Gotham Gazette

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Term Limits as a Voting Right Issue

Photo from a Working Families Party press conference, October 6th.

City Councilmember Letitia James, a progressive who was elected on the Working Families Party ticket, and State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. of the New York Hispanic Clergy Organization disagree on many issues, But recently they used remarkably similar rhetoric to decry Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to extend term limits without approval from the voters who twice imposed them. "My ancestors died for the right to vote," James said at a City Hall press conference on Oct. 6. "There's blood on the street with people who died for the right to vote and the mayor is ignoring all of that."

For his part, Diaz told the New York Times, "We will move all our people, do everything we can to oppose this. We have fought to be what we are now. So many people went to jail, so many people lost their life. Now this guy with his billions and says, 'I'm going to save you.' It's unfair. He should know that."

Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney who plans to run for public advocate for a third time, organized a diverse press conference on Oct. 5 at City Hall to condemn Bloomberg's move. "We will not be silent as mayor and speaker [Christine Quinn] partner in undoing the people's will," he said.

Siegel is working on developing a legal case against the change. "The issue of whether the City Council can overrule a referendum is an open one," he said, adding that he believes earlier state cases that allowed legislative bodies to change term limits after a referendum "are not dispositive," so do not settle the matter.

A Voting Rights Issue?

The City Charter provides two ways of amending the limits on terms approved overwhelmingly in two voter referenda in the 1990s - holding another referendum and through a majority vote of the City Council affirmed by the mayor.

By collecting 50,000 valid signatures, voters can petition for a referendum to change the term limits law to appear on the November 2009 general election ballot -- the same ballot that could feature Bloomberg as a candidate for a third term. Under the charter, the public does not, it seems, have the authority to call for a vote before then, and November 2009 will be too late to undo the extension that the mayor and some council members hope to put in place this month. If the voters are truly riled up, their only recourse will be to withhold their votes from those who run for re-election when they would otherwise not have been able to.

The council, however, can call for a public referendum on the matter in a special election in March 2009. Council members such as James, Rosie Mendez and Bill de Blasio are pushing for this middle path - an extension of term limits to three terms, but only via public vote.

Either way, the debate over term limits will inevitably address civil rights issues. Under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, the U.S. Justice Department must approve any change in voting rules in New York City. Everyone seems to agree an extension of term limits -- whether by City Council action or in a special election -- qualifies as a rules change.

Some experts believe the department is unlikely to block the city -- whatever it decides to do. " The Bush Justice Department has routinely rubber-stamped applications for Voting Rights Act approval in ways that never existed during prior years," lawyer Richard Emery told the Daily News.

Randy Mastro, a deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani who once chaired the city's Charter Revision Commission, laid out in a New York Times op-ed piece some of the legal arguments against the council and the mayor alone changing the term limits law. He cited City Charter prohibitions against "self-dealing" and the federal Voting Rights Act given that "such a change has the potential to undercut minority representation: There are now more members of minority groups serving on the council than there were before term limits were instituted."

Bloomberg thinks a special election on term limits might encounter more opposition at Justice than a simple vote in the council because, according to the mayor, special elections generally attract few voters.

"There's every reason why it would be tied up in court for years. The Voting Rights Act would fundamentally prevent [a special election] from being a realistic alternative," Bloomberg said at the Columbus Day Parade.

Election lawyer Jerry Goldfeder disagrees. "Why would the Department of Justice think that 51 people deciding makes a lot more sense than 100,000?" he has said.

Esmeralda Simmons, an attorney and director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, which is not taking a stand on the controversy, said she has her own concerns about the political calendar.

"No matter what they do, it has to be pre-cleared by the Justice Department" under the Voting Rights Act, she said. According to Simmons, the law stipulates that no change can go into effect for 60 days after the council and mayor act or let the electorate vote in March. Either change puts campaigns for public office, many of which are already well underway, in limbo - possibly until May.

The Right to Remain Silent?

