Gotham Gazette

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Opening a Beer Hall in the Bronx: Lessons in Trial and Error

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The Bronx Beer Hall (photo: Brian Nobili)

The following entry is part of The Small Business Corner, a collaboration between Gotham Gazette and GoBizNYC:

Recently, GoBizNYC met with Bronxites Anthony Ramirez II, Paul Ramirez, and John Martin to discuss their experience starting up The Bronx Beer Hall. Located in the historic Arthur Avenue Retail Market, The Bronx Beer Hall was founded in February 2013 and has since become an indelible part of the community. Anthony and John are serial entrepreneurs — in 2006, they founded Mainland Media, a company that sells Bronx-themed merchandise designed by local artists.

The team's ongoing mission is to find success while promoting the Bronx and it has earned tremendous local support. In the early stages of starting their business, however, the three had a tough time identifying information about what was required of New York small business owners to satisfy government regulations. To its credit, the City does provide resources about business regulations through the NYC Business internet portal as well as the NYC Business Solutions and NYC Business Acceleration services. New Small Business Services Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer has outlined her vision for helping small business owners and budding entrepreneurs.

The Bronx Beer Hall founders discovered, though, that every business faces unique challenges and becoming a fully compliant owner and employer can be a process of trial and error. Their experience is informative of what many small business owners go through in attempting to realize their goals. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

Why a beer hall? Why the Bronx?

Beer halls are inherently communal spaces. There are about 130 beer halls across the five boroughs now, but just one in the Bronx when we opened. But this is not just a beer hall. It's not just a bar. It's a celebration of the community. Everything we sell is locally brewed within New York State, if not in the Bronx. And our food is sourced from within the market or within the neighborhood, so we're supportive of other local businesses as well.

What were the biggest challenges of starting up your business? How did you overcome these challenges?

It's not as easy as saying you're a business and that's it. It's not just shaking hands. You have to do your research. There are government regulations to comply with. There are taxes to pay. There is paperwork to file and legal entities to form.

When it came down to the beer hall itself, we had to learn all the little intricate things you never think about. We've all gone to bars. I know how to order a drink very well. But I didn't know anything about health codes, inspections, or liquor licenses. None of us had actually owned a bar before. I know for a fact that if we opened a bar again, we'd do things differently.

Did you have any guidance during this process?

We hired a lawyer who claimed he had experience in helping restaurants and bars open and had been doing this forever. Turns out we should've hired a different lawyer. He was very quick to make promises, saying: "I can get you this, easy!" or "Yeah, I'll get you a liquor license in two weeks!" No one can get a liquor license in two weeks. It's going to take several months. Don't tell me two weeks. If I plan on opening a bar in November, I now have to wait until February. You're paying for these kinds of things and there's just no way of knowing if you're working with someone who really knows what they're doing.

We've since learned that there are many things we could've easily done on our own without having to pay somebody else to do it. Lots of people try to take advantage of you because you don't know what you're doing. But in this day and age, often you can just go online and file a form. You don't need to pay somebody $400 to do it. We just didn't know it at the time.

What has been your experience in dealing with government regulations? What could the government do to better support businesses like yours?

At the beginning, we had no idea we had to pay our taxes quarterly, which was a problem. Reminder notifications definitely would've been nice. The only notifications we ever got were late ones saying: 'You didn't pay your sales tax. Now we're going to fine you and you have to pay your sales tax.' And we're like, 'Our company only has $1,000. I hope we still have a company after we pay the fine.' But the thing is, we were collecting the sales tax. We just didn't know when to pay it.

And it wasn't clear what we were required to do when we had staff. Now we know more, but at the time, we were writing out checks by hand. I remember, for the first two or three weeks, we weren't taking out enough taxes. Our staff was getting overpaid and we owed the government X amount of money.

Those were the early days. Those sorts of things were trial and error for us. But we got better at all of it. I know it's easy to say and hard to do, but if there was a "You're starting a restaurant or bar in New York City! This is what you need to be aware of" guide, that would've been very helpful.

Have you worked with the City's Department of Small Business Services (SBS) at all? They provide such a guide along with other resources.

When we were starting Mainland Media, we reached out to SBS, but it was too difficult for us to meet with them. So we ended up doing everything on our own, which is what we're used to doing. Honestly, I didn't even think to go back to SBS when we were starting up the beer hall more recently. It didn't even occur to us that those services were around.

Any final reflections on your experience of starting up The Bronx Beer Hall?

We've been active in the Bronx and in the community for awhile, so we had a lot of people we could reach out to for help. But if we didn't already have a strong support system and experience building a business with Mainland Media, we would've been lost. So, if you're someone with a great idea in the Bronx or New York without that kind of support system, I don't see how you would be able to cut it.

Victor Wong is the Director of Business Outreach & GoBizNYC at the Partnership for New York City


To make or discuss a submission for The Small Business Corner:

Reach GoBizNYC Director Victor Wong at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Reach Gotham Gazette Executive Editor Ben Max at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Small Business Corner is a bi-weekly column featuring the opinions and perspectives of small business owners and advocates from the GoBizNYC network on the range of issues that concern the city's small businesses.

To all New York City small business owners and advocates: we hope this new platform, The Small Business Corner, will better enable you to engage in the local policy conversation and we look to you to support us in this endeavor by sharing your thoughts, experiences, and voices. To learn more about how you can be a part of GoBizNYC and participate in this effort, visit


March Shows Changing Climate for City Protest


Protestors during Occupy Wall Street (photo: AP Photo/Louis Lanzano)

As illustrated by its slick subway ad campaign, and the participation of leading political figures including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, this Sunday's People's Climate March intends to make a dramatic statement.

