Is New York City back from the fiscal depths for good?

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In a matter of days, officials here will announce with a great sense of pride and accomplishment that the nation's largest city has achieved its first truly balanced budget in nearly a decade.

In fact, the Office of the Special New York State Deputy Comptroller for the City of New York estimates that the city will have a $400,000 surplus for fiscal year 1981 ending June 30. Other forecasts put the figure at close to half a million dollars.

Nonetheless, new doubts are being raised about the city's fiscal stability. And the facts indicate that contrary to what city officials like Mayor Edward I. Koch (D) would like everyone to believe, New york's fiscal time bomb is still ticking away -- to some extent louder than ever.

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According to experts in and out of government, these are some of the reasons why the city's so-called financial comeback is shaky and may be short-lived:

* Leading economic indicators are down.

Retail sales, hotel occupancy, and foreign tourism are off substantially from recent years. Thus revenue projections for fiscal year 1982 may be inflated, according to special state deputy comptroller Sidney Schwartz.

* New hiring policies threaten to balloon expenses.

Instead of making "productivity" its main avenue for bolstering services, the city plans to hire new workers at great cost while not focusing on productivity nearly enough, according to the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), a private citizens' watchdog group.

* The city is wrongly counting on a continuing boom economy.

"Our major concern is that the city is beginning to anticipate a higher revenue growth when it may be that the peak has passed," deputy comptroller Schwartz told the Monitor in an interview.

* The real estate taxes have not kept pace with growth in property values.

The real estate tax is the city's single largest revenue source, amounting to inflation nor with the growth rate of other city taxes, a state study recently showed.

At the same time, city officials can look back at the ledger of six years ago and smile with satisfaction. In 1975, the city deficit, according to generally accepted private industry accounting principles, was $2 billion. The nation's largest city could not sell its bonds on the private market; bankruptcy was often literally just days away, only to be averted by the most adroit of fiscal juggling acts.

Now the budget is more than just balanced; it's showing a surplus. Earlier this year the city reentered the private bond market. Standard & Poor's Corporation has given city securities a "triple B" rating, the lowest investment grade rating, but certainly a step above no rating at all. With a combination of attrition, early retirement, and layoffs, as well as some productivity gains, the city has made deep cuts into its work force; the Sanitation Department, for example, has 16 percent fewer employees today than six years ago.

But satisfaction with past budgetary progress should be tempered with a great deal of caution, fiscal experts contend. "A lot of people have been lulled into a certain sense of relaxation," says CBC research director Jim Hartman. He characterizes the city's fiscal condition as still "very fragile."

Last fall, the CBC wrote in a "Report on New York":

"[The] city maintains that its budgetary problems are not as difficult as previously reported, largely because a strong city economy is producing higher tax revenues. As a result of these increased revenues, as well as expenditure cuts, [and] increased state aid . . . the city now projects a balanced budget for fiscal year 1981."

The city was right at the time. but its booming economy, with retail sales at times increasing at a whopping annual rate of more than 20 percent, has begun to wind down, in part because of the strengthening of the dollar abroad that has made New York a more expensive place for foreign tourists and business people.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York cautioned in a recent report on the city's economy: "Complacency based on misplaced optimism would be a serious mistake at this critical point."

"In the first quarter of calendar year 1981, a number of economic indicators have begun to slip in the city," notes Abe Biderman, who tracks the city's economic trends for the New York State Comptroller. Mr. Biderman is not optimistic that retail sales, hotel occupancy, and foreign tourism will return to their previous high levels. However, he does emphasize that retail sales had been running at an incredible rate: "What happened in the past two years was not normal, even for a growing city. Retail sales last year were almost at a 20 percent growth rate."

Along these same lines, Schwartz has warned city officials that they cannot count on unanticipated sales tax and other revenue bonanzas to fill future projected budget gaps. In a recent report to State Comptroller Edward V. Regan, Schwartz said:

"Since past economic forecasts did not prove to be sufficiently optimistic and revenue growth exceeded even the most favorable estimates, one might conclude that future budget gaps will be closed in a similiar fashion. Recent developments, however, lead us to believe that the city's currently favorable fiscal picture is not yet solidly rooted and that closing the budget gaps in fiscal 1983 may be more difficult than is now estimated to be the case for fiscal years 1981 and 1982."

Besides the economic dip, Schwartz cites other items in the city's financial plan that may not be realized. These include receiving $100 million from the sale of the "Westway" proposed highway project's right-of-way and the loss of $ 75 million in state aid. As yet unspecified cuts in federal aid are also on the way.

In addition, the promised state assumption of the city's medicaid costs -- which would have saved the city almost $1 billion a year by 1985 -- looks like it won't happen in the foreseeable future, necessitating further fiscal restraint, Schwartz affirms.

One area in which the city is expected to bolster revenue is from real estate , where values have soared -- as any New York apartment dweller not under rent control knows only too well. On study shows that from fiscal 1976 to fiscal 1980, the value of taxable real estate in the city increased by 48 percent -- and in Manhattan by 124 percent.

But property tax assessments actually decreased in every borough except Staten Island during this same period. "This failure of the city's real estate tax revenue to share in the substantial growth in property values . . . is an major factor in the city's recurring fiscal problems," a state report concluded.

On the expenditure side, higher wages and a once-again growing work force now seem as inevitable as higher real estate taxes and and rents. The city has provided only a 3 percent wage hike in its financial plan for fiscal 1982. Although the city is partly erring on the low side because it does not want to promise workers any more in advance, most observers say that the municipal unions are going to demand -- and probably get -- a good deal more than the roughly 8 percent settlement they got last year.

When added to the cost of hiring several thousand new employees, including the extra police and firemen Mayor Koch wants, expenses are further ballooned. Of course, on the expense side of the ledger, the city can refuse to spend money for capital improvements, as it has so often in the past, and keep costs within projections.

But many economists are increasingly alarmed by this practice, saying the city will only have to spend more in the future on capital improvements like sewers, streets, and subways.

Said one: "It's like not oiling and tuning your car for years. At first you don't have big expenses, but then you have to buy a new car."

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