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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

The Council Passes Budget Cuts


After six weeks of debate, the City Council approved a 7 percent property tax hike and approximately $500 million in spending cuts on Thursday to address a budget deficit that continues to widen as an economic recession grips the nation.

The property tax hike was approved by a vote of 33 to 18 with critics arguing a tax increase would further fray the empty pockets of New Yorkers.

Those who supported the increase, which was initially proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in November, said the city's current fiscal crisis and the state's more than $15 billion deficit call for tough responses and difficult decisions. The council also approved a 0.875 percent increase in the city's hotel tax.

As part of the budget agreement, the administration has promised to send out a $400 property tax rebate, which it initially said the city could not afford. Residents should get their checks soon after the holiday, city officials said.

In addition to the budget cuts, the council also approved legislation allowing some union members to live outside the city's borders and a measure that discontinues alternate side parking during inclement winter weather.

The Budget

Even with all of the actions taken at Thursday's stated meeting, the city will still face about a $1.1 billion deficit in the next fiscal year. If it had done nothing, officials said, that hole would have grown to approximately $4 billion.

"The fact that 20 to 25 percent of our revenues come from Wall Street puts the impact of this crisis very, very squarely at our front door," said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

The hotel tax, (Intro 879) which will increase the city's rate from 5 percent to 5.875 percent, will raise an estimated $80 million in revenue. The increase will add $2.62 to the average $300 a night stay, said the bill's main sponsor, Lewis Fidler. The hotel tax was approved by a vote of 46 to 5.

The property tax increase (Intro 887) will bring in $576 million. According to the council, the average property tax increase citywide for a single family home will be $118 for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends July 1. The property tax increase will take effect January 1. As part of the hike, council members approved a 15-day extension for homeowners whose property is valued less than $250,000 to pay their bills.

In response to the council's approval of the budget modification, the mayor said in a prepared statement: "It's never popular to phase out a tax cut or reduce agency spending, but they are the right choices to avoid far greater and longer lasting pain. We will not repeat the mistakes of the 1970s, which crippled (the) city's finances and nearly destroyed our quality of life. We are taking steps to weather this storm so we can continue to keep our streets safe and clean, continue improving our schools and continue protecting seniors and the most vulnerable New Yorkers."

Negotiations over the budget revisions were far more contentious than in previous years and presented a contrast to the normally harmonious relationship between the mayor and this City Council.

Part of the debate -- and a considerable amount of the ire -- centered on the $400 rebate, which the council argued the city was obligated to send out. Also, the council vigorously opposed the mayor's plan to suspend a police cadet class, which would have eliminated about 1,100 cadets.

As part of the budget agreement approved on Thursday, the city will have both a January and July class of 250 officers each.

The mayor's order last week for departments to cut their budgets an additional 7 percent would have eliminated the summer police class, according to Quinn. The agreement, which calls for about 1,700 fewer officers than the city usually trains, is an improvement over what the mayor originally sought, Quinn said.

It was not enough for everyone, though. The chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, Peter Vallone Jr., voted against the budget revisions because of the decrease in police officers.

Other members said the increase in property taxes would essentially rip the city's rebate check from the hands of property owners.

"How do we give with one hand $400 and take it back with a 7 percent increase?" asked Councilmember Charles Barron. "We are bleeding already."

Some members, though, recalled the city fiscal crisis of the 1970s and said it was more important to preserve key services than keep a tax break.

"Even though it won't be popular," said Councilmember Miguel Martinez, "New Yorkers will understand."

The council revised other areas of the mayor's initial proposal to save $20 million from other programs. It restored more than $5 million from a cut to the City University of New York and added $3.763 million to the Administration for Children's Services to avoid a reduction in case managers. It also allocated about $1 million to save a job center in Harlem and $424,000 for a senior abuse prevention program.

The council did not add any funding to the budget modification, but found cuts elsewhere. For example, it cut $13 million for consulting on city capital projects.

Some areas were not restored by the City Council, including a program for elderly day care as well as cuts to libraries and public housing.

Living Outside the City

After two years of negotiations, the City Council approved a bill (Intro 837) to allow members of the District Council 37, the city's largest municipal public employees union with 121,000 members, to live outside of the five boroughs if they have worked for the city for two years.

The bill was approved by a vote of 50 to 1 with Councilmember Al Vann dissenting.

Teachers and police officers already do not have to live in the city.

Members of the District Council 37 will be allowed to reside in Nassau, Westchester, Suffolk, Orange, Rockland or Putnam counties.

Alternate Side Parking

The council unanimously approved legislation (Intro 895) to suspend alternate side parking if the Department of Sanitation also suspends street sweeping. In the past, motorists have received tickets for not moving their vehicles even when ice or snow have made it difficult.

The bill would suspend alternate side for at least 24 hours after the cancellation of street cleaning.

Cultural Groups Wonder Just How Bad Things Will Get


Photo (cc) Vidiot
A dance choreographed by Jonah Bokaer at Floyd Bennett Field is part of the "Dancing in the Streets" public performance project.

Arts advocates and organizations scored a victory last year when New York City's Department of Cultural Affairs reorganized its process for allocating funds in an effort to make it more merit-based and equitable. In terms of funding totals, the Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council for the Arts both received as much money in their fiscal year 2008 budgets, if not slightly more, than they had in any year over the past decade. The immediate future looked good. But now, just a year later, the arts community sees expecting tough times ahead.

The current recession has arts organizations, like the rest of the city, taking a hard look at their finances. Public funding for the arts, as for every sector, is expected to shrink in both the city and state budgets. The cultural affairs department, which had an adopted expense budget of $168 million in fiscal year 2008, has a budget of only $152 million for this year. That may shrink to $149 million if the City Council approves the mayor's 2.5 percent budget reduction for all city departments for the remainder of the year.

If the mayor's plan for next year also is approved, the department will face another $3.8 million cut for fiscal year 2010. Bloomberg has said that he wants to keep arts funding at a high level, but when money gets scarce, arts sometimes loses out to services seen as more essential, such as education, police and fire.

The budget for the state arts council is likely to be slashed next year as well. The state legislature failed to approve budget reductions for the remainder of this fiscal year, leaving an ever greater deficit for 2010. With the public funding picture looking grim, the thousands of organizations that rely on city and state grants are expected to have to tighten their belts.

Staying Alive -- For Now

No one is yet sure exactly how much they will lose. Despite any budget reductions for the remaining fiscal year, most organizations that depend on public grants will not see a change until the next fiscal year, which starts on April 1 for the state budget and July 1 for the city budget.

Dance NYC executive director Michelle Burkhart said her organization, which provides services to artists and groups, has "already seen less funding from both city and state" grants. Of the groups Dance NYC works with, Burkhart said so far "no one's come yet saying they have to close their doors or go on hiatus."

However, she said, budget cuts would certainly affect her organization and its ability to serve its members. The majority of Dance NYC's constituents, according to Burkhart, are "underrepresented artists, working project to project" as well as "grassroots organizations." Dance NYC offers them various kinds of assistance, from workshops to help artists efficiently run organizations to providing stable infrastructure to dance groups. "We've just kind of had to re-evaluate some of the programming we're offering - minimizing some of the programs we're able to provide the field," Burkhart said. "Workshops are being re-evaluated or cut completely."

With the financial crisis deepening and the city and state budgets for next year still in the planning stages, the fiscal predictions change constantly. Virginia Louloudes, executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, said, "Now we're OK. Next year, we're not so sure."

Her organization provides services and support to member artists and theaters and is one of the thousands of groups that rely on state grants, city money or both. State and city budget cuts are difficult enough for organizations to absorb, but in a recession, arts organizations face other budget reductions as well. "It's going to hit us in three places: individual giving, the amount of money the city has to give us and the amount of money the state has to give us," Louloudes said.

