Is another New York City fiscal crisis really necessary?That question has many New Yorkers scratching their heads as they are treated to a new spate of high-pitched warnings that the city - in the words of Municipal Assistance corp. Chairman Felix Rohatyn - is "about to enter a storm fully as dangerous and unpredictable as any we weathered in 1975."
While a replay of the 1975 fiscal cliffhanger may seem neither necessary nor desirable, politics and the competing interests of the multitude of parties involved in keeping New York City solvent appear to be making another showdown inevitable.
The reason for the latest gathering storm is an upcoming series of deadlines expierations and negotiations that confront the city's newly installed mayor, Edward I. Koch, with what amounts to a repeat of the 1975 bankruptcy threat.
That was the year New York City, after being shut out of the public credit markets, narrowly averted bankruptcy only when a patchwork of assistance was hammered out involving participation of the city's unions, their pension funds, the giant New York City commercial banks, the New York State government, the federal Treasury, and the imposition of a moratorium on the repayment of $1.6 billion in city notes which subsequently was declared unconstitutional.
Within the next six months, however, many elements of that patchwork - most notably the federal loans - are due to lapse as New York city reaches the end of a three-year recovery plan on June 30.
Despite considerable progress in holding the line on employee costs, cutting away an accumulated $2.3 billion budget deficit, refinancing $6 billion in short-term debt, and establishing a credible system of accounting, the city remains awash in red ink and has not been able to regain access to the credit markets in order to take care of its own financing needs.
A $200 million note offering that was meant to test the waters of public investor confidence last fall was scuttled after Moodys Investors Services, the credit agency, gave the notes its lowest rating because it said the city still faced a continuing bankruptcy threat.
So now the city must negotiate many of the 1975 agreements or find substitutes for them if it is to avoid the same insolvency problem. In addition, most of the city's labor contracts expire between now and June 30 and must be negotiated.
Most crucial is the expiration of the federal government's three-year, $2.3 billion short-term loan to the city on June 30. The "seasonal" loan was designed only to take care of cash-low problems and, as required, has been repaid by the end of each fiscal year.
The loan program was narrowly passed by Congress in 1975, and the advance word is that any extension may have an even more difficult time this year - let alont the proposal for long-term federal borrowing guarantees that New York officials are saying is the only sensible way to deal with the fundamentals of the city's financial problems.
On Friday, Mayor Koch, in office only 20 days, presented a balanced budget and financing plan for New York City for the next four years as requested by the Treasury Department.
The ambitious plan proposes both a continuation of the federal government's seasonal loans - albeit at a reduced level - plus $2.25 billion in new guarantees on long-term borrowing. The federal government would guarantee 90 per cent of the $2.25 billion, and New York State the remaining 10 per cent, with the state actually setting aside $225 million in a fund for contingencies, under the mayor's proposal.
Koch said "the federal guarantee of long-term debt, with state backing, is critical to this plan."
The amount of the seasonal loans would be cut to $1.2 billion in fiscal 1979, and reduced in succeeding years. At the same time, he proposed that New York City's 11 largest banks provide an annual $600 million line of credit due before revenues are available.
Over the next four years, the mayor said, the city needs $5.1 billion in long-term financing to take care of its deteriorating capital plant, to bond out the current $800 million annual advance from the state (which is really a substitute for long-ten financing), and to eliminate nearly $1 billion in expense items that have been buried in the city's capital budget.
Half of that could be taken care of by the Municipal Assistance Corp., the city's financial surrogate, but the remainder requires the federal guarantees so the bonds can be placed, Koch indicated.
The $2.25 billion in guaranteed bonds would be bought by New York City and state pension funds. The city's commercial and savings banks and insurance companies would be expected to buy $1 billion in MAC bonds, and the remainder would be placed with the public.
"The participation of the pension finds financial institutions and public investors in this financing plan is completely dependent upon the federal guarantee," the four-year plan states.
Meanwhile, to deal with the city's $457 million fiscal 1979 budget gap (more than $1 billion if the expense items in the capital budget and unfunded pension liabilities are included). Koch proposed a further reduction of 10 per cent through attrition in the city's work force over the next four years amounting to nearly $20,000 positions, and a 12 per cent cut in real purchases by city agencies for savings of $170 million. He also urged the state and federal governments to take a number of steps that would increase direct aid to New York City and make up the rest of the difference.
"What we are seeking from the Congress is assistance not for the short-term through seasonal loans, which really represent the extension of a Band-Aid," said New York City controller Harrison J. Goldin, "but rather one-shot guarantees of city or city-related debt."
"Someone has to be willing to invest $2.25 billion in the city, but before they make that investment, they require the kinds of guarantees that a fiduciary needs - that the city is going to remain solvent," Goldin added. "That assurance would make the second 4-year plan the last plan, and the city would not continue to be a ward of the federal government, if these limited one-shot guarantees can be obtained."
The exact White House position on the latest New York City plan was not immediately clear.
President Carter, in a message to Congress accompanying his State of the Union message on Thursday, said his administration was "studying closely the possible need for extended federal lending to New York City." But he did not indicate whether this meant merely an extension of the present short-term loan program, the addition of some long-term guarantees, or both.
