Gotham Gazette

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Forgiving Penalties, Observing Muslim Holidays

Image (cc) miznoz

Holidays were the topic of conversation at the City Council yesterday when the body approved a three-month penalty forgiveness period for environmental fines as well as a resolution that urges the city schools to give students two Muslim holidays off.

The penalty holiday would give small businesses and individuals a three-month period after Labor Day to pay their Environmental Control Board fines minus the interest and default judgments they have accrued. Fines would only be eligible if they were issued before June, council officials said.

In addition, the council also approved the expansion of Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus.

Small Business Bills

An attempt to provide a temporary break to small businesses in a gloomy economy, the council's penalty forgiveness legislation (Intro 1041) would assist the city's businesses, which have racked up a total of $200 million in outstanding, unpaid fines at the Environmental Control Board.

On top of the $200 million in fines, which are quality of life violations, an additional $518 million in interest and penalties has accrued, said council officials. The city could end up forfeiting that revenue for the three-month period, if all outstanding violations are paid.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the city expects about 5 percent of the outstanding fees to be paid because of the one-time holiday.

First announced in Quinn's state of the city address earlier this year, the fine forgiveness holiday hopes to provide the city's small businesses with some much needed relief from the nation's recession.

"They'll make life easier, I hope, for all businesses from Steinway Street to Hylan Boulevard," said Quinn.

Businesses would only be eligible for the interest and default waiver if they have corrected the violation.

In addition to the penalty holiday, the council also approved legislation (Intro 1022) to form a task force that will review the city’s small business regulations to eradicate redundancies. The task force will include members of the administration and the council.

Quinn said the task force would report back to the council by the end of the year with recommendations. It would review outdated or unnecessary rules that hamper small business in the city, such as a ban on small businesses having anything other than their name and phone number on awnings.

Celebrating Eid Ul-Fitr

Crowding the council chamber's balcony, scores of Muslim New Yorkers turned out to watch the City Council approve a resolution to include two holidays, Eid Ul-Fitr and Eid Ul-Adha, in its school calendar. The resolution has no force of law, and the Bloomberg administration has said it opposes including the holidays because the city's school system cannot celebrate every holiday.

The resolution (Reso 1281) was approved by a voice vote, with Councilmember Oliver Koppell dissenting.

According to the council, Muslim students make up more than 10 percent of the city's student body or between 120,000 and 130,000 kids.

"As a Muslim myself I know what it's like to have to choose between school and faith," said Councilmember Robert Jackson, the council's only Muslim member. "No parent should have to make that choice for their children."

The resolution's approval was met with applause from the Muslim attendees. Though it is unlikely the administration will adopt the policy, Quinn said this was the first step in urging the city to give the students off.

Eid Ul-Fitr is the last day of Ramadan, while Eid Ul-Adha celebrates the sacrifice of Ishmael by Ibrahim, showing his obedience to God.

Fordham Expansion

A plan a decade in the making, Fordham University's expansion was approved unanimously by the City Council. It will stretch the campus around Lincoln Center and provide several new buildings for the Jesuit university, including at the law school, graduate school of social services and the business school.

The plan was controversial for Upper West Side residents and was voted down by the community board earlier this year. After that, the university, Councilmember Gale Brewer, who represents the area, and community members were able to draw up a compromise that makes the university's campus more accessible to the neighborhood.

The expansion will be done in two phases. The first, which will include dormitory growth and public open space, is scheduled for completion in 2014. The second phase will not be done until 2032.

The new buildings, said Brewer, will all be green, and the commercial portions of the development will be rented to small, independent owners and not large retail chains.

The entire project will add 1.26 million square feet of classrooms, lecture halls, libraries, theaters and other academic facilities, and 506,238 square feet of new dormitories. It will also include 701,073 square feet of private, residential space. The whole plan will provide an additional 2.47 million square feet to the campus.

The King of Discretionary Dollars

Councilmember Lewis Fidler, it's time to take your seat as the council's top earner.

The Brooklyn council member and assistant majority leader sponsored more discretionary dollars in this year's budget than any other member, garnering more than $1.3 million for 83 different programs. While a lot of that funding will go to nonprofits or schools in his Canarsie district, some of it is allocated for youth programs throughout the city.

"I advocate very, very aggressively for youth groups throughout the city and for Brooklyn groups," said Fidler, who chairs the council's Youth Services Committee. "I certainly make no apologizes for bringing taxpayer money back to my district."

Fidler's dollars include $95,000 to the Bergen Beach Youth Organization for senior services; almost $415,000 to the Bergen Basin Community Development Corporation for youth, senior and housing programs; and a $10,000 check for a puppetry program at P.S. 236. These allocations were approved by the City Council last week in a vote of 50 to 1.

In total, the council allocated $48.8 million in discretionary spending -- a slight increase from fiscal year 2009 when the fiscal situation was not as grim, and it spent $48.5 million.

