2003-05-30 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky

Seceding to Cut Costs?

Bad news folks: John Baxter, Rockaway’s Independence Party leader, reports that his operatives have now confirmed that the Rockaway City charter, passed in 1914 and again in 1917 by the state legislature in Albany, which broke the peninsula off from New York City as a separate municipality, was definitively rejected by then-mayor John Purroy Mitchel. Under the state constitution’s "home rule" provision, the legislature cannot implement laws affecting the internal prerogatives of a legally constituted local municipality without that municipality’s agreement. Since Rockaway was then (as it still is) a sub-division of New York City, local government agreement was required before the charter could take effect. In 1917 this appears to have meant mayoral acquiescence. Apparently Mayor Mitchel did not acquiesce, in spite of a majority of Rockawayites being in favor of this in those days, and so the charter is now a moot issue.

Why is this important to us today? Given our current Mayor Bloomberg’s penchant for tax increases, combined with his inability to seriously restructure city government and rein in spending (think of new spending for things like an anti-smoking program, the ongoing waste in various city agencies involving things like couping on the job and overtime abuse, top-heavy management, continued demand for the perqs of power, etc.), it is clear that having an existing city charter to enable a quick getaway for Rockaway would have been a godsend. But even if we never implemented it, the mere threat that we might, would have sent a strong message to a City Hall that has spent more than a century pretending we don’t exist.

Of course, setting up a stand-alone municipality would have been a challenge with the usual attendant risks. But nothing comes free as we all know. Moreover, it would have given us a chance to explore whether or not there is a better way to run our own town, one that would create a model for other localities as well. More, an economically viable model for a Rockaway City would certainly have sent a strong message to our Manhattan-based leaders that there is another way to run things, that it doesn’t have to always be about top-heavy bureaucracies and red tape and the  added costs and problems you get with over-centralization of power.

Indeed, a recent Wall Street Journal article, entitled Save Our City and signed by a high-powered team (Hugh Carey, Richard Gilder, H. Dale Hemmerdinger, Roger Hertog, Felix G. Rohatyn and Walter B. Wriston) on May 9, 2003, took Mayor Bloomberg to task for missing a whole slew of cost reduction opportunities while pushing tax rates up nearly everywhere, making New York a less hospitable town. In the same edition of the paper, an editorial compared Mayor Mike to the infamous John V. Lindsay whose tax and spend ways pushed New York City to the brink of ruin back in the 70’s.

According to the Save Our City authors, our city currently "spends more money, and employs more public workers per capita than most American cities"  but is "proceeding as if the private economy existed solely to preserve as many government jobs as possible . . .  Bolstered by projected revenues from the new tax increases, the city is only seeking minimal job cuts, amounting to less than 2% of what is the largest municipal workforce in America." Failing to win "any significant concessions from its unions," the writers note, the city is focused, instead, on increasing revenue by ramping up taxes despite the long history of adverse consequences such policies have on overall economic conditions. Do we want a re-play of the Lindsay years? That, says the Wall Street Journal editorial writer, is where we’re headed.

What has any of this to do with the hypothetical secession of Rockaway? According to Messers Carey et al, the Mayor has "rejected, or simply not explored, a host of potential cost savings advocated by budget watchdogs, such as private contracting of services, from filling potholes to providing school lunches. Privatizing trash services alone could save the city $50 million a year. Requiring city employees to work a 40 hour week (not just 35 hours) could eliminate 8,500 jobs and save $500 million a year . . . " The writers point out that despite all of these opportunities, "Mr. Bloomberg has taken no significant structural steps to eliminate the deficit."

An independent Rockaway City would, of course, have had to stand on its own two feet and so, to do that, the Secession Exploratory Committee headed by John Baxter was looking into all these options (and more) to find a more efficient way to operate. The committee was initiating a study that would have determined the value of the current Rockaway real estate tax base, as well as other revenue sources for a free-standing municipality out here, in order to compare these with the actual costs New York City incurs annually to operate and maintain services in our community. The plan was to identify what the city currently expends for us (including all direct manpower and assets in Rockaway as well as the costs for indirect services and administration) and then to determine if we couldn’t just do it more cheaply by private contracting and/or maintaining a radically leaner administrative structure.

The Secession Feasibility Study that John Baxter’s group was pursuing would have gotten directly at this by determining what exactly New York City really pays to "keep" us, what it should reasonably cost (without all the waste and excess built into the current bureaucracy) and whether we could actually do better as a stand-alone concern. Even if such a study did not finally lead to secession, it surely would have demonstrated that we are being taxed at an excessive and wasteful level relative to what is actually needed to run our community.

Seeing this in black and white would have been good for all of New York City’s communities, not just Rockaway, because it would have served as a wake-up call to our putative leaders, showing them a better path and putting them on notice that they must either find ways to run government more economically and within taxpayers’ means . . . or make way for new political realities. Who says, after all, that just because New York City has existed as a huge municipal white elephant since 1898, it must continue to do so? Who says there’s no better way to hold officials accountable for how they spend our money than via a huge, insulated centralized city administration, or that there aren’t plenty of perfectly rational alternatives to voters facing ever-increasing government inefficiencies, exploding taxes and another downward economic spiral in the city they call home?

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