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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

Letter From 27 City Councilmembers Calling On Speaker Gifford Miller To Raise Taxes To Pay For Children's Programs


Dear Speaker Miller,

As the Council prepares its response to the Mayor's preliminary budget, we urge you to continue to emphasize the impact of the proposed cuts on children and families, especially reduced support to our public schools, to child care programs and to summer youth, senior, and library programs. We believe that we must consider every option to protect our children and families, and we commend your insistence that everything -- including revenue programs -- be considered as the Council seeks solutions to the budget crisis.

The Mayor's preliminary budget -- and the recent announcement of an additional $500 million in possible reduced spending -- simply cuts too deep. New York City's kids must come first. School governance issues aside, classes are too big, the city's teachers remain underpaid, buildings are overcrowded, and supplies are inadequate, outdated, or unavailable. Under the Mayor's preliminary budget, thousands of children will lose access to day-care slots and after-school programs. In a time of crisis, we cannot stop investing in our children's future to cover holes in the budget.

Of course, no one wants to raise taxes, and we support a thorough analysis at all agencies to eliminate waste and identify savings. At the same time, a "Children's First" budget would acknowledge that in tough fiscal times, we should all be prepared to make hard choices. We urge you to incorporate the three proposals below into the Council's response to the Mayor's preliminary budget to protect New York from an even greater deterioration in essential services. These proposals have been chosen because of their fairness, their economic impact, and their capacity to raise money to protect vital services:

Reinstating the commuter tax, a .45% tax on the income earned in New York City by non-residents. According to the Mayor's estimates, the repeal of this nominal tax will cost New York City $410 million this upcoming fiscal year.

Increasing the rates of the City's personal income tax by 1% on income over $200,000 and 2% on income over $250,000. This is a fair, effective way to raise over a billion dollars.

Reinstating 10% of the stock transfer tax. By placing a tax of up to a half-penny on stock transfers and by capping the tax at $35 for any transaction, the City could raise $800 million for its schools and other services.

We further suggest that the Council consider the possibility of implementing these tax increases for a limited period of time.

Taken together, these three modest tax increases would generate over $2 billion in new revenue to protect our children and our other city priorities. Investors, commuters, and wealthy New Yorkers have prospered in the past few years -- thanks to both the economic boom of the late 1990s and the extraordinary Bush tax cuts enacted last year. We believe, in these extraordinary times for New York, that they will support a "Children's First" agenda. If the Mayor believes that these New Yorkers are unwilling to help their city after last year's devastation, he has underestimated their patriotism and civic-mindedness. Far more destructive to our City will be devastating cuts to our schools, our child care programs, and our mental health and youth services.

We believe the three proposals outlined above represent the only fair alternative to the Mayor's preliminary budget, an alternative that will protect our children and free up scarce funds for other important city services. We strongly urge you to ensure their inclusion in the Council's response to the Mayor's preliminary budget.

Margarita Lopez (Dist 2), Christine Quinn (Dist 3), Eva Moskowitz (Dist 4), Gale A. Brewer (Dist 6), Robert Jackson (Dist 7), Phil Reed (Dist 8), Bill Perkins (Dist 9), Miguel Martinez (Dist 10), Larry Seabrook (Dist 12), Maria Baez (Dist 14), Joel Rivera (Dist 15), Helen Foster (Dist 16), Jose Serrano (Dist 17), John Liu (Dist 20), Hiram Monserrate (Dist 21), Eric Gioia (Dist 26), Leroy Comrie (Dist 27), James Sanders Jr. (Dist 31), Diana Reyna (Dist 34), James Davis (Dist 35), Albert Vann (Dist 36), Bill de Blasio (Dist 39), Yvette Clarke (Dist 40), Tracy Boland (Dist 41), Charles Barron (Dist 42), Kendall Stewart (Dist 45), Michael Nelson (Dist 48).

 

From Home To Community (Board). Dot NYC. Increased Cost of Pay Phones,


Community Boards and The Internet
Two-thirds of all New Yorkers are said to be online. But many of them can only access the Internet from work, a library, a school, or a community technology center. Many technology experts believe that the efforts to cross the digital divide should include getting more computers in private homes.

Perhaps it is ironic that if this happens, -- if more New Yorkers can stay at home and still get online -- more will become active participants in their communities.

That, anyway, is the hope of the members of New York's community planning boards, and they are preparing for it. About ten out of 59 community boards have web sites, and one group is reaching out to the rest. It is called the Prototype Community Board Website Development Project, and its aim is to improve the ability of under-funded and short-staffed community boards to communicate with each other and with their communities. The program is currently supported by new Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) Commissioner Gino Menchini.

The Battle for .NYC
Community Board leaders are trying to build support for the .NYC (pronounced dot NYC) Campaign, an effort to secure the top-level domain name .nyc for New York City. In April 2001, Community Board 3 in Queens passed an Internet Empowerment Resolution that has recently gotten the support of Queens Congressman Joseph Crowley. Now, the challenge is to convince the three NYC Congressmen that serve on the House Commerce Committee -- Representatives Ed Towns (10th), Eliot Engel (17th) and Vito Fossella (13th)--of the importance of the .NYC Campaign.

Currently, organizations in New York City use generic domain names like .com, .edu, .gov and .org to identify their presence on the Web. However, .nyc would allow citizens to find local organizations more easily on the Internet and bring local control to the communications network. For example, if managed by city government, the .nyc domain name would raise much needed revenue for the city by registering domain names categories such as schools.nyc, libraries.nyc, government.nyc or shopping.nyc. The domain could also be managed by a local private sector or third-party organization. In addition, the .nyc domain name could help to build a powerful brand on the Internet for the New York. Currently, Los Angeles has secured the .la domain name that was originally issued to the country Laos.

The international domain name system is managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit, private-sector corporation. Recently, ICANN has been criticized for being slow and inefficient and lacking transparency and is currently trying to reform. Thus, the organization has issued far fewer domain names than expected this year. New York City can assert its influence in the organization primarily through the United States Department of Commerce. Therefore, if community boards are serious about the battle for .nyc, they will need to raise awareness among communities and congressmen in the 10th, 17th and 13th districts.