For all the passionate rhetoric about the rights of voters, most civil rights groups have stayed on the sidelines of the big debate over term limits.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has yet to take a position. The New York State Conference of the NAACP, the civil rights giant coming up on its centenary, has not weighed in, nor has the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state lobby for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights. LatinoJustice PRLDEF (the brand new name for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund) has not taken a position, according to spokesperson John Garcia.

Council members who are African American, Latino, women and gay are on both sides of the debate. While Speaker Quinn (Democrat-Chelsea), an out lesbian and Irish-American, has dropped what was once her firm and supposedly final opposition to a change in the term limits law, her sister member of the lesbian caucus, Mendez, a Latina from the Lower East Side, will not support an extension without a referendum.

Mendez, like so many others, is not making a civil rights argument as much as appealing to fairness and process. "As a lawyer, I believe process is important, and this was done through a process of going to the electorate," she said. Phone calls and e-mails to her office are running "99 percent against" the council and mayor extending term limits without a vote by the people.

Some involved in civil rights and liberties issues see Bloomberg's campaign for another term as having broad implications for the rights of voters rather than disenfranchising any particular group based on prejudice.

"There are civil liberties issues on both sides," Donna Lieberman, the New York Civil Liberties Union's executive director, said in an e-mail. She has two big concerns. For one, she said, "Policy makers should address the question of ethics raised when government officials propose to change a law that would directly and materially benefit them by all but ensuring their own stays in office." Second, she continued, any process must be open and transparent. "The outcome of this decision must not be one that occurs through political dealings behind closed doors. There must be robust, free and honest debate that involves the public's many voices," Lieberman said.

Citizen Action of New York, which works on "economic, racial, social and environmental justice," has called Bloomberg and Quinn's effort on term limits, "an attack on our liberty, an attack on our rights and an attack on the system of government that the politicians are hired to protect."

The Working Families Party, a progressive third party, has set up It's Our Decision, a Web site to fight the change. It focuses more on process arguments than civil rights ones.

Yetta Kurland, a civil rights attorney who had begun a campaign for the council seat now occupied by Quinn, said, "One of the most powerful things our elected representatives do is to represent the will of the people. There needs to be a referendum to determine this issue." She is especially concerned about "the lack of a level playing field" if candidates have to go up against two-term incumbents with resources such as Quinn (substantial) and Bloomberg (unlimited). And there is a huge issue before the Campaign Finance Board about how expenditures will be counted and limited if candidates such as Quinn convert their campaigns from city or boroughwide races back to City Council contests.

If term limits are extended, civil rights may or may not be one of the central issues of the campaign. But at least some major constituencies will surely focus on whether incumbents who contravened the popular will to get on the ballot once again have in some sense violated the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.  

Poll: Should Bloomberg Seek a Third Term?

Should term limits be extended from two to three terms, allowing Mayor Michael Bloomberg and dozens of other term-limited politicians to run again?

Sorry, Polling is Closed!


No, the voters have spoken twice already.


No, Bloomberg isn't so great.


Yes, but just this once. We need Bloomberg's leadership during this financial crisis.


Yes, but only if the voters approve it in a referendum.


Yes, term limits were a terrible idea to begin with.




The Fight for New York Televisions

Last month, Verizon started offering cable television over its all-fiber optic network for the first time in New York City. Verizon's FiOS-TV launch presents a direct challenge to Time Warner and Cablevision, the current cable television providers for the five boroughs. That is welcome news for New Yorkers who have long complained about high prices and poor customer service. But will New Yorkers benefit as these titans clash over the most lucrative cable market in the country?

Recently, Verizon has been losing ground in the battle for high-speed internet, with most new subscribers opting for cable from Time Warner and Cablevision over Verizon's DSL. FiOS, though, not only allows Verizon to provide faster speeds than cable, it finally lets the company offer the same combination of services as its two competitors: Internet, phone and video. Since video is the new offering, that is where Time Warner and Cablevision are focusing their responses.

