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Mayor sets fresh direction in State of City, budget

New York Teacher

Mayor Bill de Blasio signaled a clean break with the past in his first formal presentations as mayor — his State of the City address on Feb. 10 and a budget address on Feb. 12 — recognizing and praising the municipal workforce and pledging to work in partnership with the city’s public unions.

“I know that these speeches have at times been used to attack the motives of our public employees,” de Blasio said in his State of the City speech. “Today, I want to recognize the hard work and commitment of those men and women and to say how proud I am of them.”

Two days later, in presenting his initial spending plan for the coming year, he called for new relationships with teachers and other city workers and said that he had put $1.3 billion of the surplus from revenues into reserves in this fiscal year’s budget and the next.

“We are trying to create an atmosphere of partnership with municipal labor,” de Blasio said, in grappling with the legacy left him by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg: some 150 unsettled municipal union contracts.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew hailed the fresh direction shortly after the Feb. 12 budget address.

“Mayor de Blasio’s preliminary budget is a welcome departure from the years of Bloomberg crying poverty while rolling up huge annual surpluses,” he said. “We have a long way to go to solve the problems caused by the previous administrations, but a budget that recognizes the steady improvement in the city’s economy and sets aside significant reserve funds — and a mayor who wants to conduct labor negotiations in an atmosphere of partnership — are important steps in the right direction.”

The new mayor said he is committed to a path forward that addresses income inequality and that will be “progressive” as well as “fiscally responsible.” He has a budget surplus that is already almost $3 billion, thanks in part to larger-than-anticipated revenue from personal income and real estate taxes. Some budget observers think the final surplus for the year will be even higher.

He steadfastly refused to respond to questions on retroactive pay for city workers, saying it was a subject for collective bargaining. But he promised labor talks would be “respectful and positive.”

The financial plan for 2015 includes $530 million for universal prekindergarten and after-school programs, his signature education initiatives. Most of the money is earmarked for new pre-K classrooms and teachers.

The de Blasio administration is planning to launch universal pre-K in the fall. The pre-K funds in the budget assume Albany’s approval of the mayor’s proposed increase in the income tax for the city’s highest earners, which would be dedicated to pre-K and after-school programs. That approval is in jeopardy because Senate Republicans oppose it and the governor, who is up for re-election, does not want to approve a tax increase.

Mulgrew urged the state Senate to bring to a vote the city’s request for permission to tax the wealthy. “We have to continue to push for a dedicated funding stream so that we make good on the promise of all-day pre-K for all our students,” he said.

Along with pre-K, the mayor said new education spending will focus on class-size reduction, additional academic support in kindergarten through 3rd-grade classrooms, and after-school programs for middle schoolers.

Months of negotiations with the City Council lie ahead. The final budget must be approved by the Council by July 1, the start of the 2015 fiscal year.