Jon Torodash – City Council 2013

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Jon Torodash Triumph of Civic Virtue

Representing District 29: Forest Hills, Kew Gardens, Rego Park, and parts of Richmond Hill, Maspeth, and Elmhurst.

Thank You

Dear supporters,

Thank you for coming out on Election Day. It was my honor running to represent you. If you have begun to pay more attention to matters in local government, then I consider my campaign to have been successful. The essence of Civic Virtue is an awareness of the potential good you can do in your community, and a watchfulness in current events.

Stay involved, stay active. I hope to see you out there.

Election Day is Upon Us

My fellow New Yorkers, tomorrow November 5th is election day. Deliberate carefully over your decision. I cannot tell you for whom to cast your ballot, but I will say this: if you keep voting the way you’ve always been voting, do not be surprised if you keep getting what you’ve always gotten from politicians.

As the Civic Virtue candidate, a true independent, I will be able to bring this district the representation it deserves, and the City at large a beacon of transparency it desperately needs.

Why Your Property Taxes Aren’t Going Down Anytime Soon

New York City’s main method of generating revenue (aside from sneak attacks by inspectors that involve squeezing local businesses,) is through the property tax.

The city property tax system has been aptly called “a nice mess” that pits homeowners against co-op and condo dwellers, and leaves renters at the mercy of large companies as real estate ownership becomes an ever greater hassle for middle class landlords who own 1 or 2 units.

And it grows worse for completely preventable reasons. The NYC Economic Development Corporation, that shadowy but ever-present agent which escaped unpunished after having admitted to breaking state law, is poised to facilitate $436 million in tax breaks to the Related Companies for Atlantic Yards phase II. Phase II consists of building more unnecessary shopping malls in an already crowded downtown Brooklyn desperately in need of more affordable housing.

It gets worse. Not only are city officials out of line to bestow favorite mega-businesses with special perks unavailable to others, but they are also in this specific case throwing good money after bad:

Hudson Yards produced only $170 million in tax and fee revenues from development—$113 million less than anticipated by project planners. In the early years, interest earnings from investing the bond proceeds offset some of the shortfall but those have now dried up. Over the seven-year period, the city has provided the infrastructure corporation with $374 million in funding for debt service and other needs.

You and I, of course, will have to pick up the $436 million shortfall in city revenue either through a property tax hike (which will be passed on to renters too) or diminished public services.

Don’t wonder why there are fewer cops on the streets, more kids crowding each classroom, more commuters crammed into each train car, parks in decay, and roads left in disrepair. This is why.

“Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain”

To everyone who asks me what issue in the city is most pressing, I keep pointing to the same fundamental problem:

The self-sustaining machine of contracts, contributions, and appointments.

In a stunningly clear summary, the eminent journalist Wayne Barrett has written a must-read exposé of the sordid reality behind the scenes. It seems as though little has changed from over a century ago in the days of Boss Tweed, in the latest incarnation of party bosses, real estate developers, clubhouse politics, and allied henchmen who clamp down on any real oversight.

Hear the interview portion here:

The article is a narrative with a sometimes dizzying array of characters (as per Barrett’s style). One notable excerpt:

Just a couple of months into her speakership, in February 2006, Quinn was embroiled in the Council’s consideration of the two projects that meant more to Jose Rivera than any others in his reign as Bronx Democratic leader: the redevelopment of Yankee Stadium and the construction of the nearby Gateway Center Mall. They were giant projects – and, hence, opportunities to gather campaign contributions and political sway.

The Yankees wanted a new Metro North train stop at the stadium and didn’t want to contribute a cent to the project, even though there was no money in the MTA budget to pay for it. In the final 24 hours of pre-vote negotiations at the Council, they got it, outraging The New York Times editorial board.

The size of the project meant that new parks would need to be built near the stadium, replacing old community parks. At the Yankees’ urging, the Council agreed to pay the entire cost of these parks, which would escalate from $116 million to $190 million over the life of the project.

The Yankees also made it a condition of the deal that the city would pick up the cost of a 9,300-space parking garage, which totaled $100 million in direct subsidies and $278 million in tax-exempt bonds.

When the terms of the deal sparked immediate criticism, Quinn defended it. Why was the city alone paying for a new train stop and garage? Noting that it would be nice if everyone took mass transit to games, she argued: “One has to, when they’re developing a project like this, have a reality sense of what the needs are as it relates to parking.”

The final sweetener … was a 40-year community benefits agreement, worth $800,000 annually – a pot of money, game tickets and other goodies that Rivera’s Bronx allies would control and distribute.

And the garage? It is virtually bankrupt, and half-empty for games, with parking fees as high as $48. The company that operates it has defaulted on the bonds and failed to make a single rent payment to the city, running up a $40 million bill. The IRS is now investigating the bond deal, going back to the original, unusual way it was crafted.

The article goes on to discuss the astonishing lies, abuse of power, deception, unpunished criminality, silencing of citizens, and failure of oversight that threatens the livelihood of minority owned businesses at Willets Point. This ongoing dark episode in city and state politics sets dangerous precedents for basic property rights and the rule of law for all New Yorkers.

Folks, you are going to have to stop voting for the candidates receiving the county nods if you want to see any real change in the city. These endorsements cannot conceivably be obtained without a quid pro quo that will be repaid for the benefit of the few, to the detriment of the public.

The Squeaky Wheel Gets Grease

When local officials turn a deaf ear to the community concerns they are entrusted to deal with, turning to the press is an important and effective option. I cannot emphasize this enough, so hopefully three examples will suffice:

1) Bowne Park in Flushing had been deteriorating, with regular postings of pictures and descriptions from one irate resident to Queenscrap, an invaluable guest-contributed citizens’ blog and Queens news aggregator.

Multiple complaints were made:

The park has since been looking much improved.

2) An ill-conceived attempt to relieve the bus overcrowding in Queens I have been talking about brought unwieldy padded double bus extensions to Kew Gardens. These buses may be effective down long Manhattan avenues in busy corridors, but for the winding narrow residential roads of Kew Gardens, the noise has been a nightmare for the residents.

After CBS threatened to run a story, the City Council decided to do something about it.

3) And finally, one of my pet causes. The former site of the Triumph of Civic Virtue was repeatedly tagged with graffiti. After the city got a little more unwanted exposure for their failure to do something about it, it has since been cleaned up.

Yes folks, the “fourth estate” can do good for our community. I strongly encourage you to write and call your local newspapers about the problems in Queens. Your voices can be heard!

A Fair Chance for Small Business

“Who has the guts to fight for our small businesses?” So plainly and forcefully asks a blogger from The Villager.

The Council does have a chance to do something with the Small Business Job Survival Act (Int 0154-2010), which has been tied up in legislative limbo for over 3 years.

This bill would allow small businesses:

  • The right to be considered for renewal (at a minimum 10 years) if the they have made timely payments, kept to lease terms, and were law abiding. Only substantial transformative construction or the landlord running her own business would be grounds for good-behavior termination.
  • Minimum 180 day notification from landlords stating intention to negotiate the lease renewal.
  • Selection of a mediator agreeable to both parties.
  • Audio or video transcription of the arbitration hearing.
  • Six hours to present testimony, witnesses, pictures, videos, documents, including charts, comparable rent data and any other relevant data. Each party shall be allowed to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses.
  • A written basis by the arbiter for determination of rent.
  • Recourse if the arbiter decides in favor of the tenant but a rate cannot be renegotiated, to the rate set by the arbiter.
  • A cap on increase of rent for the post-lease period in the event that they must leave but cannot vacate immediately.
  • the right to keep a lease if they meet a competitor’s bid.
  • A cap on security deposit size to 2 months rent.
  • Protection against retaliation for exercising their rights.