Pay Phone Update
On March 11th, Verizon raised pay phone rates to 50 cents for an unlimited local call up from 25 cents for a three-minute call. This is the first rate increase since 1984 and New York was the last state to increase prices. In 1996, most states increased pay phone prices to 35 cents as a result of deregulation in the phone industry and recently all have adopted the 50-cent rate. Verizon cites competition from new communications technology such as cell phones as the primary reason for increasing the price of calls on its 110,000 pay phones. While Verizon is committed to keeping pay phones in communities where they are needed, the 50-cent rate may prevent the poor from using the phones. An additional 50 cents will be charged for directory assistance from pay phones.

Cable TV Update
Cable television subscriptions are up three percent as a result of the destruction of the antenna on the north tower of the WTC. Currently, about 21 percent of households get television over the airwaves rather than through cable. As a result, over the next five years New York City will pocket $51 million in franchise fees from cable companies. This will help aiding in the city's recovery from the budget crisis. For every $10 per month a cable customer pays, 50 cents goes to the city in franchise fees.

Cable Internet Access Update
The FCC recently exempted cable companies from having to allow Internet service providers (ISPs) access to their lines. According to the Federal Communications Commission, this step was necessary to promote investment and growth in high-speed Internet access. However, this move contradicts the FTC conditions of the AOL Time Warner merger that required the company to open its lines to other ISPs in order to increase competition in the cable market. This highlights an important difference between the telecommunications and cable markets. Historically, telecom has been widely regulated while cable has not. This may mean less choice of ISPs for consumers in New York.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

E-Government In NYC


You may not know it, but you are living in the capital of electronic government, or one of them anyway. But, how many of us have actually looked up a restaurant?s health inspection or paid a parking ticket online? What does being the hub of e-gov really mean for New Yorkers? Can it help us solve the budget crisis?

New York City ranks second in the first annual Digital Cities Survey by the Center for Digital Government and Government Technology magazine. The survey compared New York with other cities of more than 250,000 people and ranked them as follows: Honolulu took first place; Chicago, New York and Seattle were second; Colorado Springs and Houston were fifth; Charlotte, Indianapolis and Tucson were seventh and Atlanta, Phoenix, San Diego and Tampa ranked tenth.

In addition, New York City won first place in the Center for Digital Government's national 2001 Best of the Web competition has won over 25 other awards for their use of telecommunications and technology in local government.

So, New York City is good at e-gov, but what exactly is it? Most simply, e-government is the adoption of communications technology by the public sector to deliver information and services. Just as technology has allowed the private sector to increase efficiency, when applied in government, technology has the potential to greatly streamline bureaucracy. The stages of building an e-gov from a bricks and mortar government are relatively simple. First, the focus is on online access to content and forms, next on the ability to conduct transactions, and, finally, on creating comprehensive portals or one-stop government sites.

NYC.gov is the city's main e-government portal. The site has more than 30,000 pages of content and 100 online transactional services. Online transactions include paying parking tickets, viewing property statements, obtaining birth and death certificates, or finding out your recycling and garbage collection schedule. The ability to access information and conduct transactions online was extremely important after September 11 when many New Yorkers found e-mail and Internet access to be their only reliable form of communication. The city's well-developed e-government portal allowed emergency information to be posted and updated regularly during the crisis.

According to Cathilea Robinett, executive director of the Center for Digital Government, "New York City has an extremely robust site. It is one of the few local government sites with a citizen customization component. It is easy to navigate and the section titled, 'I want to' is perfect for intuitive citizen use."

The current success of NYC.gov is partly a result of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's strong support of e-government initiatives. According to Stephen Ronaghan, project manager for the United Nations Global Survey on E-government, "New York City's e-government program is one of the most complete that I've seen from any level of government. The websites are user-friendly, content is well organized and they offer online capacity for nearly every city-service that can be offered over the Web."

Clearly, New York has made it to the most advanced stage in the development of e-government. Now the challenge is making sure that people are using it. According to U.S. News and World Report, less than one percent of all citizen-to-government transactions are handled online. In order to justify the investment in e-government, this figure needs to increase dramatically.

However, currently, awareness of the ability to conduct government services online is low and access to computers among some segments of the population is lacking. In recent years, we have seen a number of e-government companies emerge and sometimes disappear, such as GovWorks, which was profiled in the movie Startup.com. Their demise points partly to this lack of awareness among citizens. This has prevented NYC.gov from being used extensively by citizens to conduct transactions rather than to obtain information only.

We all know that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is tech-savvy. His success as the leader of a financial information company with cutting edge technology and his transformation of City Hall into an open office equipped with 35 high-tech terminals donated by his company proves it. However, the mayor's official e-government policy has not yet been announced and it remains to be seen whether e-government will suffer a 20 percent cut along with the rest of city government.

The city is facing a potential $4 billion deficit and enhanced e-government services offer the possibility to help shrink this number in the long run. As we have seen in the private sector, online transactions are fast and efficient. While initial investment in technology is necessary, typically, e-government programs are run with a relatively small number of employees. This is true both for NYC.gov and FirstGov, the United States' e-government portal.

The challenge for Mayor Bloomberg is to make sure that New Yorkers know about NYC.gov's extensive offerings so that the maximum number of transactions are conducted online. In addition, greater coordination is needed between NYC.gov and the web sites of city agencies. While it is fine for agencies to maintain their own autonomy online, there should be consistency between the web sites of different agencies. Some agencies have yet to update their sites to reflect their relationship with NYC.gov.

So, stop by NYC.gov and take the tour. You too can help decrease the city's deficit.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

 

E-Government In NYC


You may not know it, but you are living in the capital of electronic government, or one of them anyway. But, how many of us have actually looked up a restaurant?s health inspection or paid a parking ticket online? What does being the hub of e-gov really mean for New Yorkers? Can it help us solve the budget crisis?

New York City ranks second in the first annual Digital Cities Survey by the Center for Digital Government and Government Technology magazine. The survey compared New York with other cities of more than 250,000 people and ranked them as follows: Honolulu took first place; Chicago, New York and Seattle were second; Colorado Springs and Houston were fifth; Charlotte, Indianapolis and Tucson were seventh and Atlanta, Phoenix, San Diego and Tampa ranked tenth.

