A City Going Broke


July 08, 1991|By NICHOLAS KING

NEW YORK. — New York -- "Don't Close Our Zoo.'' This was emblazoned across a big white button with the face of a pained-looking bear, worn on Madison Avenue by a middle-aged woman with gray hair en bataille and an expression to match.

The message referred to New York's financial ''doomsday'' last Monday, when the new city budget went into effect $3.5 billion short. As it happened, the Central Park zoo did not close, but that was one of the threats in pre-Doomsday political maneuvering.

The Doomsday theme was orchestrated by Mayor David Dinkins and taken up with gusto by the press. There were tales like the one of the zoo; of libraries and other social services shutting down; of a quarter of the city's street lights being turned off; of curtailed public ambulances, and 200,000 municipal employees being fired or furloughed, although not all at once.

Who is to blame? In the short run, the city unions, which won't give up their benefits, many of them recently won; the legislature in Albany, which refuses to pass its own budget and therefore forces the city to borrow for its operating costs at ruinous rates; and the evaporation of tax revenue through vanishing commerce and fleeing businesses.

The longer answer has to do with a city going broke. Its social services have become vastly over-extended and its costs of doing business risen so high as to scare many people away. There is its reputation for graft and street crime. There is its lack of leadership in the now crucial task of ''down-sizing'' the city's government.

This down-sizing is the latest catchword. It means that City Hall should abandon various services it cannot provide competitively and which over the years have proved to be money-sinks. People point to examples of private garbage collection, private schooling, private security, private prisons and a whole raft of other things once thought the sacrosanct domain of public authority.

Security does not mean the police of course, and indeed Mayor Dinkins continues to talk about adding 3,000 patrolmen to the force. But the police are engaged in a day-and-night shooting war: It has been a long time since anyone saw a foot patrolman except at parades and municipal funerals. Besides, the private block patrolman, the bodyguard, the strong-armed chauffeur long ago won their place along with the nightclub bouncer and the shop detective as respected street soldiery.

There is a privately financed ''city-within-a-city'' plan calling for special police and garbage service for a cleaned-up Times Square, where huge office buildings are to take out the genial low-life that now holds sway there.

Down-sizing also means reducing the ranks of city government, which now employs more than a million people if the unionized subways and schools are counted in. The city has just experienced a convulsion of reorganization which sought to replace one antiquated legislative body with another, the City Council, which after only a year in office is being criticized as almost as antiquated, and its members accused of being chiefly interested in the aggrandizement of their private law practices.

All these premonitory mutterings of collapse may die away, but New Yorkers are getting a scare. A sure sign is the raising of voices to the effect that the rest of the country owes something to New York for setting the right kind of cultural and even political example. Only when things look very bleak do we hear New York telling the rest of America that it owes us a living.

4( Nicholas King is a New York writer.

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