New Mayor, Same Problems

Democrats Take City Hall
After 12 Bloomberg Years
And Eight Under Giuliani
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Monday, December 30th, 2013

This is a time of transition in New York City government. A twelve year period of relative tranquility is ending and a newly elected administration is starting in. Ideologically, from what they say, the Bill de Blasio administration wants to make a sharp turn to the left, viewing Bloomberg as a creature of the old regime. Certainly the substantial vote by which he was elected gives the new mayor a popular mandate. It is not clear, however, exactly what that mandate is for.

Is it for balancing the budget, or borrowing to close the gap? Is it for reducing expenditures or embarking on new programs like all day kindergarten? Is it for stricter law enforcement or against some police practices?

Mayor Bloomberg leaves office amid substantial public satisfaction with the job he has done over the last twelve years. The administration has been honest and its statements generally reasonable. Every now and then the mayor got into trouble for saying something, usually true, which offended people, but there has been nothing which would get him thrown off television.

The mayor is not a particularly appealing public figure. He is at heart a businessman – an enormously successful one. He has taken remarkable initiatives in the field of public health, an area in which there is a school named for him at Johns Hopkins University, his alma matter. Out of public office, he plans to be a citizen of the world. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are his exemplars.


His public persona is somewhat guarded, surely not exuberant. Very rich people often assume that others are only interested in separating them from their money, and often they are right. With regard to New York it is the city fisc that the mayor is looking after. It requires Sisyphean labors to keep as much as possible from the labor unions, suppliers, contractors, judges who mandate costs on the city without any way to pay for them and all others who see the $70 billion that the city spends each year and want a little more of it for themselves, their patrons and their paymasters.

One remarkable thing about this administration is that it was led by a man with no political experience. This turned out to be beneficial since the mayor was reluctant to make the thousand compromises which are frequently required to get legislation enacted or a budget approved. Sometimes in the end he prevailed, sometimes not.

The unlimited personal resources he brought to the office helped him enormously in getting his way on a variety of disputed issues. Even thought he lost on some big ones – congestion pricing, a west side stadium, stop and frisk (if the latest court ruling is sustained) – he was always a force to be reckoned with. When the council overrode his vetoes, which it mainly did in the fourth year of his third term, the mayor usually had right, reason and the editorial boards of the newspapers on his side.

There is no question that the city prospered and grew during the Bloomberg years. The astonishing record of crime in major categories dropping by historic margins made New York a safer city and encouraged people to go out and use its surrounds.

The principal unsolved problem is education. Are our children being trained to hold the increasingly complex jobs which are now required of the workforce? Despite the billions of additional dollars that have been thrown at the problem, the results have not been inspiring. Of course, we do not know how bad the situation would be if the mayor did not take the initiatives he did to improve the system. We should all know that money can solve certain problems, but not others. The best ways to promote literacy and numeracy in children may not yet have been found.

We appreciate mayor Bloomberg’s service, his commitment and all of the good things that he achieved. We hope the new mayor improves on the high standard Mayor Bloomberg has set, but it would be disingenuous for us not to say in the first days of the new team that we are concerned about what may lie ahead. The first question: what will you do about next year’s budget?

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