In addition, New York City won first place in the Center for Digital Government's national 2001 Best of the Web competition has won over 25 other awards for their use of telecommunications and technology in local government.

So, New York City is good at e-gov, but what exactly is it? Most simply, e-government is the adoption of communications technology by the public sector to deliver information and services. Just as technology has allowed the private sector to increase efficiency, when applied in government, technology has the potential to greatly streamline bureaucracy. The stages of building an e-gov from a bricks and mortar government are relatively simple. First, the focus is on online access to content and forms, next on the ability to conduct transactions, and, finally, on creating comprehensive portals or one-stop government sites.

NYC.gov is the city's main e-government portal. The site has more than 30,000 pages of content and 100 online transactional services. Online transactions include paying parking tickets, viewing property statements, obtaining birth and death certificates, or finding out your recycling and garbage collection schedule. The ability to access information and conduct transactions online was extremely important after September 11 when many New Yorkers found e-mail and Internet access to be their only reliable form of communication. The city's well-developed e-government portal allowed emergency information to be posted and updated regularly during the crisis.

According to Cathilea Robinett, executive director of the Center for Digital Government, "New York City has an extremely robust site. It is one of the few local government sites with a citizen customization component. It is easy to navigate and the section titled, 'I want to' is perfect for intuitive citizen use."

The current success of NYC.gov is partly a result of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's strong support of e-government initiatives. According to Stephen Ronaghan, project manager for the United Nations Global Survey on E-government, "New York City's e-government program is one of the most complete that I've seen from any level of government. The websites are user-friendly, content is well organized and they offer online capacity for nearly every city-service that can be offered over the Web."

Clearly, New York has made it to the most advanced stage in the development of e-government. Now the challenge is making sure that people are using it. According to U.S. News and World Report, less than one percent of all citizen-to-government transactions are handled online. In order to justify the investment in e-government, this figure needs to increase dramatically.

However, currently, awareness of the ability to conduct government services online is low and access to computers among some segments of the population is lacking. In recent years, we have seen a number of e-government companies emerge and sometimes disappear, such as GovWorks, which was profiled in the movie Startup.com. Their demise points partly to this lack of awareness among citizens. This has prevented NYC.gov from being used extensively by citizens to conduct transactions rather than to obtain information only.

We all know that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is tech-savvy. His success as the leader of a financial information company with cutting edge technology and his transformation of City Hall into an open office equipped with 35 high-tech terminals donated by his company proves it. However, the mayor's official e-government policy has not yet been announced and it remains to be seen whether e-government will suffer a 20 percent cut along with the rest of city government.

The city is facing a potential $4 billion deficit and enhanced e-government services offer the possibility to help shrink this number in the long run. As we have seen in the private sector, online transactions are fast and efficient. While initial investment in technology is necessary, typically, e-government programs are run with a relatively small number of employees. This is true both for NYC.gov and FirstGov, the United States' e-government portal.

The challenge for Mayor Bloomberg is to make sure that New Yorkers know about NYC.gov's extensive offerings so that the maximum number of transactions are conducted online. In addition, greater coordination is needed between NYC.gov and the web sites of city agencies. While it is fine for agencies to maintain their own autonomy online, there should be consistency between the web sites of different agencies. Some agencies have yet to update their sites to reflect their relationship with NYC.gov.

So, stop by NYC.gov and take the tour. You too can help decrease the city's deficit.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

 

Is Time Warner Cable A Villain?


At a time when Time Warner Cable has announced that it is raising its rates once again, at more than triple the rate of inflation, it has lowered its standards of service to its customers.

That at least is the experience of one customer who called me irate and frustrated -- and since he had a good tale to tell (and also because he is my editor), I listened. He had telephoned Time Warner to send somebody to repair his cable, because the reception was full of snow. It took an astonishing nine appointments over a period of six weeks, about 60 hours of waiting -- four days home from the office -- conversations with about 30 representatives from Time Warner AND they accidentally cut his telephone lines while attempting to fix his cable service. Oops.

He wrote a letter to Time Warner Cable's director of customer service. The company claims that all complaints are answered within two business days of receipt and that matters are resolved within 10 days. But he did not receive any letter in response after more than a month of waiting, and matters were certainly not resolved. So he sent a second letter to the director - only this time, he sent a copy to three agencies: the New York Better Business Bureau, the New York State Public Service Commission, the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT)

The response was swift and excessive. Not only has his cable been fixed, but representatives from two different departments of Time Warner Cable, customer service and public affairs, have been calling HIM on the telephone (rather than the other way around). Each time they make reference to "the letter you wrote to the city." It is the New York Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, then, that is the hero of this tale. And there is some evidence that they will continue to be the heroes, with Michael Bloomberg's appointment on December 19 of Vincent La Padula, formerly the chief of staff of DoITT, as the Senior Advisor to the Mayor. His job will be in part to oversee DoITT.

Time Warner Cable, on the other hand, is clearly this tale's villain. As of this writing two months after his cable first broke down, he still has not received any written correspondence from Time Warner Cable in response to his letters, and this is not the only explicit company policy the company has broken in this case. It claims on its web site, for example, that it respects the schedules of its busy customers and aims to limit waiting around for appointment (In all but one of the appointments, they repair technicians showed up later than the latest time they said they would). The representatives also have told him that in their computers they only have a record of two appointments made with him, not the nine that the repair technicians actually made with him, which is contrary to Time Warner Cable's policy of recording all appointments in its customer database.

Was all this just a fluke, or is this the norm in cable customer service?

In fact, the number of complaints against cable companies in New York City went up 50 percent from August to September, and surged once more in the month of October, according to the New York State Public Service Commission. Time Warner Cable's complaints in Brooklyn alone more than quadrupled from September to October. In fairness, these Brooklyn October complaints numbered only 21 (up from four in September). In the whole state, in the month of October, the cable company Cablevision received 84 complaints and Time Warner Cable received 135, 39 of them in Manhattan. And the New York Better Business Bureau, based on the small number of complaints it receives, lists Time Warner Cable as having a satisfactory record, meaning in part that it is free of an unusual volume of complaints.

