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Samaritan Village Veterans' Program Color Guard (nycourts.gov)
BROOKLYN—Courtroom 1928 on the 19th floor of the New York State Unified Court System building in Brooklyn is not your average courtroom. On Fridays the walls are lined with military posters from past and present generations. On State Supreme Court Judge Michael Brennan's bench sits a small red United States Marines flag alongside an American flag, paying homage to his past military service.
Brennan's courtroom houses Veterans Treatment Court, a drug treatment court with programs specially designed to provide services and mentoring for military veterans. It is a place where respect is given, honor restored, and justice served.
When a participant graduates from each phase of veterans treatment court, Judge Brennan comes off the bench and salutes, then gives a certificate.
"I get into the military culture with them," Brennan said in a recent interview. "I know everyone did basic training somewhere."
On August 1, the four wooden pews of courtroom 1928 were packed, but it wasn't a verdict everyone was awaiting. Nine military veterans were being sworn in as new mentors. Their mission: to help veterans through the court's substance abuse program by offering peer support only a fellow veteran can offer.
During the ceremony, a judge called up a retired Vietnam Era veteran, who we'll call James. James had served in the Army from 1969 to 1972. He stood up from his seat in the back row and began to walk toward the judge. Tears filled his eyes and began to stream down his face faster than he could wipe them away. It was graduation day for him after 15 months in treatment; he was clean and sober, the transgressions of an ill-fated night finally behind him.
"This was my first time I have ever been in something like this," James said during an interview following his court proceeding. "I realized when you are naive and get into certain things, it is easy to get into trouble—and so hard to get out."
James, who lives on Long Island, was lucky he was arrested in Brooklyn. Had he been taken into custody in Manhattan or Staten Island, he would not have been given the same opportunities veterans get in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.
Manhattan and Staten Island are the only two boroughs without veterans treatment courts, although Staten Island has one in the works. Despite the success of the veteran treatment court programs in the other boroughs, the expansion of veterans treatment courts all over the country, and federally-funded grants to help start programs, Manhattan currently has no plans to add a veterans treatment court to its drug court system.
Buffalo BeginningNationally, Veterans Treatment Courts began in Buffalo in Judge Robert Russell, Jr.'s courtroom in January of 2008. Judge Russell had seen first-hand how helpful a military mentor was to a veteran in his courtroom and decided to create a program designed specifically for veterans. It allowed Russell to tap into the military culture instilled in the those who serve and harness the camaraderie of service members.
As Judge Russell's program began to gain notoriety, a Vietnam Era veteran named Cesar showed up in front of Judge Jo Ann Ferdinand in Brooklyn Drug Treatment Court. She sentenced him to a treatment program, where he did well at first, but left the program before completing it and wound up back in jail.
Cesar told his case manager he was a Vietnam veteran and Judge Ferdinand sent him to a treatment program designed for military veterans. He began to do well in the program and one week he appeared before her and asked for permission to take a trip to Washington D.C. to visit the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial Wall.
She granted permission and as Cesar turned to exit the courtroom, Judge Ferdinand heard him mutter, "Maybe this time I will get up to the wall." She asked if he had been before, to which he replied, "yes, many times."
Naively thinking it was just a simple logistical problem, she asked, "You weren't able to walk to the wall?"
"I couldn't face seeing the names of my buddies," Cesar said.
His answer shook the Judge.
"The war was 30 years ago and he is still carrying those invisible wounds—and they are effecting his behavior today," Judge Ferdinand said in a recent interview.
Shortly after her experience with Cesar, she arranged a trip to Buffalo and visited with Judge Russell to see how his program worked. That visit got the ball rolling on what was the first Veterans Treatment Court in New York City, which opened in Brooklyn in January of 2009. Judge Ferdinand enlisted Judge Brennan, himself a retired marine, to preside over the court (Judge Ferdinand sees veterans with DWIs in her courtroom).
The program is not for every veteran arrested in Brooklyn. Since April 2012 (the farthest back records were available) Brooklyn Veterans Treatment Court has had a total of 44 participants, 10 of whom have graduated (some are still in the program). In 2013, a total of 1,410 defendants in Brooklyn checked "have you ever served in the military" on their arrest intake form, according to stats provided by the New York State Unified Court System.
To get into the program, participants plead guilty and have to agree to seek treatment for their addiction. Instead of leaving the defendant to find treatment themselves, Brooklyn Veterans Treatment Court (BVTC) pairs them with veteran-friendly treatment facilities. If they follow the course of treatment their guilty plea is withdrawn and their record is sealed. In addition, BVTC assigns a veteran justice outreach (VJO) specialist to help veterans navigate the federal Veterans Administration (VA) to ensure they receive any and all benefits they are entitled to.
The biggest advantage of a veterans treatment court versus a traditional drug treatment court is the veteran mentor program. The strictly volunteer position is considered a "keystone" to the veterans treatment court program. The mentors are veterans, but don't necessarily need to be in recovery themselves. Mentors are not designed to be another authority figure, but as a brother or sister—akin to fellow service members in the military.
James spoke with his mentor early in his treatment when he was having trouble adjusting to the group discussions. They formed a bond that proved valuable months later when he failed a urine test. James claims he had not used, and believes his urine was switched at the VA where the monitoring is less strict than at BVTC. It was his only failed test, so instead of throwing him in jail, Judge Brennan decided to extend his treatment by three months. James said his mentor helped him accept his punishment and look to completing the task instead of dwelling on being wronged.
"If we can't take care of those who [put on a uniform] then we are failing," Judge Brennan said.
Missing in ManhattanIn the short time since Judge Russell began his veterans treatment court in Buffalo, the program has caught on, spreading not just in New York, but nationally. As of July 28, 2014, the latest data available, there are 197 veteran treatment courts nationwide, according to Justice for Vets.
But Manhattan does not have a dedicated veterans treatment court. The Midtown Manhattan Court has programs tailored to veterans, but only handles misdemeanors and does not have a mentor program. Manhattan Mental Health Court handles felony cases, but to be accepted into the treatment program, a veteran would have to be diagnosed with a mental illness first. The treatment would then go through the VA, where the veteran could be paired with a mentor if it is offered at a particular treatment facility. For veterans that are not eligible for benefits with the VA (due to dishonorable discharge, for example), the Manhattan courts will refer them to veteran community organizations.
The lack of a formal veterans treatment court lies in staffing and funding, according to Valerie Raine, acting statewide drug court coordinator for New York's Unified Court System. Raine has spent 18 years working in the drug courts, including most recently being the director of drug treatment projects at the Center for Court Innovation.
"It is not that they don't want to or haven't talked about it but...the bottom line is they have staffing issues," she said of Manhattan Court in a recent interview. "It probably will happen, but they just don't have the resources to actively plan right now."
