In one quick stroke, New York City Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman, citing concerns about the use of fiscal gimmicks, last week wiped from the city's fiscal pallet an $80 million bonding plan to finance the painting of its bridges.
Although the 872 bridges managed by the city's department of transportation are in need of repair and a good paint job, Ms. Holtzman's office said using bond funds to paint bridges hearkens back to fiscal gimmicks that were partially responsible for driving the city into its fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s.
The comptroller's action leaves in a lurch the department of transportation, which has been preparing to paint the city's bridges "Yankee Blue" over the next four years. The bond financings had been included in the city's $28.5 billion fiscal 1992 budget, which began July 1.
In a memorandum prepared for city agencies, dated July 12 and clarifying the comptroller's position on the use of capital funds, the comptroller's office said, "The maintenance and painting of bridges or other components of the city's infrastructure does not conform to the directive's [the comptroller's internal control and accountability directive 10] general policy of issuing debt and using capital budget funds for capital assets which generally will provide many years of service."
To prevent the recurrence of the fiscal problems in the 1970s, city agencies should avoid the practice of using bond proceeds for maintenance items, according to the memo.
The use of bond proceeds for such purposes is legal under state law, but as city comptroller, Ms. Holtzman has considerable sway over the city's accounting and spending methods, and her directives "have the force of law," a spokeswoman for the city comptroller said yesterday.
The spokeswoman said it was "unlikely" that Ms. Holtzman would budge from her position and allow such bond financings, adding that the comptroller's predecessor, Harrison J. Goldin, "forbid this for all of his 16 years as comptroller."
The spokeswoman also noted, that the financing was "the first attempt by the DOT [department of transportation] to borrow for an operating expense since the fiscal crisis."
Philip R. Michael, director of the city's Office of Management and Budget and the person responsible for including the bonding in the city's budget, said yesterday. "We think it is a very valid use of capital moneys, and I plan to make my case to the comptroller.
He acknowledged that, "If we don't get the money, it will put a real crimp into our capital infrastructure renovation program."
Mr. Michael pointed out that Ms. Holtzman has supported some of the administration's other bonding proposals, including back dating the pricing date of new city bonds to allow the city to make additional money up front by collecting accrued interest from the investors buying the bonds. And the comptroller, who has balked at using $100 million in proceeds to capitalized bond interest payments in fiscal 1991 and 1992, backed off that stance slightly last month and allowed the city to capitalized about $5 million of interest payments on bonds relating to hospital projects, Mr. Michael said.
One city official from the Dinkins's administration said, "If she were to refuse to sign, I guess if we really wanted to find a way around it, I suppose we could.
"There are certain issues she has to sign off on and other issues she does not have to sign off on," he said. But the official quickly added, "The relationship with the comptroller is an important one. It doesn't pay to do something she has publicly taken a position against." Administration officials are counting on Ms. Holtzman's support for a number of complex and unique city bonding programs, including a lease financing program that could net the city up to $150 million in reimbursements for capital expenditures on equipment in fiscal 1992.
When asked why the city comptroller waited until last week to comment on the bonding plan that was originally unveiled in May when the revised executive budget was released, the spokeswoman said, "We knew it was there in May, but it wasn't clear until last week that the city was going to go through wit it." Ms. Holtzman's office released the memo about the plan on Friday, a few days after a report in The New York Times listed a number of one-shot actions in the city's budget.
However, the issue had been raised in a June fiscal monitor's report and in other published reports. State Comptroller Edward V. Regan took exception to the use of bond proceeds for certain types of bridge painting, as well as highway resurfacing programs, in a report his office released in mid-June reviewing the city's fiscal 1991 and 1992 budgets. He noted that the use of bond proceeds for these purposes "represents a departure from the strict standards regarding the propriety of capital expenditures set for the city as a result of the fiscal crisis" in the mid-1970s.
Mr. Regan noted that while the financings were legal because of provisions in state law that allow consideration for bond financing in these projects, he said his office was "troubled" by the city's move to widen the definition of projects that can be financed with bond proceeds to include "those which simply serve to maintain the asset's current life."
Joseph DePlasco, a spokesman for the department of a transportation, said, "Right now we are very concerned.
"If she [Ms. Holtzman] goes through with this, we are going to lose $80 million" for a four-year painting plan affecting about 400 bridges, he noted.
He said painting contracts for two East River spans -- the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges -- total $8 million and were scheduled to begin in September.
"If she does not register the contracts, then we simply do not have the money to proceed with the painting," he said, adding that painting the bridges would prolong their useful life. He observed that 56% of the bridges the department oversees are considered "deficient."
"We do not see painting as routine maintenace," he continued. "There was never really a painting program like this. Painting was only done on major reconstruction projects. Some bridges have not been painted," Mr. DePlasco said.
"Under generally accepted accounting principles, these are legitimate capital items," said another administration official.
"It is not a matter of appearance," he said. "If you don't paint it, it will fall down."