Why are these protections important, you might ask? Why not let the free market decide? Because there is no “free market” in NYC real estate: commercial zoning is already very tightly regulated in favor of landlords, and as I have explained before, small businesses face persecution by the city. The city has a complicated system of finance and planning laws that cannot simply be fixed overnight. Businesses need some measure of medium to long-term stability in order to be viable as long as dysfunctional systems are in place. This legislation is a step in the right direction to correct imbalances.

Council Endangers Public Safety

Two awful pieces of legislation have been passed by the Council in a veto-proof majority pertaining to the manufactured “Stop and Frisk” controversy.

The lesser one (I believe), is the establishment of the Inspector General. We already have a Civilian Complaint Review Board, the Commission to Combat Police Corruption, the Internal Affairs Bureau, Department of Investigation… where does it end? The leadership of this city continues to pass the buck on dealing with public safety. The last thing needed is another layer of bureaucracy on the Stop, Question, and Frisk issue.

2) The second bill, Int-800, is much more serious. It is clear that the legislation, though it might be well-intended, was not carefully thought through. Its introducers (Lander and Williams) may not even be fully aware of what the consequences are for passing the law in its current state. For example, in the NY Post, the Councilmen are summarized as saying,

police are free, under the bill, to chase leads that include descriptions but cannot stop and frisk people based solely on those descriptions.

That is false. The bill states:

“Bias-based profiling” means an act of a member of the force of the police department or other law enforcement officer that relies on actual or perceived race, [ethnicity, religion or] national origin color, creed, age, alienage or citizenship status, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or housing status as the determinative factor in initiating law enforcement action against an individual, rather than an individual’s behavior or other information or circumstances that links a person or persons [of a particular race, ethnicity, religion national origin] to suspected unlawful activity.

It seems quite clear that descriptions will in fact be grounds for action taken against the city, and perhaps against the individual officer. For example, if I’m held up by a male, I can’t tell the police that it was a male because that’s a “perceived” gender? Officers have to pull over 50% females in order to demonstrate they’re not biased based on the description that it was a male? Can “well-behaving” males who fit the description then have legal action against the city because they were stopped unfairly?

I believe Council member Vallone is correct when he says,

This won’t reform stop-and-frisk; it will end it. Police officers, for good reason, will not put themselves at the mercy of state judges and will refuse to get out of their cars.

We don’t want a police force threatened into inactivity because every potential stop risks their careers. They would simply start to deny having witnessed incidents or warning signs, rather than take risks to the public out in a system where no good deed goes unpunished. If we create “protected classes” of people too controversial to stop, then the criminal elements in these identity groups may become emboldened. The lawsuits alone against the city could be calamitous.

It’s clear that the city needs to get its act together and figure out a formal policy for the controversial “Stop and Frisk” issue: if it’s okay to use it, when it’s okay to use it, and clear guidelines on the behaviors or actions that warrant its use. Police will at some level, have to make a judgment, and for that we must rely on their professionalism and expertise. The city also needs to address the allegations of quotas. The dramatic rise of stops, almost 700% under the Bloomberg administration, while the NYPD ranks were slashed over 15%, is a suspicious coincidence. It’s clear that the data on the effectiveness of this spike are conflicting. For example:

NY Post shows a drop in Stop and Frisk correlates with crime rise.
Wall St. Journal shows a drop in Stop and Frisk correlates with crime fall.

The controversy over “Stop and Frisk” is a smokescreen for the real issue of an inadequate police force, and these pieces of legislation are not the answer: Bloomberg has been trying to do public safety on the cheap. New Yorkers deserve better.

A $1.1 Billion Housing Loophole

I am committed to avoiding the degeneration of our public debate into a class war. This may sound like a curious start to the post, but it’s important to clarify up front.

City residents all pay property taxes for the assessed values of the homes and apartments where they live. Property taxes form the largest portion of the city’s revenue, at about 27%. Whether these are paid directly by home and condo owners, on a shares assessment by co-op owners, or by cost passing to renters in their monthly rates, we all pay them.

Or so you think. Because of a little known piece of state legislation known as the 421-A exemption, the developers and owners of luxury condos in many cases only pay a fraction of their assessed rate.

How does this happen? Regulations from the NYC Department of Housing and Preservation Development, through NY State, include a program to incentivize the creation of affordable housing by offering property tax incentives to developments where a minimum percentage of the units, usually 20%, are guaranteed to be offerred at a percentage below market value to those who can document low-income qualifications.

Putting aside for a moment the details of this program, there exists legislation known as the 421-A exemption that allows developers to take advantage of the tax break on their higher priced real estate by sponsoring some quantity of affordable housing units in a completely different, much less costly part of the city. The NYC Department of Finance estimates about $1.1 billion in revenues has been lost to 421-A.

As I said at the outset, I am not going to stoke class warfare. A cornerstone of my platform is equal treatment for all under the law. Developers who exclusively build affordable housing in areas which they have no incentive to maintain just to escape property taxes however, are turning the original program against its purpose. If you own land on which you rent or sell market rate housing, you ought to pay market rate assessment. Incentive programs on developments elsewhere should affect the assessments elsewhere. This exemption should never have been passed. Unfortunately the practice is legal, but I will push to close this loophole.

Lies in the War on Small Business

The NY Daily News has uncovered internal memos from the Department of Consumer Affairs showing officials secretly instituted a quota system several years ago to get inspectors to write more violations, despite claims from a spokesperson that the allegations were “complete nonsense.”

As I noted in a similar case last year, again a punitive fine was levied for toy gun sales: a $14,000 on a Queens shopkeeper for carrying 14 toy guns which were acceptable by NY State standards, but not the extra stringent ones of NYC.

“I was recently given a bad evaluation for not meeting my 25% quota,” one angry inspector told The News. “They want us to look for anything to go after a business.”

“Instead of protecting consumers, the entire agency has been turned into a piggy bank for the city,” a high-ranking Consumer Affairs Department official disgusted with the agency’s actions said. “And the people being victimized the most are immigrant businesses that can’t afford good lawyers.”

Quite damning statements. The NYC Public Advocate’s office has also uncovered in an extensive report, systematic bias against outer borough businesses by the Department of Consumer Affairs when issuing fines.

This new internal memo leak is yet another stain on this agency’s record. I await the public release of these documents so that the issue can be more thoroughly investigated. I renew my call again for a warning, not a fine, on all first time offenses that do not present a clear and present danger to public health or safety.

NYCHA Crackdown

Another small step in the right direction: the NYS legislature voted to eliminate full time board members in the NYC Housing Authority.

I have already singled out NYCHA as a notorious sink for billions in city funding with appalling outcomes. Worst is the fact that the agency sat idly for years on almost $1 billion in federal subsidies, while asking for $500 million more in loans. It may lose much of this money if it does not act quickly enough to put it to use.

NYCHA has a waiting list in the hundreds of thousands. It is threatening to cut aid despite sitting on its mountain of cash. It seeks to lease out its land to private developers – some of it for luxury high rises.

The dysfunction in this agency is staggering. City Hall needs a voice unafraid to call out these failures and pursue their causes.

Tackling the Trash Problem

Queens can be a beautiful, green borough if we remain vigilant and demand accountability from the city to keep our streets and public property as presentable as in Manhattan. The cost of unanswered trash and graffiti problems is more than just unsightly streets. The invitation to criminal activity beckons when scoundrels take notice that the community is not adequately cared for by the city or its residents.

I urge you to sign the petition below to tackle the problem at its epicenter in Queens.

Petition to Clean up Jamaica Queens.

911 System Problems – Even Worse

Over the past 2 weeks since the new system has been launched, the city has maintained that kinks in the new system are due to human error in adapting to the upgrade.

The emergency responders themselves are insisting this is not true, that the system itself is riddled with glitches.

The signature case shaking the news lately is the death of 4 year old Ariel Russo by vehicular manslaughter, who was not attended to in time because of a 4 minute delay.

Unless they fix this system soon, public safety is being risked,” said Israel Miranda, president of the EMS dispatchers union…Computer messages between police, the EMS and the FDNY keep getting lost or delayed for minutes and even hours…One dispatcher provided a cellphone photo from an EMS computer monitor over the weekend that showed two “relay” ambulance calls waiting to be answered — one for an hour and the other for 33 minutes.

The City Council plans to hold investigative hearings. Perhaps these should have been done BEFORE the new system was released? Hundreds of millions over budget, 5 years late, Comptroller allegations of fraud… weren’t these warning signals enough? Why wasn’t an outside auditor sought?

IBO “Reestimation” of NYC Finances

The IBO has released some new projections in a public testimony before the NYC Council Finance Committee.

Some of the highlights:

  • A relatively smallsurplus next fiscal year and a modest shortfall the year after.
  • $4.5 billion is needed to cover raises for teacher and principals. (As has been pointed out already, the total amount needed to cover all worker raises is about $8 billion)
  • Job growth was 86,700 in 2011, about 80,000 in 2012, and is poised to slow to 57,000 in 2013, with a rebound to the higher numbers by 2015. Unemployment is still 9%.
  • The composition of the city’s workforce appears to be shifting towards lower paying industries, and growth in jobs is not matched with a commensurate increase in
    wage gains.
  • Total city spending will grow from $71.7 billion this year to $79.7 billion in 2017.

The IBO is counting on a perceived rosy outlook of federal unemployment data to boost city tax revenues as more people find work. That does not square with estimates from the CBO, which suggest that employment will grow from 2010 – 2020 at the same anemic rate as the prior decade, which is below the nation’s population growth, and insufficient to reverse, or even fully stop long-term unemployment.

The IBO also admits that civil service benefits and debt service growing at 6.9% and 6.6% respectively, are still a problem.

So none of the indicators in NYC are actually very much different than before.

NYC needs independents who are ready to face the challenges of the city budget. If elected, I will not shy away from tackling the true causes of the city’s financial troubles.

More Bloomberg Economic Failure

According to the NY Post, more than 53,000 city public-school students are homeless — a fivefold increase over 2008, figures show.

On the other side of the spectrum, $650 million is lost in property tax breaks to only about 7000 select properties. Property taxes are the city’s largest source of tax revenue, and it cannot be borne disproportionally by residents and small businesses.

One advocate cited the elimination of affordable housing assistance as a major source of the problem. Obviously this contributes, but it’s hardly the source – just a symptom.

The Bloomberg administration has and continues to waste and appropriate vast sums of taxes into pet projects that benefit big business and developers, money which used to support basic infrastructure and municipal services. The mechanisms are multiple, which I address in my positions regarding transparency and the budget.

NYC Finance Troubles

Finally! A major newspaper reports on what I have been saying for months: NYC has serious budgetary problems on the horizon.

From the article,

Fiscal experts are unanimous that New York is marching toward a cliff, with the sole question being how sharp the plunge will be. The most dire projection foresees a sudden hit of $7.8 billion in new costs a single year, equivalent to 11% of the budget.

That is an unlikely dire scenario, and it doesn’t have to be so. We CAN overcome these problems if we act sooner rather than later.

I call for:

An end to no-bid contracts
A crackdown on waste and fraud in all agencies
Making the NYCEDC accountable to the City Council
Reform of the capital budget
Slowly increase municipal benefit contributions

Only independent elected officials not beholden to monied interests will be able to pull this off.

I will not flinch.

Hewlett Packard and the 911 System

Back in 2012, the city comptroller found that the 911 emergency-dispatch system inappropriately billed at least $2.5 million, and possibly up to $50 million. Hewlett Packard additionally received $113 million for several years of work that city officials sometimes deemed unsatisfactory, and might not have even been qualified to perform the work. Later it was revealed that the company got a follow-up no-bid contract for another $6 million in the system’s maintenance.

The cost of the entire overhaul of the 911 system has come to $2.1 billion. (Some sources cite $2.3 billion.)

Let me be clear: in the wake of hurricane Sandy, hurricane Irene, and of course the September 11th attacks, a robust 911 response system is extremely important for this city.

But the system was supposed to be complete by the end of 2008. What took 5 more years? Why did the project run $700,000,000 over the original budget estimates? Why is the system riddled with dispatch errors and duplications?

It’s evident from the comptroller’s report summary that the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications has not learned their lesson or achieved competence after the City Time scandal.

I have called and continue to call for a sustained investigation into every city agency for budget mismanagement, eliminating no-bid contracts for spending on non-emergencies, and an overhaul in the contract system for greater clarity and notification. What’s currently happening can’t be allowed to go on in good government.

NYC Pilfers Hospital, Evicts the Paralyzed

Currently, the Goldwater Hospital on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island functions mainly as a nursing facility for over 800 patients, over 470 of whom require specialized care. Roosevelt Island is removed from much of the rest of the city, creating an ideally quiet and relaxed atmosphere with few cars – perfect for these individuals who are often in wheelchairs.

Well, that’s too bad: let ‘em go to Harlem, as far as the mayor is concerned. “Some” of these individuals will be relocated once the city-concocted economic reshaping takes place to give away over $100 million in cash, untold tax breaks, and free city land to Cornell and Technion Universities to build a tech campus on the site.

But the city has not planned adequately for these patients. Goldwater has a 2000 bed capacity. Allegedly, the new Henry “Hank” J. Carter Specialty Hospital and Nursing Facility in Harlem will be completed in Fall 2013. But it will only have 365 beds for the nursing facility and long term acute care.

The Carter facility will clock in at the (reported) amount of $285 million in the capital budget. What will happen to those among the 800 patients at Goldwater who can’t find a spot at there?

You have Bloomberg (who will be out of office by then) and the rogue NYCEDC to thank for this.

Oh, and were the wishes of the residents in Harlem at all respected in considering whether to build this new facility? Hardly.

Squeezing out the Middle Class

The NYTimes reported on the increase of sky-high new fab condos for the ultra-wealthy in Manhattan, which underscores the larger growing problem of affordable non-subsidized housing.

One small point in the article crystalizes the problem:

Developers have long complained that the prices of land, construction materials and labor are high in New York, even if they are somewhat less expensive than in London or Hong Kong.

But builders of ultraluxury apartments have much more latitude on costs because they are securing spectacular prices for their projects.

As a result, the luxury building trend is driving up the overall cost of land in the city. Several developers maintained that they could build moderately priced housing only if they could get significant tax breaks.

“There are only two markets, ultraluxury and subsidized housing,” said Rafael Viñoly, the architect who designed the tower on Park Avenue at 56th Street.

On the other end of the spectrum, as I posted a little while ago, the city in some cases spends upwards of $3000 a month per unit on apartments for the homeless with no private bathroom or kitchen.