Led by the environmental activist group, the event's organizers promise the "largest climate change march in history." With numerous labor and community organizations on-board, it's likely that the protest will reach its goal of bringing 150-200,000 people to NYC streets.

But the mostly low-profile route of the march suggests that the right to protest on the streets of NYC remains under assault.

Departing from Columbus Circle, participants will head down 6th Avenue to 42nd Street, then move along 42nd to 11th Avenue, where they will hold various activities. The route straddles, but does not proceed through, Times Square.

Flash-back for a moment to the June 1982 anti-nuclear protest, when nearly one million people descended on the Great Lawn. Over the last decade, the city has tried to insulate many of its most symbolic spaces from demonstrations, with the Bloomberg administration denying access to both the U.N. and Great Lawn for Iraq War protests in 2003-4.

Sunday's event coincides with the U.N. climate summit that opens next Tuesday. With security procedures taking effect this weekend, a march ending at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza was not an option. Organizers thus aimed for the route to proceed through Times Square, enabling the protest to call attention to a global problem at "The Crossroads of the World."

Leslie Cagan, a main organizer of the Iraq War marches, led the negotiations for the People's Climate March. As she explains, the NYPD's representatives, made up primarily of commanders from Manhattan South, stated from the outset that Times Square was not an option—a position Cagan sums up as "just because."

Meanwhile, NYPD officials seemed in no hurry to finalize the route. According to Cagan, the "slow-moving" process took over four months after the first meeting in April.

Throughout the negotiations, leaders from various unions and community organizations participating in the march reached out to City Hall. Cagan says that the resulting meetings with de Blasio administration higher-ups showed that there was an "easier, friendlier" attitude towards street protest prevailing in the post-Bloomberg era.

Even so, the march route seems to lack symbolic value.

"We got most of what we wanted," says Paul Getsos, National Coordinator for He stresses that the stretch along 42nd Street will enable participants to make their case at the entrance to Times Square.

Getsos also envisions that the stretch of 11th Avenue (from 42nd down to 34th) where the march ends will become a "celebratory, community-oriented" space, full of meet-up tables, artwork and various musical performances. According to Cagan, the NYPD raised no objection to organizers' requests for this area.

What's being billed as a history-making event thus ends at a nebulous location. And it's highly doubtful that by nightfall, the NYPD will allow the Javits Center and surrounding area to become anything resembling Zuccotti Park.

In part because they see the march as destined to be ineffectual, a variety of climate activists are planning "to flood Wall Street" on Monday. By denying access to places like Times Square for peaceful protest, city officials are thus spurring more disruptive direct action confrontations.

The current mayor may be more sympathetic to demonstrations, but the real problem is that his office doesn't control access to public space. While the NYPD decides what happens on city streets, the parks department has placed numerous restrictions on events at the Great Lawn.

One solution is for the mayor or public advocate to directly oversee the protest permit process, rather than let city agencies run the show. After all, if their voice is muted on the city's streets, the masses can at least hold elected officials accountable in the voting booth.

Theodore Hamm is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph's College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.


Do you have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Send it to Executive Editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Solving Our Voter Turnout Crisis

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Mayor de Blasio casting his vote on primary day (photo: @BilldeBlasio)

Last week's Democratic gubernatorial primary saw shockingly low turnout among New York voters - less than 10% of the state's 5.8 million registered Democrats cast a ballot.

Except no one is shocked.

The latest sign of distress in our democracy didn't turn many heads because it was expected; another plot point on a downward sloping trend line, both here in New York and nationally. Our voter turnout crisis is very real and should be troubling to anyone who cares about democracy, responsible government, and good public policy.

A primary day tweet from the account of Mayor Bill de Blasio reads, "Do your civic duty, New York City-vote today," above a picture of the mayor at his polling place. Reminders like this from the mayor and many other civic leaders have no effect, of course, as people have virtually all made up their minds about voting before the day arrives - especially on a day like last Tuesday with state-level primary elections in a non-presidential year. Sadly, an increasing number of potential voters are opting not to perform their "duty."

But who cares? We do not question the legitimacy of our governments, even if they are elected by a smaller and smaller percentage of constituents. Non-voters are adults, people who understand at least the general concepts of democracy, voting, and government. To boot, when we talk about voter turnout, we typically use stats based on registered, not eligible voters (estimates are that in the U.S. a little over 70% of eligible voters are registered).

Those who decide not to participate, for whatever reasons, are ceding power to those who care, those who organize and fight for their interests. Non-voters give tacit approval of whatever outcomes result; providing their proxy to the voters who opt in.

I, for one, don't want an increasingly diminishing portion of the potential electorate to decide the outcomes of our elections and therefore, much of our public policy. But, I also don't want even more uninformed voters heading to the ballot box to simply fill in an oval next to the name they recognize most from TV ads or mailers.

I want a flourishing democracy.

There are all sorts of election-related reforms that can and probably should be enacted, of course, and if you're reading this article you might very well already be able to list them: same-day registration; open primaries; term limits; and greater campaign finance regulations, among others. But, there's another essential element: education.

We've become scared of politicizing the classroom. By and large, we don't teach current events - which we should be doing in every subject area, not just social studies, where it happens at times. For the most part, we aren't infusing real-world issues and experiences into coursework, even in college.

We aren't exposing our children to civic thinking from a young age.

Just like we should (but don't) immerse our students in the study of foreign language from a young age, we should immerse them in the study of public life. We should invite our students to think critically about the world around them, we should invite debate. We should provide opportunity for authentic experiences and community service learning and action civics. We should allow young people to help make public policy.

We need a generational shift. It won't happen overnight, but it can happen.

