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De Blasio budget to put numbers behind promises

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers remarks at Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson's inauguration at Steiner Studios on Feb. 09, 2014. Credit: Charles Eckert

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio will translate his campaign pledge to battle income inequality into hard numbers this week when he unveils his opening proposals on the city's $70 billion budget.

Taken together, de Blasio's first State of the City speech Monday and the budget draft for 2014-15 he releases Wednesday are the opening steps of a bargaining process that runs through June, with the mayor's office, the City Council, the five boroughs, nonprofits, lobbyists, labor unions and other interest groups all jockeying over spending.

"There's a time to campaign . . . and then there's a time to govern," said Harvey Robins, a former operations director under Mayor David Dinkins. "You could run excellent campaigns, but where the rubber meets the road is the choices you make."

In previewing Monday's speech, de Blasio has spoken of working "to make this one city, where everyone rises together," and vowing to take on "big challenges with bold, progressive solutions."

But the mayor also said last week that the budget would uphold "fiscal stability" -- a signal to both those seeking funds and those fearing wholesale giveaways to the 152 labor unions with expired contracts.

The unions, which cover most of the city's 300,000 employees, are clamoring for pay hikes and retroactive raises. De Blasio's predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, warned that granting the back pay could blow an $8 billion hole in the budget.

Maria Doulis, of the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission, said that the scale of de Blasio's spending ambitions would hinge partly on how conservatively he and his team forecast future revenue, which depends largely on the health of the economy.

"If you're expecting more revenue, you have more resources to do policies and programs -- assuming, of course, your assumptions are proven to be correct," Doulis said.

The city's Independent Budget Office has forecast a $1.9 billion surplus for 2015, but that figure does not factor in potential labor-settlement costs.

While Bloomberg handed over a budget he boasted was balanced, de Blasio never fully bought into that notion, calling the open labor contracts "a huge asterisk."

Thomas L. McMahon, a former general counsel to the City Council and now a lobbyist, said the budget will likely suggest how much de Blasio wants to set aside for labor contracts.

The city's budget -- bigger than that of all but a few states and which by law must be balanced -- pays the salaries of cops, firefighters and teachers, keeps parks open, delivers food to senior citizens, shelters the homeless, contributes to the pensions of retirees, keeps inmates in jail and much more.

Much of it -- 63 percent -- is funded by taxes: income, property, sales, business. De Blasio has repeatedly vowed not to raise property taxes, one of the few in which the city can set rates on its own.

Budget watchers expect de Blasio's fiscal plan will reflect the assumption that he'll get Albany's green light to hike taxes on people with incomes above $500,000, which would raise $530 million a year to fund universal full-day prekindergarten and after-school programs for middle schoolers.

"If you don't build it into your budget plan, you could be sending the reverse message: that you don't think this is happening, or there's a low probability of it happening," said Douglas Turetsky of the city's Independent Budget Office.

If de Blasio loses the fight, "then you have to adjust accordingly," he said.

Randy Mastro, a former top deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration, said the budget would show de Blasio's preferences on a broad range of municipal matters.

"You're going to want to see whether he's cutting police or fire, or whether he's increasing education, what he's done to charter schools," Mastro said.

De Blasio has also pledged to stop using fines levied against small business as revenue boosters. Less aggressive enforcement could mean the standing estimate for 2014 -- $811 million in collections of fines -- about $500 million of which from parking violations -- would have to be lowered.


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