Tolling Bridges, Taxing Rich, Chaining City Workers to Desks Among City's Budget Options

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This morning the city's Independent Budget Office issued its annual Budget Options document, a sprawling list of ways for the city to either save money or raise revenue. In past years, this was the kind of thing that only got policy wonks' hearts a-flutter; now, with the city staring down the barrel of $5 billion budget deficits, and Congress looking more interested in tax cuts than in riding to local governments' rescue, some of the ideas in the IBO report may end up becoming reality quicker than you'd think.

The first thing that's clear: There's just not all that much to easily cut. While the IBO throws out plenty of ideas for savings - from "eliminate grass clippings from trash collection" to "replace late-night service on the Staten Island Ferry with buses" - most of these would save only a few million dollars, not even enough to pay more than a few hours' worth of the city's looming deficits. The only big-ticket items, meanwhile, are way easier said than done:

* Require city employees to pay more towards health care and increasing their workweek from 35 to 40 hours a week would save $449 million; as the IBO notes drily, however, these "would require collective bargaining."

*"Pay-As-You-Throw,"
a system used by other cities where you're charged for garbage collection based on how much trash you generate, could save the city $316 million. Given that New York City can't even figure out how to fairly charge residents of apartment buildings for separate electricity use, though, individualized trash bills seems like a pipe dream.

* Increase class sizes by two students per class citywide. This would save $187 million a year, but would be offset by the sanitation costs of cleaning up after every city parent's head exploded.

No, if you want to see lots of zeroes on the end of the figures, you need to turn to the "revenue" section:

* Raise taxes on the rich -- specifically those earning more than $125,000 a year, which would net $455 million. (Both the city and state tax the rich at the same rate as the middle-class, which a growing number of locals seem to think is nuts.) Even if coupled with tax relief for the city's bottom two tax brackets - those earning less than $25,000 a year, or $45,000 for couples - the city would still clear a cool $342 million.

* Reestablish the old commuter tax - i.e., tax income of those who work in the city but sleep in the 'burbs -- which could raise $715 million, or $1.4 billion if it was levied more strongly on those with higher incomes.

* Toll the East River and Harlem River bridges to bring in $830 million a year, and help ease traffic congestion by encouraging people to use mass transit. Charging tolls only on out-of-towners would cut the benefit to $376 million, which is still a chunk of change.

There are plenty of other tax options in the nine-figure range, most of them involving things you've probably never heard of unless you're a corporate tax lawyer ("extend the general corporation tax to insurance company business income"). Most of them, however, would require the approval of the state - the commuter tax and income tax hikes included - and given that Gov. Paterson has cast his lot with those who'd rather cut than tax, this may be a tough slog. In other words, you might want to start saving your quarters for the next time you have to drive across the Brooklyn Bridge. (photo by Neil deMause)


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