Raine pointed to the recent reforms made to the so-called Rockefeller Drug Laws. The April 2009 changes, signed by then-Governor David Paterson, eased the sentencing for drug offenders and greatly expanded eligibility for drug treatment in lieu of jail.
The reforms were applauded, but did not come with an increase in staffing for the courts. In fact, due in large part to the recession, budget cuts at both the federal and state level resulted in substantial layoffs in 2011.
Even with the cuts, boroughs were able to follow Brooklyn's lead, start and maintain veteran treatment courts: Queens opened its in 2010, and the Bronx in the fall of 2013. Both were able to get programs started with federal grants.
The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) began issuing grants to help pay for training and staffing to start veterans treatment court programs. In (federal) fiscal year 2013, BJA issued $2.5 million in grants specifically designated to implement veteran treatment courts around the country. That was up from just over $1 million the previous fiscal year and $199,990 in fiscal year 2009 when it issued the first grant to Buffalo.
Despite the uptick in available grants and the support of Veterans Justice Outreach agency, the District Attorney's Office, the defense bar, and some community programs, Manhattan has yet to apply.
"There has been significant work done to prepare for applying for the Veterans Treatment Court Planning Initiative (VTCPI)," David Bookstaver, spokesperson for New York Unified Courts, said by email. "The Manhattan Treatment Court may very well apply to participate in the VTCPI. But due to current operational concerns, they have not done so yet."
Bookstaver did not return two follow-up emails when asked to elaborate on what he meant by "operational concerns."
Funding would provide a push start for a program in Manhattan, but according to Raine, that may not be enough. She said due to the 2011 funding cuts, there is concern about applying for grants that would support new staff positions.
"When times were better, you could pretty much count on when the grant funds ran out—assuming the program did well—the court would assume the continuation of that position," Raine said. "But that is no longer a guarantee. Funding is never in perpetuity."
While the Manhattan Court system continues to consider if and how it will begin a veterans treatment court, there continues to be no shortage of need. The day prior to her interview with Gotham Gazette, Judge Ferdinand said she received a call from a lawyer who was representing a veteran who had been arrested in Manhattan. With no options for her client in Manhattan she called Ferdinand to see if she could take the case. Since the offense happened in Manhattan, there was nothing she could do.
"When you think about what people did in military service, certainly those are people you don't want to just ignore and forget," Judge Ferdinand said. "If you restore them to full health, you have really made a great impact on all of us."
***by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette@MeriwetherK
Sen. Tony Avella, left, debates John Liu on Inside City Hall; host Errol Louis, middle (@InsideCityHall)
Debates of the 2014 New York State Election Cycle - see below for upcoming and video/audio/print of those already having occurred. This list is surely incomplete, please send us others - notice of upcoming debates or recaps of those that have occurred - by email to email@example.com
Friday 8/29 60th AD @ Church of God of Prophecy, 71 Malta St, Brooklyn via DNAinfo & Food Bank NYC
Tuesday 9/2 72nd AD @ Fresh Youth Initiatives, 505 W 171st St, Manhattan via DNAinfo & Food Bank NYC
Tuesday 9/2 52nd AD @ St. Francis College via Brooklyn Heights Blog.
Wednesday 9/3 20th SD on NY1
Wednesday 9/3 52nd AD on BRIC
Wednesday 9/3 14th SD @ The Salvation Army Jamaica Citadel, 90-23 161st Street, Queens via DNAinfo & Food Bank NYC
Thursday 9/4 Zephyr Teachout v. Rob Astorino on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show
Thursday 9/4 31st SD on NY1
Thursday 9/4 55th AD @ 1768 St. John's Place, Brooklyn via DNAinfo & Food Bank NYC
Thursday 9/4 79th AD @ McKinley Community Center, 751 E 161st St, 7:30 p.m.
Food Bank NYC/DNAinfo debates listing/rsvp page
14th Senate District in Queens
8/20/14 Malcolm Smith, Leroy Comrie and Munir Avery appear on NY1: Inside City Hall Debate video
76th Assembly District in Manhattan
8/11/14 Gus Christensen, Ed Hartzog, David Menegon and Rebecca Seawright appear at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House for Citizens Union and Our Town debate. Recap: Our Town
8/22/14 Christensen, Hartzog, Menegon and Seawright appear on NY1: Inside City Hall debate video
8/24/14 Christensen, Hartzog, Menegon and Seawright appear on MNN: Represent NYC debate video
52nd Assembly District in Brooklyn
8/25/14 Doug Biviano, Jo Ann Simon, and Pete Sikora appear on NY1: Inside City Hall debate video
8/27/14 Biviano, Simon and Sikora debate at a forum hosted by the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council. Recap: Brooklyn Daily Eagle
9/2/14 Biviano, Simon, and Sikora debate at St. Francis College 7 p.m., sponsored by the Brooklyn Heights Blog. Recap:
9/3/14 Biviano, Simon, and Sikora appear on BRIC: B-Civil debate video
72nd Assembly District in Manhattan
8/24/14 Mayobanex Villalona, Melanie Hidalgo, Guillermo Linares and Manny De Los Santos appear on MNN: Represent NYC debate video
31st Senate District in Manhattan
8/24/14 Robert Jackson and Luis Tejada appear on MNN (incumbent Adriano Espaillat opted not to participate): Represent NYC debate video
9/4/14 Candidates appear on NY1: Inside City Hall debate video
34th Senate District in the Bronx
8/25/14 Jeff Klein and Oliver Koppell appear on BronxNet: BronxTalk debate video
8/26/14 Klein and Koppell appear on NY1: Inside City Hall debate video
11th Senate District in Queens
8/19/14: Avella and Liu appeared at a forum hosted by "a coalition of community-based, advocacy and social services organizations." Recaps: Queens Chronicle and The Observer
8/27/14 Tony Avella and John Liu appear on NY1: Inside City Hall debate video
19th Senate District in Brooklyn
8/28/14 John Sampson, Dell Smitherman, and Sean Henry appear on NY1: Inside City Hall debate video
20th Senate District, Brooklyn
8/12 Rubain Dorancy and Jesse Hamilton appear on BRIC: B-Civil video
8/27/14 Dorancy and Hamilton appear on WNYC: The Brian Lehrer Show audio
8/27/14 Dorancy and Hamilton debate at forum hosted by Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council. Recap: Brooklyn Daily Eagle
9/3/14 Dorancy and Hamilton appear on NY1: Inside City Hall debate video
54th Assembly District in Brooklyn
8/19 Erik Dilan and Kimberly Council appear on BRIC: B-Civil debate video
79th Assembly District in the Bronx
8/28/14 79th AD @ Word of Life International, 813 Westchester Ave, The Bronx via DNAinfo & Food Bank NYC
Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) page with all Represent NYC 2014 debates
NY1 Inside City Hall page with all televised debates on that network
SBS Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer, the author (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)
There are more than 200,000 small businesses in New York City, which represents nearly 98 percent of all businesses across the five boroughs. Small businesses give our neighborhoods their unique character, and employ more than half of New York City's private sector workforce. But they also achieve much more. As the daughter of immigrant entrepreneurs, I personally understand that for many people, owning a business can be their first chance for economic self-determination and a path to the middle class.
