Dinkins Gets High Marks on Crime, Mixed Reviews on City's Finances
New York mayor's anticrime package praised, but fiscal problems said to be toughest situation for city since brush with bankruptcy in 1975. HOW'S HE DOING?
NEW YORK — UNLIKE his ebullient predecessor, Ed Koch, New York City Mayor David Dinkins never asks, ``How'm I doing?'' But if he were to pose the question now, in his second year on the job, this quiet man with the conciliatory manner would probably get mixed reviews just as Mr. Koch did. The reading depends on whom you ask and about what part of the job. In a recent poll by the New York Observer, Mr. Dinkins drew a favorable job-performance rating of only 29 percent. ``For most mayors in any city the first year is a wipeout - Koch had a bad first year and so did [John] Lindsay,'' comments Ester Fuchs, a political scientist at Barnard College.
Perhaps more significantly, the majority polled by the Observer felt that Mayor Dinkins, who is the city's first black mayor, inherited his problems and was doing as good a job as anyone could.
He promised to be the toughest mayor on crime the city had ever seen. Many New Yorkers now give him high marks for successfully shepherding his anti-crime package through the state Legislature this month. The $1.8 billion program, announced last October after a summer of well-publicized random violence, would add 3,500 police officers to the force over six years through tax hikes and a lottery.
`Strategic answer' to drugs
Though criticized for not acting more promptly, Mayor Dinkins insisted he first needed a plan of action from city Police Commissioner Lee Brown. That plan calls for a return to community policing in which every cop has a neighborhood beat and works to prevent crime as well as respond to it.
``I think this is the most strategic answer to the drugs and crime problem from any mayor in the last 25 years, and I salute him for hanging in there and standing tall behind his police commissioner,'' says Michael Clark, executive director of the Citizens Committee for New York City. ``You don't just throw more cops at the problem - you have to have a plan.''
On the more controversial question of handling city finances, Mayor Dinkins gets far more mixed reviews.
He faces what is clearly the toughest fiscal situation for the city since its close brush with bankruptcy in 1975.
The recession has driven up expenses and cut revenue at a time when the city expects an additional $400 million slice in state aid and less federal help. Yet Dinkins insists he will balance the budget as the law requires. In January he proposed a package of cuts and tax hikes to cover what may become a $3 billion budget shortfall over the next 18 months.
The city has been hit hard by the news this week that Moody's Investors Service Inc. has decided to lower the city's credit rating for the first time since the mid-1970s. Just last week city officials were pleased by the decision of Standard & Poor to reaffirm the city's A-minus bond rating. Moody's officials said they felt the administration was reluctant to make promised cuts in a number of departments and were concerned that the Legislature might not approve the mayor's requested tax increases.
The city was hit with another shock a few days ago when Felix Rohatyn, the man credited with saving New York during its last fiscal crisis, convened a special meeting of the Municipal Assistance Corporation which he chairs. This is the state group set up in 1975 to help the city sell its bonds. Mr. Rohatyn asked board members to consider several options if the economic situation worsened, including again raising money for current expenses through bond sales.
New Yorkers were stunned. ``I think it would be a real disaster - that was precisely what got us into the 1975 fiscal crisis,'' says Raymond Horton, president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a business-financed nonprofit watchdog group.
Dinkins's aides said they were not that pessimistic and that no such plan was being explored. Rohatyn, insisting he had been misunderstood, said no change in the strict rules now governing city finances was anticipated and that no MAC money would be tapped unless the city agreed to a tough retrenchment plan.
Dinkins too generous
Barnard's Ms. Fuchs, who is writing a book on New York and Chicago fiscal policy, says she was amazed the subject of borrowing was raised but also somewhat ``buoyed'' because she considers the state of basic services in virtually every city to be worse than at any time since the depression.
``We're talking about bridges falling apart and education,'' she says. ``Cities are having a hard time providing basic services, let alone poverty-related services like welfare. People in New York have a high tolerance for bad service delivery, but the quality has deteriorated so dramatically that I don't know if people could handle another hit.''
Many New Yorkers and economic analysts say the mayor has been too generous to his labor supporters: agreeing to a one-year 5.5 percent raise for teachers last fall and to a 5 percent wage and benefit hike over 15 months for two other unions in January. The mayor says most of the money will come through savings from reduced city contributions to worker pension funds and that the agreements will not swell the deficit. Last week the teachers in effect renegotiated their pact with the city. They deferred part of the wage increase to postpone thousands of layoffs.
In January the mayor proposed laying off more than 11,000 workers. But Mr. Horton says there has been far more talk about it than action: ``The city hasn't implemented any real cuts yet.... The work force is bigger now than it was six months ago.''
At the crux of his concern, he says, is the feeling that the city needs to be out in front of the fiscal problems rather than always responding to them after the fact. James Shenton, a history professor at Columbia University and a specialist on New York City issues, says he thinks New Yorkers need to receive a forthright message about what the city can and cannot afford. ``The basic problem is to make people accept the fact that they're going to be living with less than they're accustomed to.''