New York Civic – The Budget: Is It a Piñata? By HENRY J. STERN
Like nature itself, city government deals with different matters in different seasons of the year. First is the season of the budget, which begins with requests for funds by agencies and advocates, most of which are politely ignored because there are insufficient resources to fund them. The word most heard at budget time is no.
Agency budget hearings can be helpful if public attention is called to new issues, or important questions which have been neglected. Many years ago these hearings, especially those on the education budget, were considered important public events. Hundreds of witnesses from communities all around the city would wait hours for their group to be heard at City Hall. The relevant borough president would stay and hear the parents and others who came to testify on overcrowding and school construction.
Over the years, the custom of mass participation in school budget hearings declined. Because of years of disappointment, people were less inclined to believe that real change would result from their participation. Increasingly, substitutes were sent to represent elected officials at hearings.
One early memory I have to the contrary is that of Mayor Robert F. Wagner, in his third term, presiding over the old Board of Estimate. People were encouraged by the fact that this mayor was listening to them in person. And Wagner felt it was part of his responsibility to do that - to listen to requests that he could at best meet only in part. Toward the end of the Board‚s existence the proceedings took on a mechanical cast. Neither side had the power to change the balance of the relationships that ossified as quickly as they had developed.
Public hearings were theoretically held for each city agency. By throwing a batch of agencies together, and scheduling the hearings for Friday afternoon, the bureaucratic schedule makers essentially ended the practice of citizen review of agency budgets except in the most egregious cases which may independently have attracted attention from the media.
For the last four years, Mayor Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn have reached agreement on the city budget. With $60 billion spent each year, it should not be difficult to find some way in which the funds can be divided to the satisfaction of all the players. If a peaceful settlement is not reached, it will be because personal rivalries trumped legislative goals.
One could call the years from 2002 to 2005 the era of ambition. That should not exclude other political periods from that signification. The core problem from 2002 may have been that too much of the talent was in their mid-twenties after senior members were forced to retire in 2001, an issue which has not arisen since.