When Mayor de Blasio appointed me as Commissioner of Small Business Services earlier this year, he tasked me and the leadership of all City agencies with fighting inequality in all its forms, on all its fronts, and building a city where everyone can rise together. With this charge in mind, my vision for the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) is to ensure that every job seeker and business owner has access to the resources they need to succeed. I plan to achieve this by impacting three key pillars: good jobs, stronger businesses, and a fairer economy.
SBS is dedicated to addressing the unique needs of local entrepreneurs through a variety of free services that help businesses in all five boroughs start, operate, and grow. We work with business owners like Maggie Kwok, who utilized our agency's NYC Business Acceleration services to open her first restaurant, Shanghai Asian Manor, in Lower Manhattan. Maggie was so happy with the City's services, when she was ready to open a second location in Flushing, Queens, she knew to come to the City for help. NYC Business Acceleration guided Maggie through the City's regulatory process, helping her interface with numerous agencies to open both locations faster, providing jobs for more than 60 New Yorkers.
Small business owners like Maggie Kwok face many challenges. In my first few months at SBS, we have launched numerous new initiatives to ensure that government's infrastructure works better and harder for the small businesses and neighborhoods that most need our help.
- NYC Business Acceleration is one way we are helping small businesses cut through the City's red tape and open their doors faster. This service has helped more than 2,000 restaurants across the city open an average of 2.5 months faster, and we recently announced that we are expanding the program to serve small businesses in retail and manufacturing as well.
- Small Business First: We are not only providing direct services to small businesses, but we are also working with City Hall and more than ten partner agencies to help reduce fines and violations on small businesses through Small Business First. This multi-faceted inter-agency initiative is about changing the way government interacts with small business owners by improving the regulatory climate in New York City and helping businesses avoid penalties and fines through collaboration, simplification, and education.
- Immigrant Small Businesses: As we expand our services and collaborate with partner agencies to help small businesses, we are also working to fundamentally change the way government provides services to New York City's immigrant entrepreneurs, who make up nearly half of the city's small businesses owners. Already, we have doubled our agency's non-English business course offerings and are launching our NYC Craft Entrepreneurship program in Spanish, so unemployed and underemployed New Yorkers with craft skills can earn supplemental income from selling their crafts online. With support from Citi Community Development, we have launched the Immigrant Business Initiative, developing partnerships with community-based organizations to help identify and execute new services to strengthen immigrant-owned businesses, particularly in the Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Haitian-Creole, and Russian communities.
Stronger small businesses mean stronger neighborhoods and more good jobs for New Yorkers. Last year, SBS assisted more than 15,000 business owners, helped nearly 7,000 new businesses open across the city, and connected entrepreneurs to more than $45 million in capital. The City can help with free services including pro-bono legal advising, business courses, access to capital, recruitment services, certification, help navigating government, incentives, and more. I encourage anyone with an interest in small business services to call 311, visit our website, or drop by an NYC Business Solutions Center in one of the five boroughs.
***by Maria Torres-Springer, Commissioner, New York City Department of Small Business Services
Do you have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Send it to Executive Editor Ben Max: firstname.lastname@example.org
John Liu campaigns for State Senate (photo: Uli Seit/NY Times)
Queens voters may be appropriately impressed by the political portfolios of the two candidates squaring off in the Democratic Primary in the 11th State Senate District - incumbent Sen. Tony Avella and former Comptroller John Liu have taken similar career paths in lives dedicated to civil service.
However, several state legislators are somewhat less impressed and say they aren't exactly excited about working with either one.
A number of Senate Democrats want to see Avella punished because of his abrupt exit from the party's legislative conference. They have labeled him a complainer who relied on others to push his legislation.
Several say they aren't thrilled about the prospect of a Liu victory because of the potential baggage left over from the fundraising scandal linked to his recent mayoral campaign in New York City. Additionally, some say Liu is known to be a "personality" -- one with bigger things and higher offices in mind.
"Tony deserves to be taught a lesson," grumbled one Senate Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "You don't just walk out on the leader without giving her a call. (And) honestly, I don't know how Liu fits in with the new issue-free conference. He has his own stuff to deal with."
In some ways the race is an embarrassment of riches for a Senate district that includes Bay Terrace, Willets Point, College Point, Little Neck and Fresh Meadows: Both candidates are former city council members and former mayoral candidates and both have served at the top of the city Democratic Party ranks.
Avella served eight years on the City Council before running for mayor in 2009. He lost to Bill Thompson in the primary, but then challenged and defeated incumbent Republican state Sen. Frank Padavan to join the Legislature.
Liu has taken a similar career path. He served on the City Council from 2002 to 2008 and in 2009 ran successfully for Comptroller. Last year, Liu ran in the Democratic Primary for Mayor as the most progressive candidate, but lost after being dogged by investigations into his campaign's fundraising practices, which included straw donors and their bundling. Liu was denied matching funds by the Campaign Finance Board, which he and others claimed crippled his campaign and led to Bill de Blasio's ability to avoid a run-off.
Both Avella and Liu are now looking to prove who is the better Democrat.
Avella wants to return to Albany after abandoning the Democratic Conference to caucus with the Independent Democratic Conference. His departure was abrupt and without warning, according to Senate Democrats, and left members there with a lot of bad feelings. Avella wants to demonstrate that he is both an effective Democrat and that his choice to join the IDC wasn't a cynical one.
"It was really a combination of factors that led me to leave the Democratic Conference," said Avella in an interview with Gotham Gazette. "The most prominent one is that the Democratic Conference is dysfunctional -- they have no power, but they argue over everything. Plus, the fact that the IDC/Republican Conference, whether you like it or not, was working. I had things to do."
One of those things was stopping the closure of three senior centers that were going to be shuttered because of a lack of funding, Avella said. His concerns about the centers were dismissed by Senate Democrats, but as a member of the IDC he was involved in budget discussions and was able to provide funding to the centers, he said.
However, only months after Avella split from the Democratic Conference, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was forced into a deal with the Working Families Party to help Democrats gain control of the Senate and pressure the IDC to cut a power-sharing deal with the conference they left.
The progressive surge that put de Blasio into the mayor's office seemed to have united voters, unions, and advocates in scorn of the IDC.