Private Money

The budget cuts in the recession in the early 1990s, Louloudes said, changed arts funding so that organizations relied more on corporate and individual donations than before, making private gifts perhaps even more important than public funds for some organizations.

Due to business mergers in recent years, the number of corporate donors has shrunk, forcing groups to rely more on individuals. Steve Zeitlin, executive director of City Lore, an organization committed to preserving New York's cultural heritage, said that in the coming months, changes in individual giving will "affect people the most."

With the economy in a recession, major corporate and individual donations are scarcer. As organizations conduct their year-end appeals, Zeitlin said he guessed that the response would show that giving has dropped a great deal. Of City Lore's funding, Zeitlin said, "We've had funders who say 'yes, we'll consider your proposal, but we have no idea when.'"

Ticket Sales

Arts organizations had prepared for the worst in terms of their finances, according to Louloudes. "I think that all of us have been sensing that this has been coming, so we are all being very conservative," she said.

However, less than a week later, after her organization had done more surveying among its members, Louloudes had a different opinion. "It's worse than I thought," she said. According to Louloudes, theaters in her organization are seeing a decline in attendance and income as well as a decline in funding.

New York has already seen a rash of show closings on Broadway, with "Hairspray," "Spamalot," "Spring Awakening," "13" and "Young Frankenstein" all announcing final performances in January. Smaller shows and companies are also expected to suffer. In the theater community, Louloudes predicted, "Off-Broadway will feel it the most." Smaller off-off Broadway groups without established fixed costs like rent for performance and office space may have an easier time weathering the storm than larger groups. But regardless, Louloudes said, "I'm concerned about the entire field."

Looking Ahead

Despite all the planning and saving, arts groups feel the worst is yet to come. Steve Zeitlin said City Lore had not felt the effects of city and state budget cuts, but probably would in the next year. "When these cuts happen, there's always a little bit of a lag. ... It hits us over a period of time," he said.

When funding is cut, Zeitlin said, "We basically have to go into survival mode and keep the infrastructure of the office intact." The result, Zeitlin said, is that the group may have to cut some programming in order to survive and continue advancing its cause. City Lore runs programs aiming to preserve New York City art and landmarks as well as promote ethnic folk arts to "ensure that the city's traditions and cultures are still given a voice in the city's cultural life." Zeitlin said. Zeitlin said he hoped City Lore wouldn't have to cut any programming next year, but worried that financial pressures would force the group to do so.

The various affects of the recession will be widespread. Louloudes said she has already seen groups suffer because of the downturn - the Ohio Theatre, an off-Broadway theater in SoHo and a member of ART/New York, will no longer have a space. The theatre's landlord was forced to sell the building because of financial pressures.

As a result of the funding cuts and fall off in contributions, New York City may experience a decline in the number of arts groups, performances and events in the upcoming months. It also seems likely New York City will see fewer free public events, Zeitlin said, because "those are precisely the events that rely on government funding."

In any case, arts in New York face a difficult battle. Of the times ahead, Louloudes said, "We have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. And when I say 'best,' I mean 'I hope we can survive this.'"

 

Avoiding Charities With Coal-Filled Stockings


Gotham Gazette image by Ya-Hsuan Huang, photo (cc) Christopher Peplin
To Give or Not to Give?

The last thing you want when you give to charities this holiday season is buyer's remorse.

So knowing whom you are giving to and what the cause is becomes paramount for protecting your year-end philanthropy, say charity watchdogs around New York.

New York is one of the country's charity capitals -- the Plaza and Waldorf=Astoria are often booked for lavish foundation galas, focusing on anything from Alzheimer's to environmentalism, during the fall months.

And now, the flailing economy and the holiday season make it an opportune time to give.

According to the most recent metro study from national watchdog group, Charity Navigator, New York is among the healthiest markets in the nation -- excluding the recent financial crisis -- for charities. But, just like any other metropolis, we here in the Big Apple can still have some sour fruit.

We talked to charity experts, who offered advice for giving this holiday season and dug up some groups you might want to avoid.

Making Your Money Worth It

For one, said Sandra Miniutti, vice president for marketing at Charity Navigator, givers must be mindful of how much charities actually spend on programs.

Do they use 90 percent of their funds for activities for youth, like Manhattan-based Children for Children, or are they spending practically pennies on programs with most funds covering administrative costs, like the Brooklyn's Heritage for the Blind (It spent just over 27 percent on programs last year)?

Miniutti recommends supporting groups that spend at least 75 percent on programs and 25 percent on administrative or fundraising costs. Watchdogs at the Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan New York suggest giving to charities that allocate at least 65 percent of its expenses for programs, and 35 percent to administration and fundraising.

"Everyone wants to make sure the bulk of their contribution is spent on programs," said Miniutti. "I think its indicative of a well run organization."

Measuring a charity based on this alone, though, can be deceiving. For instance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art spent barely over 65 percent on programs in 2005, according to the Better Business Bureau. A year later, it spent 89 percent, according to Charity Navigator.

Some of these measurements are nuanced. Helen Guditis, president of The Theatre Museum, a charity that installs exhibits in various museums, said a group's finances can be subject to interpretation. The museum for instance did not meet all of the bureau's standards, in part because, according to the bureau, it spends just 47 percent of its expenses on programs. Its administrative costs, Guditis says, include funding for each exhibition the museum puts up -- money that some could view as part of programming.

Another way to look at how the charity spends its money is through executive salaries, in New York City especially. For the past four years, the chiefs of New York City based groups have had the highest salaries in the country. For instance, the director at the Frick Collection -- which failed to meet a quarter of the Better Business Bureau's standards -- made $600,000 (equal to 11 percent of the donations the museum received in 2006 and about 3 percent of its total expenses), according to the bureau.

Both Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau attempt to diversify their rating criteria to get a full picture of whether it’s a good place to donate, representatives say.

In general, said Katie Martin, program manager of the New York Philanthropic Advisory Services within the Better Business Bureau's Education Research Foundation, givers should watch out for fraudulent charities this holiday season, including those whose names sound similar to reputable, established charities. Be careful when the group contacts you first, too, she said, especially via email. Givers should be proactive, and start their research before being solicited.

Also, a common misconception, said Miniutti, is to spread your money out. You might make more of an impact, and feel more of a part of the organization, if you just pick a few charities and give to them, she said.

You should also make sure a charity's revenues are growing over time, says Miniutti, and that they don't carry a deficit. You want to give to groups that are financially stable, she added -- another way to make sure your money is going to programs and services, not to keep a charity afloat.

Following Cash Flow

More than a dozen New York City groups received the lowest rating a charity can get from Charity Navigator. Out of the 478 groups the Better Business Bureau rates within the five boroughs, 25 percent did not meet all of their standards -- some more so than others.

For the most part, "these are the bad apples," said Miniutti.

Here is a sample of some New York City groups -- some of which you may want to avoid -- that ranked the worst, according to Charity Navigator:

T.J. Martell Foundation: A New York City based group that aims to fight the spread of cancer and AIDS globally, the foundation ran a deficit, according to Charity Navigator, of $1.3 million in 2006. At the same time, it paid its chief officer $200,000.

Heritage for the Blind: This Brooklyn-based charity, which helps assist the blind with day-to-day activities, spent just 27.2 percent of its expenses on programs and ran a more than $300,000 deficit in 2007, according to Charity Navigator.

Israel Policy Forum: This group, which advocates for a sustained American diplomatic effort in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, saw revenues decline by more than 4 percent in 2006, and it does not pledge to keep its donor list private, according to Charity Navigator.

United Spinal Association: This Jackson Heights-based group, aiming to improve the lives of those with spinal chord injuries, saw its revenues dip 26 percent in 2007, according to Charity Navigator. It also ran a deficit of $2.9 million.