This cannot go on. Adjusted for inflation, the median family income in NYC dropped 8% from 2008 – 2011. The overall poverty rate has risen during that period as well. New York City is home to about 3% of the entire U.S. population. The people who work in its basic infrastructure for middle class wages to support their families demand mid-range housing. According to the Manhattan Rental Market report, prices are up anywhere from 3.6% – 8.5% in the last year alone.

I am not convinced that rent stabilization/control alone will solve the problem. the median income for those with stabilized rents is only about 4% less than those paying market rate, suggesting there is little means testing. Tax breaks for rent stabilized units might help, but the vacancy rate for stabilized/controlled units is only 0.39% less than market rate units.

The rise in illegal conversions makes clear that more housing is needed. It may also be wise to explore negotiations with the construction unions and the Dept. of Buildings on costs for housing that will be guaranteed affordable. It may mean slightly lower wages, but at the benefit of a lot more jobs. I look forward to discussing this with labor leaders.

As the labor market struggles to regain footing, wages stagnate, and prices rise, there is an unmet demand for more affordable housing. We don’t need endless luxury condos, least of all those built on public land, with public subsidies, taking over rezoned vital IBZ areas, or the flood-prone waterfront.

Standing up for Queens

Credit where credit is due: Benjamin Haber is one of my sources of inspiration for candidacy. On May 13th he delivered a fiery oration at Community Board 7 in defense of Willets Point from eminent domain theft, overdevelopment, and the obfuscations behind which the city and Sterling/Related are hiding.

If Haber, at 85 years old, can make himself heard and find a way to inform the community, then so can you.

Support our business communities, demand transparent government that serves the people, and stand up for Queens. Public parks are sacred. They are vital to our health both mental and physical in this frenzied city. Not one inch should be delivered into the hands of private enterprise.

Not.
One.
Inch.

You can follow this issue at Willets Point United. For a dense 25 minute history of the Willets Point project, check out this other video.

Pearson Scandal – It Gets worse

As I blogged the other day, the education company Pearson stumbled hugely on the scoring of the gifted and talented exam. Its failures however, may extend into the tests they’ve designed for the high-stakes 6th grade and 8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) tests as well.

In addition to inappropriate product placements, excessively long reading passages and instructions, and material that was not aligned with the state curricula, some of the reading passages were almost identical to those exclusively found in Pearson prep materials.

Pearson is a for-profit conglomerate. There’s nothing wrong with that, but they are taking your tax dollars to supposedly provide unbiased high-stakes tests that will determine whether kids are passed along to the next grade. Taking samples which they generate and sell, and then using these samples on the actual exam allows them to confer to themselves an unfair competitive advantage by offering an “inside track” with their prep materials, and irredeemably taint the test for diagnostic or and data collection purposes.

Folks, I can’t exhort you enough: pay attention to the contracts, and keep demanding investigations.

Pearson Screws up, Kids Lose Out

In case anyone still clings to the mistaken belief that the expensive, high-stakes test-driven education reform is working, another bombshell has fallen.

Pearson, the test prep company behind the New York State tests for students and teacher certification, has bungled the scoring for gifted and talented programs, which may have wrongly shut out 2,700 students. This is not the first time Pearson has been called out for botching exams. Nor is it the second.

Education is too important to allow a singular high-stakes exam to be such a powerful determinant in public education. There is a time and place for standard tests as limited indicators, but it is probably not in our interest to continue to use Pearson. Even the NYC Department of Education chancellor is starting to think so.

Stop and Frisk Down, Crime Down Too.

Likely owing to intense media pressure, the number of stop and frisks this year has dropped a dramatic 51% according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. The interesting thing is, overall crime is down. Just mid last year, the NY Post was reporting the exact opposite: that crime rose when Stop and Frisk fell.

What are we to make of these contradicting findings? Namely, that the correlation is weak – if any – between Stop and Frisk and crime; let alone can we draw a causal link. The whole issue is a smokescreen for a more serious problem: Bloomberg has cut the NYPD by over 6000 officers since he took office in 2002, while the population of NYC had grown 150,000. Ramping up Stop and Frisk encounters 600-700% of the rate back in 2001 was an attempt, perhaps, to keep crime down while trimming the spending on the NYPD by officer attrition. New Yorkers who feared for their neighborhoods were sold a false argument that a Stop and Frisk surge may be inconvenient for some innocent people, but that it was the only way to keep neighborhoods safe. The data are now starting to show that this focus on a single tactic was misguided.

As I have been saying repeatedly, bureaucrats who do not do police work need to keep out of police work, either directly or by pressuring supervisors. The laws and procedures regarding stops, and the definition of probable cause, must be made clear to cops on the street who deal with the public, so that New York’s Finest can do their jobs. Forget the quotas, and trust in the professionalism of the street police and their commanding officers who can operate under clear guidelines. Stop and Frisk, like surveillance, interrogations, and arrests, are one of many tools of law enforcement.

Policemen are just like the rest of us in many ways: they work hard for a living, have families, and they don’t want to court trouble in their line of work so that they can go home to those families. As long as the officers are operating within the bounds of the law, we should trust their judgment and keep in bidirectional communication with them to keep our communities safe preventatively.

Not in Your Backyard? Think Again…

Until recently, according to the Daily News, New York State would keep delinquent teens in upstate facilities. Thanks to the brilliance of Bloomberg’s appointees in social service agencies, it was decided that the youths would fare better if turned over to NYC’s Administration for Children’s Services. The administration claimed, according to the article, that the youths would “fare better near home.” (Let alone the fact that many of these problems might have originated in a dysfunctional home.)

The delinquents however, keep running away. 400 warrants have been issued for going AWOL from the detention facilities. In one case, 5 burglaries were committed before the youth was again apprehended.

So Bloomberg first allows the city to foot the bill for troubled youth, purchasing goods, services, and real estate at increased expense to hard-working residents, worsening those very people’s neighborhoods by housing the delinquents, and then cannot ensure the ACS is able to contain them. Is this apathetic moneybags vying with John Lindsay for “most out of touch” mayor?

My Announcement

Thank you to all who came out. With your continued help, I will be your representative in City Hall.

I wanted to additionally mention, (it didn’t come out well in the footage,) that the vitality of small businesses in this district is a major concern. Small businesses in the outer boroughs especially have been unfairly targeted, and their well-being is a major platform position of mine.

Bloomberg’s Final Budget Dance

Bloomberg thinks he and the agencies under him have done a spectacular job at managing the city’s finances, with this year’s operating budget clocking in at $69.8 billion. The people of Queens might get overcrowded schools serving working immigrants and hospital closures, while Hudson Yards development, for example, is already costing the city over $150 million more than expected. Bloomberg’s technocratic budget legacy is anything but “spectacular” once you get beyond the disconnected myopic focus on dollars and savings, and look more closely at what Bloomberg budgets have actually bought, deprived, and wrought on Queens and the city at large.

Bloomberg will also have the distinction, according to the city comptroller at a recent mayoral forum, of being the first mayor in history to depart from office with every single civil service member working under an expired contract. Even if you do buy Bloomberg’s argument that NYC needs a businessman in charge, any effective one would tell you: the first expense you take care of is payroll.

And in case you thought Bloomberg was a visionary with his creative housing solutions or that he managed the NYC economic downturn well, the growth in the city’s homeless shelter population would suggest otherwise.

More Corruption in the Mayoral Race

Corruption continues. Two intermediaries for mayoral candidate John Liu have been found guilty for campaign finance abuses.

The most crucial evidence was collected from a sting operation in which an undercover FBI agent was solicited for donations under a scheme to help Liu’s campaign committee skirt contribution limits and more quickly reach the matching funds threshold.

