Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Three days after the big snowstorm, full subway service was finally restored today with the B/Q--the lines we use most often--up and running as of sometime late morning. Caton Avenue is clear, but not the side streets that feed into it like Marlborough Road, as noted by Times columnist Michael Powell in a scathing article. The Mayor, initially defensive to criticisms of the City's response to the storm, about-faced and took a mea culpa today.

I've lived here for most of the last 15 years and remember a couple winter storms that seemed more severe, but no response as slow and weak as this one has seemed. Then again, when those blizzards hit, I was living in Manhattan or Park Slope--wealthier areas with better services. Maybe it's always this bad in worse-off communities, and maybe the unpleasant commutes I've had the last two days (on the F, mostly) are run-of-the-mill bad transit luck having nothing to do with the storm, and simply ill-timed to coincide with yet another fare increase that goes into effect tomorrow.

But maybe not. There was a story in the Times earlier this year about what's happening in communities across the country where revenues in the prolonged economic downturn were inadequate to both pay for expected levels of public services and balance budgets, and how those communities made cuts:

Faced with the steepest and longest decline in tax collections on record, state, county and city governments have resorted to major life-changing cuts in core services like education, transportation and public safety that, not too long ago, would have been unthinkable. And services in many areas could get worse before they get better.

The length of the downturn means that many places have used up all their budget gimmicks, cut services, raised taxes, spent their stimulus money — and remained in the hole. Even with Congress set to approve extra stimulus aid, some analysts say states are still facing huge shortfalls.

Cities and states are notorious for crying wolf around budget time, and for issuing dire warnings about draconian cuts that never seem to materialize. But the Great Recession has been different. Around the country, there have already been drastic cuts in core services like education, transportation and public safety, and there are likely to be more before the downturn ends.

Having to wait an extra day or two for streets to get plowed or sidewalks shoveled doesn't approach in severity a shift to a four-day school week, or shutting off streetlights and furloughing cops. But it does seem to be part of the story of the City's sluggish response to the snowstorm of December 2010. The Sanitation Department is down about 400 employees from a few years ago, and the insufficiency of the regular public workforce to the crisis is illustrated by the fact that NYC has hired hundreds of day laborers to aid in the dig-out effort. Factoring in overtime for those workers who remain, the expense of hiring at-need labor presumably wipes out a big chunk of whatever was saved through the reduction to Sanitation's workforce.

As anti-government sentiment becomes consistently both more extreme and more detached from reality, New York has mostly proven immune. Nobody could accuse Mayor Bloomberg of dismissing the power of the public sector to make positive change in the lives of the citizenry; from banning smoking in bars to mandating calorie counts in chain restaurants to winning control of the public schools, he's been arguably the most activist public official in the country over his nine years in office. But cuts in state and federal aid over the last few decades hurt the City in countless ways every day, directly and indirectly; this is just one instance, and we're probably blaming the wrong people.

Public discourse also overlooks the role of government activity in the economy itself. Ezra Klein posted today that the erosion of public sector employment through 2010 is among the biggest causes of our ongoing labor market doldrums. While anyone who draws a public paycheck (a group I count myself among) will also draw scorn from certain corners, there are plenty of times when you really want them on the job. Like when it snows.

No comments: