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New York Post

 

No Time To Waste

January 04, 2011

By Nicole Gelinas

Behind NYC’s services crisis

Mayor Bloomberg suffered a governance meltdown last week, as unplowed snow blocked streets for days. But snow, at least, melts. The bigger disaster is still accumulating -- and New Yorkers haven’t yet seen the extent of the damage.

When Bloomberg took office, Gotham spent $1.3 billion annually on the Sanitation Department.

Today, we spend more than $2.2 billion on “New York’s Strongest.”

That increase is almost 3½ times the inflation rate. It follows that we should have a sanitation army sufficiently equipped to clean up the white (or gray) stuff fast.

Do we? Not quite.

Today’s budgeted sanitation force -- from supervisors to garbage collectors -- is 392 people smaller than nine years ago, a 4 percent decline even as New York City’s population is up. And the department will shrink further, as Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith knocks 200 people off the rolls to save $21 million by “modifying the supervisor span of control.”

Where did the money go? To pensions, health care and debt. Taxpayers now spend $144,000 in salary and benefits for each sanitation worker, up from $79,000 nearly a decade ago.

Nine years ago, taxpayers contributed about $10.5 million annually to support sanitation pensions. This year, it’ll cost $240 million -- a more than 20-fold increase. Back then, health and other “fringe” benefits for the department cost $150 million; they’ve since more than doubled to $313 million.

As for sanitation debt, in 2002, it cost $119.6 million. Today, it’s nearly $265 million, a 121 percent hike.

There’s nothing wrong with borrowing to improve productivity, through, say, better trucks, but we’ve borrowed to avoid the reality of personnel costs. Bloomberg realizes full well that public-worker benefits are creating a permanent crisis for Gotham, as pension and health-care bills consume resources that should be going toward the services. As he has said, “The time has come to bring our municipal pension system in line with reality . . . It’s costing taxpayers a fortune, and they’re not getting any services or benefits from it.”

Problem is, Bloomberg said that two years ago -- and sanitation and other uniformed workers still retire after 20 years, with overtime money to pad their pensions. To be fair, the mayor has stopped giving out big raises without asking workers for anything in return -- and he does need Albany’s help on pensions (although not on health benefits).

To Gotham’s detriment, though, the mayor’s plan has been to try futilely to manage the impossible. That is, he’s chopping spending on actual services and investment, bringing in people such as Goldsmith, an “urban innovator,” to figure out how to do this smartly so that people don’t notice a change.

Sure, New York should ferret out waste, fraud and abuse -- and better manage costs and staffing, too. But this strategy is like using a plastic shovel instead of a snowplow -- it ain’t gonna do the job.

Plus, the snowstorm has made it obvious that New York under Bloomberg has not perfected public-sector management to such an extent that it can cut and cut and cut to feed the benefits monster without harming the public.

Nor are other panaceas, like privatization, going to save us. Sure, the mayor could privatize residential sanitation. But this effort would require more public-sector competence, not less, than the old-fashioned way, as the recent “CityTime” private-contractor scandal shows. City Hall would have to make sure, for example, that bidders were competing and not colluding.

There really is no alternative. We’ve got to fix the retirement benefits so that we can still afford some ho-hum public-sector inefficiencies.

It’s not just the crisis of snow removal. A month ago, the mayor asked city agencies to plan for 20 percent cuts in investment projects -- everything from fixing bridges to, well, buying garbage trucks.

The results of these cutbacks won’t be as in-your-face as dirty snow. But we need these projects if New York is to grow. It’s not like the mayor’s people are going to surgically find all the waste, fraud and abuse and make sure that cuts come from that.

Bloomberg should direct his innovators to focus on where the money is. He could run a media campaign to make sure that the public understands that Gov. Cuomo must make wholesale pension change so that new workers, not taxpayers, take more responsibility for their retirements.

Further, as the mayor gets tough on labor, he needs an old-fashioned labor-war veteran to keep an eye on workers to make sure they’re not “innovating” with stealth work slowdowns.

There’s no time to waste. Over the next three years, benefit costs will pile up by another 8.1 percent annually, and debt, 9 percent. Meanwhile, the services people demand will deteriorate.

We don’t need another blizzard to figure out that this isn’t working.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/no_time_to_waste_lUTXa5J0MC677GWwmK7iXJ

 

 
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