Monday, August 02, 2010

Mother Michael: Dining on Schmucks

With school test costs plummeting in reverse proportion to the rise of the city's cost of living, when does all of the Bloomberg mania begin to chill in the cold light of a rather dismal municipal reality. After all, with pension costs skyrocketing, and taxes and fees riding the same rocket upward, when does, "we have balanced the budget responsibly each and every year," begin to grow a bit shopworn? A piece in yesterday's NY Post by Kyle Smith, underscores the high costs of the Bloomberg big government good intentions.

As Smith points out, we have a grossly over sized municipal work force tasked with a multitude of inane-and costly in the aggregate-reponsibilities: "Does 311’s website really need to operate in 57 languages, including Macedonian, Latvian, Galician, Maltese and such hobbyist tongues as Welsh and Irish? Does it really need to give us a guide to planning a funeral? If New York City doesn’t have an army, why does it have a counseling service for veterans? (And why are residents of New Jersey also eligible for it?) Do we really need 18 city anti-smoking clinics? Or a 311 iPhone app?"

And this is for an agency that is designed to help you cut through the city bureaucracy-and is the smiley face on the monster within: "At some level, 311 — and by extension the city of New York — seems to think it’s in the business of improving your life. I have an idea for how to improve my life substantially: By spending my portion of the money the city is wasting on all these guidance counselors. Including the ones working on “Homelessness prevention.”The thing is, you don’t “have the right to a healthy relationship.” And the city can’t give you that right by hiring lots of sympathetic ears to listen to your tales of all the people who “humiliate, criticize, or yell at” poor you. The real justification for the nanny state is: jobs for state nannies. Last year 409,878 people were employed by the city of New York at one time or another, according to a survey by the Empire Center for New York State Policy."

It takes a lot of money to keep this helping hand functional-and that's where all of those taxes, restaurant fines and parking tickets come in: "That’s a city within the city — a burg bigger than St. Louis or Honolulu — of people living off you and your taxes, and your parking tickets, and your propped-open-door fines. And that isn’t even counting all of the state and federal employees you’re paying for, and all the interest payments on all the debts rung up at every level. There are so many functionaries, think of a good-sized dinner party: One guest, on average, is a city employee. Except this dinner party is a reversal of “Dinner for Schmucks.” The average city worker gets over $107,000 in wages and benefits, according to the Citizens Budget Commission. It’s everybody but the bureaucrat who’s the schmuck."

And just to remind us how expensive this city is-even without Mother Michael taking an interest in our emotional and physical well-being-we have Jonathan Bowles' read it and weep column on the cost of living in New York in yesterday's NY Daily News; and its particularly hard impact on the middle class: "All this particularly stings middle class New Yorkers and those who are aspiring to rise up to the ranks of the middle class, two groups that have fared particularly badly in the downturn. Two groups that, in our stratified city, are close to earning a place on the urban endangered species list. Before the onset of the recession, New York's middle class already seemed under siege. The city's skyrocketing costs had prompted rising numbers of middle class residents to consider leaving the city for less expensive locales and left far too many New Yorkers stuck among the working poor, unable to achieve the American promise of upward mobility that has long been a hallmark of this city."

But has the mayor really addresses this salient issue for New Yorkers in his first eight years? Not by a long shot: "To be sure, the exorbitant cost of living is not the only explanation for the problems facing New York's middle class. Another key strain is that, even in good times, the city's economy no longer seems to produce enough jobs that pay middle-income wages and offer clear paths to advancement. The result is that large numbers of people in the five boroughs are working but not earning enough to live comfortably, save money or get ahead." Bowles, however, fails to mention exactly what Smith puts a righteous finger on-the size and scope of government itself. Perhaps Jonathan should pay attention to how high the cost of doing business is in NYC-and correlate that cost to the taxes, fees and fines that are a regular menu feature at Chez Bloomberg? Which brings us to a favorite Bloombergism of ours: restaurant grading.

It is extremely difficult to run a successful restaurant at any time-but especially in hard economic conditions. So, in the middle of a severe recession-and all in the name of protecting hapless restaurant customers from unhealthy eating-Bloomberg introduces a grading system that will, because of inspector zeal, make it much harder for the eateries of the city to succeed: "Many restaurateurs contend that the new system is confusing, and some have predicted a mass shuttering of businesses rated B and C. Through months of public debate, the department removed many inspection categories from the scoring process, so that restaurants would not receive low grades based on administrative violations like a failure to post informational signs. Some requirements, like those governing food temperature, have been relaxed. Still, Mr. Bookman, counsel for the restaurant association, said, “We don’t think they went nearly far enough in making changes.”

As one Queens owner succinctly put it: "At the Queens workshop, Anna Nikopoulos, owner of Pete’s Cafe in Bayside, complained that “they are trying to implement too much here in a recession.”  Just think, for hundreds of years New Yorkers have been making decisions on where to dine out without the help of a city bureaucracy-until now. But left unsaid in the Times article is just who is going to pay for all of this public service.

City Room gives us the back story: "The joy inside Spark’s Deli was not entirely unalloyed on Wednesday, even as the restaurant, in Long Island City, Queens, posted a big blue A — the first letter grade assigned in city health officials’ new inspection regime. Yes, there were reporters, photographers and news crews crushing the deli in a publicity scrum on the program’s opening day. And yes, the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas A. Farley, placed the grade-A placard in the front window, proclaiming, “This new system will make sure that customers are protected from food-borne illness.” But Spark’s still has to cough up fines. “We’re happy to get the A,” said Jose Araujo, co-owner of the 24-seat restaurant at 2831 Borden Avenue, “but now we have to pay $800 for nonfood-related violations,” he said. (It seems that a cashier was drinking coffee in a nonfood area, among other lapses.) “Every time a health inspector comes in here,” Mr. Araujo said, “I know it’s going to cost me.”

The grading system is, because of its stark public nature, also a license for extortion-and owners may do anything to avoid public humiliation. And the payments-both legal and otherwise-add to the cost of that morning cup of coffee that you buy; a footnote in the Bowles NYC cost of living saga that is repeated ad infinitum in this city on a daily basis.

Which brings us back to the nanny state observations of Kyle Smith. If a good percentage of those restaurant fines, parking tickets and exorbitant city taxes could be returned to the folks from whom it was filched, we might begin to reduce the cost of living, create a real climate for job growth-and, best of all, shut down the dinner for schmucks that sees carcases of the small business owner and tax payer serve as the fare for those municipal workers who are feasting off of the hard labor of  a dwindling cohort of others.