Liu has distanced himself from one, but not the other of the individuals who have disgraced his campaign, vouching that Jia “Jenny” Hou is a good person whom he still believes in.

Liu has for months been claiming that the Feds were on a witch hunt and would find nothing, and will now have to account for this in further mayoral appearances.

I have already given my endorsement to Kevin P. Coenen Jr. in the mayoral race, but I don’t believe in condemning others by association without evidence, as many have done to Mr. Liu. I trust however, that the U.S. Attorney’s office will continue its dramatic investigation to uncover campaign corruption. If what they uncover leads to the comptroller’s office, so be it.

Muni-Meter Fiasco

Finally, after weeks of coverage addressing muni-meter problems, the City Council is finally acknowledging that the muni-meter system is dysfunctional and will introduce legislation to ensure that the machines stop stealing people’s money, and that the meter agents give fair grace periods to people looking for a working meter.

But this new development only opens up more questions:

1) Why was such a basic problem allowed to slip through in a franchise worth $200 million+/year revenue?
2) Who is going to foot the bill for the system upgrade?
3) Why are the Muni-Meters in Manhattan not reprogrammable?
4) Who is going to be held accountable for the theft at the meters which gave no voucher, and the wrongful parking ticket citations?

I’m glad that some light is being shed on this issue. I had thought that PVB scandals were behind us.

Announcement Next Sunday

On Sunday, May 5th 2013, at 4:00 PM, I will be making a formal announcement regarding my candidacy.

This will take place in front of the former site of the Triumph of Civic Virtue statue in Kew Gardens, at the corner of Union Turnpike and Queens Boulevard. Using public transportation, the location is accessible via the E and F train lines’ Kew Gardens/Union Tpke stop, the Kew Gardens stop on the LIRR, and the following buses: Q10, Q37, Q46, Q60.

I welcome the residents of district 29 and my supporters elsewhere to attend.



Self-Certification: a Conflict of Interest

State Senator Tony Avella is about to introduce legislation to prohibit the practice of self-certification, according to Bayside Patch. (There appears to have been a similar, possibly related attempt two years ago according to this memo, by State Senator Kruger.)

“Self-certification” refers to the practice of developers certifying building code compliance of the structures they erect. I could scarcely believe such a lapse of judgment in building code enforcement even existed when I first heard of the practice, but lo and behold, the Department of Buildings actually provides a template application form to encourage this sort of thing.

The practice has been the target of investigations for over a decade. Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, said,

I fear we may have just hit the tip of the iceberg with a self-certification process that is only as good as those doing the certification.

I renew my call for a full, sustained investigation into all city agencies for conflict of interest, waste, fraud, and other forms of corruption.

Teachers Beat the Test

The NY Times reported recently that a new teacher evaluation system being implemented nationwide is yielding data that shows the vast majority (more than 95%) of teachers are effective or highly effective. Even when the threshold of the test was raised much higher, more than 78% were at least “effective.”

Leaving aside for the moment whether these tests measure socially significant aspects of education, and leaving aside whether they can be administered fairly, I’d like to point out the one very telling remark from Grover J. Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution:

If an evaluation system is not finding a wider distribution of effectiveness, “it is flawed,” he said.

Mr. Whitehurst’s ignorance of scientific method is glaring. The poorly controlled social experiments his organization conducts on school children, without the consent of their parents, is further jeopardized by his unsuitable attitude for research. He has begun with a desired outcome in mind, and because the data collected did not demonstrate this outcome, he prefers to blame the tools created for measurement rather than investigate the unexpected result. Falsifiability is a basic requirement of modern science. Whitehurst appears more interested however, in changing the rules so that the teachers cannot possibly win.

Newsflash: not every social quantity is normally distributed. To treat teachers and schools like independent identically distributed variables is an astonishingly dishonest simplification of education. It is perpetrated likely so that some consultant company can abuse the Central Limit Theorem without investing in real research. More generally, it is a disgrace to social science. But it fits perfectly into the agenda to liquidate veteran (ie more expensive) educators.

Teacher certification may have room for improvement, but the profession is largely filled by competent and dedicated souls. For someone not cut out to teach, with no passion to improve, it’s a pretty hard line of work to wake up to every morning. The outliers you read about in the newspaper are a microscopic few among the millions nationwide rearing the future minds of this nation, a nation whose shores most still flock to. Our teachers are by in large qualified, and given basic support and professional freedom to do their jobs, they become more effective with experience. Even tests designed to show otherwise confirm it. Let’s start treating them with respect again.

Justice, justice, ye shall pursue.

Today, federal investigators arrested NY State Senator Malcolm Smith and Councilman Dan Halloran, along with at least two other county party members, for allegedly participating in a bribery plot intended to give Smith a shot at a cross-party endorsement for the NYC mayoral race. Halloran was also slapped with similar but separate charges related to bribery and use of discretionary funds.

Federal agents do not make arrests lightly; the evidence gathered against them is significant and damning.

My faith in the ability of justice to prevail in the American political system is bolstered.

NYPD “Inspector General”

The NYPD is one of the most effective and impressive of the city agencies, deserving praise for the dramatic reduction of crime over the past 2 decades. There are still improvements to be made in the agency’s policies, but the boys in blue, in general, do fantastic work.

But because the City Council cannot muster the political courage or intelligence to face the issue of “Stop, Question, and Frisk” without angering a large portion of the electorate and hurting its image, speaker Quinn has hatched the worthless idea of appointing an Inspector General. The NYPD already has a commissioner, captains, lieutenants, sergeants, and a well-ordered chain of command. It does not need another layer of bureaucracy.

Quinn is pushing this in order to try to have her cake and eat it too. If she can get this position established, then the future mayor will have a scapegoat for the continual complaints made against the overuse of “Stop and Frisk.” Instead of taking responsibility, the mayor will be able to issue a sterile press statement to the effect of “I have the Inspector General working on this around the clock.”

That’s not the way leadership works. You don’t improve a problem of the city’s own making by adding another layer of obfuscation to divert blame from City Hall. Even mayor Bloomberg, who is responsible to a large degree for the surge in “Stop and Frisk,” has already come out against this bad idea, as has commissioner Ray Kelly.

I have made my position on Stop and Frisk clear: the tactic is widely overused, probably so that the city can try to compensate for slashing the number of officers in order to balance the budget. Public safety is not a place to cut corners. In addition to restoring the number of officers we used to have, clearly defined criteria are needed for street interrogation, criteria that comply with state and federal law and allow cops to apply their trained judgment with courtesy, professionalism, and respect. We need more undercover work and a higher focus on informant data to combat violent crime. New York City continues to get safer, and the community needs to be an integral part.

Waste Dump Trashes UES Property Values

Work on a city-planned “waste transfer station” on the Upper East Side is about to commence. As a result, many are desperately trying to sell their homes in an attempt to flee the neighborhood. They have already begun to have trouble doing this, because knowledge of the project is fairly widespread. They are further driving down prices below what they should be, as they scramble to outbid one another so as not to have to face trying to sell once the noise, smell, traffic, loss of view, and loss of physical continuity come to fruition and make it that much harder.

Most of the people selling are fairly well-off. They can afford to take a hit in their property values, and pay even more in another area. Those of lesser means are constrained to stay and accept the fate the city delivers to them.

