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Commuter Tax Proposal Sets Off a War of Words

Out-of-towners scoff at N.Y. Mayor Bloomberg's idea to close budget gap with levy on their income. But the plan has support in the city.

November 17, 2002|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — "Who likes taxes?" asked the man behind the Pretzel Bakery stand at Grand Central Station as the commuters rushed by, headed for trains home to the suburbs. "But I live here in New York. So do you want the altruistic answer or the selfish answer?"

Then the peddler laughed, making clear that he supported the "commuter tax" proposed last week by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who wants to take a bite out of the wages of those who work in the city but live outside it.

"Just don't tell these people," whispered the pretzel man as he took his own small piece of the suburbanites' income before they fled Friday evening, many fuming over the tax proposal that quickly divided city dwellers and out-of-towners, prompting rhetoric that at times seemed worthy of a professional wrestling arena.

"Highway Robbery" headlined the New York Post, doing its part to raise the blood pressure of the commuters.

From the other side came a Newsday commentator, asking, "Remind me again: Why shouldn't the freeloading suburbanites pay? They roar into our city five mornings a week, clogging our sidewalks with their rotund posteriors, grinding our traffic to a halt, filling our trash cans with their fast-food containers, hogging the seats on our buses and trains. Then at the earliest hint of trouble, you know what these broad-lawn people do: They punch 911 into their cell phones and summon our firefighters, paramedics and cops. And all day long, they behave as if they have a God-given right to the high-priced largess -- for free."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 20, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 12 inches; 448 words Type of Material: Correction
New York budget -- A story in Section A on Sunday misstated the amount by which a proposed New York City commuter tax exceeds a similar tax that was repealed three years ago. The proposed new tax of 2.7% on suburban commuters' incomes is five times higher than the previous rate of 0.45%, not more than six times higher.

What set them off was Bloomberg's announcement Thursday that one solution to the city's projected multibillion-dollar budget shortfall might be a 2.7% tax on the incomes of suburban commuters, a rate more than six times higher than a similar tax repealed three years ago in flusher economic times.

"This is the kind of thing that causes border wars," said Westchester County Executive Andy Spano, the top elected official in the county immediately north of the city.

Noting that tens of thousands of New York City residents make the "reverse commute" to his suburban county to work, Spano said, "I could start taxing them. What would be the point?"

But even as Spano and other suburban leaders vowed to fight such a tax, as did officials in the neighboring states of New Jersey and Connecticut, they seemed confident that Bloomberg was largely posturing, that he did not realistically expect the New York Legislature to require 800,000 out-of-town workers to pay local taxes to New York City -- and at the same level as city residents: more than $2,000 on an income of at least $100,000.

Area officials speculated that Bloomberg was attempting shock therapy to wrangle budget help from the Legislature in Albany and Gov. George Pataki, a fellow Republican, or was trying to make a smaller commuter tax seem palatable, like the 0.45% tax abolished three years ago after it became a hot issue in a suburban legislative race.

"This poor guy's back is against the wall," Spano said of Bloomberg. "But we're all facing a local [budget] crisis."

After the devastation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there's more sympathy for New York's financial problems than there might have been in past years. More than a few of the commuters passing through Grand Central Station on Friday night admitted a willingness to give to the cause.

"The city is in bad shape. I'm not tax-adverse," said a magazine executive rushing to make the train to Bedford, in northern Westchester.

But for everyone like him, there were several Jennifer Fruccos. "If they want people to come into the city, it doesn't make sense," Frucco said as she boarded another northbound train.

The 30-year-old is a physical therapist at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan but will take maternity leave when she has her first child next spring. She said a commuter tax might prompt her to look for a new job closer to her Yonkers home after that. "For some people, this could be the deciding factor," she said.

Across the aisle on the train, White Plains resident Rupert Huggins, 41, did the math. An engineer for a computer software company near Madison Square Garden, the Jamaican immigrant pays $141 each month to be among the 52,000 Westchester residents who use Metro North trains into Grand Central Station during the morning peak hours. He then takes a subway to his office, at another $1.50 a ride.

"I'm talking about paying $2,000 a year in transportation," he said. "Then if you're talking about parking too" -- at the train station -- "that's up to $3,000. Now they're talking about an extra $2,000" -- for the commuter tax -- "which means you are paying more than $5,000 for the privilege of working in New York."

If the tax went through, "I wouldn't change where I work," Huggins said. "I'd change where I live."

He might look for housing in parts of New York City, such as Brooklyn or the Bronx, that are more affordable than Manhattan, and an easy subway ride away -- and where he could vote against any New York mayor who tried to tax him further.

He said a couple of co-workers who live in New Jersey had a different plan. "They said, 'You know, Rupert, we're just going to start working from home.' "

From the seat in front of him, a woman's voice called out. "Don't worry, the tax is not going to happen. It's not gonna fly," said Chandra Gaspar, 28, a telecommunications worker.

"I wouldn't have to pay anyway," piped in a 21-year-old woman next to her.

Jane Callahan explained that she is still a student at Fordham University and an unpaid intern with an advertising agency in Manhattan.

"They can't tax you if you work for free," she said. "I'm real lucky."

Callahan said she hoped to work in San Francisco after completing college.

"Now that," said Gaspar, "is an expensive commute."

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