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Exit interview: John Liu

The departing city comptroller does combat with the Bloomberg administration until the bitter end

As his four-year term as New York City comptroller expires, John Liu is spending his last few weeks in office reviewing city contracts — “and saying ‘no’ to some of them” — and issuing bonds. Saying no is something that has come readily to the often combative comptroller, who rejected numerous business deals sought by the Bloomberg administration, including a $90 million renewal of the city’s agreement with the Central Parks Conservancy as steward of the city’s grand jewel. Mayor Michael Bloomberg sued Liu earlier this year for blocking contracts for two homeless shelters; that case is still ongoing. We sat down at Liu’s office in the Municipal Building to ask the comptroller to take account of his work.

Photo: Claire Moses

City Comptroller John Liu, now in his final weeks in office. Photo: Claire Moses

What will the new administration have to do to rein in the pension system?

I think it makes sense to modernize our pension investment approach. And modernizing our approach would yield greater returns and save enormous amounts of taxpayer money. Scott Stringer and I speak on a near daily basis. And I know that he will hit the ground running.

Does New York have to be worried about having to pay back pension money — like for example, Detroit?

There’s nothing comparable. The city has always completed its pension contributions every year. Unlike other states and municipalities, we haven’t deferred any of these contributions. So, that’s not to say that there aren’t fiscal challenges. The fiscal challenges that face us, exist on multiple fronts, not just pensions.

Which fronts?

The big, the 800 pound gorilla in every room would be the municipal labor contracts that have gone unresolved for more than four years. That’s a terrible piece of the current mayor’s legacy, whether he admits it or not. That has to be the new priority. Yes. Labor contracts are supposed to be in place while workers are working. It’s entirely inappropriate for so much time to have lapsed without these contracts resolved. It’s the basic responsibility of any mayor.

Looking back, what are you proud of?

Help create thousands of jobs by accelerating our capital construction plans. Taking advantage of low interest rates and our pension investment record speaks for itself: 58 percent over the past four fiscal years. So, it’s been an incredible privilege to serve.

What’s next for you?

I am going away with my wife and my son. And I suspect that when we go away she will weigh in heavily with her opinions about which of my choices I should take going forward. Until then I better keep my mouth shut.

If you had six more months, what would you do?

I don’t. December 31 is my last day. We still have a few audits to release. We’re still poring over city contracts and saying “no” to some of them. We’re still keeping an eye on the capital markets for investments and we got bonds to sell.

If you were to write a book about your time in office, what would the title be?

I would say: “It’s Not Just About Numbers; It’s About People.”

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