Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 22, Part III

By Holice and Debbie

The net amount of the city and county funded debt on December 31, 1866, was thirty million nine hundred and one thousand eight hindered and seventy-eight dollars and thirty-nine cents. Of that amount the sum of ten million seven hundred and eighty-two thousand eight hundred dollars was for the Croton Water-works, nine million nine hundred and twenty-three thousand five hundred and seventy-one dollars for Central Park, and fourteen million four hundred and seventy-one thousand six hundred dollars for expenses growing out of and connected with the war of the rebellion. The whole debt was well secured, for it was alien upon the whole property of the city, both public and private.

The tax levy for 1866 was sixteen million nine hundred and fifty thousand seven hundred and sixty-seven dollars and eighty cents, being one million two hundred and fifty-three thousand one hundred and eighty-four dollars and eight cents less than that of 1865. The rate of taxation in 1865 was two dollars ninety-nine cents on every hundred dollars. In 1866 it was only two dollars and thirty cents. The rate for 1866 was based upon an assessed valuation of real estate of four hundred and seventy-eight million nine hundred and ninety-four thousand nine hundred and thirty-four dollars, and of personal estate two hundred and fifty-seven million nine hundred and ninety-four thousand nine hundred and seventy-four dollars, making a total of seven hundred and thirty-seven million nine hundred and eighty-nine thousand nine hundred and eight dollars. It was well known that the real estate was assessed only (as a general rule) at but little more than half its market value, and that an immense amount of the personal property of the people escaped taxation entirely. A full assessment would no doubt have reduced the rate of taxation at least one-half.

It was gratifying to the taxpayers to know that fact, and to have learned in addition that, unnecessarily high as the rate of taxation was in New York, it compared most favorably with that of other cities in and out of the State. In Boston, where real estate of assessed at its full market value, and where verified detailed statements of personal property were made by the taxpayers to the assessors, the rate of tax was one dollar and thirty cents; so that, taking into consideration the assessed valuation of property, the rate was as high if not higher than in New York. In Philadelphia, where assessed valuations were lower than in this city, the rate was four dollars per hundred on real estate, and thirty cents on personal estate.

In Brooklyn, it was three dollars and forty-one cents; in Rochester, five dollars and sixty-two cents; in Utica, five dollars and sixty-one cents; in Albany three dollars and seventy-six cents; in Syracuse, three dollars and seventy-two cents. In Troy, for municipal purposes only, in addition to the State and county tax, two dollars and fifty cents.

These comparisons were suggestive, inasmuch as a portion of the press had been making continual assaults upon the municipality and its administrators, which had a tendency to create the impression abroad that this city was the "plague spot" of the country. That the standard of many me in public life was low enough, and that the whole system of local government was bad enough, and that the taxes wre more than they should be, were freely admitted; but as long as the securities sold at a premium, and that New York possessed the most costly parks, the greatest waterworks, the most extended system of free schools in the country, and a rate of taxation lower than that of her neighbors, the people, amid all their complaints and causes of complaint should have, and doubtless did fine, in these facts some ground for congratulations.

In 1867 the new reservoir in process of construction neat High Bridge was in rapid progress. The completion of that work was considered necessary for obtaining a supply of Croton water for the whole of the upper part of the island. The sale of a portion of the City hall Park to the United States Government for a site for the Post Office was being negotiated , and found much public favor. The same could be said of the proposed release to the Government of a portion of the Battery extension for a site for a Revenue Barge Office. The propriety of extending Fifth Avenue through Washington Square and then widening Laurens Street to West Broadway was under consideration. Also the extension of Centre Street through the blocks of Lafayette Place.

The subject of widening Ann Street, which had for some years excited a great deal of attention, was pout at rest by the adoption of a resolution by the Common Council rescinding the original resolution, which directed the widening. The action of interested parties in securing at Albany the passage of a law charging the expense of the work upon the city at large instead of making their own property, which would be greatly increased in value, beat its fair and equitable share of such expense, resulted in the defeat of the whole measure, very much to the satisfaction of the public.

The net amount of the city and county funded debt on December 31, 1867, was twenty-nine million six hundred thousand four hundred and sixty-three dollars and thirty-eight cents. Of that sum, eleven million thirty thousand eight hundred dollars was for Croton Water Works; nine million nine hundred and twenty-three thousand five hundred and seventy-one dollars for Central Park; and thirteen million nine hundred and seventy thousand six hundred dollars for expenses growing out of and connected with the war.

In the sales of real estate owned by the city in the year 1867, there was received from the government of the United States for a portion of the City Hall park as a site for a Post-office five hundred thousand dollars and for a site for Barge Office at the Battery ten thousand dollars.

In 1873 the condition of the financial affairs of the city government was without parallel in the annals of municipal history. It was the commencement of a transition period from an epoch characterized by social demoralization, disregard of the obligations of public duty, official neglect, fraud and crime, towards an era demanding a higher morality and a purer and better standard of public administration.

During this period there had been required the vigor necessary to oppose the methods of malevolent and corrupt officials of the part and forbearance and patience with the inexperience of new incumbents. The task of the restoration of the credit of the city and of protesting the treasury had involved one continued, persistent and unremitting contest with the claimants of the most desperate and corrupt character.

