If you had a billion in taxpayer dollars, what would you do with it? Why, give it to the New York Stock Exchange, of course. Otherwise, they might hop across the river to New Jersey like so many other big-money corporations have threatened to do.

The city has agreed over the last six years to give a total of about $2 billion in tax breaks to bigwigs like CBS and Chase Manhattan, as soon as they so much as hint at the idea of leaving New York. The NYSE jumped on the me-too train in December 1998, cutting a deal for a $1.1 billion subsidy package to build a new trading floor.

Sound a little ridiculous? The Alliance for a Working Economy, an alliance of left-leaning community groups, thought so too. They kicked off a campaign for subsidy accountability Thursday with a rally on the steps of Federal Hall, arguing that taxpayers aren’t being kept in the loop as to where their money is being spent.

While the idea behind these subsidies is to keep money and jobs in New York, job retention deals don’t always deliver: In 1995, for example, CS First Boston laid off 900 workers less than three weeks after getting a $50.5 million city deal.

Councilmember Steve DiBrienza said at the rally that he questions whether or not they actually provide living-wage jobs for New Yorkers. “The Giuliani administration is full of hard-nosed negotiators, but they’re softies for any company that says it might leave. We need to put these companies to the test and establish standards by which recipients must prove to taxpayers that they are worthy of these subsidies.”

In a “counter demonstration” by fellow Alliance members, the Billionaires for a Better Trading Floor championed the stock exchange’s deal, entertaining (and confusing) passers-by with a campy parody of tails-and-ties-wearing Wall Street fat cats. Said Reverend Billy, the Billionaires’ ringmaster, “You can’t blame the little people for not realizing that a billion dollars is not a lot of money.”