• Bloomberg spent big as New York mayor
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     | December 30,2013
     

    NEW YORK — Michael R. Bloomberg loves tropical fish. So when he was elected mayor, he installed two giant saltwater tanks inside City Hall.

    The cost to him for having them cleaned out every week for the past 12 years: around $62,400.

    The mayor likes to nosh, too. So he paid to feed his staff daily a light breakfast (coffee, bagels, yogurt) and a modest lunch (tuna salad, PB&J, sliced fruit).

    The bill for his entire mayoralty: about $890,000.

    Hizzoner, above all, enjoys hassle-free travel. When he took his aides anywhere, from Albany to Athens, it was by private plane.

    The price tag for all that jetting around: roughly $6 million.

    When Bloomberg leaves office at midnight Tuesday, he will bequeath a litany of record-shattering statistics on crime reduction, sidewalk safety and skyline-altering construction. But perhaps the most staggering figure is the amount of his own money that he devoted, day in and day out, to being mayor — much of it unseen by the public.

    An analysis by The New York Times shows that Bloomberg has doled out at least $650 million on a wide variety of perks and bonuses, political campaigns and advocacy work, charitable giving and social causes, not to mention travel and lodging, connected to his time and role as mayor. (His estimated tab for a multiday trip to China, with aides and security in tow: $500,000.)

    In the process, he has entirely upended the financial dynamics surrounding New York’s top job.

    In the past, the city paid its mayor; Bloomberg paid to be the city’s mayor.

    In moves that would make a financial planner’s head spin, he rejected the $2.7 million worth of salary to which he was entitled (accepting just $1 a year) and, starting in 2001, turned on a spigot of cash that has never stopped gushing. He poured at least $268 million of his personal funds into three campaigns for mayor.

    He donated at least another $263 million to New York arts, civic, health and cultural groups, personally and through his company, Bloomberg LP.

    Campaign donations? He handed out about $23 million of them.

    He even chipped in $5 million to renovate an official mayoral residence that he never inhabited. (He preferred the familiar privacy of his own nearby mansion.)

    “A modern Medici” is how Mark Green, the former public advocate, described him, reaching back to 15th-century Italy for any kind of precedent.

    Bloomberg’s all-expense-paid mayoralty was, depending on the vantage point, exhilarating (for his aides), infuriating (for his rivals), cost-saving (for his constituents) or selfless (for the beneficiaries of his largess).

    But for anyone who interacted with the billionaire, his gilded approach to governance was a breathtaking thing to behold. Guy V. Molinari, the former Staten Island borough president, recalled the time Bloomberg inviting him to see the new commuter ferries that would bear Molinari’s name.

    Molinari had assumed the invitation would mean visiting the boats in the humble waters of Staten Island. Bloomberg had a grander plan: He whisked Molinari to Wisconsin on his pristine private plane to view the factory where the ships were being built.

    “It’s a beautiful plane,” Molinari said, “and I remember asking him, ‘What does it cost, a plane like this?’”

    The mayor’s reply: $28 million.

    “I thought to myself,” Molinari said, “how many people could just take $28 million out of your bank account to buy a plane?”

    In the eyes of Chris McNickle, a historian who has written about the city’s mayors, Bloomberg’s financial might made him the most potent mayor since the birth of modern New York City in late 1800s. Because he was largely liberated from the demands of campaign donors, interests groups or political parties, “his power was both intensified and expanded,” McNickle said.

    To calculate Bloomberg’s spending, The Times relied on public documents, travel records, philanthropy databases, conversations with vendors and interviews with his government employees.

    The $650 million minimum estimate is undoubtedly low. Up-to-date annual reports were not available for several Bloomberg-financed organizations and a wide range of expenses were impossible to firmly establish, like the dinner parties he hosted at his townhouse, meals he bought for government aides and landing fees paid at foreign airports.

    Still, the data suggest that Bloomberg’s fortune has left few corners of the city untouched, from the biggest cultural institutions to the smallest theater troupes. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has received more than $30 million from the mayor since 2002, Bloomberg has bankrolled audio guides and wireless Internet, reaching “everyone who walks through our doors,” said Harold Holzer, a senior vice president there.

    At the Queens Theater in the Park, Bloomberg’s annual gifts of $100,000, delivered anonymously starting the year he took office, amounted to a financial life raft that seemed to drop from the sky. “It was beyond our realm of comprehension,” the group’s former longtime director, Jeffrey Rosenstock, recalled of the windfall.

    The common touch has long eluded the mayor as an orator, but down-and-out New Yorkers were a recurring focus of his financial outlays. He wrote a $30 million check to create a city program to improve the lives of disadvantaged black and Latino men.

    Bloomberg’s opponents groused that his free-spending ways purchased political acquiescence, access to ballot lines and a national platform. In moments of candor, his own advisers conceded that without his money, he probably would never have won the office, let alone secured a controversial third term.

    But from the perspective of City Hall, his fortune reaped benefits far beyond Bloomberg’s electoral success, encouraging gun control ($7 million), immigration reform ($5.7 million) and volunteerism ($6.2 million).

    On this, New Yorkers remain divided: In a poll conducted in August by The Times, 30 percent said Bloomberg’s wealth had made him a better mayor; 27 percent said it had made him a worse mayor; and 35 percent said it had made no difference.

    Bloomberg loathes discussion of his wealth. His office declined to comment for this article but did not dispute the analysis of his spending.

    Green, who felt the full force of Bloomberg’s money during his mayoral bid 12 years ago, once tried broaching the wealth issue with him soon after the election. Bloomberg’s campaign had just plowed through $73 million to defeat him — four times what Green had spent.

    “Yeah, well, it was expensive,” he recalled the mayor telling him. And that, more or less, was that.

    As the Bloomberg era winds down, placing the future of those fish tanks in doubt, there is a widespread sense that making the city’s richest man its leader was a kind of grand experiment: novel and momentous, sometimes heady, other times unsettling, but unlikely to be repeated.

    “We’ve never had anybody like him before,” Molinari said. “And we are never going to see anybody like this again.”

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