This is precisely why I am advocating for the Tweeding Tort, a financial liability that will fall on developers – private or government – for projects and related activities that decimate property values. The community board would mediate the valuation of the damage. The people had virtually no say in this matter, which was supported by Christine Quinn. We have unused land at the periphery of the outer boroughs which may soon be deemed unsafe for residential development in the wake of hurricane Sandy, which would be perfect for this type of unsightly but necessary infrastructure. You can look forward to more of this neighborhood destruction if Quinn becomes mayor, and I strongly suggest you consider challenger Kevin P. Coenen Jr., who would be unafraid to fight the entrenched real-estate interests she supports.

Christina Winslow: Inspiring Citizen Candidate

Running for office honestly is not easy. One of my sources of inspiration is Christina Winslow, a citizen candidate intending to run for the seat in neighboring district 28.

Christina Winslow

According to the Queens Chronicle, Ms. Winslow, or “CW” to those who know her from her community activism, is the founder and CEO of “A Cause, A Concern, A Solution,” a nonprofit organization that provides services to families and children in need.

Ms. Winslow turned around her own life, and has already gone above and beyond in her efforts to help others. I have made clear in my positions that issues largely affecting neighboring districts require cooperation. Ms. Winslow’s effort gives me optimism that other outsider candidates are also looking for more proactive solutions beyond their councilmanic lines.

I support Christina Winslow for City Council, and hope you can come out to support her at her rally, this Saturday March 9th at 12:00 – 12:30 PM, in front of the Queens County Court House on Sutphin Blvd. You can take the F train to get there.

If you would like to get involved in Ms. Winslow’s campaign, I encourage you to visit her Facebook page.

WFP Officials Probed for Campaign Finance Violations

Before you form too quick an impression of Mr. de Blasio’s apparent commitment to government transparency, the Working Families Party, one of his sources for campaign assistance, has been implicated in an investigation into improper campaign funding disclosure.

Dan Cantor, the party’s executive director, said:

We cooperated fully with the U.S. attorney’s investigation, which was closed more than two years ago with no findings of wrongdoing, and we’re certain another fair investigation will produce the same result.

Perhaps so, Mr. Cantor, but no one is above the law. The investigators and the courts will decide this matter. We can only hope that they act unencumbered with concerns about their own job appointments.

Thank you to Kevin P. Coenen Jr. for bringing this to my attention.

Another Well-regarded School Facing Closure

The NY Times reports that Jonathan M. Levin high school, which serves many struggling students, is facing closure. But not without a fight.

The eponymous Mr. Levin was an English teacher at the school, killed by one of his former students back in 1997. He was 31 years old. The school embraced a media studies focus after receiving a posthumously awarded grant for that purpose which Levin had applied for. Graduation used to be well above the city average at 90%. An increasing number of immigrant students who lack basic language skills and would leave the country for months at a time, and/or have special needs, and/or live poverty was accompanied by a drop to 31%. Adding to the problem was Claremont International High School occupying part of the building. The wise solution of the Bloomberg administration to communities in need is to close their schools.

Of course, not all the staff saw eye to eye about how well the school was managed. No organization will achieve 100% groupthink nor would it be healthy to do so. But at the public hearing, the Times reports,

Though many agreed it was failing, they said the theme at the center of it — the media program Mr. Levin envisioned — was so vibrant it meant the entire institution deserved a second chance.

And that’s the whole point: the professional recommendation of teachers and the voices of the parents and students should count for something.

Bias Against Outer Borough Businesses

The Public Advocate has just released a report that delineates how the Bloomberg administration, beginning in 2010, ramped up an enforcement campaign through the Department of Consumer Affairs and the Department of Health against businesses in the outer boroughs. The chief purpose, according to the Public Advocate, was to help the city manage with budgetary shortfalls. This is a perfect example of how misguided efforts to increase one revenue stream often amount to little more than a zero-sum game. These businesses, faced the higher fines, will undoubtedly slow hiring and thereby reduce payroll tax revenue. Those who would otherwise be working will require more public assistance dollars.

The city initially refused to comply with de Blasio’s information request, but he successfully sued. Some key findings from the report:

  • Between Fiscal Years 2010 and 2012, DCA increased inspections by 66 percent, increased violations issued by 153 percent, and increased revenue from fines by 102 percent.
  • For that same time period, DOHMH increased inspections by 55 percent to 98,176 visits, increased violations issued by 73 percent, and increased revenue from fines by 90 percent.
  • Even as the number of violations issued spiked, the dollar amount of individual fines plummeted 30%, reflecting inspectors issuing a profusion of penalties for low-level violations.
  • Outer borough businesses are inspected more often. Compared to the citywide average, businesses in the Bronx are inspected by Consumer Affairs eight percent more frequently, those in Brooklyn are inspected four percent more, as are those in Queens (two percent) and Staten Island (one percent). Businesses in Manhattan receive 14 percent fewer inspections than the citywide average.
  • Outer borough businesses pay more in fines. Because of more frequent inspections, Bronx businesses pay
    seven percent more Consumer Affairs fines on average, those in Brooklyn pay five percent more, as do those in Queens (four percent) and Staten Island (two percent). Businesses in Manhattan pay 18 percent less in fines per business than the citywide average.

As I make clear in my positions, businesses should receive a warning, not a fine, for all first offenses that do not include clear and present danger to public well-being. Squeezing the hard working men and women who take risks the rest of us don’t to provide opportunities for others is no way to run a city. I will let the business owners themselves have the final word:

City Council – overpaid for part time?

Larry Penner of the Queens Courier hit squarely the issue of excessive City Council compensation.

City Council is formally a part-time job. It comes with a salary of $112,500, raised from $90,000 in 2006. This also comes with a generous health and pension plan. It includes a private parking garage at City Hall. Many members serve on certain subcommittees, which come with annual bonuses (“lulus”) of anywhere up to an additional $28,000. According to Penner, even the base salary – for a part time job – is more than twice what the average New Yorker makes for full-time work.

It has also been noted elsewhere that many members have other streams of income from work in the private sector, which is allowed under the part-time classification of City Council service.

To be clear, there is a sharp division to be made between government officials’ behavior that is illegal, and that which is provocative, suspect, and tone-deaf, but allowed. The former is punishable by law, the latter by the public speaking through the voting booth.

I oppose all further salary increases to what should be part-time work. I refuse to take extra lulus for doing what should be a voluntary service. I would even support a measure to return the base salary to $90,000 if brought to Council vote, as a public gesture of goodwill and acknowledgement that the city government has more important things on which to spend its money, and needs to get the city’s fiscal house in order.

My opponent, the incumbent Ms. Koslowitz, not only takes base + lulus, but at the same time collects a pension for serving in the same role years ago.

Penner put it incisively:

With 8% of New Yorkers still out of work, another 7% who have given up looking along with many others working part time and/or for minimum wage, there are many public minded citizens besides the current 51 Council members with the knowledge and wisdom to perform their jobs at a fraction of the cost. Many would gladly serve and show up for work full time without the perks of office for $112,000 per year minus all the traditional lulus or other benefits ordinary citizens can only dream about.

Koslowitz Uses Her Own Staff Member on Reelection PAC

Karen Koslowitz, the too-long incumbent councilwoman here in district 29, has on her staff one Ronnie Croce, Director of Scheduling & Correspondence. This Very Serious position, vital to the functioning of district 29 nets Ms. Croce $136,633, not including health and perhaps pension benefits. It is higher than even the base salary of the City Council members themselves.

Ms. Croce however, is also the treasurer of the political committee to Reelect Karen Koslowitz in 2013.

Are we to believe that all of the efforts Ronnie Croce expends on behalf of the reelection committee take place outside of the regular office hours as Ms. Koslowitz staff member? There is virtually zero oversight to prevent Ms. Koslowitz from taking such a ripe opportunity to improperly use city staff at the tax-payer expense.

