BY ANGELA MONTEFINISE
The City Council was talking of “victories for the people,” while Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller excitedly shook hands on June 19 to symbolically seal their budget agreement for Fiscal Year 2003.
Yet as the news was heralded this week, the tough question remained: What does the budget really mean to the people of Queens?
City Councilwoman Helen Sears told the Tribune and the people of Queens plainly, “That budget, my God, it’s their life. It’s this budget, when they walk out their front doors, that ensures that they have a quality-of-life. That their children receive the best education, that their basic services are provided, that they have senior centers to go to, that they have day care slots to use . . . It’s this budget that structures the lives of New Yorkers.”
The budget agreement made last week – which distributes $42.3 billion and restores $475 million of the $1.4 billion originally slated to be cut by Bloomberg – includes no cuts to Queens classrooms, six-day-a-week library service, the continuation of paper and metal recycling, a $1.42 tax increase on cigarettes, $1 million for the College Point Sports Complex, $300,000 for ferry service to the Rockaways, and the continued operation of the borough’s cultural programs, among other things.
However, it also includes a $693 million cut to the Board of Education’s capital plan, which school officials say will delay the construction of 7,000 new school seats in Queens, something the borough is in desperate need of.
The Council voted to pass the budget on June 21, and now the City is awaiting Bloomberg’s signature, which at presstime was expected any day, but has to happen before June 30.
While the City Council has been proudly discussing its restoration of nearly $300 million in funding that Bloomberg proposed to cut in his executive budget, Board of Education officials are warning Queens residents that a major cut to capital projects could hurt the school system more than help it.
According to Queens Councilmembers, their ability to restore all $298 million in proposed cuts to New York City classrooms was their proudest achievement in the budget process. The highly-publicized restoration means ongoing after-school and arts programs, better classroom technology, improved text books and equipment, and a better school environment for Queens students, according to Councilman David Weprin.
What has not been publicized, however, is a $693 million cut from the Board of Education’s capital plan, which funds school construction and is key in stopping the borough’s severe school overcrowding problem.
Weprin explained that the Board of Education’s capital budget cut was part of a necessary $3 billion to $4 billion cut to the City’s overall capital budget. He said, “No schools have been selected so far to be delayed because of the cuts. We don’t know if Queens schools will be cut. Come July 1, it’s all negotiable.”
Still, Queens Board of Education member Terri Thomson told the Tribune, “That will absolutely devastate Queens. All we’ve been hearing is that schools have not been cut. Well in Queens alone, we are short 25,000 seats, and the budget cut to capital projects will delay the construction of 7,000 new seats. We can’t delay these projects any further. We simply cannot.”
Councilman Leroy Comrie agreed with Thomson, and said, “Those cuts are going to harm Queens more than any other place because we are so overcrowded . . . That was a $700 million gap that we just couldn’t close because we didn’t have enough tax revenues coming in.”
Money Saved For ‘Senior Borough’
While focusing on children, the City also restored $14 million of Bloomberg’s proposed $28 million cut for the New York City Department for the Aging, allowing weekend meal service for seniors to continue and senior centers to remain fully funded.
The Queens senior center closest to being shut down because of budget cuts was the JASA Whitestone Senior Center in Whitestone, one of seven specific centers that the Department proposed to close as a result of Bloomberg’s proposed cuts.
In addition to senior centers, the Mayor restored $400,000 and the Council $25,000 to the elder abuse program Walk the Walk in the budget. The program includes a center for abused seniors that is currently being constructed in Western Queens. In Bloomberg’s original budget, all funding was pulled from the program, which would be the first of its kind in the country. With the restored funding, the program can continue to build its center, which is expected to open as scheduled.
Keeping The Streets Safe
Although the restoration of funds to schools and seniors were at the top of almost every Councilperson’s list of budget positives, Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr., who is also the Council’s Public Safety Chairman, was most proud of the fact that, “the streets will be safe because not one cop will be cut.”
Bloomberg’s proposed budget called for the next class of New York Police Department recruits to enter the academy later in the year instead of July when they are supposed to, delaying when they get out on the street. The budget that passed last week keeps recruits entering the academy in July.