National Children's Leukemia Foundation: This Brooklyn group, which implements programs to ease hospital stays for Leukemia patients, spends 14.4 percent of its contributions on programs. Most of its funding goes towards fundraising, at nearly 80 percent, according to Charity Navigator.

The Christophers: A religious organization promoting "positive change," this Manhattan-based group, according to Charity Navigator, ran a $2.5 million deficit in 2006 and spends 57 percent of its funding on programs.

East Harlem Churches and Community Urban Center: This group, which runs community education programs, cut its program funding by 13 percent in 2007, according to Charity Navigator. It directs 61 percent of its expenses to programs.

 

The Fight Over Broadcasting's 'White Space'


Gotham Gazette image by Ya-Hsuan Huang

While tens of millions of Americans were waiting in line to vote on Nov. 4, the Federal Communications Commission was making its own historic decision. In a unanimous vote, the FCC approved public access to the unused part of the television band known as white spaces.

Analog television signals require a substantial buffer between channels to prevent interference. That's what channels 3, 6, 8, 10, and 12 were for in New York. With the transition to more efficient digital broadcasting in February, a lot of spectrum will become available. In New York City, according to an analysis conducted by Free Press, a non-partisan group that supports public access to the white spaces, one fifth of our potential television channels will be unused. (For a brief animation on what white spaces are, go here.)

The issue of what to do with this newfound digital treasure had been the subject of a nearly five-year review at the FCC, including 18 months of engineering tests. The 5-to-0 vote on the issue belies the contentiousness of the measure.

"White spaces is an issue that pits those who have spectrum access and want to keep it for themselves against those who want spectrum to be used and serve other purposes as well," explained Timothy Karr of Free Press.

The primary "other purpose" will be faster, cheaper wireless broadband access - faster because the frequencies in the television band are more robust than other wireless signals and cheaper because users will not have to pay license fees. The spectrum is unlicensed.

Public interest organizations, like Free Press and People's Production House (where the author works), supported the FCC's move, as do with tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Motorola. Corporate television broadcasters, represented by the National Association of Broadcasters, and wireless microphone companies, like Shure, lobbied, joined by their friends in the entertainment industry, lobbied against public access.

New York City has been very active in the debate over white spaces. Legislators at all levels weighed in, industry representatives lobbied heavily, and local public interest advocates and community-based organizations sent letters and signed petitions. Now that the FCC has moved the process forward, it's a good time to assess where everyone stands and look at how this technology will impact our city.

A Contentious Debate

Musicals and other live performances now use wireless microphones that operate in the white spaces. Producers and performers worry that other devices operating in those frequencies could cause interference.

In February, after hearing from the theater industry, Rep. Jerrold Nadler contributed an op-ed to the New York Times that claimed, "Unlicensed devices, like wireless laptops and remote-controlled toys, operating in the white spaces will probably cause havoc to TV viewers, theater goers and sports fans. They could potentially render digital television sets and the government-subsidized converter boxes inoperable."

Rep. Yvette Clarke from Brooklyn and Rep. Gregory Meeks from Queens, whose constituents are rather less privileged financially and technologically than Nadler's, joined six other members of Congress in signing a letter to the FCC supporting access to the white spaces. "The FCC has an opportunity to unleash new, innovative broadband devices and services into the marketplace, while at the same time protecting broadcasters and wireless microphones from harmful interference," the eight Congress members wrote.

Over the summer, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, responding to the Broadway League, introduced a resolution stating unlicensed use of white spaces would mean that "live theater, the performing arts, film and television production companies will be unable to prevent constant interference with microphone systems, devastating those industries within the City of New York."

The draft resolution urged the FCC "to refrain from implementing proposed regulatory amendments that would allow portable devices to operate on the 'white space' radio spectrum without ensuring that such amendments will not negatively impact television broadcasters, performing artists, professional sports leagues and all incumbent wireless microphone users."

Only film and television productions are authorized to use the devices under current regulations, though. This put the theater groups lobbying against public access in the paradoxical position of asking the FCC to protect the theaters' illegal, if longstanding activity.

The council resolution eventually passed without opposition (on the same day the council OK'd an extension to term limits), but at a Sept. 29 hearing on the measure, a slew of New Yorkers showed up to explain how unlicensed access to the white spaces would benefit the city.

Such a move would open "the possibility of enabling larger scale Internet broadcast, providing inexpensive or free access to whole neighborhoods from the central anchor of a park. More buildings will be able to be retrofitted with Internet access. ... Schools and libraries will become Internet hubs for their neighbors. In short, the amazing things we've done with Wi-Fi will be amplified with the availability of white space devices," Dana Spiegel, executive director of the non-profit NYCwireless, said. (People's Production House submitted testimony, as well.)

"While New York City has no shortage of pro-white space activists, "Matt Lasar concluded in an article for Ars Technica, "politically, it is starting to build a reputation as an anti-white space town."

Following the council hearing, the FCC released the results of its last round of tests of prototype devices, including field tests at a Broadway show and at a professional football game in Maryland. The devices weren't anything like what might come to market. They were designed simply to demonstrate the concept of finding and using available spectrum without causing interference. While the prototypes did not work perfectly, the FCC engineers determined they had met the proof-of-concept threshold and the commission could proceed with opening the white spaces.

Opponents of public attacked the FCC's conclusions. In an Oct. 16 press release, the National Association of Broadcasters called on the FCC "to seek public comment on the report before moving forward."

Less than 48 hours before the council was set to vote on the draft resolution, the City Council Committee on Technology in Government rewrote it to match this shift in rhetoric. The new resolution urged the FCC, "to open a formal comment period on the commission's TV white space test report to enable all stakeholders to thoroughly review the data and offer policy proposals in the spirit of those findings, and to set aside a sufficient number of broadcast channels for the exclusive use of wireless microphone in order to protect all incumbent wireless microphone users."

Sen. Hillary Clinton sent a letter to the FCC on Oct. 28 that, while even-handed in tone, gave primacy to the theater owners and other who use wireless microphones. She wrote, "Given the indispensable role that wireless technologies have for New York's industries - whether they are wireless microphones for our Broadway performers or for the players and coaches of the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Super Bowl Champion New York Giants - I believe that these interference questions should be addressed first."

Industry watchers interpreted Clinton's letter and the council resolution as straight opposition to white space access. However, neither stopped the FCC from approving the order at its Nov. 4 meeting.

The Order

The FCC order (technically a "second report and order and memorandum opinion and order") is 130 pages long. All sides still are sorting through its implications.

While wireless microphone manufacturers and users did not manage to maintain the status quo, they won numerous protections. All devices will need to be able to listen to the airwaves to detect and avoid signals in operation. This is called "spectrum sensing." In addition, the FCC determined that spectrum sensing alone would not keep devices from interfering with the signal - at least for now.

The order requires the establishment of a radio frequency database to document what channels are in use in specific areas around the country. All white space devices will need to be able to geolocate (through GPS, for example) and access this database over the Internet. Venues where wireless microphones are in use can be registered in the database, limiting white space devices in those areas. This makes the devices "network dependent" - the devices cannot connect with other devices in the area until they access the Internet and geolocation system.

Also, the FCC will contract with a third party to manage the database. It is not clear if that company will be allowed to charge for devices to access the database. Under the plan the database is a chokepoint, a single point that everyone must pass through. The owner of the database can throttle the whole system. The owner also could have a profit motive to prevent progress toward devices that can function with spectrum sensing alone.

The order prevents portable devices from operating on about 40 percent of the band. While fixed devices will be able to use available channels in that block, critics still think this seems excessive. "I'm not sure how many wireless mics are being used in rural farm towns. I'd bet very few," Sascha Meinrath, research director for the New America Foundations Wireless Future Program, said, "but now they'll have set-asides that prevent other uses, regardless of how inefficient that might be."