This shift will take a reimagining of our schools, of our classrooms and our curriculums. It will take a retraining of our teachers and our after-school program providers. But, like with just about everything we should scale up, we have enough people doing things the way I'm describing that we can get there in due time. Positive shifts in focus from teacher-centered to student-centered classrooms and the increased honus on critical thinking skills are part of the equation.

As New York State and municipalities therein adapt to the common core standards and revamp both curriculum and instruction toward meeting them, there is a perfect opportunity to make more changes. The best outcome won't even be increased voter participation, it will be that virtually everyone involved enjoys school more and gets more out of it because it is a place of relevant, real-world thinking and action.

Voters and non-voters alike have little faith in elected officials to be honest and effective, but are generally not thoughtful about solving this problem. Instead, people disengage - or stay disengaged or withdraw further. To change that and ensure a social norm of critical thinking about public life and policy, we must establish this m.o., making it a part of who we are and what we do: in the classroom, at the dinner table, everywhere.

Many of the adults who care about politics and government were the kids who cared about politics and government. These people are the exception. To make them - us - the rule, we must encourage engagement from a young age.

Even in today's school culture, when you ask young people about problems with the world around them and for ways to do things differently, the floodgates open.

Yet, we don't often ask those questions and therefore, when the gates to the polling place are flung wide, there is not a flood of voters, but a trickle.

by Ben Max, executive editor, Gotham Gazette

Small Business Cost & Regulatory Hurdles in New York City

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Mayor de Blasio promotes paid sick leave (photo: @NYCDCA)

 The following entry is part of The Small Business Corner, a collaboration between Gotham Gazette and GoBizNYC:

We seldom hear small business owners weigh in on the public policy issues that impact their ability to hire and grow in New York City, partly because they are busy earning a living and partly out of their fear of getting embroiled in politics that could impact their customer and regulatory relationships. The following is a telling interview with Rachel, an entrepreneur who asked us not to use her last name, but whose story reflects the experience of neighborhood businesses throughout the five boroughs.

Why did you decide to start a business in NYC?

I grew up in NYC and have chosen to raise my family here. This is the best city in the world and, after over a decade as a retail executive in Corporate America, I decided to open up a retail children's store in the neighborhood where I grew up. Children's retail is a great business and there is nothing better than making a child smile.

What have been unexpected challenges you've faced?

I have been surprised by the number of hurdles you face when trying to open a business in NYC. For example, I hunted for weeks to find an "affordable" space. I found a great location for about $16,500 per month, but with all my fixed costs, I need to do over $700,000 in sales annually just to break even. That is simply a bucketload of merchandise that I need to sell each year and makes me charge prices that are higher than I would like.

Then you get to taxes and realize the situation is even worse. When deciding how to structure my business, I was leaning toward registering as an S Corp, since this typically provides tax and legal advantages compared to registering as a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC). But then I found out that NYC does not recognize S Corps, subjecting them to an 8.85% General Corporation Tax. So I said, 'Okay, I will become an LLC instead.' I then discovered that LLCs are subject to a 4% Unincorporated Business Tax (UBT) in NYC, with Medicare and Social Security taxes on top of that. So you get hit hard no matter which structure you choose. There is a tax credit available for small businesses that pay the UBT, but only those that do under $150,000. If I do that volume, I would need to shut my doors.

Lastly, there are many local mandates that have been passed that are going to burden small businesses even more and hurt employees at the same time. Quite frankly, if I didn't love NYC and wasn't raising a family here, I definitely would not be opening up here. I could go across the river to Hoboken and launch the exact same concept with a fraction of the costs and hassles.

Can you give an example of the impact of City regulations on small business?

The NYC Paid Sick Leave Law is something I have been learning about and trying to navigate. This law has great intentions – to make sure that each employee gets paid sick leave, if needed. I believe that this is the right thing to do and that employees should not be penalized if they are legitimately sick. But this law is unduly onerous to small employers. Given the fact that an employer has to pay for staff coverage while also paying for an employee who is out sick, even if you have just 5 full-time employees, your costs still increase by thousands of dollars each year.

This law also has unintended negative consequences on employees. I have found that employers are now very reluctant to give any one employee more than 15-25 hours per week. They would rather have more part-time employees and delay their accrual of paid sick days – it just makes financial sense. Even worse, some businesses are misinterpreting the law, thinking that employees only earn the accrual if they work 30 hours per week, rather than 30 hours at any point, so they are cutting back their employees' hours. As a result, employees work fewer hours and accrue paid sick days more slowly. This is a well-meaning but not well-thought-out law that ends up hurting the very people it aims to help.

How does this law affect your hiring decisions?

I have to think seriously about who I am hiring and whether they might need more sick leave than someone else. I am a very sympathetic person and would give my employees whatever they legitimately need to take care of personal or family illness. But I am nervous someone will take advantage of me. Since this law does not require a doctor's note unless someone is out for 3 days in a row, you can envision that even the most well-meaning employees might take advantage of a full paid day off. Sure, most employees are honest and hopefully will not do this. But how can the employer know?

What could the City do to better support businesses as they strive to appropriately comply with the new law?

The City needs to rethink paid sick leave for smaller companies. I suggest exempting small businesses with fewer than 20 employees, changing the rate of accrual to one hour per 40-50 hours worked, and starting accrual after the first 90 days of employment. The City also needs to continue educating employers, especially those who are misinterpreting the law.

I love NYC and I want my business to succeed and grow here. I have been impressed by many of the free resources the City has made available to small business owners online. That said, I wish the City would do more to help me financially. Given the high costs of doing business here as well as the costs of complying with local regulations, many small business owners are struggling to make ends meet, just like the employees who work for them. What will the City do to help us? Sometimes, it seems like the City wants us to go elsewhere.

