City budget relies on economic optimism

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signs New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signs the paid sick leave bill into law on March 20, 2014. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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The city's budget for the year that starts July 1 comes bulging with new cash for more than a few decent causes -- ranging from free lunches for all middle school students to more cops on the streets, to millions for better mental health programs on Rikers Island.

Thanks to an economy that's finally rolling again, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council were able to hammer out a $75-billion blueprint for fiscal 2015 -- $5 billion more than last year's budget -- without a tax hike.

While that formula works for now, it's only good so long as the economy chugs along without a stumble. Factor in the cost of pay raises for teachers and other city workers in the years ahead, and any major economic bump down the road could lead to trouble.

One unanswered question: Will the city be able to achieve a planned savings of around $3.4 billion in worker health care costs in the near future? Or will taxpayers get left holding the bag? Arguments are raging.

Meanwhile, de Blasio and council leaders congratulated each other last week for negotiating the budget in a spirit of "inclusion." But what this amounted to was an amicable agreement between a left-leaning Democratic mayor and a left-leaning Democratic council.

The budget does have some things to like:

$32.5 million to upgrade mental health programs for city inmates on troubled Rikers Island. The result should be jail system that's less violent and more humane.

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$19 million to tackle violent crime in public housing.

$15.5 million for better upkeep and security in parks.

$6.25 million for free lunches to all middle-schoolers in the city's system.

$6.2 million to hire 200 civilians for NYPD desk jobs and put 200 pencil-pushing officers back on the streets.

Among the budget's worst features:

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$50 million in member items, money council members can use for district projects that strike their fancy. This year's payout will give members an average of $980,000 in walking-around cash. The ritual ought to be eliminated.

Bottom line: Cross your fingers and hope for a good run.

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