In 13 big cities, including New York, where public safety radios utilize channels 14 to 20, the FCC will block unlicensed devices from an additional two channels between 21 and 51. Channel 37 has long been set aside for use by astronomers. And the FCC doesn't want white space devices operating on channel 3 or 4, in case they might interfere with DVD players and video game consoles that connect to the TV on those channels.

There is a gaping hole in the order: It does not address the issue of rampant unauthorized use of the television band. The future of those illegal wireless microphone operators - Broadway shows, music venues, and houses of worship - remains in doubt.

Despite any shortcomings, the order paves the way for a new generation of portable, wireless devices. Initially, their range will be limited. Portable devices will only be able to operate at a maximum of 100 milliwatts (mW) and will be restricted to 40 mW when operating on a channel adjacent to a television signal.

The order lays down some initial ground rules for spectrum-sensing-only devices. These devices would have some very powerful, dynamic capabilities since they would be able to form communication networks on the fly, in any location, whether or not there was an existing connection to the Internet - or even electricity, if the devices can operate on battery, solar, or crank power. First generation devices of this sort will have to meet some pretty stringent standards before the FCC will certify them, though.

What does this mean for New York?

The primary beneficiaries of this order will be people living in rural parts of the country. Some 62 percent of households in rural areas lack meaningful access to the Internet, many because they have no available broadband connection. These same areas have the fewest television signals and the most available white space. Fixed wireless devices using the white spaces will be a quick, cheap and effective way to connect rural Americans to the Internet.

New York stands to gain less. Proponents of white space devices who hoped this order would allow them to replace expensive, unreliable, and slow cell phones have a long wait ahead of them. The limited signal strength is an issue, as are the extra channel set-asides in New York. We can assume, too, that every sports venue, television studio, film studio, and even temporary film shoot location will seek protection in the database. Unauthorized users in music and theater venues likely will, too, and they may receive it. This could make huge sections of Manhattan a black hole for white space devices.

Based on the City Council testimony, the order offers some benefits to New York. Low power devices (100 mW or 40 mW) will probably be able to do some really cool things. They could stream high definition video to television receivers around the house from a single source, for example, the way Wi-Fi might currently spread Internet service around the house. Anyone interested in sharing Internet service with neighbors or installing a hotspot in a park will find white space signals an improvement over Wi-Fi. The white space signal can go through walls and trees, while Wi-Fi signals get absorbed by leaves and drops of water.

This technology remains in its very early stages. Once it advances and devices become cheaper, and more and more devices include white space antennas, we will start to see the really big effects. A portable device that can listen for available signals could function as a roaming wireless router, passing along whatever traffic happens to be in the area, the way a router on the Internet does with traffic that comes along on the wires. So, if your mobile phone signal is spotty because you can't connect to the phone tower, you could connect to a device between you and the tower that would then route your signal on to the tower. The more devices, the more robust the infrastructure. Small boxes on cars could provide the same function, passing along signals from nearby buildings or portable handsets, turning traffic into infrastructure that goes where it's needed - in the city center during the workday, then back to residential areas in the evening. And it doesn't have to be a voice call, of course; it could be a high-speed Internet signal, even video potentially.

From a consumer perspective, white space devices will probably start out fairly expensive with limited functionality. Over time, though, especially if the FCC increases the maximum signal strength of the devices and begins certifying devices that rely solely on spectrum sensing, the potential usefulness of white space technology will go through the roof.

What's next?

Despite the length of the FCC order, it is not the last word on the subject. The commission will issue a Notice of Inquiry to examine the potential of higher-powered transmissions in rural areas. And it will need to determine who will maintain the database of existing television broadcasters and protected geographic areas.

Unauthorized microphone users will need to seek further clarification of their status. White space proponents have called for a general amnesty for these users but want to see the manufacturers that engaged in deceptive advertising - selling microphone systems without ever mentioning the need for a license - held to account.

Meanwhile, the television broadcasters will certainly seek to thwart any further expansion of unlicensed access to the white spaces. They may even try to roll back this order through action in Congress or the courts. All they need to win is delay, since that keeps the spectrum in their hands.

Access to the white spaces is only a start. It is a powerful platform for innovation, but it is only a platform. We need devices and applications that utilize this wireless treasure. Perhaps most importantly, we need to set our imaginations free so we can envision the future that we want - and use this new technology to help make it a reality.

Joshua Breitbart is policy director for People's Production House. 

The Council's Income


The Conflicts of Interest Board is in charge of financial disclosure forms. To read more about the board, go here.

COUNCILMEMBERS INCOME RANGE
Michael E. McMahon
$350,000- 749,999.98
Domenic M. Recchia Jr.
$220,000 - 639,999.94
Thomas White, Jr.
$215,000 - 604,999.95
David I. Weprin
$206,000 - 539,999.96
G. Oliver Koppell
$202,000 - 454,999.94
Helen Sears
$176,000 - 459,999.94
David Yassky
$172,000 - 429,999.94
Lewis Fidler
$171,000 - 424,999.95
Anthony Como
$170,000 - 419,999.97
Peter F. Vallone, Jr.
$161,000 - 354,999.97
Alan Gerson
$116,000 - 359,999.95
Inez E. Dickens
$111,000 - 324,999.96
James Vacca
$111,000 - 324,999.96
James F. Gennaro
$106,000 - 289,999.97
Bill de Blasio
$105,000 - 284,999.98
Daniel R. Garodnick
$105,000 - 284,999.98
Jessica A. Lappin
$105,000 - 284,999.98
Joel Rivera
$105,000 - 284,999.98
Larry B. Seabrook
$105,000 - 284,999.98
Melinda R. Katz
$105,000 - 284,999.98
Melissa Mark Viverito
$105,000 - 284,999.98
Charles Barron
$101,000 - 254,999.98
Gale A. Brewer
$101,000 - 254,999.98
Robert Jackson
$101,000 - 254,999.98
Simcha Felder
$101,000 - 254,999.98
Tony Avella
$101,000 - 254,999.98
Kendall Stewart
$100,000 - 250,999.99
Albert Vann
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Annabel Palma
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Christine C. Quinn
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Darlene Mealy
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Diana Reyna
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Eric N. Gioia
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Erik Martin Dilan
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Helen D. Foster
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Hiram Monserrate
$100,000 - 249,999.99
James S. Oddo
$100,000 - 249,999.99
James Sanders
$100,000 - 249,999.99
John C. Liu
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Joseph P. Addabbo
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Leroy G. Comrie Jr.
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Letitia James
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Maria Baez
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Maria del Carmen Arroyo
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Mathieu Eugene
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Michael C. Nelson
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Miguel Martinez
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Rosie Mendez
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Sara M. Gonzalez
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Vincent Gentile
$100,000 - 249,999.99
Vincent Ignizio
$100,000 - 249,999.99

*The city’s financial disclosure law, which is enforced by its Conflicts of Interest Board (see related story), requires officials disclose how much they made in outside income. In addition to their jobs as City Council persons, many representatives moonlight as attorneys or investment bankers. The law requires members submit a range of how much they made each year. An individual City Council member’s base salary is $112,500, and that is included in the figures above. Those with leadership positions also receive an extra stipend, otherwise known as a lulu. For a breakdown of the lulus, click here. 

The Conflicts at the Conflicts of Interest Board


Photo (c) Gotham Gazette

Lesson number one: Do not snoop through a city department database to get information on an ex-wife.

Lesson number two: A wealthy mayor can boost an assistant's salary with his own cash, as long as he's paying the aide for scheduling his private affairs.

Lesson number three: If you're a teacher, don't tutor your students outside the classroom in return for their weekly allowances. Bad form.

Watch out, the Conflicts of Interest Board can make you pay the price.