Anecdotal evidence suggests many customers do not go to the trouble of making official complaints to the relevant regulatory agencies, so these numbers may not reflect the true level of dissatisfaction . But they are all we have to go on. Still, even accepting the official complaints as an accurate gauge, it is clear that the numbers have gone up dramatically in the last few months. The level of dissatisfaction is on the rise.

Is this a reflection of anti-consumer policies, or is there another explanation?

The cable company offers another explanation. Harriet Novet, a spokeswoman for Time Warner Cable, explained the surge in complaints in Brooklyn, for example, to the fact that many technicians were borrowed from that borough to aid in the round-the-clock efforts at the Mayor's Command Center in Manhattan. And, in general, the events of September 11th resulted in significant increased requests for cable, and that is what caused busy phone lines and extended waits for appointments. According to Time Warner Cable's web site, they are in need of more technicians, and they are hiring them.

This is of course a compelling response. Cable is widely regarded as the savior of news and information following September 11 as a result of interrupted broadcast and radio transmissions. (Many broadcast stations used the antenna on top of the Twin Towers.)

But this does not explain how, despite reduced customer service (for whatever reason), the cable companies can justify their decision to raise their rates by up to seven percent on February 1. This means that Time Warner Cable customers will pay about $2.70 more for standard cable service. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), last year, cable rates were increased by as much as 5.8 percent. So, why is the government backing Yet another rate increase now during a period of recession and low inflation (and poor service)?

Time Warner Cable attributes the increase to increased programming costs. Last year, the FCC reported that programming costs accounted for 41.4 to 44.1 percent of increases. But a Time Warner Cable's spokeswoman has claimed in the press that 85 percent of the current increase comes from "purchasing programming, especially sports," referring to an increase in the cost of ESPN programs. This is roughly double the amount of the rate increase justified by programming in 2000. What about customers who do not even watch sports?

Keeping prices reasonable is not the only priority of consumers. We also expect good quality service. As a member of the New York Better Business Bureau's 2001 Honesty Campaign, Time Warner Cable is officially committed to business integrity, trustworthiness and good standing in the community. So are they reneging on their commitment? Are we going to be paying more but getting less in customer service?

Their customers are the ones who know. And you must report your complaints to the appropriate local, state and federal agencies (the addresses of some of which are on your cable bill). In the future, New York will benefit if more customers set aside their status as passive consumers and take action as citizens.

Why not tell us too?

Corporate Complaints:
Waiting weeks for utility installation? Spending hours on the phone waiting to speak with a customer service representative? Who would you nominate as the Worst Corporate Citizen of New York? Did the city do anything to help? Tell us your story. Please e-mail with subject head "Corporate Complaints" to info@gothamgazette.com. Thank you.

At a time when Time Warner Cable has announced that it is raising its rates once again, at more than triple the rate of inflation, it has lowered its standards of service to its customers.

That at least is the experience of one customer who called me irate and frustrated -- and since he had a good tale to tell (and also because he is my editor), I listened. He had telephoned Time Warner to send somebody to repair his cable, because the reception was full of snow. It took an astonishing nine appointments over a period of six weeks, about 60 hours of waiting -- four days home from the office -- conversations with about 30 representatives from Time Warner AND they accidentally cut his telephone lines while attempting to fix his cable service. Oops.

He wrote a letter to Time Warner Cable's director of customer service. The company claims that all complaints are answered within two business days of receipt and that matters are resolved within 10 days. But he did not receive any letter in response after more than a month of waiting, and matters were certainly not resolved. So he sent a second letter to the director - only this time, he sent a copy to three agencies: the New York Better Business Bureau, the New York State Public Service Commission, the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT)

The response was swift and excessive. Not only has his cable been fixed, but representatives from two different departments of Time Warner Cable, customer service and public affairs, have been calling HIM on the telephone (rather than the other way around). Each time they make reference to "the letter you wrote to the city." It is the New York Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, then, that is the hero of this tale. And there is some evidence that they will continue to be the heroes, with Michael Bloomberg's appointment on December 19 of Vincent La Padula, formerly the chief of staff of DoITT, as the Senior Advisor to the Mayor. His job will be in part to oversee DoITT.

Time Warner Cable, on the other hand, is clearly this tale's villain. As of this writing two months after his cable first broke down, he still has not received any written correspondence from Time Warner Cable in response to his letters, and this is not the only explicit company policy the company has broken in this case. It claims on its web site, for example, that it respects the schedules of its busy customers and aims to limit waiting around for appointment (In all but one of the appointments, they repair technicians showed up later than the latest time they said they would). The representatives also have told him that in their computers they only have a record of two appointments made with him, not the nine that the repair technicians actually made with him, which is contrary to Time Warner Cable's policy of recording all appointments in its customer database.

Was all this just a fluke, or is this the norm in cable customer service?

In fact, the number of complaints against cable companies in New York City went up 50 percent from August to September, and surged once more in the month of October, according to the New York State Public Service Commission. Time Warner Cable's complaints in Brooklyn alone more than quadrupled from September to October. In fairness, these Brooklyn October complaints numbered only 21 (up from four in September). In the whole state, in the month of October, the cable company Cablevision received 84 complaints and Time Warner Cable received 135, 39 of them in Manhattan. And the New York Better Business Bureau, based on the small number of complaints it receives, lists Time Warner Cable as having a satisfactory record, meaning in part that it is free of an unusual volume of complaints.

Anecdotal evidence suggests many customers do not go to the trouble of making official complaints to the relevant regulatory agencies, so these numbers may not reflect the true level of dissatisfaction . But they are all we have to go on. Still, even accepting the official complaints as an accurate gauge, it is clear that the numbers have gone up dramatically in the last few months. The level of dissatisfaction is on the rise.

Is this a reflection of anti-consumer policies, or is there another explanation?

