- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 23, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - The City Council unveiled its budget recommendations on Wednesday, asking for 1,000 new police officers, free school lunches, more money to fight homelessness and a commission designed to overhaul the city’s property tax system.

Democratic Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who unveiled the plan at City Hall, said the new programs would cost approximately $257 million, a tiny fraction of the city’s $73 billion budget, and expressed confidence the upcoming negotiations with Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio would go smoothly.

That optimistic tone is a marked change from the bruising budget battles of recent years between the Democrat-controlled council and de Blasio’s predecessor, Republican-turned-independent Michael Bloomberg. Every year, the two sides of City Hall engaged in what was derisively called “the budget dance,” in which Bloomberg would begin by proposing cuts to city services and then the council, after weeks of hearings and protests, would largely restore the funding.

But with de Blasio, who supported Mark-Viverito for speaker, now in office, the process seems to be ramping up smoothly despite the fiscal challenges facing the city, most notably the municipal unions’ open labor contracts.

And many of the council’s proposals, such as devoting more money to the homeless and financing more affordable housing, are in line with de Blasio’s goal to fight income inequality. De Blasio also has signaled support to fully subsidize school lunches - currently, 75 percent of students qualify for free lunches - but expressed concerns at the cost and whether the move could endanger federal funding.

Mark-Viverito said the cost of hiring the New York Police Department officers, estimated to be about $100 million, would be more than offset by the savings in overtime. But Police Commissioner William Bratton said that while he would not turn down additional manpower, he’d rather use the money to give raises to the 34,600 officers currently on the force.

And de Blasio said in Albany that “the resources we have now are getting the job done” in keeping crime low and that he was not inclined to increase expenditures.

Perhaps most significantly, the council wants to create a commission to correct inequities in the city’s $21 billion property tax system. Critics have long said that rental buildings and commercial properties shoulder too much of the burden while luxury homeowners don’t pay their fair share. De Blasio, whose administration also is looking to slightly increase the city’s water and sewer rates, also has signaled support for a change, though Mark-Viverito said it would not be a quick project.

The council did not reveal how it planned to fund some of its plans. De Blasio is expected to unveil his executive budget proposal in early May. He and the council will then look to hash out a deal before the June 30 deadline.

It remains to be seen how the budget will reflect the city’s most potent fiscal challenge: All 150 city labor unions are working on expired contracts, and many labor leaders are demanding retroactive raises that could cost more than $7 billion.

Though the unions and some fiscal experts believe the city could afford the raises, de Blasio said it was “abundantly clear” it could not.


Contact Jonathan Lemire on Twitter @JonLemire

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