New York's popular mayor draws boos with hiring plan

While New York City has enjoyed a number of financial successes recently, it now finds itself being criticized for enjoying what acerbic Mayor Edward I. Koch believes ought to be the fruit of this success.

For the first time in more than a decade the city has a genuine budget surplus, according to what budgetmakers refer to as "generally accepted accounting principals" instead of gimmickry. In addition, there have been major productivity increases in the sanitation department and the city has reentered the private credit market after years of dependence on federal loan guarantees to help it borrow money.

But now, just as the lanky, gregarious major is riding a wave of popularity, a storm of criticism has brewed about his primary plan for shoring up badly deteriorated city services: hiring more city workers.

And some highly respected fiscal watchdogs are calling Koch, who prides himself on being on "pragmatist," impractical and wasteful by hiring new workers when there may be more inexpensive ways to increase the productivity of many of the city's approximately 240,000 existing employees.

Basically, the Koch administration plans to hire 2,300 more police, 375 more firemen, and 450 more sanitation men (about half of these have already been rehired) over the next six months or so.

This and other new hiring is a central plank in his reelection bid promise "to improve the quality of life in this city," following what he calls his single most important achievement to date: "the restoration of responsible fiscal management."

In fact, praise has been so widespread and nonpartisan that Koch, a Democrat, has been endorsed by the city's major Republican leaders for the Republican mayoral nomination as well.

But according to spokesmen for the private, nonprofit Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), the return of the city's fiscal integrity is threatened by the plan for additional hiring now.

Experts with New York's nonprofit, private Urban Academy agree with the CBC. It would be far better, thy say, to increase productivity to the maximum extent possible before hiring new workers, a step which not only results in an immediate drain on a still-shaky budget, but also results in untold millions of dollars the city will have to spend in long-term fringe benefits, including New York's lucrative retirement plans.

Dr. Herbert Ranschburg of the CBC, widely regarded as one of the premier authorities on the affairs of the city, says the sanitation department is only one example where "extremely poor productivity has prevailed." Studies have shown, he said in an interview, that sanitation men were working at "something like 60 to 65 percent of the norm."

To be fair, it should be pointed out that the Koch administration succeeded in largely eliminating so-called "three-man" sanitation trucks, manned, as the name implies, by three people, a driver and two to dump garbage in the trucks.

On the police front, no one is saying that New York doesn't need more police protection -- and that 2,300 more uniformed officers would be welcome to fight rising crime. But urban experts seriously question whether City Hall is getting the most for its money with the existing force.

Public opinions polls indicate that New Yorkers are most vexed about the state of public transportation. To a tangible degree, these problems -- including subway breakdowns and prime -- could help trigger another serious local financial slide, according to Thomas J. Spitznas, a Chemical Bank economist who specializes in New York City's economy. Mr. Spitznas calls the deteriorating mass transit system the city's "biggest problem."

There have been charges Mayor Koch waited until an election year to announce plans for substantially adding to the city's payroll. Even if this were true, this is not what worries urban experts. Their concern is that Koch has still largely avoided coming to grips with bringing enough pressure on municipal employees, and their unions, to do "a day's work for a day's pay," as the old adage says.

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