"We are committed, along with the state and the city, to preserving the city's solvency," Carter said."If such extended lending is necessary for that purpose, we will propose it." But he added that "all the interested parties" must contribute to the "permanent solution."
Whatever plan the Carter administration commits itself to also certainly will encounter rough going from Congress.
After hearings in December, Senate Banking Committee Chairman William Proxmire (D-Wisc.) and Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), in a lengthly letter to the White House said that further federal assistance for New York City was unnecessary - either short term or long term - because the city could scrape by on its own with a strict financial plan, together with more aid from New York State, the pension funds and the banks.
They added that "a renewal of the New York City loans would not necessarily serve the best interests of the federal government or the nation."
In New York City, the uniform view is that some continued federal involvement is absolutely necessary to keep the city going, because without it the city pension funds and banks - both of which already hold considerable amounts of city and MAC paper - could not justify making further investments in the face of their fiduciary responsibilities to the inviduals whose assets they invests.
"The no-federal-involvement scenario simply leads to us running out of money," said Rohatyn, chief architect of most of the city's financial rescue plans in the past. "Federal involvement has to be a given," he added, "because it is hard for the unions and the banks to know what they can do without knowing exactly what the federal government will support."
Although the federal loans run out on June 30, the real deadline for coming up with a comprehensive solution that will keep the city going is March 31, according to the exports, because that is the date when the New York State Legislature must pass a budget resolution for the year so the state can proceed with its annual $4 billion spring borrowing in April - including $800 million for New York City.
"If everything is not in place by March 31, we are playing with fire," said Controller Goldin, "because we will then be toying not only with New York City's fiscal integrity, but with that of the state as well.Without a comprehensive program, the state's spring borrowing will be in jeopardy."
The state budget proposed by Gov. Hugh L. Carey last week also is expected to produce between $150 million and $200 million that Mayor Koch will need to deal with the yawning $500 million city budget facing him in fiscal 1979. Gov. Carey, facing re-election this year, meanwhile has proposed $750 million in tax cuts as part of his budget. While most parties in New York support the need for some across-the board cuts to make the tax-burdened state more competitive, there is debate whether at least some of this $750 million should be channeled directly to New York City.
March 31 is also the date when the city's contract with the transit union expires. This is the first of the city contracts that must be renegotiated between now and June 30 - after a three-year lid on wages - and the agreement reached with the transit workers is expected to see the pace for all of the municipal employee pacts.
The labor negotiations in turn affect the city's cost projections over the next few years and determine, in part, what kind of financing plan the city will require. The outcome of the labor talks also will affect the willingness of the city employee pension funds to make further investments in city paper.
"I have no doubt that every effort will be made to have the unions play the role of savior and simultaneously play the never-ending role of patsy," said Jack Bigel, chief consultant to the Municipal Labor Committee.
Bigel said the financing requests and labor negotiations, while "basically separate," will be considered "in parallel." The outcome of the labor negotiations "will impact on the psyche of the (pension fund) trustees."
He noted that the city's five major employee pension funds now have 35 per cent of their assets invested in city or city-related securities - breaching the 10 per cent limit imposed by federal pension legislation only through a special dispension from Congress passed in 1975.
"By now I would say we are really tapped out, pending some federal long-term guarantee," he said.
Meanwhile, the state employee pension fund, with assets of $9.5 billion has virtually none of this invested in New York City financing instruments. State Controller Arthur Levitt, who is the sole trustee for the pension funds, is expected to continue his posture of resisting requests to put some of this money at the disposal of New York City unless federal guarantees are forthcoming.
Similarly, the position of the city's banks is that some federal role is essential if they are expected to continue financing the city. "The continued participation of the federal government is an integral part of a longer-range plan for fiscal stability in this city," commented Willard C. Butcher, president of the Chase Manhattan Bank.
"Their continued participation is important not only for fiscal stability but for credibility," he added. "If there is a lack of total plan, then the state would have troubled investing in the city, and so would the banks. these things tend to be mutually supportive or mutually damaging."
The past pattern of brinksmanship in all negotiations involving the New York City fiscal crisis has led observers to question how much of any one party's slated position is tactical bluff and how much is genuinely non-negotiable.
Even the tough stand taken publicly by Sen. Proxmire, who was instrumental in guiding the 1975 legislation through Congress, is being interpreted as a backstop for city officials as they enter into the critical round of labor negotiations. It is also thought to help extract the maximum in financing concessions from both the pension funds - city and state - and the banks.
Senate Banking Commitee sources, for example, say that the committee remains open-minded on the issue of both short-term seasonal or long-term financing assistance.
However, Proxmire personally is known to feel strongly that New York City needs no long-term aid because it has the resources from the pension funds, banks and the state available to see it through.
That almost certainly will turn out to be the major cleavage point between city officials and the Congress. Rohatyn, in a Jan. 11 memo to the MAC board put it this way:
"Without federal assistance in the form of long-term loans or guarantees, neither MAC nor the city, alone or together, has the capacity to provide such financing. With appropriate federal assistance in the long-term financing area, the seasonal financing problem becomes almost irrelevant; however, with only seasonal assistance from the federal government, the city is likely to be unable to meet its financing needs in the 1979 and 1980 period, and bankruptcy at that time, if not earlier, becomes a real possibility. With no financing assistance of any kind from the federal government, the city will run out of cash at mid-year."