Victor Wong is the Director of Business Outreach & GoBizNYC at the Partnership for New York City


To make or discuss a submission for The Small Business Corner:

Reach GoBizNYC Director Victor Wong at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Reach Gotham Gazette Executive Editor Ben Max at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Small Business Corner is a bi-weekly column featuring the opinions and perspectives of small business owners and advocates from the GoBizNYC network on the range of issues that concern the city's small businesses.

To all New York City small business owners and advocates: we hope this new platform, The Small Business Corner, will better enable you to engage in the local policy conversation and we look to you to support us in this endeavor by sharing your thoughts, experiences, and voices. To learn more about how you can be a part of GoBizNYC and participate in this effort, visit



Climate Change and Disaster Recovery: The Soul of Our Work Together


The author participating in clean-up efforts

On the evening of October 29th, 2012 Superstorm Sandy struck the New York Metro area with unbridled ferocity and though city planners were aware of the risks, the infrastructure was not at all prepared to deal with the immediate effects or the aftermath of such a massive natural disaster.

Superstorm Sandy proved to be the intersection of climate change and a compassionate response to disasters in a way that I could never have envisioned before. I had been stewing over our society's lackadaisical response to climate change, and what the potential consequences could be. But in my role as Disaster Response Coordinator for the Unitarian Universalist Association (a grant-funded role specifically created for post-Sandy needs), I began to really see how all the social justice work I am called to do matters little if we continue to ignore what we are doing to the earth.

At the moment, faith groups are preparing to join thousands of others who will be coming to New York City at the same time as a UN Climate Summit at which world leaders will be discussing a global deal on climate change. While all these discussions continue at a global scale, it is crucial that we show that communities are coming together to say that we are committed to climate action. That being said, our responsibilities do not begin or end on this day. Metro New York's capacity to respond to climate change was, of course, tested long before we began organizing for this march.

After Superstorm Sandy, a number of community organizations demonstrated that low-income renters—mostly people of color and immigrants—were disproportionately impacted by the wrath of Sandy. But they had another strike against them: recovery assistance available to them was paltry in comparison to that of Sandy-pummeled homeowners. Obviously this was not a first time occurrence. Renters on the Gulf Coast were also hit hard by Katrina and assistance to renters there also was minimal (see "Treading Water: Renters in Post Sandy New York City" by Make the Road New York).

I am still working with congregations of volunteers coming to Metro New York to assist with Sandy relief, particularly for the most marginalized homeowners. But the issue that keeps me up at night is the slow and dispassionate response to the needs of low-income renters, many of whom are fearful to sign up for the few benefits available to them. Many undocumented renters are fearful that they might be deported or be profiled. Some immigrants do not understand the materials written in English and translation services are unavailable in many cases. Renters also have to go into Manhattan to apply for some forms of assistance while homeowners often can simply go to nearby local offices.

Two years is too long to respond to any massive disaster. Storms such as Sandy or Katrina, both of which we are still recovering from, will keep testing us. We need to respond with compassion and care to find homes, housing, food, and other services for people. Above all, we need to plan and understand our holistic relationship to this earth, to the skies, and to the seas that surround us. We need to look at climate change head on, not avert our eyes any longer because the pain and sorrow will not go away.

Like Katrina, Sandy was amplified by the changing climate: warmer oceans, jet stream weakening, and a wetter atmosphere. Climate Change is here. And we, the people of this planet, with brains and hearts to creatively deal with this climate crisis turn the other way.

Every faith asks that we respond in solidarity with those with the greatest needs. Our prayers, our actions, our community gatherings all must be centered in responding to climate change. There is plenty we can do. Most certainly, turning away will not ameliorate the climate crisis brewing in our universe.

Sweet Honey in the Rock, a beautiful acapella African-American singing group, put Gandhi's words rousingly to music: "We are the ones we've been waiting for." Indeed, we are. Let us join one million strong in New York City for the People's Climate March on September 21. Let us share this earth and join in solidarity to show the leaders of the UN Summit that we will not turn away. We are one and we are marching with one voice.

The Rev. Susan Karlson is a Unitarian Universalist community minister currently working on Superstorm Sandy Recovery throughout the Metro NY area. She is also the co-chair of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, an interfaith organization that supports, empowers and witnesses with immigrants, and she is a 2015 Green Faith Fellow.

Two Cheers for Andrew Cuomo

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, has some nearly-forgotten accomplishments (photo: @NYGovCuomo)

New York is suffering from mass political amnesia: no one seems to remember the condition of the state's polity when Andrew Cuomo assumed office. The Senate was barely functioning. Executive-legislative relations were in shambles. Key social policy issues went unaddressed. The Upstate economy languished. Budgets were regularly late and structurally out of balance. Summing up, Dal Forsythe, a former Budget Director and respected authority on state government, wrote: "[T]he state's governance system is widely regarded as among the worst in the nation, and its leaders seem unable to achieve effective cooperation for the accomplishment of common goals."

In his 2010 campaign manifesto, The New New York Agenda: A Plan for Action, candidate Cuomo proposed dozens of initiatives organized around five broad themes: integrity in government; fiscal probity; governmental efficiency; economic development; and social policy. Candidates eschew priorities to build winning coalitions; governors must have them to governor. Andrew Cuomo, after election, gave primacy to putting New York's finances in order.

Economies were sought not only from state government operations – austere labor agreements, restructuring state operations - but by encouraging localities to collaborate, reduced assistance to general purpose local governments and school districts, and capping and freezing the property tax, local governments' lifeblood. On the revenue side, state taxes were largely held in check. A start was made to open up new sources of money: constitutional change to allow casino gambling. Changes were made in funding key state functions to ease demands on the general fund (e.g. the "rational tuition policy" for SUNY).

