First the Commuter Tax, Now the Water

by Michael Smith

(Originally appeared on the Op-Ed Page of the New York Times, June 5, 1999)

The suburbs are preparing to give New York City another kick in the teeth, to follow up the repeal of the commuter tax. DOG BITES MAN: it's a familiar story. What's surprising is the way in which city politicians almost always take such assaults lying down.

The next ripoff-du-jour we're likely to see is so far attracting less attention than the commuter tax did, but it will cost New Yorkers as much or more. This one is buried in the esoterica of suburban land-use politics.

The Westchester town of North Castle is host to the exurban office parks of several large corporations. Like the proverbial 300-pound gorilla, these outfits generally get what they want from suburban municipalities.

What they want at the moment is to expand their corporate ziggurats. Of course this means more commuter car traffic, and thus more highway congestion. So the generous citizens of New York State, through the agency of the state Department of Transportation, are being asked to widen a section of Route 120, which is expected to bear the brunt of this traffic.

And -- here's the punch line -- this particular section of road runs next to the Kensico Reservoir, a core element of New York City's water supply. The system is already under considerable strain from pollution owing to nearby "development." Many experts predict that the additional pollution dumped into our drinking water by this highway boondoggle will prove the straw that broke the camel's back, and require the construction of multi-billion dollar water treatment plants to filter out the dreck from suburban septic tanks and sport utility vehicles. Annualizing the capital cost of these plants results in a yearly bill for the city of New York surpassing the loss from the commuter tax.

Effective sovereignty, as distinct from the purely theoretical kind, is a matter of having control over the things that are important to you. By this standard, North Castle enjoys a considerably higher degree of sovereignty than New York City. Under fiat from Albany, this city can't require its cops to live here; can't regulate rents within its boundaries; can't even lower the absurdly generous 30 mph speed limit on its crowded streets.

Some or all of these restrictions may apply to North Castle too; but North Castle has no need or wish to do any of these things. North Castle is, however, fully competent (in the legal sense) to permit office park expansions that will set inexorably in motion a chain of events costing city residents hundreds of millions of dollars every year. And New York City has no rights in the matter.

As usual, City officaldom has been quiet. In some cases, such silence is easy enough to understand. If a City official -- like a Mayor -- has national or statewide ambitions, then conciliating suburban voters is clearly vital. Term limits worsen the problem: the last people in the world that a second-term New York mayor need care about are the people who put him in office.

Seen in this light, the repeal of the commuter tax was a master-stroke of Machiavellian cunning on the part of Mayor Giuliani's numerous ill-wishers in Albany: it's so outrageous that the Mayor has to do something about it, but he doesn't dare do too much for fear of forfeiting the upstate vote in next year's Senate race.

Perhaps, then it's understandable that our second-term Mayor should keep uncharacteristically mum about North Castle's plan to poison our water. But where are the Democrats? Neither Comptroller Alan Hevesi, the protector of the city's purse, nor the Public Advocate, Mark Green, crusader for consumers, appears to have uttered a peep about the prospect of North Castle beefing up its tax rolls by jeopardizing the city's drinking water.

Their silence, though puzzling, is unexceptional; rarely is there any urban answer to the dime-a-dozen suburban demagogues who gather easy votes by beating up on the cities. It's the Missing Mass Problem of American politics: the wickedness of the cities is a staple of public discourse, but the tyranny of the suburbs is unmentionable.

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