N.Y.C. mayor stepping up criticism of state over Ground Zero
By Jill Gardiner
The New York Sun
Copyright 2006 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
In a move that pits him against Governor Pataki, Mayor Bloomberg stepped up his criticism of new state legislation that expands benefits for those who responded to the World Trade Center attacks.
Mr. Bloomberg said yesterday that he doesn't oppose the intent of the laws, but that the cost, which he pegged at more than $550 million over the next decade, will force the city to cut back services or increase taxes.
Mr. Pataki, meanwhile, touted the legislation and made an appearance at ground zero to sign the three new bills into law while surrounded by police and fire union leaders.
Mr. Bloomberg's statements on the issue yesterday were his most forceful yet.
"The question is, can the city residents pay for it? And the answer is, if we pay for this, that will be some library that won't be able to stay open an extra day, it will be some firehouse that we won't be able to keep open, it will be some other project that everybody in this city wants," Mr. Bloomberg said.
"It will be the level of taxation, which is going to have to go up," he said.
The new bills do several things to reduce the red tape and expand benefits to those who responded to the World Trade Center attacks and got sick.They eliminate the two-year deadline for filing for workers' compensation; grant in-the-line-of-duty benefits to families after a relative dies of an illness related to the recovery effort, and allow responders who have already retired to qualify for the more generous "accidental disability" pensions if they come down with a health problem.
"This is just another example of the state of New York doing something that they want to do, but making the city pay," Mr. Bloomberg said.
When asked about the mayor's criticism a few hours later, Mr. Pataki said the state needs to put "compassion and understanding ahead of anything else."
He said the state "will not abandon" those who rushed into the face of danger and put themselves at risk.
"We cannot standby and ignore their sacrifice," he said.
He also said cost estimates that have been circulating are exaggerated and that state would pay a portion of the payment. He did not say how much. Mr. Bloomberg's $550 million calculation includes another law passed last year that made it easier for those who were at ground zero after the attacks to get a disability pension.
Aides to the mayor said the disability classifications would be paid solely by city taxpayers.Aides to the governor pointed out that the state would be paying half of the death benefits to survivors of public employees who died after working at the site.
While Messrs. Bloomberg and Pataki did not criticize each other by name, the rift was on display when they responded to questions about the legislation.
Mr. Bloomberg's spokesman, Stuart Loeser, downplayed any animosity between the two over the legislation signed yesterday.
"The mayor has said again and again that he's doing what he thinks is best for the city and the governor is doing what he thinks is best for the state," Mr. Loeser said. "Sometimes they agree and sometimes they don't agree. They continue to work together and they are going to continue to work together."
A professor of public affairs at Columbia University, Steven Cohen, said the city is always sensitive to unfunded mandates from the state and that the September 11 health benefits are no different.
He said that while Mr. Bloomberg will undoubtedly be criticized for not siding with the victims, it's easier for Mr. Pataki to sign off on legislation because "he'll be long out of office" when state needs to start paying out benefits.
"This is an issue of a lame-duck governor with national ambitions trying to do the politically expedient thing, while the mayor is dealing with the managerial aspects and thinking about the city's budget," Mr. Cohen said.
Both men have been named as possible presidential candidates in 2008.
Mr. Pataki was praised by representatives for the firefighters, detectives, and other emergency responders, who have long been saying that the dust and debris inhaled at ground zero was toxic.
The president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, Stephen Cassidy, noted that three firefighters have already died.
"Today was a huge step for the families of firefighters and other first responders and any politician who doesn't understand that is naïve and really I think is making a big mistake," Mr. Cassidy said.
Elected officials also chimed in. The speaker of the City Council, Christine Quinn, sided with the mayor, saying she supports the intent of the new laws, but that "it is time the state and federal government step up."
The speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, and state Senator Martin Golden, two of the main sponsors of the legislation, issued statements backing the measures. Mr. Silver criticized the mayor last week for his opposition to them.
The bills come after much public pressure and after thousands of first responders filed a class action blaming the toxic air for a variety of health ailments.
But Mr. Bloomberg, who had urged the governor to veto parts of the legislation, said the city must ensure that there is a connection between any illness and working at ground zero if the public is going to pay out funds.