Monday, January 24, 2011

The Bike Lane Legacy

Michael Goodwin has an incisive look at the aimlessness of the Bloomberg third term-which reminds us of the comment made by Wayne Barrett when the mayor announced his third term usurpation: "Why does he want a third term, he still owes us for a second one?"

Goodwin underscores this, and by doing show dramatizes the extent to which the Bloomberg mayoralty has always lacked any real civic vision-being all about narcissistic personal aggrandizement: "Not long ago, a confidant of Mayor Bloomberg's cornered me with a blunt question: "Can you figure out what his third term is about?" I paused before offering the only thing I could think of: "Bike lanes?" "Thank you very much," the frustrated Bloomy backer answered. "That's exactly my point." Jerry Seinfeld made a successful TV show about nothing, but governing has to be about something. A year into his third term, even strong supporters wonder if Bloomberg has a clear focus."

The Seinfeld analogy is a brilliant one-because, lacking any real strong public policy vision, everything that Bloomberg does inevitably seems contrived and just about him. But, as Goodwin points out, in the absence of any real sense of purpose, the Bloomberg third term is being defined by his failures: "But nature abhors a vacuum, so failures are defining City Hall. The snow disaster, the $80 million CityTime ripoff and citizen reports that the Bloomies are fudging data to defend unpopular policies help explain the mayor's 37 percent approval rating."

In our view, however, it isn't the lack of third term purpose that elevates the scandals that Goodwin cites. What makes CityTime and the snowfu so poignant is the fact that they are so deliciously counterpoised to the Bloomeberg mythos-you know, the sharp managerial expertise and computer driven acumen. The scandals create the kind of emperor's clothes moment that we have pointed out before-and force a re-evaluation of all things Bloomberg.

Take education-and Goodwin does just that: "Take education, his No. 1 priority. Clearly there has been progress, but there also is wide uncertainty about real student achievement because of the test-score debacle. Nearly all the "gains" of his second term vanished when standards were raised. A teacher bonus program, heralded as a merit-pay breakthrough, was quietly scrapped last week after it poured more than $100 million into educrats' pockets without proof it boosted students. The reliability of school report cards is also in doubt."

But Goodwin leaves out the fact that, whatever incremental progress has been made, the gains achieved have been at the cost of huge-billions of additional dollars huge-additional expenditures. These massive extra obligations are part of the reason why the mayor is now inveighing against the costly pensions that city is forced to cover-asking for Albany's help with a straight faced refusal to acknowledge his own culpability in the fiasco.

To his credit, Goodwin captures some important parts of this: "A half-done image also haunts the mayor's fiscal stewardship. He enjoyed soaring revenue growth, because of the economy and tax hikes, but spent it all, and then some. Now there is reason to hope that is where he intends to focus. His State of the City Address was noteworthy because of his vow to defuse the ticking pension bomb.
"I will not sign a contract with salary increases unless they are accompanied by reforms in benefit packages," he said. Bloomberg made similar vows in the past, saying he would not grant raises unless unions paid for them with concessions. He blinked and got only token givebacks in exchange for pay hikes that often topped 4 percent a year, and a whopping total of 43 percent for teachers."

Exactly why we have said that Bloomberg's problems devolve from the growing realization that the mayor's image has been sold to them like a bill of goods-and like the Master of the House that he is: "...Cunning little brain, regular Voltaire. Thinks he's quite a lover but there's not much there." Yes, quite a cruel trick of nature.

But Goodwin isn't through with Bloomberg-and goes on to make an additional point about the fraudulent image that the mayor has foisted upon us about his superior fiscal expertise. This time it's the capital budget deficit: "The cost of capital projects is another danger zone, and this one is largely Bloomberg's doing. When he took office, debt service cost $3 billion a year. It's now $5.4 billion, even with low interest rates, and could hit $7 billion in three years. The city now carries a record $69.5 billion in debt. Although the mayor ordered three cuts to the capital budget since 2008, actual spending continues to rise, according to a Citizens Budget Commission report that faults his "failure to impose fiscal austerity on the infrastructure agenda."

In the face of this profligacy, what does the mayor do? He spends millions on those bike lanes that everyone loves, and continues with his extravagant legacy project at Willets Point-a development that is built on absconding with the property of scores of small land owners, and the use of deceptive traffic studies that make the bike lane oversight resemble the work of Diogenes. The cost of Willets Point will run into the billions without any real clear idea that the city has the ability to, at least under its current fiscal straights, see the project through to fruition.

In the end, what the current scandals have done is to help remove the blindfolds from some of our previously enamored cognoscenti-Goodwin excluded since he has been on the mayor's case a good deal before all of the current mess unfolded. But in the blink of an eye-and the speed of the reversal is an indication of the ersatz quality of the original assessment-the mayor's claim to a out sized legacy has been torn asunder.

Goodwin deserves-and gets-the last word: "This is not how it was supposed to be in Year 10. When he moved to change the term-limits law, Bloomberg pitched himself as the man to guide Gotham through the fiscal storm. "We may well be on the verge of a meltdown," he said in 2008. Fortunately, meltdown fears have passed. But it would be a major mark against him, and tragic for New York, if the man who claimed to know the buck sails off into the sunset on a tide of red ink."