The cable company offers another explanation. Harriet Novet, a spokeswoman for Time Warner Cable, explained the surge in complaints in Brooklyn, for example, to the fact that many technicians were borrowed from that borough to aid in the round-the-clock efforts at the Mayor's Command Center in Manhattan. And, in general, the events of September 11th resulted in significant increased requests for cable, and that is what caused busy phone lines and extended waits for appointments. According to Time Warner Cable's web site, they are in need of more technicians, and they are hiring them.

This is of course a compelling response. Cable is widely regarded as the savior of news and information following September 11 as a result of interrupted broadcast and radio transmissions. (Many broadcast stations used the antenna on top of the Twin Towers.)

But this does not explain how, despite reduced customer service (for whatever reason), the cable companies can justify their decision to raise their rates by up to seven percent on February 1. This means that Time Warner Cable customers will pay about $2.70 more for standard cable service. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), last year, cable rates were increased by as much as 5.8 percent. So, why is the government backing Yet another rate increase now during a period of recession and low inflation (and poor service)?

Time Warner Cable attributes the increase to increased programming costs. Last year, the FCC reported that programming costs accounted for 41.4 to 44.1 percent of increases. But a Time Warner Cable's spokeswoman has claimed in the press that 85 percent of the current increase comes from "purchasing programming, especially sports," referring to an increase in the cost of ESPN programs. This is roughly double the amount of the rate increase justified by programming in 2000. What about customers who do not even watch sports?

Keeping prices reasonable is not the only priority of consumers. We also expect good quality service. As a member of the New York Better Business Bureau's 2001 Honesty Campaign, Time Warner Cable is officially committed to business integrity, trustworthiness and good standing in the community. So are they reneging on their commitment? Are we going to be paying more but getting less in customer service?

Their customers are the ones who know. And you must report your complaints to the appropriate local, state and federal agencies (the addresses of some of which are on your cable bill). In the future, New York will benefit if more customers set aside their status as passive consumers and take action as citizens.

Why not tell us too?

Corporate Complaints:
Waiting weeks for utility installation? Spending hours on the phone waiting to speak with a customer service representative? Who would you nominate as the Worst Corporate Citizen of New York? Did the city do anything to help? Tell us your story. Please e-mail with subject head "Corporate Complaints" to info@gothamgazette.com. Thank you. Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Changes Ahead?


It's now been more than a year since the Supreme Court stepped in to bring the 2000 Presidential election to its unsatisfying conclusion. The Court's intervention embittered many Americans who believed that votes should not be left uncounted and miscounted. But the events surrounding the election brought an important consolation for advocates of a more open and vibrant democracy - the election debacle triggered an intense focus on the sorry state of our voting processes. The dirty little secret of our democracy had been made public - and at long last, it seemed, something would be done. From all corners, we heard cries for reform and promises of upgrades, new standards, and resources for improvement.

Bills were introduced, commissions formed, and reports issued. But where are we, one year later? For the most part, the way Americans vote will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future despite vigorous calls for improvement from reformers and particularly from African-American communities, where the history of disenfranchisement is too fresh to be brushed aside as bureaucratic business as usual. (As readers of this column and the Gotham Gazette well know, the experience of the 2000 elections prompted a fierce and partially successful effort in New York City to force the Board of Elections to improve its procedures for the 2001 City elections.)

Most notably, at the federal level, progress toward some reforms is just now emerging. In mid-December, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a compromise bill that promises unprecedented federal financial support for state and local improvement of election procedures - $2.65 billion is allocated to the states to improve their election systems, including $400 million to replace the notorious punchcard machines that gave the country "hanging" and "dimpled" chads.

But that's where the good news ends. The bill fails to address the most obvious defects uncovered after the 2000 presidential election. It includes no minimum standards for voting machine errors - and thus, fails to provide a federal safeguard to ensure that votes will be counted equally in all states. The bill does not require new machines, even those purchased with federal money, provide voters a chance to correct errors in voting. Again, if we learned anything from Florida's experience, it's that these are critical safeguards.

In addition, the House bill does not grant voters the right to cast a provisional ballot when their name does not appear on the poll list (New York voters already have this right). It also does nothing to improve access for those with disabilities and even takes a step backward by allowing states to purge voters who missed two successive federal elections.

The story in the Senate is much more hopeful. A bipartisan bill that appears on the verge of passing included these critical safeguards. That bill would set minimum standards for the accuracy and accessibility of voting systems. Also, under the Senate bill, voting technology that would allow a voter to verify and correct mistakes on his or her ballot would be required by 2006. All states would be required to offer provisional ballots.

While almost every state convened a commission to study their election process, only a handful have made significant progress in reforming their election in the past year. Florida, the obvious poster child, quickly enacted a comprehensive election modernization program that would overhaul the vote counting rules, improve election administration, and bring in new voting technology. Georgia and Maryland also passed statewide reforms. Many states are apparently waiting to see whether Congress is going to provide money for upgrading the voting systems before they commit state money from their treasuries already depleted by the recession.

New York, like most states, is still studying its problems, which include antiquated machinery and a tradition of mismanagement that routinely disenfranchises voters. The Governor's Task Force on Election Modernization issued a tepid interim report in May and is promising a more comprehensive report and recommendations by April 2002. The Task Force addressed the problems with the state's voting machines, recommended more study, and a handful of suggestions to improve machine maintenance while the state awaits the upgrade in technology. Remarkably, the Task Force took little notice of the state's consistent failures to comply with the National Voter Registration Act ("motor voter"), which permits voter registration when applying for a driver's license and public benefits, and other concerns relating to the management of voter registration lists. Perhaps the final report will squarely face the mismanagement issues and other problems.

The flaws in our electoral process will continue to undermine our democracy - even as we should be making it stronger. The 2002 elections are just around the corner - and in no time at all, we will be facing another presidential election. Most Americans want a better election system - and believe that everyone's vote should have equal chance of being counted. Passage of the Senate bill - and then its embrace by the House and the President - is an important first step toward real reform.

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.

The Remarkable Victory


Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg's victory was, in every way, on every level, remarkable. It was an historical first: no Republican has ever succeeded a Republican in the mayor's office, in the city's history. No Republican has been elected mayor more than once every generation.