After much backroom haggling, de Blasio himself organized the IDC agreement to caucus with Senate Democrats next year.
In turn, he has endorsed Avella and the other IDC members. Now, though, Avella has to deal with advocates and voters who were not satisfied by the pledge for a power-sharing agreement and want retribution for his defection - as well as the popularity of John Liu.
Liu may be responsible for some of the progressive winds that filled de Blasio's sails as he cruised to victory last year. Liu's progressive policies were extremely popular with voters. Avella's decision to join the IDC gave Liu an opening into the Queens race as Avella's credentials as a progressive have been damaged in the eyes of many legislators, voters, and advocates.
Liu's greatest liability - the shadow of the investigation into his fundraising practices - is a companion to his greatest asset: his ability to raise small amounts of cash from a myriad of donors. "The reality of our campaign is that we always start with the grassroots donors. We don't call them small donors because they are significant donors. I'm proud of that," Liu told Gotham Gazette. Liu says that the amount of small donors to his campaign surprised him given that his campaign came together only three months ago.
Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG) provided analysis to Gotham Gazette that shows that from January to July of this year Liu received donations from 1,598 individuals, making him the Senate candidate with the most contributions from individuals by far. The Senate candidate with the second most contributions from individuals is Sen. George Latimer with 244 from January to July of this year, according to Mahoney. In fact, Liu had more individuals contribute to his campaign than the Senate candidates who are ranked 2-8 behind him on that list.
Liu has made waves in Albany with his fundraising numbers where most campaigns have a few big real estate, union, and corporate donors that keep them afloat. Liu's campaign has $487,222 on hand according to 32-day pre-primary filings. Avella meanwhile has only $126,381 on hand according to his 32-day filing. Avella's numbers have increased lately and regular Cuomo donor Leonard Litwin gave the incumbent $20,000.
Avella has argued that Liu's coffers should be smaller given that his campaign for Comptroller still owes the city $525,000 in fines for illegally hanging flyers around the city. Liu's current campaign is not liable for the fine and he is in talks with the City about repaying the debt. "Think about how many firemen, how many police that could pay for," said Avella.
Over the years both men have developed a reputation for how they deal with their constituents and the kind of representatives they are. Liu is the big thinker who attracts constituents who want to work and campaign for him. As the first Asian-American elected to city-wide office, Liu serves as an inspiration to an entire community. His big-ticket items should he be elected include The Dream Act, The Women's Equality Agenda, and raising the minimum wage. Liu was ahead of the game when it comes to a number of these issues as he championed a progressive agenda during his time on the Council, and during his stint as Comptroller and his mayoral campaign.
"Its about drawing people into the process, first-time volunteers who want to make an impact. I bring a skill set that is not necessarily up there yet (in Albany)." Liu notes that he was treated as "crazy" for some of his positions on wage equality and workforce issues but now those positions are being carried by Democrats across the state.
"I'm gratified many points of my campaign last year have seen the light of day. Because it's not just about the candidate, but about the ideas." Liu says that if elected one of his personal quests will be to focus on restructuring the tax burden on businesses so that small businesses get a break while larger ones "pay their fair share."
While Liu is larger than life, Avella is the head down public servant. His first newsletter as a council member was a checklist where constituents could check off problems they have like potholes, cracks in the sidewalk, overgrown trees, and more. He sent out a similar mailer as his first official Senate newsletter. Avella has won the support of environmental groups including the New York League of Conservation Voters for his work on their issues and his steadfast stance against hydrofracking.
Avella has also waged a campaign to reduce noise pollution from aircraft in his district and has taken credit for the Port Authority's new community roundtable dedicated to addressing airplane noise over Queens.
"I always believed in a hands-on approach," Avella said. "I see every correspondence that goes in and out of this office. I see every single complaint so that I know that it is handled in the best way."
So how would each man interact with colleagues as part of the new Democratic/IDC coalition if everything goes as expected this November?
Avella said he hopes that the Senate Democrats elect more members who "are truly progressive." He blames "two Democrats" for voting to block the Dream Act and says they would also block campaign finance reform. By inference, he would appear to be referring to Sen. Ruben Diaz, who has actually been rather friendly with the IDC, and Sen. Simcha Felder, who caucuses with Republicans and who the IDC has worked with as part of its coalition.
Avella stresses that the IDC is not going to give up any power. "The deal is not that we go back, but that we will form a Democratic Majority Coalition that will be a mirror of the one that the IDC has with Republicans right now."
Liu said that while he thinks his ability to marshall the grassroots on issues like immigration and minimum wage will be an asset to the new coalition he also says he knows how to work as a member of a larger body. "I am proud to have the support of all the state senators whose support I have asked for," Liu said, noting that he didn't talk to upstate members because he doesn't know them. "I realize unlike my opponent that one Senator can't get anything done alone. You can't be a lone gun, you can't go it alone."
Both men acknowledge that on primary day winning and losing will come down to turnout - one that is expected to be particularly small. They've seen labor fairly split in endorsements between them and both say they are certain their loyal constituents will see them through. The two are expected to appear on Tuesday evening at a Bay Terrace candidates forum and on NY1's Inside City Hall on Wednesday night.
***by David King, Albany Editor, Gotham Gazette@DavidHowardKing
Wi-Fi is coming to all NYC payphones, date: TBD (photo: digitalsignageuniverse.typepad.com)
The idea of turning New York City payphones into Wi-Fi hotspots seems to be generally well received by the public, members of which look forward to more free Wi-Fi access in all five boroughs. But as the City gets closer to deciding which company will be awarded the franchise to provide that service, questions regarding the process are quietly beginning to bubble to the surface.
On August 13, Public Advocate Letitia James became the latest elected official to pen a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio recommending he review the RFP process. City Council Member James Vacca, who chairs the council technology committee, submitted his own letter on August 1 and Council Member Mark Weprin submitted a letter signed by 24 of his fellow council members on July 29 (an additional four council members later signed on, bringing the total to 28).
These elected officials claim that by only picking one winning bidder for the franchise, the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), the agency tasked with issuing the RFP and awarding the contract, is creating a telecommunications monopoly. DoITT argues it is not a monopoly because it is a non-exclusive contract. Companies can team up in their bid and the City has the right to add an additional franchisee at any point.
In addition, electeds claim that the de Blasio administration circumvented the Council by not going to them for a new authorizing resolution (AR), something required of all franchise agreements. DoITT has met this criteria by choosing to use two existing ARs instead of going to the Council for a new one. The electeds argue the existing ARs don't allow for monopolies, something DoITT claims is not being allowed.
"The de Blasio Administration is committed to equitably expanding access to free WiFi, and this RFP allows us to do so by inviting innovative proposals to replace largely unused, old payphone infrastructure with new public communications structures," Nicholas Sbordone, a spokesman for DoITT, said by email. "We look forward to our continued collaboration with the Council to expand free broadband to New Yorkers all across the five boroughs."
DoITT argues it is technically playing within the law, although it remains to be seen if its interpretation of the laws will hold up in court if they are sued by a non-winning bidder. The City took a calculated risk in choosing to use existing ARs. If the gamble fails, it could push the start date for this groundbreaking project months, possibly years down the road.
The two existing ARs used in the RFP are AR 2309 of 2009 which covers the payphone franchises and AR 191 of 2010 which cover wireless franchises. When the Council approves ARs, it approves them for five years. The payphone AR will expire on December 21 of this year.
This date is of significance because the City must select a winner, negotiate the contract, and get the Franchise and Concession Review Committee (FCRC) to sign off on the deal before Dec 21. If it doesn't, the contract will fail to meet the legal requirements of having an AR and be null and void.
At that point, the City would have to go back to the Council to get a new AR, which could be a time consuming process. That new ask would allow the Council opportunity to press for stronger language that would prevent just one winner from being selected. The City would open itself up to scrutiny over using the term "non-exclusive" in the AR: the elected officials who wrote the recent letters argue that selecting one winner breaks the "non-exclusive" clause. The Council could potentially tie up the AR for months over that term and its application.
There is no indication that the City won't meet the deadline, but legal action could make it a closer call than it hopes.
Weprin, who has been an outspoken critic of the potential for a monopoly resulting from this RFP, says the use of existing ARs should be examined because it was not the original intent of of those council members who signed the legislation.
"We gave enabling legislation before we knew it was going to be a monopoly and one company being selected," Weprin said in a recent phone interview. "We feel like now that they have gone down this route, they should come back to us again."
At the time the AR was voted on in 2009 there were more than 10 payphone service providers and no indication that the City would move to choose only one provider for the Wi-Fi overhaul. But with time still left on the AR, the City has the right to use it.
City officials defended their decision to use existing ARs, noting DoITT staff met with council staff in June 2013 and met with Council Members Weprin and Vacca prior to the release of the RFP in April 2014. At both meetings, the plan to use two existing ARs was brought up. Both Vacca and Weprin lent their support in the press release that was sent out when the RFP was issued on May 1.
The City is eyeing another deadline, too, although it has a little more wiggle room. On October 15, the current franchise agreement will run out. There is a holdover provision which will allow for companies who currently run payphones to keep them and continue operating them with no changes until a new franchisee has been selected.
Once a new franchise has been selected, the old companies can chose to remove their equipment or can sell to the winning bidder. The price is supposed to be negotiated, but some in the industry fear they will be forced to sell for pennies on the dollar and given no choice.
It doesn't appear the Council has much room for legislative recourse at this point, but that would certainly not prevent any backdoor lobbying to get the City to select more than one winning franchise. When asked about the letters her members sent to the mayor, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who did not sign on to Weprin's letter, said she was aware of the issue but had not had a formal conversation with anyone yet.
"Whatever concerns members have will be concerns I have as well," Mark-Viverito said at a recent press conference. "But we will look into that further."
New York City Hall
What to watch for this week in New York politics:
After a weekend that featured the Rev. Al Sharpton's "We Will Not Go Back" march to protest the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner during an arrest by the New York Police Department, the focus this week looks to change to the Sept. 9 primary. Thousands marched peacefully on Staten Island on Friday despite the concerns of local politicians that tension over events in Ferguson, Mo., might spark violence here. There was a large NYPD presence for the march but generally allowed protesters leeway. Labor unions that participated in the march went to great lengths to make sure anti-NYPD signs were replaced with friendlier messages as they faced backlash from police unions and others.
No arrests were made, according to the NYPD. Perhaps at next month's Stated meeting, you can expect the City Council to introduce various bills dealing with chokeholds in general, as well as use of force by the NYPD. The City Council has no public committee or whole body meetings this week, though.
Sorry kids, but summer is coming to an end and that means it's time to head back to school. This could be good news for Mayor Bill de Blasio as we will see a massive pre-k rollout, though the logistics involved are formidable. De Blasio's signature initiative will surely be the source of much scrutiny in the coming weeks and months.
With the primary only days away, Gov. Andrew Cuomo may finally be forced to leave "the New York City area," which is where his official schedule has placed him on most days of late.
Expect pressure to continue to build on Cuomo to accept a debate with his Democratic opponent, Fordham Law School professor Zephyr Teachout. Cuomo has been absent from the campaign trail while his lawyers attempted to have Teachout kicked off the ballot.
Time Warner Cable and NY1 have invited Cuomo to debate Teachout on an hour-long program on Sept. 2. They would also host a debate between Cuomo's choice for lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, and Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, who is running with Teachout. Cuomo told reporters who caught up with him at the New York State Fair that he would "leave that to the campaigns to work out, whatever they decide" -- as if Cuomo has no direct influence over whether the debate happens and Teachout's campaign would not relish the chance to debate.
A number of pundits, including Christina Greer from Fordham University, say Cuomo could have a difficult time debating Teachout because he would have to be careful how he comes off sparring with a strong woman opponent. "Powerful men generally have a hard time debating educated women," Greer told Gotham Gazette. "It's very easy for men to come across as dismissive or generally unpleasant in that situation."
The state chapter of the National Organization For Women (NOW) endorsed Teachout over the weekend. Cuomo reportedly pursued the endorsement and his failure to earn it would seem to weaken his Women's Equality Party ballot line.
Teachout's grassroots campaign has focused on personal appearances and word of mouth. Hochul has done most of the campaigning for Team Cuomo as she pushes the Women's Equality Party. Teachout's campaign has received a wealth of media attention in the last few days.
Teachout and Wu will hold a teleconference at 1 p.m. on Monday to announce the launch of their campaign to "expose Kathy Hochul's congressional record."
Elections approachingTuesday marks two weeks until primary day for the 2014 New York State elections. This week will feature several debates, including a showdown between Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein and his challenger, Oliver Koppell, on BronxTalk.
On Sunday evening, The Manhattan Neighborhood Network's "Represent NYC" began airing a series of debates hosted by our Ben Max and Marlene Peralta of El Diario. Debates include candidates from the 31st Senate District Primary and the 72nd and 76th Assembly District Primaries, among others. Watch them online here.
NY1 is also hosting a debate on Inside City Hall almost every night this week, including Klein-Koppell on Tuesday evening and incumbent state Sen. and IDC member Tony Avella versus challenger John Liu on Wednesday evening.
