April 16, 2003 -- Mayor Bloomberg offered a harrowing portrait of a hobbled city yesterday - including 20 percent of its firehouses shut - if Albany and municipal unions don't help close a $3.8 billion budget gap.

"I want Albany and everybody else to understand what would happen," the mayor declared as he presented a grim $44.5 billion executive budget for fiscal 2004.

The plan contained $620 million in new cuts that included pink slips for 4,453 workers, the first large-scale layoffs in a decade.

More ominously, there was also a $1 billion contingency plan with the type of service cuts that haven't been seen since the city flirted with bankruptcy in 1975.

The contingencies - which would be enacted if $2.7 billion in Albany aid isn't forthcoming - included 10,491 additional layoffs.

Virtually every segment of city life would be affected.

A $47 million reduction to the Fire Department would force the closure of 35 to 40 of the city's 207 firehouses, the mayor said.

Thirty-one outdoor swimming pools, a summer haven for poor kids, would shut.

Trash pickups would be cut.

Subsidies to the MTA that fund half-fare MetroCards for the elderly and disabled would vanish.

"It's not a scare tactic," insisted Bloomberg. "I'm just trying to lay out the facts."

Public safety unions said the cuts will leave New Yorkers vulnerable to terror, arson and crime.

"It makes about as much sense as cutting the 101st Airborne during the war in Iraq," said Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta refused to concede he might have to chop firehouses beyond the eight now set to close.

"We haven't done the analysis yet. I'm not prepared to talk about the contingency plan," he said.

Scoppetta, along with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and two other agency heads watched intently in City Hall's Blue Room as the mayor described how their agencies were being hit.

In an earlier private briefing for City Council members, Bloomberg lost his temper when Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) asked why he wouldn't let corporate sponsors fund firehouses.

"He said, 'Vote against the budget, I don't give a s- - -," recalled Barron. "He used profanity out of frustration."

The mayor apologized later.

For the first time since taking office, Bloomberg urged New Yorkers to lobby state lawmakers to bail out the city.

"Call Albany," he suggested. "We need help. Call the unions. I'm not ashamed to ask for help."

The $2.7 billion package Bloomberg wants from Albany includes a $1.4 billion commuter tax, $478 million in restored education aid and $275 million for previously negotiated teacher raises.

He also wants $200 million in transportation aid, restoration of $100 million in state spending cuts and $252 million in other actions.

The mayor stood silent for 30 seconds while a screen displayed defiant comments from three municipal union leaders.

Bloomberg said the unions offered just $20 million of the $600 million in givebacks he wants.

Everywhere the mayor turned, the news was troubling.

He pointed out that non-discretionary bills - for such expenses as Medicaid, health care and pensions - soared to $16.8 billion in 2004 from $13.1 billion in 2002.

Discretionary spending - for cops, street cleaning and other services - declined in that period from $15.2 billion to $14 billion.

The city's workforce was scheduled to drop to 288,931 by June 30, the end of the fiscal year. It stood at 310,376 in December 2001.

Engine Co. 278 in Brooklyn is among those facing the ax.
- Anthony J. Causi