Cuts were made to the Police Department and Fire Department, according to Vallone, Jr., but he said, “The bottom-line is, nothing in the City was going to go totally unaffected. But it’s important to have enough officers on the street, and that’s what we were able to keep . . . Most of the cuts, as in all the agencies, were administrative cuts.”
Funding Queens Fun, Both Indoors and Outdoors
Queens’ cultural institutions – from Flushing Town Hall to Alley Pond Environmental Center to the Queens Museum of Art to Bayside Historical Society to P.S. 1 – were originally slated to be cut 15 percent in an across-the-board cultural cut proposed by Bloomberg in his budget. Under the new budget, the paintings, plays and programs that these institutions offer will only be cut five percent.
In addition, the New York City parks Department, an agency that has been cut 40 percent over the past 15 years, was slated for huge cuts to its operating budget, but the City budget agreement restored $7.5 million. This will allow full maintenance of Queens Parks to continue.
For residents who want to stay indoors and read, the Queens Borough Public Library will be able to stay open six days a week as a result of $7 million in funding that was restored in the new budget. Bloomberg’s original budget cuts to libraries would have forced many branches to close on Saturdays.
Balancing By Taxing
To balance the budget, the Council instituted several taxes that will “impact the lives of Queens residents directly,” according to Weprin. Comrie said, “We needed revenue to balance the budget and we instituted taxes. These are real taxes. People need to realize this.”
Queens smokers will have to pay $1.42 more for a pack of cigarettes in the new Fiscal Year, according to Weprin, because the cigarette tax has been increased from eight cents to $1.50. There will also be a surcharge on every phone call made from a cell phone in New York City, and parking violation fines are scheduled to go up. Weprin said, “All sorts of fines for violations will go up to get revenue. Sanitation violations and so on will all cost people more.”
Vallone Jr. said, “I’m proud of what the Council did without raising property taxes.”
Councilman Jim Gennaro agreed, saying, “To do what we did without raising property taxes is an enormous feat.”
What We Didn’t Get
Although most Councilmembers called the budget a “victory,” there were some items that they did not win.
Some councilmembers pointed to the budget’s addition of 3,000 day care slots to the City system, and said they are not enough to meet the City’s demand. Comrie said, “There is a waiting list for day care slots of 5,000 people in New York City. We just can’t meet the needs of everyone in the City. We can’t build at a fast enough rate. That will definitely impact my district.”
In addition, although the budget agreement allowed paper and metal recycling to continue, plastic recycling was suspended one year and glass recycling was suspended two years. Weprin said, “We really wanted to keep the recycling program in full, and that was one of our sticking points. But barring any legislation, those programs will be back after their suspended time.”
The budget agreement also slightly cuts back on supplemental garbage pick-up in busy areas like downtown Flushing and Forest Hills. Katz said the Council also wished there was money for health care research, but said, “This is the fairest budget we could put together with the money we had. Basically, anything we really fought for within reason we were able to secure.”
The process of crafting a billion-dollar budget begins when the Mayor proposes a preliminary budget. The Council responds with its own budget, and then the Mayor responds with his executive budget. Budget hearings then begin, when City organizations go before different Council committees and explain why they should be given money. Councilmembers listen to their constituents, and negotiate with the Mayor to save programs in their districts.
Negotiations then continue until an agreement is made. The City is required by law to have a balanced budget by June 30, the day before the new Fiscal Year begins. Once an agreement is made, the Council votes for it, then the Mayor signs it.
Funded For Queens
The following Queens programs are among those funded in the FY 2003 budget:
• $1 million to pay for a disparity study to determine if the City has discriminated against Minority/Women Business Enterprises
• $300,000 to help bring ferry service to the Rockaways
• $7 million to the Queens Public Library system, ensuring six day-a-week service
• $924,000 to help keep the JASA Whitestone Senior Center open along with subsidized meals for seniors throughout the borough
• $2 million for the Immigrants Initiative, to help to provide English language courses and legal services to new immigrants.
• $ 6 million for parks throughout the City and additional funds for various Queens parks and recreational program.