Back in 1975, when New York faced a fiscal crisis, the newly elected Governor Hugh Carey, declared: "Now the times of plenty, the days of wine and roses, are over."
Today, we are confronting a fiscal crisis even worse than the one that overtook New York in the 70s. Then, I witnessed Carey staving off bankruptcy for New York City through his creative efforts and through the wisdom of the advisers he enlisted, including major figures in banking, industry and labor.
The outlook is dark. The MTA, facing very hard times, is ready to impose a subway and bus fare of $2.50 on the millions of people who depend on New York's unique transit system for their livelihood. There will be major cuts in bus, subway and commuter rail service. These measures are intended to meet a 1.2 billion dollar deficit.
In the perpetual game of three-card monte the MTA plays with us, the transit authority is appealing to Albany for a financial rescue plan that would reduce the extent of the fare increase or service cuts needed to close the gap. Of course, the way to make it up involves imposing economic hardship on others, including tolls on East River bridges and a payroll tax. Shifting the burden from one group to another is not likely to make anyone very happy. Did some of these perilous conditions result from mismanagement? That's a question that cannot be immediately answered. Right now, we all have to bail the boat, together.
And all this is happening as Governor David Paterson asks for dozens of increases in taxes and fees in his new budget. If he diverts money to the beleaguered transit system, the Governor will have to take money from schools and hospitals. It seems like a no-win situation for the governor, the legislature and the MTA. Richard Ravitch, a former MTA chairman, is recommending a payroll tax of a third of a percent to be paid by businesses in the metropolitan area. Ravitch has also pushed for tolls on East and Harlem River bridges.
Assmblyman Richard Brodsky of Westchester, calling it a very difficult budget, could win a prize for understatement. He added: "This is not going to be easy." It won't be---and the people who will be squeezed hardest are the men and women who ride the subways and the buses every day. Many are the least prosperous of all our citizens. If the fare increase stands, the poor will suffer the most.
Undoubtedly, some families will have to reduce their budgets for food to be able to afford the cost of riding to work.
Even as all this unhappy news is unraveling, the revenue from real estate and mortgage taxes is declining. These are tough times -- and you can't envy the men and women who will have to make the tough decisions. We can only hope that New York will not abandon its tradition of caring for the least among us, of being sensitive to their needs even as we are called upon to sacrifice for the common good.