On the city’s darkest day, as most eyes were naturally focused on the stunning human tragedy resulting from the destruction of the World Trade Center, Deputy Mayor for Operations Joe Lhota was busy trying to get the city government up and running again.
The result of his management and the efforts of others, as he recalled in a recent interview with the Queens Chronicle, was that everybody north of Chambers Street in Manhattan had garbage pickup the next day, Sept. 12, 2001, paychecks went out to city employees that day and schools were up and running again the following week.
It’s that kind of successful management, whether in a crisis or in day-to-day operations, that Lhota says he will bring to the office of mayor if he is elected. The Republican hopeful faces two primary challengers, with the winner of that contest going up against any one of several Democrats in November.
Lhota says he wants to focus on the structure of the government, getting departments whose leaders don’t communicate enough talking again, remaking the Office of Emergency Management into a bureau to handle crises, rather than the planning agency he says it has become, imposing meaningful spending cuts that will keep budget growth below the rate of inflation and ensuring the city doesn’t return to the “bad old days” of higher crime rates and other social maladies that preceded the Giuliani years.
“Great things have been happening” in New York since the turnaround that started in the early 1990s, Lhota said, but he fears “this election could change that.”
Top among his concerns is the growth in the city’s budget, which has increased from about $36 billion to $70 billion under Mayor Bloomberg, 56 percent over the rate of inflation. “Nothing has grown as much as government in the city,” Lhota said.
He would change that by demanding 10 percent reductions in spending from each agency and following a zero-based budgeting model in which departments are not assumed to need more funding each year but must demonstrate what they need to fulfill their missions.
Lhota said that under Giuliani, that’s how it was done. When he was budget director, during the ex-mayor’s first term, he said, he would tell an agency its target of expense elimination was, say, $10 million. “The agency would say we don’t want to cut our budget $10 million, we want to increase revenue $10 million,” he recalled. “I’d say no, and I’d have the backing of the mayor. Mayor Bloomberg has changed that.”
One of the next mayor’s primary fiscal and political challenges will be reaching new bargaining agreements with all the city’s unions, all of which are now working without contracts. Some candidates are open to the idea of retroactive pay raises for public union members, but not Lhota.
Instead, he said, he will get the unions to agree to a particular increase that would take effect over several years. He cited as an example the 11.32 percent increase he negotiated with DC 37 under Giuliani, which took effect over five years, with no pay raise the first two years, followed by roughly 3 percent the third year and 4 percent in the fourth and fifth years.
“If the union wants a lump sum payment, I won’t call that retroactive pay,” Lhota said, “but over time the contract will be 11.32 percent, for example.”
On Queens-specific issues, Lhota said:
• he is against the plan to build a soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, because Queens doesn’t have enough parkland as it is, and games would conflict with baseball; and
• that while he leans toward reopening the old Rockaway rail line to trains, he is concerned about the impact on adjoining properties and could only commit to a dialogue on the idea.
Before joining the Giuliani administration, Lhota was an investment banker. Afterward he served as an executive with Cablevision Systems Corporation and the Madison Square Garden Company. In 2011 and 2012, he headed the Metropolitan Transportation Administration, and was credited with wisely shutting down the system before Hurricane Sandy struck, avoiding worse damage than it actually suffered.