Here's a bit more to watch for day-by-day this week:
MondayAccording to his public schedule, de Blasio will spend most of his day in Queens. He will address the Sports & Arts in Schools Foundation's professional training for SONYC program staff members at 12:15 p.m. in Queens. At 6:15 p.m., the mayor will speak at the Jewish Community Council's testimonial dinner, which is also in Queens, and he will cap it all off by speaking at the opening ceremony of the 2014 U.S. Open at 7:50 p.m.
From 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., Council Member Daneek Miller will host extended office hours with pre-k enrollment experts. 172-12 Linden Blvd, St. Albans.
At 6 p.m., the New York County Democratic Committee will hold a cocktail reception fundraiser hosted by Assemblyman and County Leader Keith Wright at AFSCME DC 1707 at 420 West 45th Street.
At 7:30 p.m., Council Member Donovan Richards will hold an information session on participatory budgeting in his district at the Herbert G Birch Early Childhood Center in Springfield Gardens.
TuesdayAs we mentioned, Tuesday marks just two weeks until primary day! Get up to speed on the 2014 New York State elections through our Gotham Gazette Election Center.
At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Teachout will be among the candidates receiving the endorsement of the Bangladeshi American Advocacy Group (BAAG), at an event taking place at Diversity Plaza, Jackson Heights, Queens.
At 11 a.m. on Tuesday on the steps of City Hall, "Women activists and elected officials will "Take the Pledge" on Women's Equality Day, August 26, to register women voters." Leaders participating will include Manhattan BP Gale A. Brewer, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, State Sen. Liz Krueger, Assembly Members Deborah Glick, Linda Rosenthal, and Nily Rozic, and Amy Loprest, Executive Director, Campaign Finance Board, parent of the NYC Voter Assistance Advisory Committee.
Also at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Brooklyn BP Eric Adams "will announce the details of his parks capital budget for Fiscal Year 2015, a $5,200,000 investment that represents an increase of almost ten percent compared to the previous year's total. He will make this announcement at Heckscher Playground in Bushwick."
At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Teachout will celebrate another endorsement, this from the National Organization of Women (NOW) of New York, who will be represented by Zenaida Mendez, NYS NOW Chapter President. The formal announcement will be held at the Eleanor Roosevelt Statue, 72nd St and Riverside Drive.
At 7 p.m., the Bay Terrace Community Alliance hosts a candidate forum with candidates for all statewide offices and the 11th Senate and 26th Assembly districts at the Bay Terrace Jewish Center at 1300 209th Street in Bay Terrace.
At 7 and 10 p.m. Inside City Hall will feature the aforementioned debate between Jeff Klein and Oliver Koppell.
WednesdayCity & State NY will hold its 4th annual energy conference at BNY Mellon-101 Barclay Street, West Assembly, 10th Floor. Registration starts at 8 a.m. with opening remarks at 8:45 a.m.
The Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council will host a candidates forum for the 52d Assembly District and the 20th Senate District at 7:30 p.m.
Council Member Ritchie Torres will talk with DL21C about his legislative victory in expanding services for LGBT seniors throughout his district from 7 to 8 p.m.
At 7 and 10 p.m. NY1 will feature the aforementioned debate between Tony Avella and John Liu.
ThursdayCity & State NY hosts its 4th annual education conference. The event takes place from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. at The CUNY Graduate Center's Proshanky Auditorium. New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will be the featured speaker. Panelists include United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew, state education commissioner John King and Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the NYS Board of Regents.
Thursday is also the RSVP deadline that NY1 gave to the Cuomo-Hochul and Teachout-Wu campaigns for the debates that the network has invited the candidates to participate in.
On Thursday evening itself, NY1 will feature a debate between candidates running in the 19th State Senate District.
Friday and the weekendIt's Labor Day weekend, enjoy it.
***Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? Email Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: email@example.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).
***by Kristen Meriwether, Katrina Shakarian, and Ben Max in New York City and David King in Albany@GothamGazette
Governor Cuomo and his running mate, Kathy Hochul (photo: AP)
A look at Governor Andrew Cuomo's campaign might not give the impression that he is running for re-election - despite a few appearances at parades and fairs, he simply hasn't had an official campaign schedule.
The incumbent has kept his public appearances to a minimum since spring and all of them have been under the heading of official state business, including his recent trip to Israel.
"Clearly, Cuomo the gubernatorial candidate is not campaigning," said CUNY professor of political science Douglas Muzzio. "His Israel trip was a campaign trip. It was political, but this is part of his behavior. He doesn't go to the typical political meetings, or go to the Democratic convention, he doesn't go anywhere outside of Albany. He doesn't need to campaign. And he has his surrogates do media. He doesn't do the dirty work."
It's not surprising that Cuomo isn't on the campaign trail yet. During his run in 2010 he scattered a few appearances in late fall and waited to the last minute to endorse some of his fellow Democrats.
As it was then, Cuomo's opposition this year is fairly limited. Once again, polls indicate he will win handily. It appears that his strategy is to project an image of a governor consumed with running the state. He scarcely acknowledges his little-known challengers. But this year Cuomo isn't running just for himself. In his deal for the Working Families Party support, he pledged to help Democrats win back control of the Senate.
Senate Democrats insist that Cuomo has been stumping for them by proxy - in the person of his prefered lieutenant governor candidate, Kathy Hochul.
"It has been very heartening to have Kathy Hochul campaigning with the Senate Democrats and with the broader women's equality initiative," Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins told Gotham Gazette. "She has been a real asset. She is a really exciting candidate to begin with and she has bolstered the profiles of our candidates. To have them campaigning with the next lieutenant governor is a boost for all of us."
Hochul has become the face of the Cuomo-created Women's Equality Party and pundits say her candidacy works on many political fronts. Hochul, who hails from Buffalo, replaces outgoing Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, who has focused on the economic issues facing western New York. She has more conservative opinions on immigration and guns and has bipartisan appeal. She's also seen as a prominent female figure promising to join an administration that lacks prominent women and durign the campaign season she serves as a counterweight to Zephyr Teachout's insurgent Democratic primary challenge to Cuomo.
Hochul's focus on the Women's Equality Agenda takes a package of legislation that is popular with voters and demonstrates major ideological differences over abortion rights not only between Cuomo and his Republican challenger Rob Astorino, but between the New York Democratic Party and Senate Republicans who have stood steadfast against the abortion plank of the legislation.
"It really shows unity straight down the ticket," said Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action and co-chair of the Working Families Party. "The fact that the Women's Equality Agenda is an election issue shows that Republicans are really out of touch with their constituents."
The Hochul camp issued a statement to Gotham Gazette in response to questions about her campaigning with Senate Democrats: "I have traveled across the state to stand with candidates who support the Women's Equality Party to send a clear message that voices of women will be heard and counted this fall. We are bringing together the strength and power of our state's leaders and advocates to put the issue of women's equality front and center because women deserve nothing less than full equality."