No mayor has ever inherited such a crisis, at any time, anywhere. The issues of financial solvency, and security, and preparedness, and disaster relief, must not blot out the very real issues of running the day to day affairs of this incredible city, the place eight million of us call home. And so the thrill of victory came quietly, and passed quickly, and the Bloomberg campaign began the transition.

That sentiment is appropriate, and those preparations are crucial. But history has been made, nonetheless, and while it is too soon to tell if the Bloomberg victory represents a major change in the way New York City elects its leaders, it may be useful to revisit some assumptions, some of which I put forth in this space over the past year, and take a look at what may have changed when Mike Bloomberg declared victory.

1. "Endorsements matter, or not, depending on who you talk to."
The endorsement by Mayor Rudy Giuliani was a crucial component of the Bloomberg victory. While the endorsement alone would not have guaranteed anyone the victory, I think it is safe to say Bloomberg could not have won without it. This is a momentous shift in electoral politics.

Endorsements have long been seen as a way to increase a candidate's stature, or to deliver one small, loyal block of voters, or to decorate a campaign with a well-known name. Never before has an endorsement had the effect of cha nging the dynamics of a campaign the way this endorsement did. When Rudy Giuliani came out with his public support of Michael Bloomberg, New Yorkers stopped and listened. They took his advice at face value, and believed him when he said that Bloomberg would be the best choice to lead the city. This level of trust and response, while clearly a mark of the respect people have for Mayor Giuliani during this crisis, is still a remarkable development.

2. "Democrats vote for Democrats, Republicans vote for Republicans."
If you want to find out how someone is going to vote, and you can only ask her one question, what do you ask? Even more effective than asking them whom they are going to vote for (sometimes people don't remember the candidates' names) is to ask their party registration. People vote their party. And in New York, where registration is roughly five to one Democratic, that means people vote for Democrats.

It is true that people cross party lines, and that was the case in 1997 when Mayor Giuliani was re-elected with an overwhelming majority, and it was the case in 1993 when he narrowly edged out the sitting mayor, David Dinkins. (Michael Bloomberg's victory was definitive when compared to the close race Giuliani won in 1993).

But the fact that people have voted a Republican into office before, and recently, only makes it more remarkable that it would happen again. An exception to the rule must have a powerful force of persuasion behind it, and that persuasion has to be greater, not less, each time the exception is made.

On election night, as I watched the returns come in, I saw in every down-ballot race (other than mayor) what I would have expected: Democrats elected with sixty, or seventy percent of the vote, while Republicans (if there were any Republicans running) garnering a vote percentage in the teens, sometimes breaking twenty percent. This is a Democratic town, with Democratic elected officials, and Democratic organizations, and Democratic voters. The most competitive elections are Democratic primaries. The prohibitive frontrunner in every election is the Democratic nominee.

To run as a Republican in New York is to start off with a perception problem: it seems that no one with any reasonable ambition of public service would run as a Republican if he or she bothered to glance at the city's voter registration numbers. Michael Bloomberg knew this, and his decision to run as a Republican was a strategic one: a straight shot at the nomination on the plus side, but on the downside, having to overcome a tremendous party registration deficit and a considerable perception problem.

Bloomberg was able to neutralize the perception problem by running a professional campaign with a reasonable message and a broad-based coalition of support. He was not a zealot, and he was running to win. But that still did not mean a level playing field.

Before he could convince voters that he was the right choice, he had to convince them to put aside their loyalty to their party's nominee. The fact that he was able to do so is a testament not only to the strength of his campaign, but to the weakness of the Democratic machine. Whether this is a sign of things to come, or simply an anomaly present in the last three elections, may not be clear even now. But when major shifts in political behavior are recognized, they are usually acknowledged to have started long before. A pattern can't be identified until it is well established. New York may not be headed for Republican political dominance. But the weight of Democratic dominance has shifted, maybe for a long time to come.

3. "Negative campaigning is an effective political tool."
I realized that Michael Bloomberg was going to win the mayor's race about a week before the election. I was sitting at home, watching television, and a political ad came on. The fact that it was a negative ad didn't surprise me, and even the tone and content, with its grainy photographs and lurid accusations, didn't in and of itself catch me off guard. But the realization that it was coming from Mark Green, aimed at Mike Bloomberg, shocked me into full attention.

Negative advertising is a strategic choice. It is based on the widely held and often proven assumption that negative ads, even though they may not be liked, are very effective. People may not enjoy being told about a candidate's bad decisions, or bad judgement, or bad behavior, but they process the information and carry it with them into the voting booth. Negative advertising may not be very nice, but it works.

But it is also a strategy, and it can be a risky one: turning voters against your opponent, at the risk of turning voters off altogether, or worse, turning them against you as well. Which is why I was so shocked to see the Green camp taking such a risk. Only a campaign that is seeing their numbers drop, and their opponent's numbers rise, would consider making such a costly political move. The realization that the Green camp was behind, and desperate, and launching their last-ditch effort was astounding.

Campaigning is about making choices. Both candidates in this campaign had choices available to them, and it would be true to say both campaigns engaged in negative advertising. But all negative ads are not created equal, and voters are well able to tell the difference.

Any communication that focuses on your opponent can be defined as negative. A negative ad can draw a contrast, or raise a question, or present information. To be effective, a negative ad has to be true, meticulously well documented, relevant, timely, and it must be seen as fair play. Bloomberg ran several negative ads, one using Mark Green's own ill-considered words against him, and another using the critical words of prominent Democrats. The ads were well done, they were effective, and clearly they hit their mark.

The ads that Mark Green ran in the final days of this campaign were ad hominem attacks against Michael Bloomberg the man, not the candidate. They were unfocused and vague even in the viciousness of the accusations they made. They were completely out of step with a city and a citizenry trying to focus on healing and unity, and their greatest sin, in my opinion, they looked and sounded as though they had been slapped together in a few hours (which they probably had). These particular ads were new to me, but I recognized them at once: they are the political equivalent of a campaign's dying breath.

