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New York Post

 

Real Public Needs

July 29, 2013

By Nicole Gelinas

Subways v. housing projects

Two of New York’s massive public authorities — the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York City Housing Authority — held budget meetings last week. As usual, both are chronically broke.

How the top mayoral candidates react to these permanent funding woes says a lot about how each would govern. Can our next mayor figure out which agency is a real public service?

The MTA is in the black — but just barely, and only temporarily. New chief Tom Prendergast looks set for an easy first year — budget-wise — with next year’s $14.3 billion budget showing a $6 million surplus, thanks to a better economy plus past cost-cutting. The MTA is adding bus and train service.

Longer term, though, it faces real problems. Retiree, health-care and debt costs are rising from 37.7 percent to 40 percent of the budget over three years.

That’s largely why the MTA faces $240 million in deficits from 2015 to 2017 — even after collecting $1.9 billion worth of new fare and toll hikes.

The agency is doing smart good stuff — spending a one-shot influx of revenues from real-estate taxes to help plug pension deficits, and squirreling money away for retiree health care, something the city no longer does.

Also unlike City Hall, the MTA’s stopped talking about “uncontrollable” spending. Instead, it refers to things as spending that was “previously considered ‘uncontrollable.’”

Its biggest problem, however, is its next multibillion-dollar capital plan, the long-term investment program that starts in 2015. The feds paid for $6.6 billion of the last capital plan — but they’re cutting budgets now, so we probably won’t see that much cash again.

The MTA will dedicate its profits from real-estate sales to the capital budget — but that’s only about $600 million, if all goes well. So if the city wants to keep investing in transit, it will have to put in more than the $762 million it provided last time.

Yet money is finite — New York City faces a $2 billion deficit next year. And it’s even more finite if you spend it on the wrong thing — which brings us to the Housing Authority, a k a NYCHA, whose budget is a complete disaster.

Rents — including federal vouchers — cover only two-thirds of its $3 billion a year in costs. So NYCHA has a chronic $1 billion shortfall. ’Til now, that’s been papered over by federal subsidies, but the feds have cut back.

On top of that, NYCHA has $13 billion in repairs it knows it needs to do, with no cash to do them. And it too faces rising labor costs.

When a public-housing tenant wonders why NYCHA can’t remove mold, she should consider that NYCHA’s cost per employee has risen from $60,000 to more than $90,000 in a decade. Workers now cost the authority $1.3 billion a year, thanks to rising pension and health costs. Even as it has slashed staff from 14,000 to 11,000, its costs go up.

Will the next mayor use the city’s finite resources to plug this maw?

City Council Speaker Quinn already did: She got $58 million restored to this year’s city budget to replace federal funds.

At forum after forum this election season — even before staging their public-housing sleepover two weekends ago — candidates have stood by sympathetically as NYCHA residents castigated the city for poor conditions.

Quinn and ex-Comptroller Bill Thompson oppose NYCHA’s efforts to build market-rate housing on vacant land to cover its deficits. Thompson called it a “terrible idea.” OK — so how will they fill those shortfalls? Do they want to spend more taxpayer money on NYCHA so that subsidized tenants don’t lose their views?

(Anthony Weiner, for all his supposed policy passion, has nothing to say other than that we should “improve” public housing.)

No one — including on the Republican side — points out the obvious: With the average public-housing family paying just $436 a month in rent, NYCHA’s revenues are never going to cover its costs.

The candidates would argue that public housing is a public service. Sorry — for something to be public, anyone can use it.

With 167,000 families on a years-long waiting list, it’s hardly reasonable to say that anyone has access to public housing. And with only 47.5 percent of public-housing households working, the authority’s not exactly a critical support for the local economy.

Subways are public, and vital to the city economy.

New York needs a mayor who knows the difference between a core public service and a special-interest pander.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/real_public_needs_VSn3VOCdOYnax03s4FEeTK

 

 
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