Though Fidler was able to hand out thousands for his favorite programs, others were not so lucky. According to an analysis by Gotham Gazette, council members Tony Avella and Eric Gioia were at the bottom of our list, getting the smallest amount of discretionary dollars at $358,321 each. Gioia was the only member to vote against the budget this year. He did so, he said last week, so there would be more time for members, the public and the media to vet organizations slated for the council's discretionary funding.

In response to his funding allocation, Eric Koch, a Gioia spokesman, said in an e-mail: "Councilman Gioia has been outspoken about his belief that the process for member items leaves too much room for waste, misuse and at times corruption. What's sad is that need and merit aren't the determination for which worthy community organizations get funding. It's a broken system that needs wholesale reform."

Lewis Fidler
Domenic M. Recchia Jr.
James S. Oddo
Leroy G. Comrie Jr.
Inez E. Dickens
Peter F. Vallone, Jr.
David I. Weprin
Joel Rivera
Kenneth Mitchell
Bill de Blasio
Christine C. Quinn
Erik Martin Dilan
Annabel Palma
Thomas White, Jr.
Robert Jackson
Maria del Carmen Arroyo
Vincent Ignizio
Miguel Martinez
James Vacca
David Yassky
Diana Reyna
Maria Baez
Albert Vann
Michael C. Nelson
Melissa Mark Viverito
James Sanders
Jessica A. Lappin
James F. Gennaro
Sara M. Gonzalez
Elizabeth Crowley
Larry B. Seabrook
Kendall Stewart
Melinda R. Katz
Letitia James
Simcha Felder
Helen Sears
G. Oliver Koppell
Darlene Mealy
John C. Liu
Rosie Mendez
Daniel R. Garodnick
Charles Barron
Mathieu Eugene
Vincent Gentile
Gale A. Brewer
Alan Gerson
Helen D. Foster
Julissa Ferreras
Eric Ulrich
Eric N. Gioia
Tony Avella

**This chart shows the amount of funding each member sponsored. It doesn't include funding that was sponsored by more than one member.

These figures include $108,750 for aging programs and $151,714 for youth programs that each council member receives. It does not include items that were sponsored by more than one member.

Every member receives additional funding for what the council calls "local" programming. Much of this funding goes to local nonprofits for programming, from Little League to community theater.

In the past, members have said those close to Council Speaker Christine Quinn receive the most funding, while those who receive far less have a tendency to get on her bad side.

When asked how funding was disseminated, a spokesperson for Quinn, Maria Alvarado, said: “There are various different factors that go into making decisions regarding funding allocations."

For the most part, those who receive the most funding have leadership positions or head up influential committees. For instance, David Weprin, who is chairman of the council's Finance Committee, received $928,321, and Domenic Recchia, who is chair of the Cultural Affairs Committee, got more than $1.2 million in discretionary dollars.

Of the 22 members who voted against term limits, 12 were on the bottom half of our funding list.

Twenty members made a repeat visit to the bottom half of the list, while the top 10 is nearly identical to fiscal year 2009. Three members on the lower half, Eric Ulrich, Julissa Ferreras and Elizabeth Crowley, were all chosen in special elections and have been serving for less than seven months.

City Left on the Sidelines as Senators Feud

bloomberg randi weingarten albany
Photo by Spencer Tucker,
Mayor Bloomberg with Randi Weingarten (right) at an Albany meeting on mayoral control on March, 25

How much can $1.275 million buy?

Could that be the deciding factor should the State Senate stalemate result in a permanent G.O.P. majority?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg probably hopes so.

Since 2005, the mayor has given nearly $1.28 million to State Senate Republicans. He has given another $975,000 to the state's Republican Committee. Those campaign contributions could persuade a new Republican majority to swiftly take action on the remaining pieces of the Bloomberg administration's state agenda -- including several proposals that have deadlines of July 1.

The administration's top three priorities are getting an extension of mayoral control of schools, approval of its tax revenue package to fill a nearly $1 billion hole in its budget and the approval of a new pension tier that could save the city billions in the long run.

On his radio show Friday, the mayor said it doesn't matter who is in control of the State Senate. "The bottom line is I have to work with whoever is in charge," Bloomberg said optimistically. "We are going to need nonpartisan support for everything the city needs."

Whether it's Democrats, Republicans or even hobgoblins running state government, the city still has deadlines, budget deficits and thousands of students to take care of. We'll see whether this agenda can be turned into a reality amid all the turmoil. (For more on the turmoil in Albany, see our report from Albany.)

Mayoral Control

Keeping control of the city's public school system has been the mayor's number one legislative priority this year. On the surface, the switch in the Senate would seem to boost his chances, particularly as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver this week offered a proposal making only minor changes in the current, top down system of school governance. The mayor said he supported Silver's plan.

