Every two weeks the New York City Council meets for its Stated Meeting to introduce and pass legislation. As a regular feature, Gotham Gazette covers these meetings and posts a summary of the bills passed.
QUOTES OF THE DAY:
"There is so much pork you can almost hear it oink." - Bronx Councilmember Madeline Provenzano on the new $50 billion city budget.
"One person's pork is another person’s meal that saves them from hunger." - Bronx Councilmember Oliver Koppell in response.
The New York City Council unanimously approved a $50.2 billion budget, the largest in city history.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council, who face reelection this fall, chose to use a $3.5 billion surplus to cut taxes and increase funding for education, cultural institutions, and social service programs. It is clearly meant to make many New Yorkers happy.
The fiscal plan includes a $400 rebate to those who own a home, co-op, or condo. It cuts the sales tax on clothing and shoes under $110 from 8 to 4 percent.
It includes additional money to cover a 10 percent increase in police salaries ordered by a state panel.
And the budget - which was approved on the last day possible and applies to the fiscal year beginning July 1 - includes dozens of new initiatives, like:
"I'm crying tears of joy," said Bronx Councilmember Larry Seabrook.
The budget agreement was the last for City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who is forced out of office at the end of the year because of term limits. Miller reminded the members of the budget four years ago, when the city faced a $6 billion deficit.
"I want to thank my colleagues who understand that unity is how this council has been able to make changes in the lives of people in this city," said Miller.
However, not all of the members agreed that there was "unity" in the room.
Several of the 19 members who voted against the speaker on the recent the waste management plan complained that their pet projects had been cut.
"It is absolutely disgraceful that members who vote their conscience... get punished in the budget," said Queens Councilmember Tony Avella.
"We've been called trash traitors," said Bronx Councilmember Maria Baez.
And in a council where 48 of the 51 members are Democrats and open debate is rare, members took personal swipes at one another.
"Every year there is bound to be a few cry babies," responded Queens Councilmember John Liu, who offered lollipops to those who were unhappy.
Some council members also complained that the mayor and the council should have used more of the surplus to pay off debt or to deal with future deficits, which experts say will be $4.5 billion by next year and $4.2 billion the year after that.
"There is so much pork you can almost hear it oink," said Bronx Councilmember Madeline Provenzano.
But others said the city's economic future is difficult to predict and that when the government has the money, it should spend it on those who need it most.
"One person's pork is another person’s meal that saves them from hunger," said Bronx Councilmember Oliver Koppell.
Teachers, firefighters, and other city workers who have been without a contract for several years were also left out of the budget. The mayor has refused to negotiate new contracts without concessions.
Despite the open disagreements, the budget passed by a vote of 50 to 0, with the exception of a measure that fixes the tax rates for this fiscal year; the three Republican members â€“ James Oddo, Dennis Gallagher, and Andrew Lanza â€“ voted "no" on that measure. (Councilmember Charles Barron was absent.)
The Republicans, who said spending should have been cut, warned that by next January, the mayor and the council will face some difficult decisions.
"There are tax increases looming," warned Councilmember James Oddo.
PILOT FINACING PROGRAM
As part of the budget, the council also passed a measure (Intro 665-A) that will prevent the financing of development projects with revenue called "payment in lieu of taxes" or PILOTs without the approval of the City Council.
Mayor Bloomberg had proposed this kind of financing to pay for the city’s $300 million share of the West Side stadium.
PILOTs are money from developers who build properties on city-owned land, but do not pay property taxes on it. Instead, they pay money into a specific fund. Last year, over 260 PILOT programs across the city generated about $47 million in annual revenue. None of the PILOT money goes through the city’s usual budget, which must be approved by the City Council.
In May, the council passed a bill that would send all such payments to the legislature, and Mayor Bloomberg vetoed it. After the defeat of the West Side stadium, the two sides reached an agreement.
The bill requires that all new and past projects that use PILOT financing be approved by both the mayor and the council.
"From now on, all public money must go through a public process," said Speaker Miller. "There won't be slush funds that this mayor and previous mayors have used to divert money without public review."
HANDICAP ACCESS TO WATER FERRIES
In addition to the budget, the council also passed several new bills. One addressed the issue of handicap accessible water ferries.
The majority of the city's commuter water ferries comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and are wheelchair-accessible. However, many of the city-owned docks do not have accessible ramps, which make it impossible for New Yorkers with handicaps to use the boats.
To address the issue, the council passed a bill (Intro 398) which requires ramps and door ways for wheelchairs and mandates adequate space, restrooms, and personnel trained to evacuate people with disabilities on all water ferries.
The legislation is a result of activists like Frieda Zames, who sued the MTA over 20 years ago to make buses wheel-chair accessible. Zames, who was in her 70s, died shortly before the council passed the legislation out of committee.
"She did not live to see the result of her work," said Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who authored the bill. "But we will continue the fight."
In an effort to move the city's taxi fleet toward the use of alternative fuel, the council approved a measure ( Intro 664) that would allow taxi owners to purchase hybrid cars - which run on a combination of gas and electricity - beginning later this summer. The taxi commission will now decide which brands of hybrid cars will be allowed.
PROTECTION FOR JAMAICA BAY
In 1972, the United States Congress established the Gateway National Recreation Area in Queens to protect the harbor and its wildlife. However, some scientist predict that the Jamaica Bay marshlands in the recreation area, which are still polluted by sewer and storm runoff, will vanish if they are not more actively preserved.
The council passed a bill (Intro 565-A) to require the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to create a watershed protection plan for Jamaica Bay by September 2006. The goal of the plan is to restore and maintain the water quality. The agency will be required to submit regular reports on its efforts to the mayor and the council.
FINES FOR FIREWORKS
To mark the July 4th holiday, the council approved steep new fines (Intro 431) for New Yorkers who possess or set off illegal fireworks in the city. Violators can be fined up to $750.
The meeting was the last before the City Council takes its summer recess. There are generally no committee hearings during the months of July and August, though the council does meet once a month to pass urgent land-use measures.
The next Stated Meeting is scheduled for July 27. The council resumes its regular schedule of hearings and meetings in September.Â