1902 Encyclopedia > New York City > Government and Administration. Taxation.

New York City
(Part 8)




Government and Administration. Taxation.

Government and Administration. – During the first stage of the colony the government was to all intents and purposes a military one. The governor, or director-general, appointed by the Dutch East India Company, exercised virtually absolute power, subject, of course, to the distant control of the directors in Holland. In 1652 the town received municipal magistrates appointed for one year by the director-general. They held office at his will, and were liable to have their decisions overruled by him on appeal; but, subject to these conditions, they possessed the powers and exercised the functions of corresponding officers in the Dutch municipalities at home. This form of government continued until after the conquest of the colony by the English, when the so-called "Duke’s Laws" were proclaimed, and, on June 12, 1665, all the inhabitants of Manhattan island were declared a body politic and corporate. The first formal charter, known as the Dongan charter, was bestowed on the city of 1686. The recorder, mayor, aldermen, and assistants were to constitute the body corporate, but the mayor, recorder, sheriff, and other superior officers were to be appointed yearly by the lieutenant-governor of the province, while the aldermen and assistants (who together with the mayor and recorder constituted the common council) and the petty constables were to be elected by a majority of the freemen and free-holders of each ward. In 1730 the charter was again amended, and took the form known as the Montgomery charter, reserving the appointment of a mayor and recorder still to the crown, and providing for the annual election by the people of the aldermen and assistants, constables, assessors, and collectors. The freedom of the city was purchasable from the corporation for five pounds, and was necessary to the pursuit of any trade or handicraft within its limits. This charter continued in force for nearly a century. It was confirmed by the State constitution of 1777 adopted after the outbreak of the Revolution, and again by the revised constitution of 1821, and has furnished, in fact, the framework of the city government down to the present day. The power which it gave the corporation of fixing the price of all articles sold in the city market was exercised till the Revolution. It was not essentially altered until 1831, when among other minor changes the common council was divided into two boards. The appointment of the mayor remained in the hands of the governor and council until the revolution, when it was transferred by the State constitution to the governor and council of appointment which shared with him the appointing power. By the amended State constitution of 1821, the duty of electing the mayor annually was imposed on the common council, and so continued until 1834, when provision was made by statute for his election by a vote of the qualified city electors. This charter continued in force without material modification until 1857.

The revised State constitution of 1846 introduced manhood suffrage, and its effect on the city government during the first ten years gave considerable dissatisfaction. It came into operation simultaneously with a great increase in the stream of foreign immigration, most of which passed through New York on its way westward, but not without leaving behind a sediment, composed of the poorest, the most ignorant, and the mot vicious. The result was that a very inferior class of men began to find their way into the mayoralty and the common council. The liquor dealers and others of a similar stamp, whose occupations gave them access to, and influence over, the more ignorant voters, began to assume increasing importance in municipal politics, becoming able to impose conditions on candidates for office and to exercise considerable control over the distribution of municipal patronage. The police force was gradually converted into a refuge of political partisans, and was employed without scruple in electioneering. Every political department of the city government suffered more or less from the same causes. The great political club known as the Tammany Society, which was formed in 1789 as a non-political patriotic organization, professedly to counteract the aristocratic tendencies of the Order of the Cincinnati, and which had long been the managing body of the Democratic party in the city, was much strengthened by the increase of the immigrant, vote, and its government was also affected for the worse by the same influences to which the city government was exposed. During these years, however, the Republican party, as the opponent of slavery, was slowly rising into prominence in State and Federal politics on the ruins of the old Whig party. By the year 1857 it had gained a majority of the voters of the State outside of the city, secured the control of the State legislature, and elected a governor. It was not very long in power in the State at large before it determined to take the government of the city of New York, to a certain extent, out of the hands of the local majority by giving portions of it to commission appointed by the governor. There was perhaps reason enough for the experiment to be found in the condition of the municipal administration, but it was unfortunate that it had to be made by a political party to which the local majority did not belong. This gave it an air of partisanship, and exposed it to the charge of being simply an attempt to put the republican party in possession of a portion of the city patronage, which it could not get hold of in any other way, and to punish the city voters for being Democratic and standing by the south in the slavery controversy. It was in reality, however, an effort on the part of the native-born and the properly holders to escape the inevitable result of a sudden increase in the power of the ignorant and poor in a great commercial city.

Accordingly, in the spring of 1857, the charter was so modified by the legislature as to give the construction of park, known as the Central Park, for which provision had just been made, to a commission appointed by the governor. The police was in like manner taken out of the hands of the mayor and given to a similar commission. The mayor then in office, Fernando Wood, attempted forcible resistance to this change on the ground that the statute was unconstitutional. He barricaded himself in the city-hall surrounded by his policemen, and had to be ousted and arrested by the aid of the militia. Ever since 1857 interference of the State in the city government has been frequent, and alterations of the charter have been made or attempted almost every year with the view mainly of effecting a new distribution of the city patronage, sometimes as the result of a change in the majority of the legislature, and sometimes as the result of a bargain between the Republican leaders in the legislature and the Democratic leaders in the city. But the policy of withdrawing or withholding power from the common council has through all these changes been steadily adhered to on both sides, owing to distrust of the persons now usually elected to that body.

