Thirty years ago, a lingering recession forced several years of budget cuts, including to the NYPD, reducing their level to below 30,000. In 1990, 2,262 persons were shot to death.
On Labor Day weekend that year, a young tourist by the name of Brian Watkins became the 18th victim to be slain on a New York Subway. He was a visitor from Utah who was stabbed in the chest trying to defend his family from a roving group of thugs.
Making this particular crime even more outrageous, the perpetrators used Watkins’ stolen credit card to go dancing across the street from the crime scene. No cops, no fear, why worry?
As the Speaker of the newly empowered City Council, we knew that we had to do something to save our crime-infested city. We had to find common ground with the mayor, state legislature, and governor.
Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court giving the City Council broad legislative powers, we decided to legislate 5,000 new cops to the force. We, therefore, crossed the Hall to advise the mayor that was exactly what we were going to do.
We had the support of a veto-proof City Council and would cut the budget in other places to do so. If the city continued to be crime infested, who would stay?
We did not, however, want to solely raise the real estate tax, which we had the power to do. So to avoid hitting home and commercial owners with another high raise, we needed the mayor’s support to go to Albany to raise the income tax.
The combined taxes would amount to less than $100 per taxpayer. We just had to find common ground with all branches and leaders, such as the mayor, governor, Democratic-led Assembly and Republican-led State Senate.
This certainly was no easy task. It meant Republicans and Democrats had to put aside their political differences and find common ground. It also meant giving credit to all branches of government.
Last but not least, we had to convince our constituents that the additional $100 would not go to more police, but also to youth programs. The mayor and City Council called it “Cops & Kids.” The state changed the title to “Safe Streets/Safe City” just to be sure this was a joint effort.
To assure that the tax would not be raised every year, we put in a provision to abolish it after seven years. Seven years later, the city crime rate was amazingly down to less than 600 murders.
Common ground in our great city was found. We now could be called the safest large city in the country.
My question is that if the greatest and most diverse city in the USA could find common ground to change New York from a crime-infested town with a serious budget shortfall to the safest and most prosperous in the country, why can’t our elected political leaders at all levels find common ground again?
Now is the time to remind voters and elected leaders that they found common ground before. Now it must be found again, not only in the City of New York, but in our beloved country.
Peter F. Vallone is the former Speaker of the City Council.