The following statement shows the increase in the city and county debt from 1869 to 1874:


Gross Debt

Sinking Fund

Net Debt

January 1, 1869




January 1, 1870




January 1, 1871




September 16, 1871(the date on which Comptroller Green took office)




January 1, 1873




January 1, 1874






Sept. 16, 1871

Dec. 31, 1873

Assessment Bonds



Revenue Bonds, anticipating taxes of 1871 and 1872, respectively.



Revenue Bonds, special, payable from building lien.



Funded Debt




$116,709, 858.51


From which it appears that of this increase ten million one hundred and two thousand eight hundred and seventy-one dollars and thirty cents was in assessment bonds alone, for which the city held a direct lien upon the property benefited by the improvements.

Thus the total increase in the debt from September 16, 1871, to January 1, 1874, was fourteen million four hundred and ninety-four thousand seven hundred and twelve dollars and seventy-one cents. The greater portion of the bonds representing that increase was issued for purposes belonging to a former era, and not belonging to the year 1872 and 1873.

The misgovernment of the city in that period heretofore referred to was largely due to a delusion fostered for the worst purposes by designing officials that efficient and honest administration was to be secured rather by certain legislative forms than by the careful choice of good, upright, and intelligent instruments. The speedy triumph of public justice over men who had so long plundered the city with impunity, and who escape from the legal consequences of their crimes had come to be a public scandal, doubtless served to lend emphasis to the fact that no system of law could secure the city against spoliation unless honest and capable hands were supplied to administer it, and unless the judicious selection of public servants was accompanied by methods of strict accountability and by a sustained habit of vigilance in the public mind itself.

The Board of aldermen on May 16, 1873, condemned the city prison as unfit and unhealthy. They addressed a memorial to the State legislature asking for the enactment of a law to build a new prison. After the law had been passed they came to the conclusion that, in view of the large expense it would entail, it was better to postpone the project, and the Board on September 17, of the same year, passed a resolution to prevent the carrying out of the law authorizing it construction.

For the first time in the history of the government of New York city, the Common Council, in 1875, consisted of only one board of representatives of the people. Since 1857 there had existed in the administration of local affairs various legislative bodies, the most prominent of which has been a Board of Supervisors, a Board of aldermen, and a Board of Councilmen, subsequently known as Assistant Aldermen. In addition to these boards, several commissions were from time to time created by law, in each of which was vested combined legislative and executive powers. The results of this divided authority was not satisfactory, and the legislative powers and duties of the several Boards above enumerated had been concentrated in the board of Alderman, which was then alone constituted the Common Council.

The liabilities of the city in January, 1875, amounted to, as nearly as they could be computed (for the exact status was not officially known), one hundred and fifteen million one hundred and eighty-seven thousand nine hundred and eighty dollars. In addition to this, there was a floating debt, which had been variously estimated at from ten to twenty millions of dollars. Many of the claims constituting that indebtedness were in litigation.

The condition of the public works of the city had attracted of late universal attention. They had been carried on with borrowed money, partly in the security of the credit of the city, and partly on the special security of assessments to be imposed upon the property more immediately benefited. That the works which had been completed on the northern part of the island were and would become a vast public benefit was admitted by all. The only question then remaining was how far some of these works, and others which had been prospected, might not be beyond the existing requirements.

The construction of the Riverside Park drive and the Morningside Avenue had been proceeded with to a considerable extent by the opening of 1875, and the completion of them was strongly urged. Many of the pavements south of Forty-second Street, and those of some of the avenues were regarded as impediments to travel. Experience had developed the fact that wooden pavements could not be maintained in such a condition as to make them useful or safe. It was therefore recommended that all the streets and avenues in which wooden pavements had been paid, and those in which other pavements were in a condition to impede travel, should be repaved with trap or granite blocks, the only classes of pavements which had met the requirements of commerce and traffic, and the best from a sanitary point of view.

The accommodation provided for crossing the Harlaem River was deemed insufficient. The bridges at Third Avenue and McComb's Dam did not adequately provide for the increasing travel and traffic. Legislative authority had been obtained for tunneling the river, but that work could not be undertaken immediately, and the demand for increased accommodation should be met in some other way. Am additional bridge of a temporary character was urgently required, and its erection recommended.

The Central Park was a property of which the citizens were justly proud. The expense incurred in constructing and ornamenting it had been returned to the city in the enhanced value of the property surrounding it and the consequent increase of the taxable fund of the city.

The question of speedy communication between the extremes of the city was forcing itself upon public attention in 1875. The schemes were many which had been suggested to accomplish that purpose, but the results had not been satisfactory. Charters had been granted by the legislature conferring valuable franchises, but from them no advantage to the citizens generally had resulted. So earnest was the desire manifested for securing rapid transit in the city that a board of civil engineers, self constituted, but including gentlemen most eminent in their profession, had undertaken to prepare plans to overcome, if possible, the obstacles hitherto encountered. To some extent a remedy had been provided by tunneling Fourth Avenue above Forty-second Street. That work when completed would give an unobstructed course to passenger trains into and out of the city. The extension of that work southerly to the City Hall over a route which should be nearly the axial line of the city, would go far towards solving the problem of rapid transit.

The city's proportion of the expense for the improvement of Fourth Avenue was three million two hundred thousand dollars.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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