Whether there was a time when such tactics would have allowed Mark Green to regain his once "insurmountable" lead, I do not know. But I have a feeling that time is gone, at least for a while. We realize right now, in a way we may not have before, that while cynicism can be healthy, disenchantment can be dangerous. And there is a difference. And that difference is important.

Bloomberg's campaign victory pales in comparison to what it precedes. Michael Bloomberg will be our new mayor, in a time and a place that no one has ever seen, and few could have imagined. And while that will, and should be our focus in the days ahead, it is still true to say that his campaign represented one of the biggest upsets in New York political history.

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.

10-Digit Dialing


In recent years, exploding demand for phone numbers has pushed the classic Manhattan 212 area code to its limits, our desire for mobility requiring new area codes for cell phones so that we can be reached anywhere, anytime. Enter 917, 646 and 347 - and the era of 10-digit dialing.

Normally, in places where more than one area code is used for the same geographic area, the Federal Communications Commission requires that callers dial area codes for local calls. So, if the FCC has its way, you will now have to dial 212 to call your next-door neighbor in Manhattan. Ten-digit dialing will also require telephone systems to be reprogrammed, including emergency 911 computers and private security systems.

It is that fact that the government of New York and an array of state agencies are using in a petition to delay 10-digit dialing here for another 14 months. Reprogramming errors, they say, could lead to problems with emergency services, which would be undesirable in this uncertain time for New York.

More generally, New York believes that 10-digit dialing is costly, complicated and unnecessary. Senior citizens, children, sight-impaired and other New Yorkers with disabilities may face challenges adopting to the new system. 10-digit dialing would require a huge consumer education campaign to educate people about how to make calls with the new system and updating phone books to reflect the changes.

The FCC counters that 10-digit dialing is one way to promote competition in telecommunications markets, which is one of their priorities. Forcing people to dial area codes only for new numbers, the FCC argues, is unfair discrimination against new telecommunication companies. For example, currently, you have to dial the area codes for 646, 917 and 347 but not for 212 or 718 (if you are calling from within these area codes). The FCC says that this amounts to an anti-competitive practice designed to keep the established phone companies in control of the 212 and 718 numbers.

In response, New York agencies have introduced a series of policies that they hope will foster competition in the telecommunications market without the hassle of 10-digit dialing. These programs include telephone number portability (you can take your phone number with you when you move) and telephone number pooling (numbers no longer in use with be redistributed equally to all telecommunications companies).

It is not clear whether New York's request for delay of 10-digit dialing is really a response to the World Trade Center attacks, or merely an excuse for New York to put off the implementation of a federal plan that it has resisted since the beginning. While New York telecommunication companies do have costly challenges ahead in rebuilding infrastructure damaged in the attacks, there may not be sufficient reason to delay 10-digit calling. There has been much sympathy from Washington following the attacks, however, the FCC may prefer to get back to business as usual as so many are trying to do in these difficult times.

In the end, New Yorkers will have to adopt the federally mandated 10-digit dialing plan in the next few years. That is, unless there are some creative legal tactics that New York has not tried yet. So, get out your digits.

Next Month: Cable Crisis
Waiting weeks to have your cable TV installed? Spending hours on the phone waiting to speak with your cable company? Would you nominate your cable company as the Worst Corporate Citizen of New York? Did the city do anything to help? Tell me your story. Please e-mail with subject head "Cable Complaints" to info@gothamgazette.com.

Thank you. Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

Outlook From City Hall


If Michael Bloomberg were still a private citizen, we might expect him to step in to help the arts in this moment of looming budgetary cutbacks. He gave away $300 million in the past five years, and sat on the boards of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lincoln Center. Now that the philanthropist is in City Hall, what can we expect for the arts?

The Mayor's inaugural speech was a marvel of can-do optimism laced with hard-nosed business speak: he singled out the arts in a list of the city's economic strengths, and then, in nearly the same breath, hinted that cultural organizations will have to be put on the back burner, for now. "We will bring new life to our waterfront and stimulate new investment in housing, schools," he promised, "and when we can afford them, the world's best cultural and athletic facilities." His logic is irrefutable: Most people would not want to put the arts before homeless people or schoolchildren. Yet, arts organizations are extremely vulnerable to cuts; and their weakness has ripple effects throughout the city.

"I would very much like to see a stable year for the arts community in terms of funding," says Norma Munn, chair of the New York City Arts Coalition. "I understand that the budget is tough. But I am also cognizant of the fact that the last time we had a 20 percent reduction, in 1992, it took six or seven years for the arts to recover. This may be one cut that is self-defeating."

Perhaps the best news is that Bloomberg has already gained a reputation as a pragmatist; surely he understands that the arts are one of the city's major engines, intimately connected to the spiritual and financial well-being of our communities. High up on Bloomberg's to-do list has to be getting the tourists to come back to New York. In January, tourism was still down almost 15 percent, and analysts do not expect it to rebound to pre-Sept. 11 levels until 2003. European tourists in particular are staying away, hurting museums like the Met and the Guggenheim, which rely heavily on their patronage. Nathan Leventhal, the former head of Lincoln Center and a long-time arts advocate, is now part of Bloomberg's team. He has had direct experience with an organization that relies heavily on tourism, and we can expect that he will pay attention to how the drops in tourism affect the arts.

Another key appointment, of Patricia Harris as deputy mayor, is being warmly received in the arts community. Virginia Louloudes, of Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York , told me that she is "thrilled" with Bloomberg's appointment of Harris, who has a background in philanthropy, the arts, and business. Harris ran the Art Commission under Mayor Koch and then oversaw Bloomberg L.P.'s corporate communications and philanthropic operations. As deputy mayor, she will oversee the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Louloudes is also pleased with the choice of a theater person, Kate Levin, as the new cultural commissioner. Levin, a CUNY professor of Renaissance drama and a director of rarely done plays of that period, has worked for the city before, as well as for the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "We are going to be looking to the mayor, deputy mayor, and the commissioner for leadership," Louloudes says, "to make the case that the arts attract business to the city. Corporations and the arts need each other more than ever now."

