Would you pay hundreds of dollars for a 1950s Western Electric rotary phone when your neighbors have iPhones? No, you wouldn’t. But when it comes to public services, New Yorkers are paying for an iPhone — and getting the equivalent of the decrepit rotary. The city’s new budget, passed last week, promises more of the same.
We pay for the best, but get yesterday’s technology and work practices.
Take trash collection. A few years ago, the Citizens Budget Commission took a critical look at New York City waste collection. Waste collection in Gotham costs more than it does in other cities. Not coincidentally, New York also fails to take advantage of modern technology that makes waste collection faster and more efficient.
If you live in a Big Apple apartment building, chances are your trash is picked up by two beefy Department of Sanitation workers who toss bags of trash into the back of their truck. To accomplish this, your building’s porter leaves the bags out overnight on the sidewalk, creating an unsightly and often smelly obstacle for pedestrians. Picking up the trash might take 15 or 20 minutes, and if your street is narrow, the sanitation truck blocks traffic for that time.
There is a better way. Trash could be put out in bins that would be lifted mechanically and emptied into the sanitation truck. Bin collection is safer, because it makes backbreaking lifting unnecessary. It’s faster, too, and would only require one worker to drive the truck and operate the lift mechanism. Binned trash would be contained overnight, spillage would be eliminated and smells reduced.
Why doesn’t the city do it this way? Bin collection would require the city to renegotiate union work rules and to acquire new equipment. New Yorkers, moreover, would need to give up street-parking spaces to house the bins. The political class views that last ask as an impossibility; free parking is sacrosanct. Or is it?
New Yorkers just gave up street parking so restaurants could offer outdoor service during the COVID-19 lockdown. Why couldn’t they be persuaded to do the same in exchange for cheaper, safer, more efficient trash pickup?
While we’re dreaming, let’s talk about firehouses. The CBC also reports that the New York City Fire Department devotes far more resources to firefighting than it should, given the decline over recent decades in the number of responses to fires. Indeed, the FDNY spends more time on nonfire emergencies than it does on fires.
Fires are terrifying, and no proposal brings out united community opposition quicker than closing a firehouse. And yet the city arguably has too many of them and staffs more engine companies and ladder companies with firefighters than it needs.
Mayor Mike Bloomberg tried, and failed, to close 20 firehouses in 2011-12. Comparing data in the annual Mayor’s Management Reports since then, it’s clear that the FDNY responds to about the same number of structural fires as a decade ago, but the number of non-structural fires has gone down. So the questions remains: How many firefighters do we need to have on duty around the clock to be safe? Is it the same number we needed years ago, when the FDNY responded to many more fires?
Both sanitation workers and firefighters have strong unions, and they enjoy very good pay and benefits — as they should. But taxpayers’ commitment to good pay and benefits should come with a proviso that city agencies need to be able to adopt new labor-saving technologies and the right size for services to reflect changing times.
If New York City can’t do that, taxpayers will be left funding their grandparents’ public services but at salaries and benefits that reflect the living standards of our current high-productivity private economy. This was just about supportable when Gotham’s tax base was flush with revenue. Even then, it wasn’t truly justifiable: New Yorkers paid a high cost in unnecessarily steep taxes and foregone opportunities to improve other services.
In the current dire economic situation, however, these arrangements are simply intolerable. For New York City to remain economically competitive, taxpayers need to demand that the city’s services reflect current technology and international best practices.
“The way it’s always been done” doesn’t cut it with phones. It shouldn’t cut it when it comes to public services, either.
Eric Kober, a former director in the New York City Department of City Planning, is a Manhattan Institute adjunct fellow.