Opaque and often-ignored, the Conflicts of Interest Board is the steward of honest city government -- the public principles police. Charged with overseeing the intersections of the private and public lives of the city's 300,000 municipal employees, the quasi-judicial body seeks to ensure employees act in the interest of the people -- not themselves.

But in that honest and worthwhile pursuit, the board's intent has been questioned. Its five members are all appointed by the mayor, rubber-stamped by the City Council, and with that some City Hall observers wonder whether the board is as independent as it should be -- especially during an administration with as much private interest as Mayor Michael Bloomberg's.

What makes the board go after some activities, such as a moonlighting city sheriff, while letting other questionable conflicts sneak by?

Independence in Opinions

On the steps of City Hall last week, Council members Letitia James and Bill de Blasio announced the next step in their fight against extending term limits: A lawsuit that names the city's Conflicts of Interest Board, among others, as a defendant.

The board, in one of its most publicized decisions, issued an opinion last month stating the City Council did not violate the city's conflicts of interest law when it voted to extend term limits to three terms from two.

In response, James asked: "Why bite the hand that feeds you?"

Some critics say the board inherently caters to City Hall, because the mayor selects its members -- albeit with City Council approval -- and the position comes with a certain amount of prestige. In addition to overseeing the conflicts of interest of every municipal employee -- it issues hundreds of letters and opinions a year and fines those it finds guilty -- the board also opines on matters of conflict within the mayor's office.

That, critics contend, is in itself a conflict of interest.

"Voters have a right to expect these decisions to be regulated by an objective body, and the COIB's composition hinders the appearance of their impartiality on this issue," said Councilmember Bill de Blasio in a prepared statement, regarding the term limits decision. "We must ensure that these types of governing bodies fulfill their duty to provide objective judgment on critical governmental matters in our city."

Board staff and several members dismiss that criticism.

"You're choosing people who are known for their integrity, who are known for their objectivity," said Angela Mariana Freyre, a board member since 2002. "We are by no means a rubber stamp of the mayor."

Board members say they are selected for their independence and fairness. Given the extra work and the hours (three of the five members do not take the $250 per diem they could get), members say serving is an act of volunteerism with no personal, private benefit. They would not decide an issue hoping to be reappointed, they argue.

"I'm not beholden to him," said Andrew Irving, a board member, of the mayor. "If he is still mayor when my term is up and he decides to appoint me for another term, fine. If not, that's OK too."

A spokesman for the Bloomberg administration said board members cannot be removed at the mayor's will, which was done "by design" to do away with any conflict of interest.

And the council, said Councilmember Daniel Garodnick, a member of the committee that oversees mayoral appointments, interviews and investigates every nominee.

"In light of the fact that these are six-year terms with staggered dates of completion and they have advice and consent of the council, at some point you need to have faith that boards will act independently of the people that have appointed them," Garodnick said.

Where Interests Lie

But does the board favor the current administration?

According to an analysis by Gotham Gazette, 10 public opinions or letters have directly pertained to Bloomberg since he took office in 2002. Several of the opinions required Bloomberg to recuse himself from certain negotiations at City Hall, which dealt with either Bloomberg L.P. -- the company he founded -- or other companies in which he held assets. Six of the nine opinions or letters of advice require Bloomberg to limit his involvement in the policy at hand.

These decisions, observers say, show no favoritism.

In comparison, a handful of letters of advice were issued during the Giuliani administration directly dealing with the mayor. Several of them limited his actions, including requiring the former mayor to recuse himself from dealings with the city after he left office to found a consulting firm.

"It wasn't different either procedurally or substantially," said Bruce Green, a former board member from 1995 to 2005, who heads the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics. "There is an effort to make the decisions consistent."

The board's structure -- based on mayoral appointments -- is not unusual for this type of quasi-judicial body, say City Hall observers. And, members say, it is far better than if they were elected, which would replace rule of law with rule of politics.

"Of course it presents a situation that has its perils, but the people who have held those positions, particularly the chairs, have been very independent people," said Ross Sandler, a professor of law at New York Law School and director of the Center for New York City Law. "Even though the mayor has played a decisive role about appointments, it hasn't influenced the results particularly."

Private Interests in the Public Sector

Bloomberg tackles city government like a business -- measuring progress in quarterly reports, tourism rates and other statistics. What else would you expect from the founder of a multi-billion dollar company, whose net worth was estimated at $20 billion by Forbes this year.

But with that comes unique circumstances for the board, which needs to put the best interests of the city first. Under the Bloomberg administration, private sector connections are far more common than they were in other administrations.

"There have been some extraordinarily challenging issues that the conflicts board has had to address in this administration because of the unprecedented wealth of the mayor and in some cases of other members of his administration," said Randy Mastro, a former deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration who is suing the city over the term limits decision.

Each time someone vacates City Hall, it's likely the board will have another case to look into.

For instance, is it a conflict for the mayor to solicit donations from his wealthy Upper East Side brethren for nonprofits whose goal is to rebuild ground zero? Is it OK for Bloomberg to fundraise from his well-known corporate friends to bring the Olympics to the Big Apple? In both cases, the board said it was.

In another highly publicized opinion, the board allowed former deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff to continue to advise the city on certain development projects he spearheaded, even after he had moved on from his city job. He now heads Bloomberg L.P.

Normally, public employees are prohibited from appearing before the city for a year after they leave their positions. And, going further, they are prohibited from lobbying on issues they had direct involvement in.

In Doctoroff's case, the board said the work the former deputy mayor would do on behalf of the city would benefit New York's interests, not the personal interests of Doctoroff.

This is not an unprecedented board position, though. Several times during the Giuliani administration the board allowed a former city employee -- granted, not anyone as high profile as Doctoroff -- to work for outside interests, in one case nonprofits, that would have overlapping interests with the employee's previous position.

Obscure With Fluorescent Lighting

Though the board has hit the limelight recently, it was barely noticed not long ago.

Up 10 flights at 2 Lafayette Street downtown, the walls are eerily white -- reminiscent of the innards of a psychiatric hospital on a made-for-TV special. Beyond an eggshell-painted door adjacent to a marquee with the name, "Conflicts of Interest Board," are 21 employees -- the entire staff of the board, which is miniscule compared to most city agencies.

It's there that the board staff weeds out private, personal interest by responding to complaints by officials and the public and by giving advice to public servants who ask. It oversees thousands of pages of financial disclosure forms required for every city employee, containing personal assets and outside income of public employees, and the city's lobbyist gift law.

Its meetings -- which are rarely open to the public -- aren't listed on its web site. In fact, they are held out of the halls of public buildings, but instead -- at least since 1990 -- occur in the private quarters of the board's chair, who happens to be a partner at a reputable midtown law firm.

The vast majority of its letters, which advise public servants on what is or what is not a conflict of interest on a case-by-case basis, are not released publicly. In 2007, about half of the board's 604 pieces of advice were never disclosed to the public.

The board cites privacy rights.

"What we do is inherently confidential," said Irving. "It's a matter of balancing the public's right to know with the very legitimate privacy expectations of individual employees."

Conflicts, Conflicts Everywhere

While the board is charged with boosting confidence in government integrity, it must protect the privacy of the public servant. Murkiness in the city's law doesn't help the board, or the public, decipher, what it can and cannot do.

For instance, is it OK for a high-ranking official to publicly endorse a book published by a non-profit educational institution? According to a decision by the board in 1995, it's not.

But can public employees accept discount offers from a local bank, which any ordinary citizen can also nab? Sure they can.

"This particular law is not designed to be a broad code of ethics and to define what kind of behavior for public servants or people in general is ethical and unethical," said Steven Rosenfeld, the chair of the five-member board. "It is limited to what are considered conflicts of interest."