Care should always be taken to distinguish what is directly unlawful from what presents a potential and provocative conflict of interest, but is technically allowed. As of now, of course, there is no evidence that any wrongdoing has taken place, and so nothing can do done except to speak to the outward appearance of what’s going on.

Councilwoman Koslowitz, using one of your staff members as a manager on your campaign trail demonstrates extremely poor judgment on your part. It paints you as an enabler of the bureaucracy that allows corruption to fester in this city. Your decision to do as much as the law allows you to get away with (despite the bad impression it would make) emphasizes how out of touch you are with the problems plaguing the residents you claim to serve and the city’s economy. It opens you up to a suspicion which I believe all politicians should rise above. The people of district 29, Queens, and NYC at large deserve better.

Kevin P. Coenen Jr. for Mayor

I have always stressed the importance of breaking the cyclical corruption of the political machine that has gripped this city through graft, nepotism, and back dealings. New York will have to start electing outsiders in order to have a chance at fair and open governance.

Fortunately, a mayoral candidate who feels the same way, whom I can finally endorse, has stepped up to the fore in the democratic primary: Kevin P. Coenen Jr.

Kevin P. Coenen Jr.

Mr. Coenen is a retired Lieutenant in the N.Y.C. Fire Department. He has not held political office prior, and to my knowledge has not courted endorsements or taken campaign contributions from politicians or private interests implicated in major scandals. Mr. Coenen prioritizes transparent government, education, reigning in mismanagement of the city budget, and proper policing. I would be proud to have a member of New York’s Bravest like Coenen at the helm of the city he risked his life to serve.

You have probably not yet heard of Kevin P. Coenen Jr. because the mainstream media has chosen to focus only on certain candidates, many of whom have not even formally declared their intent to run whereas Coenen is already filed as a candidate in the Democratic primary. I am happy to do my part to give him more publicity. I encourage you to follow him on Facebook or Twitter

Too many drunks – Blame the bars?

State Assemblyman Micah Keller introduced a bill that would revoke the liquor licenses of any bar participating in a so-called “pub crawl.” For those of you unaware, a pub crawl is an ad hoc consortium of independent liquor-serving establishments that offer discounted drink prices in some temporary promotion. Usually there is some type of wristband or hand-stamp to signal participation across the different bars. Sometimes transportation is provided.

Keller claims that the pub crawls, “create mayhem. We’re not trying to legislate common sense.

I agree that there is not a trace of common sense in this legislation at all. Common sense would mean a person stops drinking before reaching a state of unlawful disorderliness and endangering his or her health. Common sense would mean people seek relief from others’ reckless behavior by contacting the police when noise levels rise too high, or individuals commit public misdemeanors. Common sense would mean boycotts, community-precinct meetings, or block watches. But Kellner, in his far-seeing wisdom, would rather punish all owners and employees of liquor serving establishments regardless of how responsibly they run their promotions because a few patrons don’t know when to say when.

Kellner, in his bill, wants to amend section 117-c of the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) law. I looked up the portion of the statute in question:

No licensee, acting individually or in conjunction with one or more licensees, shall…advertise, promote, or charge a price for drinks that in the judgment of the authority creates an offering of alcoholic beverages in violation of the purposes and intent of this section, or which in the judgment of the authority is an attempt to circumvent the intent and purposes of this section, such as, but not limited to, offerings of free drinks, or multiple drinks for free or for the price of a single drink, or for a low initial price followed by a price increment per hour or other period of time, or for such a minor amount that in the judgment of the authority the pricing would constitute an attempt to circumvent the intent and purposes of this section.

Much as I hate to admit it, Kellner seems to have found solid legal ground against pub crawls in an obscure, antiquated, puritanical clause of the state code. Would a NY State attorney like to weigh in on this one?

Contrary to what the People for the American Way may think, Kellner demonstrates with this constituent-pleaser move that he is by no means “progressive.”

“Constituent-pleaser move?” Yes: Manhattan community board 6 unsuccessfully tried to pass such a ban, which they have no authority to do. The community board has the power to grant revoke liquor licenses – not determine how alcohol is promoted or at what price. Conveniently, Kellner is running for City Council on the Upper East Side covered by CB6.

Tax-payer funded lawmakers working on this kind of business-killing, special interest, blanket ban is the sort of thing that could really drive New Yorkers to drink…

The Soda Ban

The large soda ban is one of the more visible issues in the media. Mayor Bloomberg and the Board of Health approved in September a restriction on sales of sugar-sweetened beverages over 16 ounces in New York City, beginning in March.

I don’t personally drink soda (too sweet for me), but I recognize the right of New Yorkers to purchase a drinkable beverage in whatever size they want. In addition to the well-deserved ridicule this has received from the press and the people, the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation have voiced their opposition to the ban, which hurts small businesses that rely on the high margins of soda sales. Furthermore, the ban doesn’t even stop people from buying multiple small bottles or receiving refills.

What it comes down to, really, is a war on container sizes.

Who is behind this ill-conceived scheme? It is largely the nanny-state brainchild of the puritanical commissioner of the city Department of Health, Dr. Thomas Farley, a Bloomberg personal pick. Dr. Farley wants New Yorkers to quit smoking in parks and beaches, take the stairs, cut the salt, lose weight, swear off sugary drinks, have safe sex and drink less alcohol. I bet he’s great fun at parties. Farley’s fear and hatred of sugar goes back at least 2 years, when he called on a ban on soda purchases with food stamps.

To give the devil his due, smoking in public recreational areas is a nuisance to others who come out to enjoy the fresh air. But Farley’s tenure is otherwise the perfect example of the type of government intrusion that simultaneously neglects its basic responsibilities to this city: he made a terrible lapse in judgment not to evacuate hospitals in preparation of hurricane Sandy, and continued to defend the decision months later. Older residents and hospital patients had to walk or be carried down dark staircases, with medical personnel doing everything from carrying patients and holding flashlights to ferrying fuel to the generators on the 13th floor. We still have residents down in the Rockaways without power, heat, or hot water. That was an acceptable risk outcome, but don’t you dare twist open a 20 oz. Coca Cola in front of Dr. Farley!

Schools could help control obesity in a person’s formative years with more opportunities for physical education. Maybe there would be time for that again, if Bloomberg weren’t spawning a test-prep frenzy by trying to hold schools hostage to his arbitrary grading system.

USTA Ramping up PR for Parks Land Grab

The United States Tennis Association (USTA), a private company, is attempting to expand their footprint in Flushing Meadows Corona Park by building new stadiums and parking lot space. They will alienate park land and destroy many mature trees in the process. Setting a city precedent, the current plan does not require the USTA either to replace the lost parkland or compensate the city for it.

As I’ve made clear in my positions on overdevelopment, public parkland is a precious resource, and all further private development on it should be strictly prohibited.

The USTA claims they only want a small amount extra to develop in order to “stay competitive” with the latest innovations in professional tennis stadium accommodations. In 1993, their footprint almost doubled, at which point they claimed they would not seek more land. Who is to say that in years to come, the USTA will not again argue that even more will be needed due to changes in stadium design and league expectations? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… The city is not responsible for giving away land because the USTA lacked foresight in construction planning or finances. There is plenty of other land in the city, not in parks, that the USTA could purchase in the open market. Community boards around the borough have already made clear that they do not look upon the plan favorably.