During the war, and for several years afterwards, the art of managing the city voters of the Democratic party through the political club known as the Tammany Society was continually improved under the leadership of William M. Tweed, who had succeeded Fernando Wood as the municipal chief of his party. Before 1870 he had brought the city majority under his control through a very perfect organization, and had filled the mayoralty and all the leading administrative offices as well as the common council with his creatures. He thereupon began an elaborate system of plunder, of which the main feature was the presentation of enormous bills for work done on a new court house then in process of erection by city tradesmen acting as his confederates. . to these he paid a portion only of their demands, retaining the balance, which he divided in certain proportions with his principal followers. The total amount taken from the city treasury in this and similar ways was never clearly ascertained, but the city debt, which was apparently a little over $73,000,000 in 1870, was, when the liabilities were fully ascertained in 1876, found to be nearly $117,000,000. these frauds, which had been long suspected, were finally brought to light by the treachery of one of the conspirators, who was dissatisfied with his share. But their success and the length of time which had elapsed before their detection were, considering the very large number of persons who had been made privy to them, and who had been admitted as partners in their results, a remarkable illustration of the perfection to which the system had been brought. The overthrow and punishment of the leading perpetrators of them greatly purified the municipal administration, and led to a watchfulness on the part of the public regarding municipal affairs which promises, as long as it lasts, to make a repetition of them impossible. In fact, they could not have been perpetrated without a combination which included all the chief city officers; and this could not have been effected, and as a matter of fact was not effected, without many years of careful, and, to a certain extent, unobserved preparation. The great source of corruption in the city government is the practice of treating places in the municipal service as what are called party "spoils," or, in other words, as rewards for electioneering services. This practice, which has prevailed in the federal as well as in the State service all over the country, is of older growth in the State of new York than elsewhere, having shown itself there very soon after the revolution. It has been much weakened, however, in New York by an Act of the legislature, passed in 1873, which forbids the removal of any regular clerk or head of bureau in the service of the city government, except for cause, and after an informal trial. The police and fire departments are protected in a similarly way; but this does not relieve the elected officers from the necessity of purchasing their nominations by such promises as still remain in their power to carry out, such as contributions from their salaries, or the filling of vacancies occurring within their departments, or the employment of laborers in any public work of which they may have charge. A more recent Act of the legislature (1883) prescribes competitive examination as a basis for appointment to all State offices, and forbids, under heavy penalties, all assessments on salaries for political purposes; but its application to the large cities as regards competitive examination is left optional with the mayor, and with the heads of certain departments. As the charter stands at present, the legislature power of the board of aldermen is restricted to the regulation of the traffic in the streets, the granting of licenses to street vendors, the opening of new streets, and similar matters. Their confirmation is , however, necessary to the mayor’s appointment to office. The amount of taxes for each year is fixed by the board called the board of apportionment, composed of the mayor, the comptroller, the president of the board of aldermen, and the president of the department of taxes and assessment. The estimate so made is laid before the board of aldermen for their approval, but this is a mere form, for, if the aldermen refuse such approval, the board of apportionment disregards the refusal and goes on the levy the taxes, after having placed on file their reasons for so doing. Moreover, the aldermen are expressly forbidden by the charter to impose taxes, or borrow money, or contract debts, or lend the credit of the city, or to take or make a lease of any real estate or franchise save at a reasonable rent and for a period not exceeding five years.

Taxation. – For purposes of taxation New York is a county as well as a city, the two being conterminous. The city taxes, when settled by the mayor, comptroller, president of the board of aldermen, and president of the board of assessments and taxes, forming the board of apportionment, are levied by the same officers, forming the board of county supervisors, upon all the real and personal property in the county, and in this levy is included the amount needed for State purposes, the city’s share of which is settled by a State board. The rule on which the New York taxes are levied is that which prevails with but little modification all over the United States, though applied with much more rigor in some States than in others, viz., that every species of property, visible and invisible, is liable to taxation. In New York city it is the custom of the appraisers to tax land and houses at about two-thirds of their market value. The amount assessed on personal property is generally increased in successive years, until the owner gainsays the assessor’s guess, but his oath is sufficient proof for its reduction. In other words, it may be said that the attempt to tax personal property in the city, except in the case of corporations, has failed. The city tax levy for 1881 amounted to $31,071,840.19 and the rate of the tax was $2.62 per cent. on the valuation of all kinds of taxable property. There is a steady increase in the valuation of land and houses, but a nearly steady decrease in the valuation of personal property.





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