Those quote-unquote conflicts are decided by five people, with the advice of the board's executive director and counsel, in the confines of Rosenfeld's offices. The members are attorneys, financial consultants, corporate counsels and a president of a local business improvement district.

Before 1989, the board comprised several members of the mayor's office, including the sitting administration's counsel. That structure raised significant questions of independence, and it was dissolved in the city's charter revision.

Since the 1989 charter revision, the opinions and complaints the board has received have skyrocketed. In 1993, the board received 23 conflicts of interest complaints. In 2007, it got 20 times that at 465.

This is not saying people are becoming less ethical. Most board staff and members attribute it to the agency's enhanced visibility.

Missing the Mark

How those complaints are managed is another story.

There is little process to determine who, what or when the board will go after a conflict of interest. For one, they have no investigative arm and instead rely on the city's Department of Investigation to look into certain cases. Because it is such a small agency, it does not look into issues or conflicts unless it receives a complaint.

As a result, for example, the board failed to catch the City Council slush fund scandal that overwhelmed City Hall earlier this year. No one had ever filed a complaint about possible conflicts of interest between discretionary fund allocations and council members.

"We can only know what's brought to our attention since we don't have an investigative arm," said Rosenfeld, the board's chair.

For years, the board has been lobbying for greater independence, from control over its own budget to gaining subpoena power. A spokesman for the administration says City Charter revision commissions have in the past reviewed the board's independence and have chosen not to act on these requests.

"I think that having our own investigation authority would enable us to control our priorities," said Irving.

Because it only acts on complaints, the board's cases can arise from personal prejudice or even malice. A colleague would have to report that a librarian was relentlessly promoting his daughter's book.

You can bet an employee reported that an interim principal at P.S. 60 was sending aides to run personal errands or that a planning commissioner, Dolly Williams, voted on a major rezoning project that affected a personal investment.

But there is also no clear line on who gets a warning letter -- an ethical slap on the wrist -- and who receives a $10,000 fine. The board, say staff, uses its own prosecutorial judgment to weigh the offense.

So when one councilmember, Sara Gonzalez, used her city stationary to send a letter to a city agency contesting a personal violation, she was warned not to do it again. But when a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene pest inspector, Yulan Nash-Daniel, checked out a quality of life complaint at an uncle's church without telling a supervisor, the inspector was suspended for eight days, valued at $1,496.

So without clear rules or independent investigations, maybe the city's Conflicts of Interest Board isn't really the city's ethical police. Maybe, it's our security guard.

 

The Other Power Shift


Gotham Gazette image by Ya-Hsuan Huang

Unlike Barack Obama's victory, the election of more Democrats to the New York State Senate did not produce impromptu celebrations in the streets or tears of joy. But it does represent a huge change for New York State.

Assuming the Democrats keep all their senators in the fold, the party in January will control both houses of the legislature and the governor's office. The last time a single party accomplished that was in the days of Nelson Rockefeller -- and that was the Republicans. The Democrats haven't held such clout since 1935. They haven't had a majority in the State Senate for more than 40 years.

All three men in a room -- Gov. David Paterson, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the likely Senate majority leader, Malcolm Smith -- are from New York City. Two of them are black.

This change comes at a time when New York faces a huge budget deficit along with other challenges that could prove daunting to any government, let alone one long considered to be among the most dysfunctional in the nation.

So what happens now? We asked a number of experts to weigh in on how they think Tuesday's results will affect the state government and its actions on key issues.

A Cure from Washington -- Jonathan Engel

Gaining Influence -- David Cingranelli

The Brick Wall Tumbles -- Billy Easton

Finding the Money for Schools -- Geri Palast

Changing the Way Albany Does Business -- Dick Dadey

Taxes and Spending -- Robert B. Ward

Crisis on the Tracks -- Gene Russianoff

An Opportunity to Help Low-Income New Yorkers -- David R. Jones

Room for Tenants -- Michael McKee

Regulations and Responsibility -- Jack Freund

It's Not a Revolution -- Jeff Stonecash

Thinking Small in Albany -- Gregory Julian


A Cure from Washington?

Does the party flip in the State Senate have any ramifications for healthcare in New York? Not really.

State healthcare can be roughly broken down into providing health care, paying for it and regulating it.

Health care, where available, comes through public hospitals such as the eleven hospitals of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corp. (the largest public system in the country) as well as state psychiatric facilities. Regulation comes through county and municipal public health departments: the folks responsible for inspecting restaurants, keeping tabs on births and deaths, and tracking infectious disease. And payment comes in the form of the state’s Medicaid program, which provides health insurance to the poor and permanently disabled, as well as picking up nursing home tabs for anybody falling below certain poverty thresholds. Of the three, the one most responsive to political change is Medicaid.

New York’s Medicaid program, long one of the most generously funded of all state Medicaid programs, is the largest single item in the state budget – roughly $30 billion of $80 billion. This is typical, and as a result Gov. David Paterson, along with virtually every governor in the nation, would like desperately to reduce that.

The problems he faces are twofold: First, he cannot reduce eligibility for Medicaid without violating federal guidelines, and thus the gross number of Medicaid recipients is beyond his control. Second, while he can reduce reimbursement rates to doctors and hospitals, this will encourage many physicians to no longer see Medicaid patients, thus reducing access to medical care for the state’s poor. The governor is in a bind, and the legislature can do little to help him out, short of increasing general revenue through the state income tax.

Viewed as part of the larger shift toward Democratic power holders, however, the flip is significant. President-elect Barack Obama has placed health reform high on his list of priorities, probably just behind stabilizing the credit markets and withdrawing from Iraq, and his campaign team has produced a detailed plan of his intentions. The Obama health plan is essentially a modified “pay or play” model with an expanded federal system – much like the present German system.

People with private insurance through their employers would probably see little difference, but uninsured fulltime employees would either receive a private policy through their employers or be allowed to buy into an expanded federal insurance plan, which, in theory, would mirror the plan that fulltime federal employees now have access to. Obama’s plan would guarantee more revenue coming into the federal system (through the “pay” mandate for those employers who choose not to provide insurance) meaning that less funding would have to flow through Albany. The balance of government to private money in the system will not change, but the balance of federal to state money will. Governors across the nation will breathe a sigh of relief if this comes to pass, which is looking more likely with each U.S. Senate seat that the Democrats pick up.

All by way of saying, the shift in Albany is only significant, in healthcare terms, insofar as it is emblematic of the larger national shift toward Democratic control. These will, indeed, be interesting times.

Jonathan Engel, professor and associate dean, School of Public Affairs, Baruch College,


Gaining Influence

Unified Democratic Party control at the state level, combined with unified Democratic Party control at the national level should increase the ability of the city and state of New York to influence the direction of federal government policies. At the same time, the shift in power within the state toward the Democratic Party will reduce the power of upstate New York relative to downstate over many important issues such as the proper formula for distributing state education funding among school districts.

-- David Cingranelli, professor of political science, Binghamton University


The 'Brick Wall' Tumbles

The State Senate Republicans have played a major defining role in all educational policy and funding debates. Instead of pushing for New York City to get its fair share, Senate Republicans have actively "dissed" New York City and pushed for money for wealthy Long Island school districts. The four Republican Senators who represent New York City have stood silently by as Dean Skelos has led them down this path.

The change in the Senate Majority is a sea change in term of education issues. Senate Democrats have consistently championed a fair funding formula that would benefit New York City and all high needs districts across the state. We have every reason to expect Senate Democrats will hold true to these principles.

A fair school aid distribution formula is what is best for New York City and other high-needs school districts across the state. The brick wall, which has stood in the way of education equity has now been taken away.

-- Billy Easton, executive director, Alliance for Quality Education.


Finding the Money for Schools

The situation is in flux. Normally one would think this would be a great sign for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity [which brought the successful law suit challenging the state's funding of New York City schools] and for education generally. Given the current economic climate, though, we don't know how these new elected officials -- like Gov. David Patterson himself, who has always been a supporter of CFE and of education -- will handle education in this time of turmoil.

