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Mayor talks of bus strike, budget cuts with reporters

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From the health-care demands of striking Queens bus workers to the dire need for more classroom space in the borough, Mayor Michael Bloomberg gives a simple explanation of why the city is not doing more to resolve the county’s most pressing crises: It just can’t afford to.

The impact of the city’s $5-billion budget deficit was the overriding theme during a breakfast session Bloomberg held Friday at City Hall with community newspapers from Queens and Manhattan days after the approval of the city budget and just before he was set to assume control of the public school system.

“We’re going to have some very tough times and we’re going to have to make some tough decisions,” Bloomberg said after warning that more cuts may come down the line.

Although the mayor repeatedly has claimed that the city plays no role in the stalled contract negotiations that prompted the strike by workers at three private bus companies in Queens, he clarified his position Friday by attributing the city’s inaction to the budget crisis.

“The city doesn’t have the money to pay, and we’re going to have less money to pay going forward,” Bloomberg said. “I think that they should work it out.”

The buses operated by Queens Surface Corp., Triboro Coach and Jamaica Buses have sat idle since June 17, when employees represented by Transit Workers Union Local 100 walked out to protest the city’s refusal to increase health benefits at the rate they claim originally was promised. Union officials believe the health plan will go broke under the city’s proposed 3.5 percent increase over two years.

Bloomberg denied that the city ever made promises about health coverage. Although the city heavily subsidizes the bus service, the mayor said the three bus companies would have to dig into their own pockets to finance the union’s demands.

“We are doing everything we can to help the people in Queens,” Bloomberg said. “But are we going to go and take more money that we don’t have? Which teachers would you like to fire in Queens, which schools would you like to close, in order to divert money? We’re going to have to make those types of decisions, and you don’t want to do that.”

Budget cuts also have obstructed plans to build more schools in Queens, where classrooms are more overcrowded than anywhere in the city. Queens lost $693 million in the capital construction budget for schools, pushing back many projects until the next five-year capital plan begins in 2005, former Queens Board of Ed. representative Terri Thomson said last week.

But the mayor again said his hands were tied by the city’s overburdened coffers.

“We’re going to have to find ways with the existing resources to do a better job,” Bloomberg said. “I’d love to have more classroom space, but there just isn’t the money to do that.”

Bloomberg said he hopes to alleviate school crowding by establishing a City University of New York campus on the federally owned Governor’s Island, which would free up college buildings around the city for conversion to public schools.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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