Ted Berger, executive director of the New York Foundation for the Arts, echoes Louloudes. "Given the mayor's philanthropist background, he has an interesting opportunity to challenge the private sector--in particular we need the private sector to get more involved with a broader range of organizations, to look at what's happening in neighborhoods, smaller arts organizations, as well as big institutions."

Last fall, the New York Foundation for the Arts released "Culture Counts," a comprehensive study of New York's arts community. From interviews and information gathered in the report, it became clear that the Department of Cultural Affairs--which turns 30 this year--is in need of reform. Subject to cuts under the Giuliani administration, the agency now finds itself desperately understaffed. "Culture Counts" revealed that, among many arts organizations, there are perceptions of unfairness in the department's funding practices. Better explanations of policy would go a long way toward counteracting perceptions of bias; and, as Ted Berger suggests, prompt payment of grants would also be a great improvement.

The best news: arts organizations will not have to worry about free-speech issues while they try to pay the rent. Bloomberg doesn't have a conservative constituency to answer to, and he is not likely to follow in Giuliani's footsteps and wage battles against "obscene" art.

THE BROADWAY SHUFFLE

In the 1920s, Mayor Jimmy Walker patronized Broadway theater--and the speakeasies that sprang up along the Great White Way--with such regularity and zeal that he was known as "The Night Mayor of New York." Broadway hasn't had such a good friend in City Hall since, though Giuliani came close in his publicity efforts for Broadway post-9/11. Governor Pataki followed Giuliani's lead by teaming with the League of American Theatres and Producers in an ambitious promotion for Broadway--the "Season of Savings" campaign, which was unveiled in early January. With Broadway ticket sales still down as much as 15 percent at the end of the month, Mayor Bloomberg has stepped up to the plate to pitch for "New York Loves America: The Broadway Tour." We're back to the 1920s, when Broadway shows toured around the country before opening in New York: this particular tour, a musical revue to 14 cities beginning January 26, is designed to recognize American's support for New York City, post-9/11--and to ensure their continued patronage.

The nonprofit theater sector has not benefited from this kind of government attention or largesse. The city's 400 nonprofits--which include major institutions like Lincoln Center and the Roundabout--have lost millions in the months since September. While there are some bitter feelings off-Broadway, most nonprofits cannot afford to wait for help, and have begun to organize and promote themselves.

In Mayor Walker's day, all theater was essentially Broadway, and it offered hundreds of plays a year, by talents as diverse as Noel Coward, Gertrude Stein, George Kaufman, and Mae West. Today, much of the experimentation and new work is nurtured in the nonprofit sector. As arts organizations continue to deal with the financial hardships caused by drops in tourism and funding, it would behoove our new mayor to consider the well-being of all of the city's theaters--big and small, on Broadway and off.

 

Choosing Your Power


Most New Yorkers know they can choose their own local, long-distance, mobile phone and Internet service provider. After all, everyone has gotten countless telephone calls from salesmen trying to entice us with discounts and freebies to switch to their service. But, few New Yorkers realize that they can also save money by choosing our own energy company. Despite this, we are continually leaving our lights, air conditioning and computers on all day, and jumping at the sight of our Con Edison bills.

Just as you pay bills to Verizon, but can get long-distance from AT&T or Sprint, so Con Edison can still deliver your energy even if you get it from someone else. In the past three years, over 100,000 customers have decided to choose alternate energy suppliers. However, this is only a small portion of Con Edison's three million customers in New York City and Westchester County.

Why haven't more customers chosen their own energy companies? Many of us still do not know what the benefits are. Others may be skeptical of energy companies that they have not heard of. Still others may be reluctant to pay two separate bills depending on their new energy provider's billing system. Others may not be confident in this fairly new program. And many simply do not know about it, because the marketing has not been as aggressive.

Recently, Con Edison launched a new program called "Power Your Way" in order to inform customers of their choices. You should have received a brochure about this program with your recent energy bill. The New York State Department of Public Service also provides detailed information to consumers interested in choosing our own energy services companies (ESCOs). The Public Service Commission encourages the public to participate in the evaluation of this program by offering their views and opinions via their web site or by phone.

The cost of gas and electricity represents more than 50 percent of your utility bill. So, while the delivery of energy stays more or less the same, you might be able to save money by switching to a supplier with pricing or service plans that better meet your needs. For example, energy services companies offer either fixed-rate and variable pricing plans. One company, ECONnergy promises you an annual savings of 10 percent. In addition, some energy companies offer special services to better estimate your gas and electric use.

The Power Your Way program includes over 20 additional energy service companies for homes and almost 30 for businesses, all of which have been approved by the New York State Public Service Commission. When evaluating companies, you should compare the Market Supply Price that they offer for gas and electricity.

Prior to 1996, New York State's regulations did not allow more than one gas supplier in each market. Thus, consumers could not choose among different energy providers. However, in 1996, gas was deregulated, meaning that the government removed the regulations in order to encourage more competition between energy providers. Usually, having more firms in each market decreases the price of the utility because customers will be able to choose the company with the lowest price. Similarly, in 1998, competition was introduced into the electricity market.

In California, deregulation of electricity markets failed miserably and led to soaring power prices. California laws allowed consumers to choose their own and be billed directly by their electricity company. But, it placed a limit on the prices that could be charged. So, when their costs went up, the utility companies nearly went bankrupt. Last month, state utility regulators revoked the right of Californians to choose their own electricity company.

New York State's program differs from California's in that the Public Service Commission has not imposed a price cap. Thus if energy costs rise, your bill will go up too. This should help to safeguard against draining energy companies of cash and credit when gas and electric costs increase.

If you choose a new energy provider, Con Edison will still deliver your energy and provide emergency service. But, Con Edison has sold most of its power plants in order to help encourage competition, so it no longer produces the energy it delivers to your home or business. Depending on the company you choose, your new bill may include charges from Con Edison or you may receive two bills, one for energy supply and one for delivery. In fact, you could end up receiving three separate bills, one for gas, one for electric and one for delivery.

As the autumn weather gets cooler, reminding us to take out our wool sweaters and turn up the heat, New Yorkers may want to take some time out to scrutinize our energy bills. In this tight economy, even a small monthly savings on gas and electric may help cut costs in the long run.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.



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