This focus on creating a sound state budget was a reasonable priority for Cuomo, perhaps the best priority. It offered extraordinary synergies. Financial integrity is intrinsically important for a state's health. Achieving it through sequential years of timely budgets demonstrated competence to govern, and was a major step toward restoring confidence in government. A sound budget, with taxes constrained, requires attention to efficiency and underlies economic growth.

The respected Citizens Budget Commission wrote this May that New York's fiscal discipline "has markedly improved the State's fiscal condition." In June, Moody's Investors Services raised the state's bond rating to its highest level in half a century. In July, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, a co-partisan but no great political friend of the governor, reported: "New York has made significant budgetary improvements since the Great Recession to put it on solid financial footing, and the result is that the state's fiscal condition is the best it has been in years."

Most politics involves giving to get. We have a legislature. It shares power. Its members are elected; they are not gubernatorial appointees. So to get what he wanted most, to build the necessary coalitions, Cuomo often found it necessary to give ground on his other agenda areas.

One casualty was political reform. Legislators are winners under current electoral rules. They don't like changes that restrict their discretion - like ethics reform - or diminish their hold on office - like genuinely neutral redistricting or campaign finance reform. In the face of their resistance, even to ideas most Assembly and Senate members pledged to support during the 2010 election, like independent redistricting, reform became a lesser priority for the governor. It was not abandoned, but its evisceration was accepted.

A second was the social agenda, or large elements of it. Majority Senate Republicans were aligned with Cuomo's fiscal goals; an easy sell. But many of them relied on Conservative Party backing. They resisted same-sex marriage, and the reproductive rights element of the women's equality agenda. Cuomo had to modify, delay, or put aside these high profile social policy goals to advance his first priority. After a delay, same-sex marriage was achieved. Two Republican Senators who supported same-sex marriage were defeated in the next election. Reproductive rights is still an agenda item.

The steps Cuomo took to advance his fiscal goals angered some in his party: Senate Democrats who were shut out of power, and local elected Democrats who felt the squeeze of property tax limits. They also provoked opposition from interest groups that usually supported Democrats: public employee unions, education activists - in general, those who advanced various elements of the so-called "progressive agenda."

Most politics involves giving to get, but not all. Some things cannot be negotiable for a governor, things like opposition to corruption. Dissolving early his own Moreland Commission on Public Corruption deprived the governor of directive moral authority; it reduced him to the status of 'ordinary politician.' Cuomo, regarded as extraordinarily politically astute, erred in treating the Moreland Commission as one more occasion for ordinary transactional politics. Moreover, he failed to realize that a very powerful actor from outside state government – federal prosecutor Preet Bharara – would be drawn into the arena by his actions in connection with this commission, in the midst of the election season. The unfolding is still unknown.

A second political miscalculation was an underestimation by the governor of the political costs of the priority he chose, and those he compromised. Disappointed or angered Democrats, he calculated, would nevertheless be unwilling to support a Republican. They would have no real alternative at the polls, except to not vote at all. The importance to the governor of the Working Families Party nomination was in accord with the strategic goal of denying disaffected Democrats an alternative to him on left in the general election. But Zephyr Teachout, energized by her spirited but failed bid for the Working Familes nomination, unexpectedly decided to fight on, qualified for the Democrat primary ballot, and survived Cuomo's legal challenge to her residency. Teachout emerged as a David against Cuomo's Goliath, offering the very alternative in a Democrat primary that the governor sought to avoid.

Critics suggest that Andrew Cuomo had the wrong priorities, and made the wrong tradeoffs. In fact they suggest that tradeoffs were not necessary, and say that he could have achieved all that they really wanted, and he said he wanted, if he truly desired to do so. Their vision of a single person fully empowered to rule New York would be frightening if it were true; fortunately it is not in our power sharing system.

Andrew Cuomo in his first term has been a serious, focused governor who advanced the right priority for New York, but also has made some very bad choices and judgments. Under Cuomo's leadership New York has been better governed than at any time in the state's recent past, and is poised for further renewal. But now we need a new first priority: we must adopt the institutional and process reforms that will allow us to restore our democracy, to be fairly and cleanly governed.

For political system change, as the experience of the past four years again painfully shows, we cannot rely on any governor and any legislature. We must bypass those in power. Our institutional means for doing this is to call a Constitutional Convention.

We are required to be asked at referendum in 2017, during the term of the governor we elect this year, whether we want such a convention. Calling one to achieve comprehensive reform in our politics and government reform was part of Andrew Cuomo's New New York Agenda in 2010. It must be a leading priority for the next elected governor.

Meanwhile, two cheers for Andrew Cuomo. Not one. Not three. Two cheers.

Gerald Benjamin is Director, Center for Research Regional Education and Outreach (CRREO) - SUNY New Paltz


Do you have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Send it to Executive Editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Opening Doors for the City's Small Businesses, Neighborhoods, and Job Seekers

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SBS Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer, the author (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)

There are more than 200,000 small businesses in New York City, which represents nearly 98 percent of all businesses across the five boroughs. Small businesses give our neighborhoods their unique character, and employ more than half of New York City's private sector workforce. But they also achieve much more. As the daughter of immigrant entrepreneurs, I personally understand that for many people, owning a business can be their first chance for economic self-determination and a path to the middle class.

When Mayor de Blasio appointed me as Commissioner of Small Business Services earlier this year, he tasked me and the leadership of all City agencies with fighting inequality in all its forms, on all its fronts, and building a city where everyone can rise together. With this charge in mind, my vision for the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) is to ensure that every job seeker and business owner has access to the resources they need to succeed. I plan to achieve this by impacting three key pillars: good jobs, stronger businesses, and a fairer economy.