Hochul has appeared at Women's Equality events in Long Island with Democratic Senate candidates Adam Haber, Dave Denenberg, and Adrienne Esposito. She appeared at a similar event Upstate with incumbent Sens. Cecelia Tkaczyk and Terry Gipson, who face stiff Republican challenges this year. She's made two appearances this summer with Buffalo Sen. Ted O'Brien, who also faces a competitive race.
Muzzio acknowledges the political sense of Hochul's campaigning and the work she's done on the campaign trail but wonders if anyone has noticed.
"How visible is she really? It doesn't seem to be a very impactful campaign," he said. "A lieutenant governor candidate ain't the governor." In fact, Muzzio thinks that the Senate Democrats are doing Hochul a favor by introducing her to their constituents.
Some Democrats fear that Hochul could lose to her primary challenger, Tim Wu, who has a prominent profile thanks to his work on net neutrality.
Hochul has acknowledged her limited profile in certain areas of the state. She said as much during a campaign rally for John Liu, who is challenging incumbent Independent Democratic Sen. Tony Avella. When asked if her appearance counted as an endorsement of Liu, Hochul said: "I gotta tell you, I don't think my endorsement at this point means a lot to anybody. I'm just here standing with people who have stepped up early, agreed to make it happen."
Democrats and the Independent Democratic Coalition (IDC) have agreed to work together to form a majority coalition in the fall, so Liu's candidacy, which has taken off, is a touchy subject for both parties.
And yet, as a surrogate for the Cuomo campaign, Hochul has embraced the Senate Democrats in a way that Cuomo has gone out of his way to avoid. She also has presented a more liberal front than the governor.
"This has been an aberration the last few years to have people elected as Democrats... acting as Republicans," said Hochul, referring to the Independent Democratic Coalition. "Yes, there were some accomplishments, but I'm always raising the bar."
Hochul's liberal leanings could be a reflection of the Cuomo administration's new stance given the likelihood that Democrats will win control of the Senate this year, or it could be posturing given that Hochul is facing the possibility of a tough Democratic primary.
Christina Greer, professor of political science at Fordham University, said that she expects Hochul will be a good foil against Republicans, but must first survive the Democratic primary. Cuomo has avoided addressing Teachout on the campaign trail - instead trying to knock her off the ballot over residency questions - but he has had to take policy positions to plant himself in a more liberal light which could in the end bolster Senate Democrats who share those positions.
"This race is turning out to be more of a headache than he expected," said Greer. "He's had to think of ways to utilize [Hochul] in ways he didn't plan on when he selected her."
It seems unlikely that Cuomo himself will actually campaign for Senate Democrats. Stewart-Cousins said she knows Cuomo supports the issues her conference wants to act on, such as the DREAM Act, campaign finance reform, and the minimum wage.
"When he does come out I'm sure he'll be campaigning on the issues we support," she said.
Muzzio is a bit more circumspect. "I'm sure there will be a few very staged, very scripted events where they can control the message that will expose the governor in no way," he said.
Hochul downplays Cuomo's absence from the campaign trail. After a Women's Equality Party event at City Hall on Tuesday, she told Gotham Gazette that the governor has been focused on his trip to Israel and his announcements Upstate about economic development.
"I guarantee you, you are you are going to see plenty of us in the coming weeks right before the election," she said.
Council Member Eric Ulrich, right, at a veterans committee hearing (photo: William Alatriste)
When Council Member Eric Ulrich was appointed chair of the veterans committee by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in January, no one within the veterans community was sure what to expect. One of a few Republicans in a largely Democratic council, there were some vets who opposed his selection. However, during his first six months as chair, Ulrich, along with the rest of the committee, has given the committee's hearings new depth, with a seriousness and straight-forward approach that had been missing.
The result has been a renewed intensity of conversation in the veterans community and optimism for actually getting some legislation passed that will help veterans and their families. Therefore, as we rapidly approach September, this is a good moment to look ahead and discuss several possible topics the committee should consider holding hearings on over the next several months - especially given Mayor Bill de Blasio's appointment on Monday of a new commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Veterans' Affairs, former Brigadier General Loree Sutton.
In no particular order, recommendations for city council veterans committee priorities:
Veterans Advisory Board: As was stated in the veterans' briefing paper written during last year's mayoral campaign, the Veterans Advisory Board (VAB) has had some major issues over the past several years regarding its lack of an organized or public schedule, lack of transparent communication with the veterans community, ways by which issues make it to the board's attention and up the administration's chain of command.
It's only been recently that the city finally published the board's annual reports as well as the names of those serving on the board, when the majority of members' terms were either finished or coming to an end. Therefore, as the council committee has never held an oversight hearing on the VAB, this should be considered a top priority. The council committee should explore what the board has been doing and what can be done to make it more responsive, especially including a change to the terms of appointment.
Intro. 314 – MOVA: Back in April, Council Member Ulrich proposed and submitted Intro. 314, a bill that would change the Mayor's Office of Veterans' Affairs (MOVA) into a more autonomous department. Part of the reasoning is that the change would show the public that veterans issues are taken seriously in New York City while expanding the office's current capabilities. It would also make it easier for council members to obtain funding for local veterans groups. While this legislation could possibly make it through the Council, there must be discussions between the de Blasio administration and the Council regarding this change as it would require many shifts regarding budgeting, mission and even its place in the city charter. Nevertheless, a hearing on this bill should be held to obtain input from the public, the veterans community, and MOVA leaders.
Veteran Homelessness: Last month, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in New York City held its annual CHALENG (Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups) meeting, which brought together service providers, advocates, and others to identify the needs of homeless veterans and how to best meet those needs. At this meeting, Commissioner Gilbert Taylor of the city's Department of Homeless Services (DHS) talked about ending veteran homelessness in the city and it was shared that homelessness among veterans in the city has gone down from 3,500 in 2013 to 1,600 veterans as of their latest estimates. However, there has not been a hearing on homeless veterans from the council committee since November of 2011 and this would be an opportune time to hold one (perhaps jointly with the General Welfare Committee) to get an update on what the administration is doing; how it's working with the VA; and where they are in regard to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Mayor's Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness.
Intro. 426 – Benefits Counseling Services: Also last month, Council Member Ulrich introduced legislation that would place benefit counselors in each borough to assist veterans and their family members with VA disability claims and other related issues. With the recent loss of MOVA's three benefit counselors and the continued high number of claims pending at the VA, this bill deserves a hearing. This would also coincide with Governor Cuomo's announcement at the New York Veterans and Military Families Summit last March of the establishment of a statewide "Strike Force" to expedite federal disability claims for New York veterans and their family members.
