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His 12 years in office may be winding down, but New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday signaled that he has plenty of business to get done, from local issues such as schools to influencing broader debates on guns and immigration.
The mayor gave his final State of the City address Thursday as he faces his last 11 months in office, basking in what he sees as his key accomplishments. Indeed, some favorite statistics — such as a record-low 419 homicides last year and a record-high 52 million estimated tourists — were emblazoned on banners hung at the Barclays Center, Brooklyn's new basketball arena.
"Our goal is not to spend the year cutting ribbons," Bloomberg said in a speech that fell on his 71st birthday. "We'll take on the toughest jobs — and the most politically difficult jobs."
Those, as Bloomberg sees them, start with rebuilding the city after Superstorm Sandy and range into areas such as charter schools, marijuana arrests and gun control.
His speech, delivered before a crowd of officials, city workers, public school parents and others, drew some mixed reviews from lawmakers for its vigorous defense of the hundreds of thousands of "stop-and-frisk" encounters city police initiate each year.
Rebuilding after Sandy is the most important task this year, Bloomberg said. The storm killed more than 40 people in the city and damaged or destroyed thousands of homes.
Bloomberg vowed to rebuild communities to be more safe and sustainable. While Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed to spend $400 million to buy Sandy-damaged homes and return the land to nature, Bloomberg underscored his no-retreat stance.
"We cannot — and will not — abandon the waterfront," he said.
Aides are expected to deliver a key report by the end of May on how to protect the city from extreme weather. And in a gesture of getting back to normal, the mayor vowed that the city's beaches would open, as usual, by Memorial Day weekend.
Schools have been a key, and contentious, aspect of Bloomberg's tenure. Early on, he got the state to disband the city school board and give his administration direct control of the nation's largest public school system.
New high schools focused on health care and the energy industry will open this year, he said Thursday, along with some 26 new charter schools in September. Some of the charter schools will be in existing public school buildings, an idea that has drawn objections from some parents.
"Charter schools are public schools, and their students deserve access to public school facilities," he said.
Taking on another issue that has ignited debate in the city, Bloomberg vowed to stop booking and arraigning many people arrested on low-level marijuana-possession charges.
Starting next month, people who get picked up on charges of having a small amount of marijuana will be released with desk appearance tickets if they have ID and no open warrants, the mayor said. Now, many are formally booked and sent to court on the misdemeanor charge, a process that can take 36 hours.
"It's the right thing to do, and it will allow us to target police resources where they're needed most," Bloomberg said, adding that he continues to back a push to change state laws to make low-level marijuana possession a non-criminal violation.
The change comes after several years of back-and-forth between the city and drug policy advocates over the soaring number of such arrests in the last decade.
The mayor also unveiled a slate of environmental initiatives, including asking the City Council to change the building code so that up to 20 percent of new public parking spaces are wired for electric cars and to ban plastic foam food containers from stores and restaurants.
Polystyrene foam has long been a takeout staple because of its light weight and heat-keeping properties, but it takes a long time to break down in landfills. Several cities around the country have banned such containers, and Bloomberg said New York should follow suit.
"Something we know is environmentally destructive, that is costing taxpayers money, and that is easily replaceable is, I think, something we can do without," he said.
While polystyrene is used in Styrofoam, the brand isn't used in food packaging, according to its manufacturer, the Dow Chemical Co.
On a larger scale, the city will advocate for allowing in-state college students who came to the U.S. illegally as young children to get state financial aid. And Bloomberg, who has long been a vocal gun control advocate, devoted a forceful part of Thursday's speech to calling on listeners to press Congress for changes to gun laws.
Bloomberg invoked the toll of gun violence to defend stop-and-frisks, in which police stop, question and sometimes pat down people officers believe are acting suspiciously, but who may not meet the probable-cause standard for an arrest.
Police call the tactic a crucial crime-fighting tool that helps net illegal weapons, but it has spurred lawsuits and proposed legislation from critics who see the stops as unfair and racially suspect. The vast majority of those stopped are black and Hispanic.
"I understand that innocent people don't like to be stopped," Bloomberg said. "But innocent people don't like to be shot and killed, either."
The mayor's remarks were an unwelcome surprise to City Councilman Jumaane Williams, an outspoken opponent of the city's extensive use of the tactic.
"He made it a point to double down on stop, question and frisk. ... It was like he was pushing it out there to try and taunt people," Williams said later.
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