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Budget cuts to borough eased in final agreement

The new city budget will not be as hard on Queens as first feared under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s original proposals, but the cuts that remain are likely to reverberate throughout the borough during the next few years.

The agreement on a $42.3 billion budget between Bloomberg and the City Council last week restores a large chunk of the education funding, keeps libraries open six day a week hours, does not close any senior centers and maintains the summer jobs program.

But some changes approved in the accord, which eliminates the $5 billion budget deficit facing the city, will have a sizable impact on Queens and the other boroughs. The budget calls for cuts in city services, suspension of some recycling, shrinking of the Police Department through attrition, canceling some ambulance services and imposing a $1.50 tax on cigarettes.

The city’s fiscal crisis, after a nearly 10-year period of economic prosperity, has been blamed on the local and national recession and the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

“This year’s budget was passed in a fiscal crisis with a spirit of cooperation and shared sacrifice,” Bloomberg said. “Despite the tremendous challenges we faced this year, we were able to fulfill our responsibility to this city by passing a budget that is fair, compassionate and does more with less.”

He said the budget compromises closes the $5 billion shortfall facing the city in the 2003 fiscal year, which starts on July 1, without any layoffs or new taxes. Bloomberg said cost-saving measures, shrinking city agencies and partnerships with state and federal government as well as the municipal labor unions enabled the city to put together a “responsible budget.”

Queens, which has the worst school overcrowding in the city, could have faced an even bigger battle to educate the borough’s children if the mayor’s full $358 million cut to the educational system had passed. The Council — aided by state lawmakers in Albany — was able to restore $300 million in the educational budget.

Libraries and cultural institutions, which are vital to the borough because of the programs each provides, were spared a 15 percent cut to their $390 operating budget and will only absorb a 5 percent cut. This will allow libraries to maintain hours six days a week.

“Libraries, cultural institutions and parks are essential for our general quality of life in Queens,” said City Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis), who is chairman of the Council’s Finance Committee. “The restoration to these three areas were essential to the borough.”

In addition, Weprin said putting $300 million back into the budget for education was crucial to maintaining the school districts that are meeting the educational standards and helping those districts that are not up to par.

“I think the budget protects Queens’ children and senior citizens, who are the most vulnerable,” he said.

Senior centers and summer jobs initiative were spared when the city found $175 million more from the 2002 budget than expected. Queens has the largest number of seniors and a large teen population that would have been severely affected if the mayor’s proposed cuts to these programs had not been restored.

Even though many concessions were made to approve the budget, some cuts will still hit Queens. The shrinking of the Police Department through attrition could cause an uproar in many communities with a number of precinct community council leaders up-in-arms over the lack of officers needed to patrol their neighborhoods.

Some of the other cuts to balance the city’s 2003 budget were a 7 percent reduction to the Fire Department’s $1.03 billion budget, a 12 percent slashing of the $171 million Parks Department budget and a 13 percent cut to the Sanitation Department’s $981 million budget.

Besides making cuts, the city was able to close the $5 billion gap in the budget by floating a $1.5 billion bond and refinancing the city’s existing debt so payments are lowered. There is also a considerable amount of extra aid from the state and federal governments.

Budget shortfalls in the upcoming years could be greatly influenced by the 2003 budget since some of the maneuvers used to balance the books will not be available in the future. Next year the city will not be able to refinance its debt or float another $1.5 billion bond. The $275 million in state aid for teachers’ salaries for 2003 is not guaranteed in the years to come either.

Questions of a tax hike or the reinstatement of the commuter tax, which was repealed in 1999, will not be mentioned by the state’s elected officials as they begin their campaigns for re-election. New York City has lost between $360 and $500 million as a result of the commuter tax repeal.

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

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