News Analysis: Does Bloomberg’s Big Spending Cross the Line?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg will donate $30 million of his own money toward an initiative aimed at reducing the number of incarcerated, impoverished and under-educated black and Latino men. Should New Yorkers be cynical?AP/Evan Agostini.

Is New York City fortunate to have a billionaire mayor who can subsidize an underfunded city government and actualize his initiatives using his own wallet? Or does Mayor Bloomberg’s politically influential philanthropy represent a previously unheard of, troubling  intersection of personal wealth and government?

Last Thursday, the Bloomberg administration announced plans to spend nearly $130 million on a program called the Young Men’s Initiative,  designed to improve the lives of underemployed, under-educated or incarcerated minority youths. The mayor plans to personally donate $30 million of his estimated $18.1 billion fortune to the program. George Soros, who beat out Bloomberg as the largest philanthropist  in the nation, will match those funds.

The Young Men’s Initiative isn’t the only recent instance of the mayor opening his pocketbook to support programs in which he or the city are politically invested. The New York Post reported that over the past two years the mayor has donated $99 million to nonprofits.

Following are Bloomberg’s most noteworthy donations:

  • On July 21, Bloomberg announced that he would donate $50 million over four years to the Sierra Club, for the purpose of shutting down coal plants and utilizing cleaner energy sources, reported the New York Times. WNYC’s reporting suggested that the mayor’s chummy relationships with the Sierra Club’s senior executives played a role in the huge gift.

So what’s wrong with putting your money where your mouth is?

On the one hand, the mayor is using his own assets to try to improve the circumstances of disenfranchised minority youth in the city, clean up the environment and improve education.  On the other hand, he’s using his own wealth to swing policy in the direction he favors.

Last May, the New York Post ran a story cheekily titled “Bloomy’s $hadow city government,” which examined how many of those nonprofits Bloomberg supports “coincidentally” ended up hiring people supportive of the mayor’s policies. In some cases, the nonprofits Bloomberg donated to were hired to work on city projects.

“While Bloomberg’s generosity serves as a tangible example of his commitment to the city, the “revolving door” between City Hall and Bloomberg-backed nonprofits is cause for concern,”  NYU public-policy professor Rogan Kersh told the New York Post.

In an interview with MetroFocus, Douglas Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College, said of Bloomberg, ” Sui generis. Noblesse oblige? Pure personal self-interest? An amalgam? He hasn’t been shy about self-promotion…His immense wealth has allowed him to buy elections, silence potential critics, rent political parties, overthrow the stated will of the people.”  But, he added that New York benefits from the fact that Bloomberg’s philanthropy is “wide-ranging” and directed toward “worthy policy activities.”

Other New Yorkers were also cynical:  Approximately 85 percent of callers to Mark Riley’s WWRL radio show expressed cynicism about the mayor’s plan and donation, with many assuming Bloomberg’s contribution to the Young Men’s Initiative was, at least partially, a push to boost his approval ratings and defend his mayoral legacy, reported the Daily News.

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported on other groups who found the mayor’s donation to be a conflict of interests. “You have private money which is pushing where the public money will be spent,” Susan Lerner of the watchdog group Common Cause New York told the Journal. “Where’s the evaluation process? Where’s the public input? Lerner added.

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