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Bloom off the Rose

The mayor of New York is as mediocre as they come.

By 5.19.08

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NEW YORK -- Michael Bloomberg isn't getting a lot of help these days in securing his legacy as mayor of New York City.

The state's otherwise dysfunctional legislature and new Gov. David Paterson dealt a blow to Bloomberg's school reform agenda last month when they essentially banned the use of test scores and other student data in evaluating the performance of new teachers. They did this at the behest of the United Federation of Teachers, which has long dueled with Bloomberg over his control over the City's school system.

Another of his school reform efforts -- giving principals the power to hire or remove teachers regardless of seniority -- came under question earlier this month when a report from The New Teacher Project showed that the changes came at a high cost to taxpayers. Thanks to the contracts Bloomberg negotiated with the UFT, some 665 teachers removed from the classroom are still being paid full salaries for not working, at a cost to taxpayers of $81 million in 2006 and 2007.

Bloomberg is demanding that the union come back to the negotiating table to change those terms. That's unlikely to happen until the contract runs out next year, when the mayor is the lamest of lame ducks.

His reputation for running clean government has been shattered thanks to revelations that his chief ally (and possible successor), City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and her staff siphoned part of budget allotted to the council for its own spending purposes -- some $360 million this fiscal year alone. These funds were given to favored community groups without going through the legal budget process. The spending was covered up by setting up phony outfits.

The scandal has grown to include allegations of theft of student tutoring dollars by city council aides. But Bloomberg has both downplayed the slush fund shenanigans and stoutly defended his own pork barrel spending.

Since succeeding Rudolph Giuliani as mayor of the nation's largest city in 20002, Bloomberg had been highly-lauded by school reformers and others for successfully taking over the city's once-independent school system and for maintaining his predecessor's stellar success in reducing crime.

But the former Wall Street stock trader-turned-media billionaire didn't fully learn the lessons about improving quality of life taught by Giuliani's successful tenure. As mayor he has placed more emphasis on public relations than on strong, steady management that follows up on his successes.

As a result, there has been a slow increase in the kind of urban ills that once made New York the nation's most fearsome eyesore. And his most successful initiatives remain incomplete.

A VISIT TO THE Big Apple by one of its native sons offers examples of how Bloomberg has succeeded -- and failed -- in keeping it a livable city.

On one hand, streets remain as safe as they have during the Giuliani era, with some 494 homicides were reported in the city in 2007, a 16 percent decline over the number of homicides reported five years earlier. Bloomberg has also pleased health nuts -- and rankled smokers, fast-food restaurants, conservatives and libertarians -- by enacting smoking and trans fat bans and requiring calorie and cholesterol information on menus.

On other quality-of-life issues, New York is slipping. Vagrancy, once treated as a scourge under Giuliani, is seen all over the city. Homeless men can be seen coughing and spitting on the E train to Manhattan, crunched over with heads covered on Columbus Circle, even sleeping underneath the marquee of the famed Radio City Music Hall.

Stanching vandalism, once a key part of the city's application of the "broken window" theory of crime prevention, has fallen by the wayside. Graffiti is now splattered upon apartment buildings, covering storefronts and even scratched into the windows of trains.

Meanwhile Gotham's notoriety as one of America's highest-taxing urban communities -- lessened under Giuliani -- has come back under Bloomberg. The average New Yorker pays $9.02 in taxes to the city and state governments for every $100 earned, according to a 2007 study of America's nine largest cities by the city's Independent Budget Office. The average tax burden for the other cities was just $6.16.

City government expenditures account for more than 11.2 percent of the city's personal income in the 2007-08 fiscal year. That's up from less than 9.4 percent at the beginning of Bloomberg's tenure.

The high taxes, along with the high cost of housing, makes New York less attractive to middle-class families. Just 30 percent of its neighborhoods are middle-income communities, according to the Brookings Institution. It also means that the city is less attractive to start-ups and small businesses, which thrive in low-tax environments.

So New York's economy is more dependent on the financial services and media outfits that have long made their headquarters along the Hudson River. But such firms are now going through both cyclical and long-term declines.

Wall Street firms such as insurance giant American International Group -- which reported $13 billion in losses over the last half-year -- are likely to reduce their payrolls, draining the city's economy. Bloomberg's budget officials estimate that the city could lose $660 million in taxes from 18 banks and investment firms this coming fiscal year alone.

AFTER SUFFERING FROM middle class flight and a fiscal collapse during the 1970s, mayors such as Ed Koch and Giuliani took a more quality-of-life-oriented approach. They focused intensely on better policing and reducing residential and business tax burdens.

Bloomberg has had a penchant for the kind of high-spending big city policies that nearly drove the Big Apple into bankruptcy in the first place. The city's current budget of $60 billion is 36 percent higher than the first one Bloomberg oversaw six years ago. The 2008-09 fiscal year budget he has proposed merely nibbles at the edges of the city's spending, depending on past surpluses to avoid a deficit.

Citizens and even legislators have tired of the tax-and-spending and Bloomberg's constant publicity-hogging -- including the floating of such trial balloons as an improbable run for the presidency.

One of Bloomberg's most recent proposals, a congestion-pricing plan under which drivers would have paid $8 for a trip into Manhattan, was laughed out of Albany by state legislators last month. The concept, long-embraced by think tanks such as the Reason Foundation, could help reduce traffic on the city's streets. But the high tolls, the ineffectiveness of the plan's approach and its focus on unclogging the streets of just one of New York's five boroughs angered city residents and suburban commuters alike.

Even Bloomberg's greatest success -- the reform of the city's school system, which he took over in 2003 -- isn't unqualified. Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, have ruthlessly expanded school choice through the creation of charter schools, swept out the system's notoriously corrupt, inept bureaucracy and pushed through new curricula and teacher quality policies that will, in the long run, improve the quality of education students receive.

But in the short run, test scores and graduation rates for the school system remain abysmal. And the rough handling of the teachers union has cost him important political capital. Given that mayoral control expires next year, it isn't certain that Bloomberg or his successors can keep the schools from spiraling back into mediocrity.

Bloomberg will probably not go down with such predecessors as John V. Lindsay or Abraham Beame as a failed mayor. He has been more successful than contemporaries such as former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson and Anthony Williams of Washington D.C. But he leaves a mixed record that doesn't come close to such highly-esteemed city leaders such as L.A.'s Richard Riordan or the legendary Fiorello LaGuardia. And he's definitely no Rudy.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.