We would hope that they would approach budget cutting with a scalpel, not a pickaxe. None of these cuts can be across the board. CFE has advocated meeting the needs of lower-income school districts. Those needs still are not being met.

We need to be looking at increasing revenues and not just reducing social services. The election indicated a strong willingness by New Yorkers, who voted overwhelmingly for President-elect Barack Obama, to raise revenues from high-income New Yorkers. This would be a shift from the views of the former Republican majority position in opposition to an increase in the personal income tax.

--Geri Palast, executive director, Campaign for Fiscal Equity


Changing the Way Albany Does Business

The change in party control of the State Senate provides a new level of optimism for those advocating reform of state government. The Senate Democrats have known for a long time what it is like to be in the Senate minority and live the harsh consequences of not being the party in control. Sen. Malcolm Smith, the presumed incoming majority leader, will have a lot on his plate, but he can demonstrate immediately to New Yorkers that change has indeed come to Albany by implementing some overdue reforms that the Senate Democrats have long embraced and supported.

At the Albany Reform Lobby Day last spring, Smith underscored that reform was indeed on the agenda if and when the Democrats gained control by saying “reform is on the way and “reform is the call of the day.” As Liz Benjamin of the New York Daily News reported last April, “Smith pledged to treat the Republicans better than they've treated the Democrats if he succeeds in ousting [Sen. Joe] Bruno as majority leader this fall, saying minority members should have the power to vote bills out of committee if they can muster up enough votes to do so.” So chief among the reforms that can easily be achieved at the outset in January is rules reform and opening up the legislative processes of the Senate to be more transparent and collaborative.

Most likely second on the reform list will be an effort to decrease the influence of money by implementing much needed campaign finance reform. Though public financing will ultimately be crucial to that goal, it is difficult to imagine that Gov. David Paterson will approve a campaign finance reform bill that includes public financing, although he was a strong proponent of it when he was in the Senate. Even so, much can be done to bring about campaign finance reform by increasing disclosure, lowering campaign contribution limits, restricting or outright banning some kinds of political giving, and strengthening enforcement. Bringing about campaign finance reform will be an important signal on how serious Smith and his Democratic colleagues are about reforming how state government does business.

There also will be an opportunity to enact improvements to the much maligned ethics reform measure passed two years ago when Eliot Spitzer became governor. Changing the composition of the new Commission on Public Integrity to ensure that no one elected official controls a majority of the appointments, as the governor now does, will be a good place to start. Adding legislative oversight to the commission’s realm of responsibility is another needed reform.

The recent election also gave new impetus to the need to change the way elections are run by overhauling the Board of Elections and increasing opportunities for voters to cast their ballot by implementing same day voter registration and early voting.

The most needed reform will be ending the partisan gerrymandering that now guides legislative redistricting. Taking it out of the hands of the legislature itself and giving the responsibility to an independent redistricting commission is essential to any meaningful effort to reform Albany. It would do much to restore New Yorkers confidence that they are choosing their elected officials instead of elected officials choosing their voters. Smith once strongly professed support for such an approach, but in a bow to pressure from Democratic members of Congress, he questioned the need last spring for an independent commission. He began instead arguing that the State Senate could be trusted to draw the lines if the criteria and guidelines for doing it were strengthened. Such an approach still does not get to the notion that legislators who stand to benefit from how their districts are constructed should not be the ones drawing the lines.

Smith and his Democratic colleagues have an unprecedented opportunity to reform Albany along the lines they have been talking about for decades. Given the responsibility they now hold, it could be a very exciting to see the change finally arrive.

--Dick Dadey, executive director, Citizens Union. Citizens Union is the sister organization of Gotham Gazette's publisher, Citizens Union Foundation.


Taxes and Spending

There will be change, but the effects of having the Democrats control the Senate is a bit more difficult to predict than it might have been 10 or 15 years ago. Sen. Malcolm Smith [the likely new majority leader] has been talking about the need to reduce spending, although it is still likely that the average member of the Senate Democratic conference might be more willing to raise taxes than the typical member of the Senate Republican conference.

This all relates to the ability of New York City to control its own fiscal policy. I would guess that future mayors would attempt to get the Senate Democratic majority to give the city more flexibility than the Senate Republican majority has been willing to approve. The upstate Republicans have wanted more flexibility on Medicaid so maybe there could be a grand compromise where local leaders gain more control over their own fiscal policy.

At the state level, it is unlikely we will see someone as dominant as Nelson Rockefeller, who, when he had majorities in both houses, was able to dictate the agenda. But now the legislature is much more independent than it used to be, and the two houses are more independent of each other. What that comes down to is it’s much more likely that there will be a single leader or even a ruling triumvirate where three leaders work in tandem on everything.

--Robert B. Ward, deputy director, Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government Rockefeller Institute


Crisis on the Tracks

How will the election results affect the future of transit in the New York metropolitan region?

The newly elected officials in the state and federal governments -– along with their colleagues in city government -– will be facing the worst fiscal crisis for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the more than 25 years that I've monitored the agency's finances.

And that's bad news for the more than 9 million riders who use the subways, buses and commuter rail lines. The MTA's preliminary budget for 2009 already includes a fare increase for next July, right on the heels of a fare hike this past March.

And, as the media recently reported, the MTA’s deficit in July – pegged at $900 million – has ballooned by several hundred million dollars. Depending on how bad the numbers are and how much the MTA can save in management efficiencies, that could result in a double whammy: an even higher fare hike coupled with major service cuts.

In plain English, more for less.

Why is the MTA having such problems? There are two major causes.

The first is the economy. In addition to fares, the MTA is funded by a variety of economically sensitive taxes. These include taxes on sectors of the New York region that directly benefit from the most extensive transit network in the nation, such as businesses, property owners, consumers and drivers. Every indication is that these taxes will raise less money than originally projected for this year and next.

Second, the MTA has been forced to borrow huge sums – up to $28 billion – to finance its critical rebuilding program, using the money to buy or rehabilitate new subway and commuter cars, buses, scores of stations, and infrastructure like tracks, signals, tunnel lighting and tunnel fans.

The MTA has become the fifth largest borrower in the United States, behind only the states of California, New York and Massachusetts and the City of New York.

The bill for all this borrowing is coming due. "Debt service" on the bonds will cost $2 billion by 2010 - fully one fifth of the MTA's $10 billion budget. Debt service is also the single largest growing expense for the agency.

What's to be done?

On the federal level, there's a big push for an economic stimulus package that would include many billions of dollars for badly needed transportation infrastructure. Investing in the subways, buses and commuter rail should literally help get America – and our economy – moving again.

On the state level, a commission appointed by Gov. David Paterson and headed by former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch is due to report on Dec. 5 on ways to fund both the MTA's operating and rebuilding needs. Those watching the commission believe it will suggest some combination of new revenue sources, fares, tolls and management savings.

Once its recommendations are out, it will be up to Paterson, the state legislature and Mayor Michael Bloomberg to take action.

That's a tall order. But the alternative of disinvesting in transit would be much worse.

A big fare hike and major service cuts would be widely seen as a hit on the very people reeling from our troubled economy. It would also risk a return to the many decades in which the transit system was both a drag on the region's economy and a misery to use.

--Gene Russianoff, staff attorney, Straphangers Campaign


An Opportunity to Help Low-Income New Yorkers

Last Tuesday night, the nation and the world witnessed the election of Sen. Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president. For the first time in the 232-year history of our republic, a black American will occupy the highest office in our land. It is a remarkable achievement for a nation that once condoned the enslavement of Africans and codified discrimination against black Americans.

