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Neutron Mike

Why is everyone so confused by Bloomberg's budget? It's more CEO than politico.

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As the city took a long, hard look at our CEO-mayor's turnaround scheme -- a.k.a. his draconian new budget -- the traditional camps were immediately up in arms. Real-estate oligarchs were decrying the property-tax hike. Down in City Hall Park, senior citizens were protesting cutbacks, while firemen had smoke coming out of their ears. The governor was saying he wouldn't stand for a commuter tax. And the Working Families Party was peddling a study showing how the plan would help only the rich.

So is Bloomberg a Republican after all? Or still a limousine liberal? Most of the rest of us were noodling with the new-tax charts in the papers trying to figure out just how much this was going to cost us.

It's confusing, because this is an M.B.A.'s budget more than a politician's. It's municipal downsizing, government by Neutron Jack -- and its math defies time-honored political calculus. "I think that what the mayor's thinking is what a businessman would do: manage the crisis," says Dale Hemmerdinger, chairperson-elect of the Citizen's Budget Commission. "When you're a CEO, you can say, 'March to the left,' and everyone does. It's a different skill from a politician, who has to deal with many different constituencies."

We trust that he has a good head for figures, but as he sells his plan to Pataki and the City Council, we can't help but remember that one of Bloomberg's famous business aphorisms was "Make the customer think he's getting laid when he's getting fucked."

And while the mayor keeps bringing up the bad old seventies as a way of making higher taxes seem more palatable than a return to Taxi Driver–era New York, he isn't exactly the type who can rally us to ask not what our city can do for us, but what we can do for our city.

"It's hard for him to create the sense of urgency to get everybody to march together," says Hemmerdinger. Instead, he's managing, "trimming the plant," corporate-style, when "he's got a much bigger problem than that."

"The real issue is that this fiscal crisis will determine what kind of civic culture we will have in the future," says Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. After years of crying fiscal wolf, the city is facing an emergency that could drastically reduce a lot of services that New Yorkers have simply taken for granted. "Everybody is screaming wolf, and people don't believe it," says Ed Koch. "But the fact is that the wolf is in the living room!"

Bloomberg has hero financier Felix Rohatyn's sympathy. "None of the choices are really acceptable from the city's long-term point of view," says the Wall Streeter who oversaw the fiscal righting of the city in the seventies. "But they will have to be absorbed."

In the meantime, who's gonna come out ahead here? Townhouse owners in 10021? City residents who get to bleed commuters dry?

Nobody, says Koch. "This budget is dollars and cents and blood." But it's also a negotiating strategy. As mayoral adviser Mitchell Moss of the Wagner School puts it, "The best part about this is that he has forced Albany to the table." And New Yorkers, he thinks, will come around. "People want a mayor who's out there telling the truth. They want the mayor to be in their face, to be decisive, strong."

Whether the city will feel like it got laid is another question.


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