SBS is dedicated to addressing the unique needs of local entrepreneurs through a variety of free services that help businesses in all five boroughs start, operate, and grow. We work with business owners like Maggie Kwok, who utilized our agency's NYC Business Acceleration services to open her first restaurant, Shanghai Asian Manor, in Lower Manhattan. Maggie was so happy with the City's services, when she was ready to open a second location in Flushing, Queens, she knew to come to the City for help. NYC Business Acceleration guided Maggie through the City's regulatory process, helping her interface with numerous agencies to open both locations faster, providing jobs for more than 60 New Yorkers.

Small business owners like Maggie Kwok face many challenges. In my first few months at SBS, we have launched numerous new initiatives to ensure that government's infrastructure works better and harder for the small businesses and neighborhoods that most need our help.

- NYC Business Acceleration is one way we are helping small businesses cut through the City's red tape and open their doors faster. This service has helped more than 2,000 restaurants across the city open an average of 2.5 months faster, and we recently announced that we are expanding the program to serve small businesses in retail and manufacturing as well.

- Small Business First: We are not only providing direct services to small businesses, but we are also working with City Hall and more than ten partner agencies to help reduce fines and violations on small businesses through Small Business First. This multi-faceted inter-agency initiative is about changing the way government interacts with small business owners by improving the regulatory climate in New York City and helping businesses avoid penalties and fines through collaboration, simplification, and education.

- Immigrant Small Businesses: As we expand our services and collaborate with partner agencies to help small businesses, we are also working to fundamentally change the way government provides services to New York City's immigrant entrepreneurs, who make up nearly half of the city's small businesses owners. Already, we have doubled our agency's non-English business course offerings and are launching our NYC Craft Entrepreneurship program in Spanish, so unemployed and underemployed New Yorkers with craft skills can earn supplemental income from selling their crafts online. With support from Citi Community Development, we have launched the Immigrant Business Initiative, developing partnerships with community-based organizations to help identify and execute new services to strengthen immigrant-owned businesses, particularly in the Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Haitian-Creole, and Russian communities.

Stronger small businesses mean stronger neighborhoods and more good jobs for New Yorkers. Last year, SBS assisted more than 15,000 business owners, helped nearly 7,000 new businesses open across the city, and connected entrepreneurs to more than $45 million in capital. The City can help with free services including pro-bono legal advising, business courses, access to capital, recruitment services, certification, help navigating government, incentives, and more. I encourage anyone with an interest in small business services to call 311, visit our website, or drop by an NYC Business Solutions Center in one of the five boroughs. 

by Maria Torres-Springer, Commissioner, New York City Department of Small Business Services


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Before Pre-K: Improving Early Childhood Education in New York City

kids puzzle

From "Big Dreams for New York City's Smallest Children"

When you ask the people running childcare and early education programs for low-income kids what would help their all-important work most, the predictable answer is: more money. And the experience of EarlyLearnNYC, the City's much-ballyhooed revamping of subsidized programs for kids from 6 weeks to 4 years old, shows that while instruction standards have been raised, funding not only hasn't kept pace; one effect is that teacher take-home pay has, perversely, been reduced.

The good news – contained in our recent Center for New York City Affairs at the New School report on EarlyLearnNYC's mixed record since its 2012 launch – is that there's a lot we can do to financially shore up early childhood education using already existing funds. The key is getting more kids currently eligible for subsidized programs enrolled in them – a goal that EarlyLearnNYC has struggled to meet. In fact, enrollment in child care programs that hold contracts with the City crashed in the first months of EarlyLearnNYC, plummeting below 80 percent of the system's total capacity. That number has slowly climbed back up to 89 percent over the past year-and-a-half – but that still leaves more than 4,000 subsidized child care slots sitting empty.

We've identified how, with a little entrepreneurial effort and red tape cutting, the City can recapture tax dollars for quality early education that are now all too often being spent for little more than informal babysitting.

Here's the deal: Federal law requires the City to provide childcare vouchers to parents making the transition from receiving public benefits to holding jobs. Since 1999, the number of kids covered by such vouchers has jumped by more than two-thirds, to nearly 57,000.

Parents are legally entitled to use those vouchers any way they see fit – and today the overwhelming majority wind up paying friends or family members to mind their tots during the workday. That's a huge missed opportunity to reach and teach kids whose brains are sponges for knowledge and who aren't getting the exposure to learning they need. It's also a pretty poor return on what's expected to be an outlay of $367 million in tax dollars ($67 million raised directly from city tax levy) over the next 12 months.

Our formula for changing that has two key elements. The first requires getting two major city agencies – The Human Resources Administration that manages childcare vouchers and the Administration for Children's Services that oversees EarlyLearnNYC – consistently on the same page. When they have worked together to encourage parents to use vouchers for EarlyLearnNYC programs, they've produced positive results. The goal should be making such cooperation, reinforced by targeted social media outreach and mass media ad campaigns, the rule rather than the exception it now is.

The second reform we propose is: Make it easier for parents to enroll youngsters in EarlyLearnNYC. There's no doubt that the current way-too-cumbersome enrollment process can be made simpler, quicker, and more convenient without any serious downside. The discouraging schedule of parent co-pays for EarlyLearnNYC – now as high as $3,000 a year for families making less than $25,000 – also needs to be made more financially realistic.

Getting more kids in EarlyLearnNYC would be a win for them, and also for their parents, for early childhood education programs, and for the city as a whole. It would prime thousands more kids for success when they move on to the city's expanded all-day pre-kindergarten classes.

It would also strengthen the case for upping funding for early childhood learning. The mavens are absolutely right when they say they need more money. We think they'll have an even better argument to make by working with the City to aggressively, creatively, and cooperatively increase EarlyLearnNYC's now foundering enrollment.