There is an even worse turn in this story. The USTA’s ULURP application has to be co-sponsored by a city agency, and the one which presented itself voluntarily is none other than the NYC Parks Department itself, the agency charged with preserving parkland. Apparently, city corruption is so endemic that such a public betrayal raises no significant outcry at City Hall. This plan should not only be thrown out upon submission, but also investigated for breach of duties stemming from this conflicted collaboration and willful neglect of public trust.

Two citizen activist groups, Save FMCP and the Fairness Coalition of Queens, have arisen to counter the USTA propaganda. I will continue to help these groups gain exposure for their good work.

This effort to pilfer and demolish and alienate public green space would never have even been attempted in Central or Prospect Park, whose surrounding communities have more money behind strong civic awareness. Between Citifield, the USTA, and potentially Major League Soccer, Flushing Meadows Corona park is quickly becoming the dumping ground for wealthy developers who want cheap land within the city limits.

Karen Koslowitz has made the rounds at the community board hearings to lend Council member weight to the USTA’s land grab, recycling the same arguments that imply the vague promise of indeterminate economic benefit is worth taking away more public green space for stadiums, destroying trees, and further damaging air quality with a power plant. Koslowitz chairs the Committee on Economic Development at the City Council, coincidentally enough.

As community leader Alfredo Centola put it,

parkland is exactly that: parkland. Open space meant meant to be enjoyed by all of us. It is not a vacant lot meant to be developed by private interest…There is nothing in the City Charter that says Queens parks are different than Manhattan parks. This park needs to be free and clear for the people to enjoy and appreciate.”

See the full video here:

Department of Homeless Services Pays Top $$$ to Landlords

A “third rail” issue in politics is the unpalatable reality that the city cannot afford to provide many social services, especially housing, to everyone eligible for them. Those who apply first get theirs while the rest take a number and wait, even if they are more in need. As recently as a year ago, the New York City Housing Authority had over 260,000 families on the waiting list for city and federal public housing. This backlog is almost as many families big as the number currently receiving public housing.

Agencies like the Department of Homeless Services therefore, begin resorting to desperate measures, spending upwards of $3000 a month per unit for apartments with no private bathroom or kitchen. The landlords are all too happy to begin converting their rent-controlled units into slums with payouts like that. The horrific misuse and waste of money for social services as depicted in Joseph Berger’s investigation is enough to turn your stomach, with prostitution and violence being encouraged on the taxpayer’s dime at well above market real estate prices.

I have not yet heard a sensible, politically feasible proposal for fixing the city’s social services problems that I can get behind. If you have any suggestions, share your thoughts.

Dept. of Ed. Figureheads Mess Up, Blame the Rank and File – As Usual

For those of you unaware, many yellow school bus drivers are on a union strike in New York City. Their main grievance is the loss of seniority-based job guarantees from the Department of Education (DOE) contract, which will expire in June.

The mayor is seeking to cut down on the costs which have mushroomed to $1.1 billion, double the amount when he took office, over which the number of students using the bus dropped 18%. How this situation came to be is to be discussed at a City Council hearing today. According to the NY Post, the increases are largely due to increased routes for summer school and extended day programs, as well as special education busing restrictions, and salary increases.

How convenient for the DOE: develop policies to keep kids in school for longer days or put them into summer programs, and then blame the costs on the people you have to hire to get them there. The number of routes rose from about 2000 in 1979 to almost 7700 today. Has the inhabited square area of NYC increased 3.85X proportionally in 30 years to justify that increase?

Coping with the special education situation is admittedly difficult, because these regulations are set at the state level. There may however, exist some ways to lessen the impact by reconsidering the availability and location of different special education options. Bloomberg should be appealing to Albany for relief – not taking it out on bus drivers and attendants.

Drivers average about $38,000 a year. They’re hardly among highly paid city workers, but with seniority and benefits, it is livable. My hope is that the Local 1181 will freeze salary increases in order to reach an agreement that will preserve the viability of bus driving as a long-term source of employment.

And please, spare me the cries of “the kids are suffering.” Kids are precious, we understand, but the rest of humanity is more than wage-slave chopped meat. These drivers have families of their own – with children – to clothe and feed. NYC taxpayers deserve qualified drivers who care enough about the job to invest themselves in it as a full career, not whatever fly-by-night grifter will work at $10/hour less than the next person for a few months. It’s absurd that anyone who really cares about kids would want the lowest bidder busing them around on the streets of New York every day.

But on another note, why is the city contracting out its busing services to 3rd parties at all? If it is ready to spend the money, why can’t drivers and school buses constitute a branch of the MTA? Why can’t matrons be certified like other school paraprofessionals under the DOE itself? Every other professional serving children in schools is a direct city employee. Please explain it to me if you can.

Shady dealings at the Department of Consumer Affairs

The Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) depicts itself as assuring a “fair and vibrant marketplace.”

If only it were true.

Its managers are currently under investigation for mismanagement of $11.5 million in technology contracts. The original contract was to be for $2.7 million, but it slowly mushroomed to over 4X that.

The DCA’s budget shot up about $5 million dollars in 2012 to $24 million from the year before, and is over twice as big as it was in 2004. What accounts for this increase?

This comes on the heels of a local story about Dana’s Flower Shop in Forest Hills being targeted by their inspectors in the most ludicrous of citations. Jonathan Mintz, the agency commissioner, claimed in an article 3 years ago,

The consumers, small businesses and entire communities struggling with unsustainable debt payments and imploding mortgages have never had to work harder to avoid predators.

Mr. Mintz, try looking for the predators in your own agency.

Redistricting: another corruptible activity at public expense

In accordance with the US census, The New York City Charter requires an independent commission be appointed to “redraw Councilmanic District lines to accurately reflect the City’s demographics.”

I kid you not: an entire city agency exists for this purpose. The fifteen members “who reflect the geographic and ethnic diversity of the City” are all appointed by standing politicians. I suspect there are probably also staff on payroll for HR, secretary, IT, custodial, counsel, and mailroom as well.

In reports from the latest public hearing, it is clear that many residents are displeased. Newly proposed City Council districts are cutting up neighborhoods in the draft proposed by Council Speaker Quinn. As one community member put it,

“What is a neighborhood? What is a community?” asked Colin Bucca, one of a handful of Woodhaven residents to speak. “It’s not numbers on a spreadsheet or lines on a map. It’s people.”

Perfectly said. The Districting Commission is a worthless agency for has-been politicians to extend their disservice to the city. It’s questionable whether they even look at the plans presented to them at all. Its members include such luminaries as former senator Frank Padavan, who authorized a shady deal for public land now being investigated by both the state Inspector General and Attorney General. Also on the list is the upstanding former councilman Thomas V. Ognibene, caught in a wire-tap discussing quid-pro-quo with the NYC Dept. of Buildings.

The people of New York deserve proportional representation in the City Council, and a population shift is a legitimate concern. But cutting up neighborhoods just to get even numbers is chaotic, against the commission’s chief purpose, and too prone to gerrymandering. The best solution seems to me to amend the charter so that the voting power of all council members is weighted in proportion to the number of people they serve. Furthermore, once their district reaches a certain population, require a new council person be added to the district so that no one member in the council carries inordinate power. Share as much of the staff as possible in order to minimize the cost.

As for now, the final plan must be submitted by March 5th 2013. Stay tuned…

The Removal of Triumph of Civic Virtue

Out on the streets on 12/15/2012, speaking a little truth to power, and documenting Queens history. I apologize for the quality – this was done purely via iPhone, and the suddenness of the event left little time to prepare. (The city gave no formal announcement about the removal date as far as I could find, and the Green-Wood cemetery was equally uncooperative in confirming inquiries.)