2003-05-09 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

by Stuart Mirsky
The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart Mirsky

Who Lost The City?

In a recent column in The New York Sun, J. P. Avlon, a Sun columnist and former staffer in the Giuliani administration, compared the former Mayor’s record to his successors and suggested that it’s unfair to blame Rudy for the problems Mayor Mike has inherited. While noting that overall city headcount did rise during the Giuliani years, this was offset, he said, by many other administrative reductions. And the increases, he noted, were mainly focused on the police and teachers in the classroom. These, said Avlon, were essential to improving the quality of life in the city, for which Giuliani has rightly been credited, and for enhancing education. Finally, he noted that Giuliani’s cost-cutting and tax reductions, in contradistinction to the present Mayor’s actions, were a spur to business and the city’s economy.

Well there’s truth here. But it’s not the whole story. Mayor Giuliani did lower taxes and do away with a lot of business-impeding red tape. And he did make the city more habitable, pushing his agencies to do more. And he made many cost cuts early on. Moreover, it is clear that the events of 9/11, which played a big part in the city’s current economic malaise, were not his fault. But the fact remains that Rudy missed a chance to deal structurally with many of the city’s problems. When 9/11 hit, the city under Mayor Giuliani, rightly or wrongly, pulled out all the stops and spending blew through the roof. In the context of a still-bloated and inefficient administration, this was a one-way ticket to budgetary palookaville for the city. Bloomberg inherited the oversized and inefficient government his predecessor left behind.

How did it get that way and why? Well, like Avlon, I was also part of the last administration though not as close to the top as he was. I did a ten month stint in City Hall as a senior policy analyst for one of Giuliani’s Deputy Mayors in the latter part of his first term and later served for six and a half years as an Assistant Commissioner in a mayoral agency. While I never hobnobbed with the Mayor and his inner circle, I managed to run into him a few times . . . he even tripped over me once, rushing into a meeting as I was coming out of one! He’s a good deal taller than I am and was in a hurry so it was all perfectly understandable. And besides, he was rather sheepishly apologetic about it!

My job in those days, among other things, was to work with the Deputy Mayor to represent the administration to various community and advocacy groups. What we were really doing was making sure that the budgetary pie got shared out to the various groups in such a way as to ensure these groups perceived that the Mayor was in their corner. We were building constituency . . . or trying to win it.

Although this made me feel uncomfortable, since it wasn’t about efficiency or better management, I figured it was a necessary activity to keep the Mayor’s administration in power so it could continue to do the many things it was doing right. In a democracy you depend on votes . . . and voters are often guided by their community leaders. Such leaders, of course, maintain their leadership by securing the goodies for their constituents in the form of more programs and services. Giuliani had barely squeaked through in that first term and was already doing good things, reining government in and so forth, so I figured we were serving a greater good!

But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank. As the Mayor’s re-election campaign geared up, the interest in saving money and being efficient seemed to disappear. Suddenly the mandate to be frugal evaporated and the issue was all about getting those services out there, just like it had been during my time at City Hall. In one egregious case, a rat was reputed to have run across the Mayor’s front steps at Gracie Mansion in sight of the press. Suddenly, as we moved into the electoral season, the Health Department’s Pest Control program was in the spotlight. City Hall said, "Solve the problem."

Top management in the Health Department put their heads together and came up with a program and took it to the Mayor’s people. Playing the usual game, they grossly overstated their need, figuring they’d be cut back. But in this case they weren’t. They got all the resources they asked for and more!

Needless to say, the rat problem did not go away although significant resources were expended to deal with it. And, while the rat problem persisted and the public screamed and the newspapers trumpeted the problem far and wide, the program proved unable to generate the revenue envisioned for it at the outset. Much of the problem with all this was that those who were then in charge of the program did not take the effort seriously. They really did not believe the Department could control rats and so structured the program for public visibility and revenue generation rather than actual pest control. It failed on both counts. In the final analysis City Hall rolled some heads (though not the ones who had created the mess in the first place) and everyone moved on.

Why this cautionary tale? Because it is indicative of what began to happen as Mayor Giuliani went into his second term. In the first term he had his eye on the ball, despite a necessary penchant for playing the political game. But by the time he was moving into the election and after he began his second term, something changed. The Mayor began opening the sluice gates and allowing the agencies to grow fatter and sloppier. By the time we got a new commissioner in the Mayor’s second term, the whole culture in the Health Department was changing. Instead of striving to save and be efficient, we were driven to provide more services, not just for the community but for management as well. Substantial salary increases became relatively easy to secure, particularly for higher-ups while demands for office prettification and various personal services for top management skyrocketed.

But what did not happen was structural reform! We were still left with the same clumsy, bureaucratic hiring process, the same ridiculously inefficient procurement systems, the same inability to hold staff accountable, and the same budgetary and management systems that encouraged wasteful over­spending without any real accoun­tability.

On top of all of this, we got the message from City Hall that "perqs" were now okay, that fattening up after the lean times was acceptable. The May­or had his eye on a senate run, was encountering health and marital problems, and no longer seemed to have his heart in managing the city. And then came 9/11 and everything changed. The Mayor rose dramatically to the occasion and became a national hero.

Certainly Mayor Giuliani could not have predicted the horrendous events of a terrorist attack on downtown Man­­hattan followed by bio-terrorist anthrax mailings. Nor could he have avoided their serious and costly consequences. But he had already missed a real opportunity to achieve genuine and lasting reform in city government.

I do not think Mayor Bloomberg is right to keep pushing tax increases while avoiding serious agency restructuring, as he has been doing, but at least you have to admit that the problems he faces are not of his own making. And, while I am pleased to have been part of the former Mayor’s ad­ministration for all the improvements he did make in this city, it is also only fair to acknowledge that some of our current budget pain might have been avoided if Mayor Giuliani had kept a keener eye on the ball in the later in­nings of his administration.

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