Kendra Hurley and Abigail Kramer of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School are authors of the new report, Big Dreams for New York City's Youngest Children: The future of early care and education


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Are Smaller Apartments The Solution To New York's Housing Crisis?

NYCHA picture

 Apartment buildings in New York City (wikicommons)

New York City's housing market has not caught up to the changing lifestyles of its residents. Today's New Yorkers are more mobile, more likely to live alone, and more likely to be clustered on opposing ends of the age spectrum. Yet, the city's housing is geared toward large families that inhabit apartments for years at a time.

A new Furman Center study this week showed a potential way out of the impasse: more compact units that are better suited to current housing needs. The study should be a catalyst for city leaders to lift restrictions that have limited smaller apartments and build a new generation of housing that will work for today's New Yorkers.

In 2010, the city contained 1.8 million one- and two-person households, but only a million studios and one-bedroom apartments. This disparity continues to grow. As a result, the single and elderly move into larger units, leaving less room for larger families and ultimately discouraging many from making a home in New York.

Such a trend is unsustainable. Years ago, when the city experienced a similar demographic wave, single-room occupancy housing proved to be a practical solution. Such units, which house one or two residents without the costly amenities of a typical apartment, allow a whole new generation to live in New York.

A number of obstacles, however, stand in the way of more SROs today. Due to an array of outdated regulations, developers simply lack the incentives to build such housing. But by making these units a more attractive option, we could set off a building boom that gives millions of New Yorkers access to an apartment that works for them.

First, we need to allow smaller apartments and smaller rooms. Current regulations will not allow apartments under 400 square feet, a true stumbling block to building small. We also need zoning changes to allow higher-density developments and, with many SROs classified as hotels rather than residences, a variety of different uses in the same zone.

Moreover, we need to rethink our definition of what constitutes an apartment. Not every apartment, for example, needs a window in every room – particularly when a single window in a small space can go far. In the same vein, not every kitchen needs a full set of appliances, nor does every bathroom need a full bathtub. By making these design requirements more flexible, we can encourage more units that would not be acceptable today.

These small changes can go a long way to encouraging SRO construction, and Mayor de Blasio has the power to change them. An influx of smaller units can free up larger apartments for families and help solve the growing housing discrepancy in the City.

As Mayor de Blasio considers his range of options to make housing more affordable, it is vital that smaller units be part of the mix.

Leonard Grunstein is Managing Member at Hanlen Real Estate Development & Funding


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The Politics of Governance

bdb sharpton bratton

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, Mayor de Blasio, & Reverand Al Sharpton (Rob Bennett, Mayor's Office)

Last week, an acquaintance asked me whether the problem in our American democracy today is the state of our politics, or the state of our government. The question admittedly stumped me. While there are definitely major challenges in both realms, the actual distinction is critical, and one which we're quick to overlook, which can lead to inefficacy in both realms. And perhaps nothing illustrates this slight better than New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's recent challenges in dealing with the Eric Garner tragedy.

In purely definitional terms, the Greek root of the term "politikos" is "of, for, or relating to citizens." In other words, politics encompasses the actual activities associated with how citizens influence the policies and actions of a government. Thus politics, despite the partisan labels modern society attaches to the term, is citizen-centered. Government, on the other-hand, refers to the actual body that makes the policies and enacts them. Thus, the question essentially becomes whether more effective politics, or citizen engagement, leads to more effective governance, or whether more effective governmental institutions will lead to better results for citizens.

Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Islander who died after being placed in a chokehold by a police officer attempting to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes, was victim of faulty governance practices. Justifiably, the aftermath of his death has focused on the police policies that allowed such an incident to happen. Namely, critics argue, so-called 'broken-windows' policing, promoted extensively by Police Commissioner William Bratton, is inherently racist, and police focus on low-level criminal offenses in a way that disproportionately targets minorities.

De Blasio is an organizer at heart, and ran a successful mayoral campaign largely because he understands politics so well. He understood that the electorate had tired of a third Bloomberg term, he understood that stop-and-frisk had become a racist policing tactic, and he understood that economic inequality was becoming the defining issue for a generation. He spoke to these as a consummate political being, promising to bring people together, to influence the bodies that made these policies. De Blasio mastered the politics of the moment in New York City.

The transition from politics to governing has proven challenging. But interestingly, de Blasio has attempted to merge the two constantly - every policy becomes a campaign. His first major move was to push for universal pre-kindergarten. Before long, "UPK" pins were commonplace throughout the city, and Albany rallies seemed to happen weekly. Although he did not get his tax on the wealthy passed to pay for it, he did get funding for his pet project. In a similar mold, de Blasio's push for the Democratic National Convention to be held in Brooklyn, which he claims would spur economic activity in the region, has included designing Nets jerseys with the names of delegates on the back - and, naturally, new DNC NYC 2016 pins. There is nothing inherently wrong with these campaigns - UPK is now happening (great), and the convention might come to Brooklyn (disputably great).

But this approach will not always work, and it has not worked with the Garner case. Immediately after returning from his vacation to Italy, de Blasio's political instincts kicked in, and he held a public roundtable with both Bratton and civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton at City Hall, ostensibly to show that police and civil society could work together in the aftermath of the death. But neither would have any part of it. Sharpton ripped into Bratton, and Bratton seemed completely unsure of his role at the podium.

In the days since, de Blasio has continued to stammer. First, he came to Sharpton's defense, saying that the reverend "had been active and productive" on police policies for decades. When a report then came out saying he would side with Sharpton over Bratton, potentially ousting his commissioner, de Blasio responded with vigorous defense, calling the notion "idiotic" and asserting that Bratton is "the finest police leader in the United States." Meanwhile a wide-scale rally is planned on Staten Island to protest the police policies - a rally de Blasio certainly would have attended while running for Mayor.