We should be mindful that despite the historic nature of his election, President-elect Obama faces significant challenges in the days and months ahead. He will be confronted by an economic crisis that rivals that of the Great Depression.

Still, there are some federal proposals that can help those out of work, especially young people. A bill introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel would amend the current Work Opportunity Tax Credit to include low-skill youth who have been out of work and school for the past six months. Rep. Jerrold Nadler has introduced a bill that would create a career-ladder grant program within the Federal Transit Administration to help existing workers retain jobs in the public transportation industry.

On the state level, Democrats captured the majority in both houses of the legislature. This could provide opportunities to move the agenda for low-income New Yorkers. The results of our latest survey of low-income New Yorkers, "The Unheard Third," reveal that these New Yorkers are most worried about housing costs, losing their homes and jobs, and the rising gas and home heating prices. They are struggling just to meet basic needs.

For all the euphoria we are experiencing today, the reality is that we face challenges of epic proportions. But by working with our representatives in both Albany and Washington, we have the chance to bring real change through policies that help low-income New Yorkers and make New York a better place to live for all of us.

David R. Jones, president and chief eexecutive officer, Commuity Service Society.


Room for Tenants

Tenants PACworked very hard to elect a Democratic State Senate, and that has been our task for the last four election cycles. This year we raised money for several Democratic candidates, contributing a total of $55,000, and did lots of volunteer work for Darrel Aubertine [who won an open seat in a special election last February], Joe Addabbo and Brian Foley [who defeated incumbent Republican senators on Nov. 4]

Now, we expect to have a much different reception in the State Senate. As long as the Republican were in charge, tenants could not get a hearing in the State Senate because the Republicans were owned lock, stock and barrel by the New York City real-estate industry, which gave them $2 million every election. For the last 20 years, you couldn't get the simplest pro-tenant bill out of committee.

Instead of the majority conference being controlled by upstate and suburban Republicans, it now will be controlled by Democrats from New York City and the suburbs, who represent lots of tenants. They support our reform agenda not only because we helped them win the majority, but because they understand the importance of rent regulation in maintaining a supply of affordable workplace housing in the downstate region.

 

Even upstate Democrats, who do not have rent control, have been very supportive of our tenant agenda. One told me, referring to the bill the Assembly passed in May to repeal vacancy decontrol, "This issue does not affect my district but it is life and death to my colleagues in the City, and that is why I support it."

We are not naĂŻve. We're expecting opposition. We are up against a powerful adversary, and their power comes from their money. But with Liz Krueger chairing the housing committee and the new majority in the Senate, we expect a very different situation.

--Michael McKee, treasurer, Tenants PAC


Regulation and Responsibility

The shift in the Senate from Democratic to Republican control is obviously a concern, since the Senate has served as a bulwark against the Assembly's attempts to over-regulate the rental housing industry. At the same time, now that the Democrats will be in charge of the Senate, they will have to have a sense of responsibility. At a time of economic crisis, we find it hard to think the Senate would put more of a regulatory burden on the housing industry. We also think it is unlikely that the Senate will want to turn its power to regulate rental housing over the city.

--Jack Freund, executive vice president, Rent Stabilization Association of New York


It's Not a Revolution

The change from Republican to Democratic control in the Senate, giving Democrats control over both houses of the legislature and the governorship, is presumed to be significant. While it seems it should cause significant change -- the first unified Democratic control in a very long time -- it is unlikely to result in major changes in policy.

The more recently elected Democrats in the Senate come from areas previously held by Republicans and with greater Republican enrollment. They are unlikely to be willing to vote for liberal programs and risk being defeated in 2010. They will constrain the direction of the party. There is also concern that the reason some were elected was because of the negative view of Republicans, and the new Democrats must be careful that the political winds will shift in 2010.

Further, the state already has the highest state and local taxes in the country and is not gaining population. Any policy change that would raise taxes will create more problems, and Democrats worry about jobs as much as anyone.

Finally, the looming projected deficits will constrain Democrats. There may be movement on some "cultural wars" issues but moving fiscal policy in a liberal direction is unlikely.

--Jeff Stonecash, professor of political science, Maxwell School of Syracuse University


Thinking Small in Albany

During my candidacy for the New York State Senate in the 38th district, I observed that the politics of cronyism still is the predominant political perspective that limits a politics of change embraced by the voters. Barack Obama's effort nationwide, to jumpstart a more participatory democratic agenda, does not resonate with the power-seeking players in local and state politics.

Dr. Joseph's Stiglitz "millionaire's tax," a progressive income tax, a single-payer universal health care system, energy independence in 10 years through alternative energy programs, job growth through sustainable development, education for improving the quality of life, transparency in government contracts and transferring member items to budget-line items, if combined, would yield significant budgetary balance in the coming years. Instead, "crisis management" sets Gov. David Paterson's agenda. It's a campaign strategy, instead of creative thinking to retool government in New York State.

The opportunity to appeal to empowering a "do-it-ourselves democracy" that the Obama victory has ushered in is lost on the New York politicians who are addicted to manipulation and stagnant thinking. Until we have a constitutional convention that modernizes NY State, including a non-partisan, common sense approach to realigning election districts, the nonsense of the three men in a room continues in Albany, be they of a red or blue hue.

--Gregory Julian, who lost his bid for the State Senate, is a professor of political science at Pace University.


 

 

 

Longtime Incumbent Seeks Two More Years


Assemblymember Keith L. T. Wright is running for re-election for the seat he has held since 1992. The Harlem Democrat, who also will appear in the Working Families Party line, is perhaps best known for proposing legislation to raise awareness of New York's history of slavery. He introduced a bill last year that included an official apology from New York State for the slavery in the state. Republican candidate is available about his Republican challenger, Rueben D. Riley Sr.

Wright's 32 Day Pre-General campaign finance filing showed he had collected $18,159 in the reporting period and ended it with $24,287 on hand. Riley has not filed any campaign finance reports.

 

Staten Island 61st Assembly District: Titone Tries for a Full Term


Democratic and Working Families Party candidate Matthew Titone is running for re-election for the Assembly seat he has held for less than one term. A special election for the district was called in March 2007 after the incumbent Assembly member, Democrat John Lavelle, died while in office. Titone won the special election, capturing nearly half the vote in a three-person field.

This is Independence Party Rose Margarella's third try for the seat. She ran as a Republican against Titone in 2007 and against Lavelle in 2006. Titone also has a Republican opponent - Thomas W. McGinley. Little information is available about him.

At the end of the 32 Day Pre-General filing period Titone's campaign had $6,488 on hand campaign.

At last report, Titone had $8,000 in campaign funds available, McGinley had $2,080, and Margarella had filed a no activity statement.

 

Staten Island 60th Assembly District: A Swing Seat


Assemblymember Janele Hyer-Spencer is running for re-election for the Assembly seat she has held for one term. Hyer-Spencer, a Democrat, replaced Matthew Mirones, a Republican who held the seat from 2002 to 2006. Hyer-Spencer narrowly defeated her Republican opponent in 2006, winning the election by less than 1,000 votes.

She has also been endorsed by the Independence and Working Families parties this year.

This November, Hyer-Spencer, a lawyer with an interest in family issues, faces Republican Joseph Cammarata. Cammarata sought the Republican nomination for this seat in 2006, but the nomination went to Anthony C. Xanthakis, who then lost to Hyer-Spencer in the general election. In his try this year, Cammarata has been endorsed by the Conservative Party.

Little other information is available about Cammarata, although he last reported having $15,000 in campaign funds, just $7,000 less than what incumbent Hyer-Spencer has raised. There are two-thirds as many registered Republicans as there are registered Democrats in the district.

In the 32 Day Pre-General campaign filing, Hyer-Spencer $17,255 for a total on hand of $23,822. Cammarata had contributions of $17,857 and a closing balance of $14,542.



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