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Numbers games

What is the City's deficit for the next fiscal year? $350 million (January estimate)? $404 million (last week)? $500 million (yesterday)? The Mayor thought yesterday it will be $500 million--and it's important when a Mayor says such a thing. Media mostly think it's $350 million, because that's what the Times reported--two months ago.

In fact, the deficit estimate can--and should--change weekly, even daily. The truth is that the City has no way of even estimating within $20 million (4% variance) how much next year's deficit will be, because the revenue hasn't been collected yet, and projections are only projections, nothing more. All these numbers are best estimates numbers, and the best estimates change all the time. It would be fair reporting to report that the size of the deficit is large and changing all the time, and that reporters don't seem to be aware of this. But they should, if they are reporting, follow the matter closely enough to be within 10% of the latest figures.

Though we can lay much blame on the Mayor's doormat, we are also as a whole seeing remarkable levels of cognitive dissonance from the Mayor's critics on the coming budget. Most of this willful cognitive dissonance is being conducted by corporate-cuddling Republicans hopeful to bash unions and to lay as much blame on pension plans as possible. The pension discussion is mostly artificial.

I am a critic of the Mayor too, but the fact that revenue has so precipitously declined in the City is also a regional phenomenon, even a State one. This revenue decline has nothing to do with civic pensions.

The correct solutions to the coming lean years are two: to pressure the Mayor's office and Council to join the Governor and dismantle and reconstitute the CRA, and to commence a dialog with the City's unions about either borrowing from their pension funds or float a stopgap bond.

What matters more than the numerical size of the deficit is the ratio of the deficit to the size of the final budget--which hasn't been determined yet. Cities can survive up to a 30% deficit with difficulty, even over a few years--but without approaching bankruptcy. Responsible adults will make sure that it happens, while childish ones will continue to make noise and wag fingers.