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Queens leaders: Budget gets praise and criticism

Politicians and labor leaders in Queens had both criticism and praise for Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed $45.7 billion budget last week, saying they wanted raises for a host of municipal employees but agreed with $400 annual tax rebates for property owners.

Borough and city residents will continue doing more with less though, according to Bloomberg, who unveiled the cautiously optimistic budget for fiscal year 2005 last Thursday at City Hall on the heels of rising Wall Street profits, a $1.4 billion surplus in the city’s coffers and demands from labor leaders that he increase salaries for public workers.

“New York City’s homeowners stepped up when the city needed them the most,” Bloomberg said. “Now that our fiscal situation has stabilized, they deserve to be rewarded for their sacrifice. While we are not out of the woods yet and the city faces considerable challenges in the future, New York’s finances are balanced and our best days are yet to come.”

But state Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin (D-Flushing), also president of the New York City Central Labor Council, slammed the mayor for continuing not to negotiate with the city’s unions following failed attempts during last year’s budget talks. He said the mayor’s productivity initiatives whereby municipal workers would work more to get hikes in pay were unacceptable.

“While the weather forecast remains frigid, the municipal labor forecast is even more bitter cold. Every municipal union is currently working without a contract and Mayor Bloomberg continues to say he will award no raises, even with a major budget surplus,” McLaughlin said. “Now is the time to invest in our public employees who have not let us down. Years of privatization and productivity schemes from City Hall have gotten us nowhere.”

Bloomberg, however, said the $1.4 billion surplus, which came as a result of the increased property tax and an improved Wall Street climate, will instead be used to stem the next two fiscal years’ budget gaps: $695 million will be allocated to close the $2 billion gap in 2005 and $695 million will be used to reduce the $3.2 billion gap in 2006.

He said the tax rebate will cost about $250 million and benefit 600,000 occupants of one-, two- and three-family homes.

Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) said he agreed with the mayor’s idea to give money back to property owners in the borough. Vallone, along with other council members in Brooklyn and Staten Island, has been one of the most vocal critics of the 18.5 percent property tax increase that went into effect last January.

“I’m ecstatic that the budget includes tax relief to homeowners which is a promise I fought for prior to the increase,” Vallone said. “I am also happy that the budget proposal contains minimum cuts to the police and fire departments, which I will fight to restore.”

Bloomberg and the City Council will now negotiate for the next six months about the breadth and depth of the city budget for fiscal year 2005, which begins in July. The City Council has yet to introduce its budget but has hinted at offering a wider property tax rebate than under Bloomberg’s plan.

Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) said the mayor’s proposed budget hinges on a host of funds that could or could not materialize. The budget includes $500 million that the city could lose if state courts turn down its appeal to reorganize interest payments from debt incurred in the 1970s.

Liu pointed out another $150 million could evaporate from the $45.7 billion proposal if the city fails to take over private bus companies in the borough.

“If this is to actually happen by July 1, 2004, the city and the MTA must work more rapidly to come up with such a takeover plan,” Liu said.

But the major critiques of the mayor’s plan came from labor groups focused on what to do with the $1.4 billion surplus. Lillian Roberts, executive director of the citywide union District Council 37, said city employees deserve to be paid more and have been hit hard by higher costs of living offset by low salaries.

“We have members who earn an average of $29,000 a year, and we urge the mayor to try to understand what it is like for them. Many are raising families on this salary and having trouble making ends meet,” she said. “With transit hikes and higher taxes, everything has been raised but their salaries. We urgently need a fair contract now.”

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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