Veterans and STEM: At the beginning of August, the 2nd Annual Executive U.S. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Summit took place here in New York City. Leaders gathered from around the nation to discuss how to improve STEM education and the rising concern about future challenges and potential shortages in the workforce. Veterans have been identified as a source of motivated, skilled talent that can help address the decline of the technical workforce and an article in Forbes last year stated that New York City topped the list for STEM jobs. Also, Task and Purpose recently published an article about the new White House STEM initiatives including job training for veterans. Therefore, the council committee should consider holding a hearing on how the city can work with CUNY, as well as other colleges and interested parties, to encourage veterans to utilize the GI Bill to pursue post-secondary degrees in STEM fields and build upon the technical skills gained from military training and experience.
The City Council Committee on Veteran Affairs should also consider a hearing regarding veteran unemployment and others related to veteran-owned businesses.
Yes, this is a fairly hefty agenda and by no means do I or other members of the veterans community expect it all to happen in the fall. However, if the committee continues to approach veterans issues seriously, can hold hearings on a regular basis to look at these issues, and even move a few pieces of legislation, the next several months will be a success and continue to build on the positive work it started in the first part of the year. I believe this committee is up to the challenge.
***Joe Bello served 11 years in the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve and has been a veterans advocate in New York City for almost two decades. He is the founder of NY MetroVets.
From "Big Dreams for New York City's Smallest Children"
When you ask the people running childcare and early education programs for low-income kids what would help their all-important work most, the predictable answer is: more money. And the experience of EarlyLearnNYC, the City's much-ballyhooed revamping of subsidized programs for kids from 6 weeks to 4 years old, shows that while instruction standards have been raised, funding not only hasn't kept pace; one effect is that teacher take-home pay has, perversely, been reduced.
The good news – contained in our recent Center for New York City Affairs at the New School report on EarlyLearnNYC's mixed record since its 2012 launch – is that there's a lot we can do to financially shore up early childhood education using already existing funds. The key is getting more kids currently eligible for subsidized programs enrolled in them – a goal that EarlyLearnNYC has struggled to meet. In fact, enrollment in child care programs that hold contracts with the City crashed in the first months of EarlyLearnNYC, plummeting below 80 percent of the system's total capacity. That number has slowly climbed back up to 89 percent over the past year-and-a-half – but that still leaves more than 4,000 subsidized child care slots sitting empty.
We've identified how, with a little entrepreneurial effort and red tape cutting, the City can recapture tax dollars for quality early education that are now all too often being spent for little more than informal babysitting.
Here's the deal: Federal law requires the City to provide childcare vouchers to parents making the transition from receiving public benefits to holding jobs. Since 1999, the number of kids covered by such vouchers has jumped by more than two-thirds, to nearly 57,000.
Parents are legally entitled to use those vouchers any way they see fit – and today the overwhelming majority wind up paying friends or family members to mind their tots during the workday. That's a huge missed opportunity to reach and teach kids whose brains are sponges for knowledge and who aren't getting the exposure to learning they need. It's also a pretty poor return on what's expected to be an outlay of $367 million in tax dollars ($67 million raised directly from city tax levy) over the next 12 months.
Our formula for changing that has two key elements. The first requires getting two major city agencies – The Human Resources Administration that manages childcare vouchers and the Administration for Children's Services that oversees EarlyLearnNYC – consistently on the same page. When they have worked together to encourage parents to use vouchers for EarlyLearnNYC programs, they've produced positive results. The goal should be making such cooperation, reinforced by targeted social media outreach and mass media ad campaigns, the rule rather than the exception it now is.
The second reform we propose is: Make it easier for parents to enroll youngsters in EarlyLearnNYC. There's no doubt that the current way-too-cumbersome enrollment process can be made simpler, quicker, and more convenient without any serious downside. The discouraging schedule of parent co-pays for EarlyLearnNYC – now as high as $3,000 a year for families making less than $25,000 – also needs to be made more financially realistic.
Getting more kids in EarlyLearnNYC would be a win for them, and also for their parents, for early childhood education programs, and for the city as a whole. It would prime thousands more kids for success when they move on to the city's expanded all-day pre-kindergarten classes.
It would also strengthen the case for upping funding for early childhood learning. The mavens are absolutely right when they say they need more money. We think they'll have an even better argument to make by working with the City to aggressively, creatively, and cooperatively increase EarlyLearnNYC's now foundering enrollment.
***Kendra Hurley and Abigail Kramer of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School are authors of the new report, Big Dreams for New York City's Youngest Children: The future of early care and education
Apartment buildings in New York City (wikicommons)
New York City's housing market has not caught up to the changing lifestyles of its residents. Today's New Yorkers are more mobile, more likely to live alone, and more likely to be clustered on opposing ends of the age spectrum. Yet, the city's housing is geared toward large families that inhabit apartments for years at a time.
A new Furman Center study this week showed a potential way out of the impasse: more compact units that are better suited to current housing needs. The study should be a catalyst for city leaders to lift restrictions that have limited smaller apartments and build a new generation of housing that will work for today's New Yorkers.
In 2010, the city contained 1.8 million one- and two-person households, but only a million studios and one-bedroom apartments. This disparity continues to grow. As a result, the single and elderly move into larger units, leaving less room for larger families and ultimately discouraging many from making a home in New York.
Such a trend is unsustainable. Years ago, when the city experienced a similar demographic wave, single-room occupancy housing proved to be a practical solution. Such units, which house one or two residents without the costly amenities of a typical apartment, allow a whole new generation to live in New York.
A number of obstacles, however, stand in the way of more SROs today. Due to an array of outdated regulations, developers simply lack the incentives to build such housing. But by making these units a more attractive option, we could set off a building boom that gives millions of New Yorkers access to an apartment that works for them.
First, we need to allow smaller apartments and smaller rooms. Current regulations will not allow apartments under 400 square feet, a true stumbling block to building small. We also need zoning changes to allow higher-density developments and, with many SROs classified as hotels rather than residences, a variety of different uses in the same zone.
Moreover, we need to rethink our definition of what constitutes an apartment. Not every apartment, for example, needs a window in every room – particularly when a single window in a small space can go far. In the same vein, not every kitchen needs a full set of appliances, nor does every bathroom need a full bathtub. By making these design requirements more flexible, we can encourage more units that would not be acceptable today.
These small changes can go a long way to encouraging SRO construction, and Mayor de Blasio has the power to change them. An influx of smaller units can free up larger apartments for families and help solve the growing housing discrepancy in the City.
As Mayor de Blasio considers his range of options to make housing more affordable, it is vital that smaller units be part of the mix.
***Leonard Grunstein is Managing Member at Hanlen Real Estate Development & Funding