Giuliani Says Crime No. 1 Issue for New York City

But budget deficit, race relations hang heavy over mayor's desk

MOVE over Batman and Robin. Gotham's No. 1 crime fighter, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is at it again.

He's back at the scene ... uh, make that subject ... of crime. The new year has just barely started and New York's feisty mayor has some bad news for felons: He has a Fugitive Apprehension Team (FAT Team), which is knocking on, and down, the doors of criminals who have missed court appearances. In November, the FAT Team corralled 571 such felons, an increase of 82 percent over last year.

That Mr. Giuliani would begin the year on crime news is part of his plan for the year. Last week, he stated that the direction of his administration would remain the same as in 1994, when his No. 1 goal was reducing crime. Now, he also wants to show New Yorkers that he is making progress.

This year, however, Giuliani faces more challenges than putting handcuffs on AWOL felons.

In the year ahead, the city faces ``hard times,'' predicts Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messenger.

She notes that the city has a series of structural budget problems that must be resolved. The city is running a budget deficit of $400 million in its current budget (which must end the year balanced), and faces a $1 billion shortfall in its FY 1996 budget, which begins in June.

In addition, the city is likely to face state and federal governments that are less generous. ``Both are on budget and service- cutting agendas,'' declares Ms. Messenger. Giuliani's problems with the state were compounded when he endorsed former Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, who lost to Gov. George Pataki (R).

The budget problems are not lost on the mayor, who began offering a severance package to take another 1,500 workers off the city's payrolls. Giuliani also started the year by requiring that able-bodied individuals applying for welfare work 20 hours a week in clean-up type jobs. Based on the experience of Westchester County, which has the same requirement, the city estimates it will save about $80 million a year as individuals either get jobs or lose their welfare benefits when they fail to show up for broom duty.

The mayor also intends to press ahead on his plans to privatize some hospitals. ``It doesn't always work, it's not a panacea, but I'll look at it,'' says the mayor.

The downsizing has gone over well with the credit-rating agencies. ``Overall, he's done a good job, but it remains a major challenge,'' says Richard Raphael, executive managing director at Fitch Investors Service. However, he asks, ``does the mayor have the ability to implement his cuts on a timely basis and sustain them?'' Last year, the mayor and the City Council fought bitterly over the cuts. The Council is likely to try to overrule the mayor this June when it acts on the budget.

It also remains to be seen if there are any long-term effects of the budget cuts. ``Will the elimination of high quality youth programs drive up the crime rate and criminal costs?'' asks Messenger, a likely Democratic aspirant for mayor in 1997.

The mayor's efforts so far appear to have won over his constituents. In December, the Marist Institute reported Giuliani's approval rate at over 50 percent. He received good marks on his handling of the budget deficit and crime. However, the mayor had a low rating on race relations.

Deputy Mayor Fran Reiter believes the mayor has made inroads with the African-American community. She notes that the mayor received a favorable rating from 20 percent of the African Americans polled. Only 5 percent of the city's blacks voted for Giuliani. ``We will continue to reach out, continue to have an on-going dialogue with all the communities of the city and will continue to treat all the communities equally,'' she states. ``Once they see we are serious, they will appreciate it.''

Former Mayor Ed Koch views the race relations issue from a different perspective. ``Rudy is fair - he won't allow another pogrom to take place,'' says Mr. Koch, referring to Brooklyn race riots in 1992 that resulted in the death of a Hasidic scholar. Former Mayor David Dinkins was criticized for not responding to the unrest fast enough.

Koch, who supported Giuliani in the election, gives the mayor good grades for the first year. He points to cooperation from the unions in downsizing and progress in reducing crime. ``He created a sense of leadership lacking under Dinkins so people feel safer,'' says the former mayor.

The leadership issue may not be the only reason New Yorkers can feel safer. City statistics show that through August, reported crime is down 9.8 percent. At the same time, arrests rose by 3.4 percent. And those arrested seem to be spending more time in jail.

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