Civil society is coalescing around the Garner issue, in a way that shows politics at work. This engagement, in a city that just had its lowest electoral turnout since World War II, is undoubtedly positive. But the way that de Blasio can move forward is by actually responding to the politics of the moment with concrete policies, demonstrating a willingness to create police policies that will both protect and respect New York City's citizenry. The mayor's expansion of the Gun Violence Crisis Management System is a step in the right direction of governance over politics and he should take it to every city precinct. The sole act of creating a political stage, and attempting to bring foes to the table, does not work. New York City's citizens are getting more political. But they need a leader to not just play politics, but rather, to govern.

Scott Warren is the CEO and co-founder of Generation Citizen, an national non-profit based in New York City dedicated to empowering young people to be active citizens.


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A Fall Agenda for the City Council's Veterans Committee


Council Member Eric Ulrich, right, at a veterans committee hearing (photo: William Alatriste)

When Council Member Eric Ulrich was appointed chair of the veterans committee by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in January, no one within the veterans community was sure what to expect. One of a few Republicans in a largely Democratic council, there were some vets who opposed his selection. However, during his first six months as chair, Ulrich, along with the rest of the committee, has given the committee's hearings new depth, with a seriousness and straight-forward approach that had been missing.

The result has been a renewed intensity of conversation in the veterans community and optimism for actually getting some legislation passed that will help veterans and their families. Therefore, as we rapidly approach September, this is a good moment to look ahead and discuss several possible topics the committee should consider holding hearings on over the next several months - especially given Mayor Bill de Blasio's appointment on Monday of a new commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Veterans' Affairs, former Brigadier General Loree Sutton.

In no particular order, recommendations for city council veterans committee priorities:

Veterans Advisory Board: As was stated in the veterans' briefing paper written during last year's mayoral campaign, the Veterans Advisory Board (VAB) has had some major issues over the past several years regarding its lack of an organized or public schedule, lack of transparent communication with the veterans community, ways by which issues make it to the board's attention and up the administration's chain of command.

It's only been recently that the city finally published the board's annual reports as well as the names of those serving on the board, when the majority of members' terms were either finished or coming to an end. Therefore, as the council committee has never held an oversight hearing on the VAB, this should be considered a top priority. The council committee should explore what the board has been doing and what can be done to make it more responsive, especially including a change to the terms of appointment.

Intro. 314 – MOVA: Back in April, Council Member Ulrich proposed and submitted Intro. 314, a bill that would change the Mayor's Office of Veterans' Affairs (MOVA) into a more autonomous department. Part of the reasoning is that the change would show the public that veterans issues are taken seriously in New York City while expanding the office's current capabilities. It would also make it easier for council members to obtain funding for local veterans groups. While this legislation could possibly make it through the Council, there must be discussions between the de Blasio administration and the Council regarding this change as it would require many shifts regarding budgeting, mission and even its place in the city charter. Nevertheless, a hearing on this bill should be held to obtain input from the public, the veterans community, and MOVA leaders.

Veteran Homelessness: Last month, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in New York City held its annual CHALENG (Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education and Networking Groups) meeting, which brought together service providers, advocates, and others to identify the needs of homeless veterans and how to best meet those needs. At this meeting, Commissioner Gilbert Taylor of the city's Department of Homeless Services (DHS) talked about ending veteran homelessness in the city and it was shared that homelessness among veterans in the city has gone down from 3,500 in 2013 to 1,600 veterans as of their latest estimates. However, there has not been a hearing on homeless veterans from the council committee since November of 2011 and this would be an opportune time to hold one (perhaps jointly with the General Welfare Committee) to get an update on what the administration is doing; how it's working with the VA; and where they are in regard to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Mayor's Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness.

Intro. 426 – Benefits Counseling Services: Also last month, Council Member Ulrich introduced legislation that would place benefit counselors in each borough to assist veterans and their family members with VA disability claims and other related issues. With the recent loss of MOVA's three benefit counselors and the continued high number of claims pending at the VA, this bill deserves a hearing. This would also coincide with Governor Cuomo's announcement at the New York Veterans and Military Families Summit last March of the establishment of a statewide "Strike Force" to expedite federal disability claims for New York veterans and their family members.

Veterans and STEM: At the beginning of August, the 2nd Annual Executive U.S. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Summit took place here in New York City. Leaders gathered from around the nation to discuss how to improve STEM education and the rising concern about future challenges and potential shortages in the workforce. Veterans have been identified as a source of motivated, skilled talent that can help address the decline of the technical workforce and an article in Forbes last year stated that New York City topped the list for STEM jobs. Also, Task and Purpose recently published an article about the new White House STEM initiatives including job training for veterans. Therefore, the council committee should consider holding a hearing on how the city can work with CUNY, as well as other colleges and interested parties, to encourage veterans to utilize the GI Bill to pursue post-secondary degrees in STEM fields and build upon the technical skills gained from military training and experience.

The City Council Committee on Veteran Affairs should also consider a hearing regarding veteran unemployment and others related to veteran-owned businesses.

Yes, this is a fairly hefty agenda and by no means do I or other members of the veterans community expect it all to happen in the fall. However, if the committee continues to approach veterans issues seriously, can hold hearings on a regular basis to look at these issues, and even move a few pieces of legislation, the next several months will be a success and continue to build on the positive work it started in the first part of the year. I believe this committee is up to the challenge.

Joe Bello served 11 years in the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve and has been a veterans advocate in New York City for almost two decades. He is the founder of NY MetroVets.