As the governor’s coronavirus restrictions are lifted, New Yorkers are right to celebrate the resurgence of their social lives and the reclamation of our city as the cultural hub of America. But before the champagne goes flat, City Hall must take a sober look at how we spend our $6 billion in flexible federal aid to ensure that we have a rapid and equitable economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now is the time to place New York back on a solid financial footing, and not to pursue pet projects with our one-time federal injection. A failure to allocate these funds wisely will only exacerbate the delays of our recovery and wind up leading to long-term spending growth and unnecessary fiscal stress. Unfortunately, the mayor’s plan resembles less the work of a skilled seaman, and more that of a “drunken sailor,” as it was put by a former president of the Citizens Budget Commission.
We’ve seen plenty of mayors spend haphazardly in election years to boost themselves in reelection, but de Blasio is termed out. He’s supposed to be thinking about his legacy, and what he’s leaving New York is barrels of red ink.
Some of the proposals have been headline-grabbers. De Blasio plans on forming a New Deal-like City Cleanup Corps, for example, hiring 10,000 individuals to jobs remarkably similar to what we already pay the members of the Department of Sanitation to do.
Others are more problematic. Using one-shot federal stimulus dollars over the next two years to expand his 3-K program does fund a city priority, one which parents like and which my own son benefits from, but what happens in budgets further down the road? City Hall is acting as if this is not a tab that will come due in just a few short years. We often surmise how an increase in government spending is a mortgage our grandchildren must pay, but this is all but ensuring a tax hike will be necessary in the next administration.
The same is true of the ballooning city payroll. To be clear, the mayor has already increased the city payroll by 30,000 people during his two terms. Yet despite the prudence of his bit of belt-tightening earlier in the pandemic, the manna from heaven that now fills the city’s coffers allows him to pay for 5,000 new positions. Again, the taxpayers are on the hook for these salaries, pensions and benefits long-term, but also in the near future when the federal money runs dry.
The mayor isn’t hiding any of this. There are no parlor tricks or three-card Monte. His financial plan clearly shows a budget deficit of exceeding $4 billion each year after fiscal year 2022. It is just that there is no acknowledgment that the actions City Hall takes today are the cause of them.
Maybe he doesn’t mind because it’s all part of the plan. Just as right-wingers are often cited as trying to drown the government in the bathtub, de Blasio has long had the opposite long-term goal: to grow government for its own sake. Even before the pandemic, he’s at least been honest with us about his flirtations with socialism. He and many in the City Council see the public sector as the solution to all of our problems, not just some of them. Ironically, when the administration successfully implemented universal Pre-K in his first term, it was done so through the revenue growth of a booming private sector, and not the tax hikes he wanted then, and seemingly is condemning us to now.
New York City has lost 500,000 private-sector jobs since March 2020, some of them high-paying, but all of them household-supporting. Since City Hall gets a 3-4% cut of all these salaries, in addition to a take from all the ancillary taxes they generate, one would incorrectly assume that the administration’s priority for spending our flexible aid falls on restoring them.
Therein lies the fundamental problem with the current proposals: They do little to address the economic distress caused by COVID within private sector industries that have long fueled our ability to grow government spending at a reasonable pace. Instead, the plan seems to be to grow the permanent government in advance, even though the money only covers the first year or two. The mayor is giving us a free year of HBO and no real way to cancel it or pay for it when the bill comes due later.
For New York City, implementing far-reaching government expansions long-term are impossible without a correlating growth in the private economy. Our mayor and my colleagues on the Council must understand that and make it more reflective of our upcoming budget this month for the next fiscal year.
Borelli, a Republican, represents Staten Island in the City Council.