debt the Council proposed a $400 million personal income tax surcharge. Every resident of New York City would pay the surcharge based on income. The scale would range from $5 to a high of $14,490.

“If the DeGrasse money comes in, we could end the surcharge,” Weprin said in reference to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit in which Judge Leyland DeGrasse ruled the state had shortchanged the city in educational funding.

City Councilwoman Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights) said the tax is fair, necessary and equitable. She said the children of Queens and the other boroughs need seats, computers and libraries.

“Children need to learn to read and write in a sound educational environment,” Sears said. “When I talk to people, they say they are happy to contribute and be part of the solution.”

The Council tried to be fair when looking at all of the budgetary issues, she said, but people will be angered by some of the Council’s ideas. She, for one, is willing to listen to suggestions.

“I believe we have to provide for education because it will make the city a better place to live,” she said. “It looks toward the future of the city.”

Weprin said the council plan restores 100 percent of the mayor’s cuts to the parks as well as 97 percent of the cuts to libraries and cultural organizations. He said the Council was able to find additional funding by identifying cost-saving measures. He said the Council planned to merge city agencies it viewed as duplications and eliminate deputy and associate commissioner positions.

“Now we are not doing anything until April 18, when the mayor has to respond to our budget proposal,” Weprin said. “On the 18th the negotiations begin. My guess, [the final budget] will look like something in between ours and the mayor’s.”

The budget has to be finalized by June 5.

In an effort to raise funds to balance the budget, the City Council proposed a tax on beer and wine to raise $30.5 million; a tax on absentee landlords — people who rent single-family homes but do not live in them — to raise $56 million; backing the mayor’s $1.45 tax on cigarettes to raise $250 million; creating a nickel-per-bottle disposal fee on non-carbonated drinks such as water to raise $37.5 million; and reinstallation of the commuter tax to raise $450 million.

In addition to the tax hikes, the Council proposed a number of tax breaks. Its budget proposal calls for elimination of the commercial rent tax, which would save $25 million; new business improvement districts with a tax abatement of $25 million; a sales-tax-free week around the July 4 holiday saving New Yorkers $8 million; property tax abatement for energy efficient buildings, which would create a savings of $7 million; and an earned-income tax credit saving $11 million.

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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