Over the years, Bloomberg's courting of Senate Republicans has angered many Senate Democrats, some of whom seemed to want to use the school fight to retaliate. Earlier this year, Senate Democrats issued a report calling for major changes in mayoral control -- essentially ending it. Although the Senate leadership quickly backpedaled, calling the report, which came from the office of Sen. Martin Malavé Dilan, only a draft, it could not have made the mayor happy.

Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which supports significant changes in mayoral control, said his group had been making progress in getting Senate Democrats to support those adjustments. "If Senate Democrats are in charges, we will secure changes beyond the Assembly proposal," he said.

On the other hand, renegade Democrat Pedro Espada has voiced support for mayoral control as has Dean Skelos, the Senate Republican leader. "We can get [mayoral control] done right away. We've seen the students' performance improve, " Skelos reportedly said.

But on Friday, it became apparent the Senate could not do anything "right away" as it remained mired in chaos, legal battles and backroom machinations.

"We can't pass a bill at all unless there's a functioning Senate," said State Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh. "The first step is for the Senate to meet."

Three scenarios have emerged. In one, the Senate gets its act together to vote on the issues. In all likelihood that would preserve mayoral control, perhaps with, as Silver recommends, a few changes to increase transparency and parental involvement.

On his radio show Friday, the mayor said he supported the Silver bill and expected it to pass.

A second scenario sees the Senate unable to vote on anything, June 30 comes and goes without a bill -- and the law sunsets at least for the time being. The mayor has, in the past, presented such an option in almost cataclysmic terms, warning of riots. His comments last week, while expressing concern, sounded a bit more measured. "Mayoral control of the schools is very problematic if you didn't have legislation in the next couple of weeks, because no one knows how you'd put the genie back in the bottle," he said.

While calling expiration of the bill "an unlikely scenario," Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan representative on the Panel on Educational Policy, which has become the focus of much of the debate over mayor control, said "the sky will not fall." Instead, he said things would revert to the old law for the time being.

A third option would have the legislature, or maybe the courts, extending mayoral control for a brief period -- a year, perhaps, or until the fall -- when they would take the issue up again. This option has always hovered in the background, but seemed more likely in the wake of the Senate turmoil.

The Budget

Talk about bad timing. The Senate coup d'etat came three weeks before deadline for the city's budget, which must be signed, sealed and delivered by July 1.

Two weeks ago, the City Council and the administration agreed on a $887 million tax revenue package, which includes a 0.5 percent increase in the sales tax and the repeal of a sales tax exemption for purchases more than $110. These proposals need approval from Albany.

But with Republicans in control, you might think that raising taxes won't be their first priority.

E. J. McMahon, the director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy at the Manhattan Institute, said the tax increases and the administration's other fiscal priorities would not be the first favor a Republican-led Senate has given the mayor.

"They have done things for him that they've never done for anybody," said McMahon, referring to the state's approval of paying off city debt in 2003. "It certainly doesn’t make his prospects worse."

Currently, according to a City Council spokesperson, Speaker Sheldon Silver and Assemblymember Herman Farrell have introduced the revenue package in the State Assembly, but no one has taken action yet in the Senate. Dan Weiler, a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said, "The speaker and the Assembly majority are committed to addressing all the issues that we know must be addressed in timely fashion."

Though the city has agreed how to raise revenue, the administration and the council have not released a plan on spending cuts. Albany's stalemate may prevent them from doing so sooner rather than later, because the council is unlikely to approve an entire budget, including a controversial sales tax increase, in an election year if it is unclear whether the State Senate would do the same.

"It's not good," said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. "Budgets have to get done. Laws have to get passed, and when you have chaos nobody wins."

If the Senate stalemate continues and gets really close to the city's budget deadline, Council Finance Chairman David Weprin said the city would be left with little options, except for raising property taxes (which it can do without Albany's approval) or cutting spending further.

Both the mayor and the speaker of the council say they are confident they will have an "on-time" budget.

Tier V

The final priority for the administration this session, according to Mayoral Spokesperson Marc LaVorgna, is the creation of a fifth pension tier for new employees, decreasing their benefits and possibly raising their retirement age.

The move would save the city $200 million this year and next, and is expected to save much more in the long run. That $200 million in savings was also included in this year's budget proposal.

A similar deal was drawn between the state's unions and the Paterson administration earlier this month, which could provide the city with some momentum to do the same, although the city's labor unions have balked at idea.

It is unclear how the shift in the Senate would affect the mayor's chances of getting another pension tier for city employees. Gov. David Paterson is also pushing the pension tier for city employees, which could provide the mayor with some leverage.

"The bill has been proposed and submitted to both houses," said Morgan Hook, a spokesperson for the governor's office. "It hasn't been introduced in either house. The governor has made it very clear that he wants to see the Senate get back to work, so they can act on this and other important legislation."

In addition to all of these issues, the city still has other unresolved issues it was hoping Albany would take up this year, include the repeal of Wicks Law, tort reform, and a pilot program for speed cameras.

Better luck next time.

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