Time Warner Strikes Back

Time Warner's Harriet Novet, vice president of public affairs for the New York City region, expressed confidence that the company's customers will remain loyal. "Verizon is not the first competitor in the New York market," she said, perhaps referring to satellite TV companies. "Competitive options have always existed in New York, and Time Warner has always been prepared."

To keep its customers, Time Warner has introduced new features such as Video Caller ID (available to those have both TV and digital phone service only) and Start Over, which allows customers to restart a show and watch it from the beginning at any point of the program. That new service, though, is not yet available citywide and does not work with all channels.

Regardless of the success of its new features, Time Warner does offer one service that clearly stands out for many New Yorkers: NY1. The only 24-hour dedicated local news channel that covers the entire city, New York 1 is only offered on Time Warner Cable. Cablevision offers its own News 12 service that focuses on Brooklyn and Bronx.

Verizon FiOS does not offer any similar channel in New York - yet. "We have a news channel that has been launched in the suburban Washington D.C. area, and we're reviewing whether we plan to do that in other markets," Verizon spokesperson John Bonomo said. Verizon FiOS also has a widgets feature that allows viewers to get weather information for their location. Still, for loyal Time Warner customers and New Yorkers who need their news, this is no replacement for NY1.

Will Speed Sell?

Verizon may be new to the TV market, but it has experience providing Internet. FiOS Internet, with its dramatically higher speeds, puts Verizon at a clear advantage over the cable providers in this area. Standard FiOS Internet service (at $57.99 a month) is 20 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 5 Mbps for uploads. FiOS also has three other tiers of Internet service for those who want to spend more money for a faster connection. The top tier provides up to 50 Mbps download and up to 20 Mbps upload for $144.99 per month. (If you'd like to get a sense of what the difference in these speeds means, watch this video.)

Time Warner's Road Runner's top-speed service in the city is its Turbo service that has speeds up to 15 Mbps download and up to 0.768 Mbps upload for $55.90 a month, though that won't be available to the entire city until the end of the year. Customers using Time Warner's standard service (10 Mbps download for $45.95) get a magical-sounding feature called Powerboost that "sends a burst of speed when customers download large files," according to Novet. This temporary burst in speed helps customers download large files more quickly.

The technology to improve broadband speeds over existing cable lines is available, but Time Warner and Cablevision do not seem to be in a rush to deploy it. DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) 3.0 would allow for faster speeds across cable - up to 160 Mbps by some accounts. It enables symmetrical connections, which means that upload and download connection speeds are equally fast. That's especially useful for VoIP phone calling, telephone service over the Internet that allows customers to make cheaper domestic and international calls, and other applications that require fast speeds back and forth. DOCSIS 3.0 could help Time Warner and Cablevision compete with FiOS on speed, and the cable giant Comcast has already begun implementing it in its markets.

Novet was mum on the prospects for DOCSIS 3.0 in New York, saying only, "It is an emerging technology. We're working very hard on it." But news reports suggest the company will test it this year and possibly try to deploy it in 2009 or 2010 in markets, like New York, where it faces competition from FiOS.

Cablevision, too, seems to be dawdling on DOCSIS 3.0. In a recent conference call with investors, Tom Rutledge, the chief operating officer, said that the technology will not be commercially deployable until the end of the year and didn't specify where the company would begin launching the upgrades. On Long Island, Cablevision offers free wireless service in certain areas to their subscribers, but there is no indication that the company plans to try that in New York City.

Taking it to the Airwaves

Rather than compete on quality, both cable companies have launched ad campaigns to try to take some of the thunder out of Verizon's lightning. The more aggressive Time Warner put a graphic on its Website that has a picture of comedian Mike O'Mally with the text, "FiOS is a new word, but it's still the same old phone company. Why suffer potentially slow, messy installations? Time Warner Cable's digital cable gives you fiber optics without hassle."

The ads proved more than just an annoyance for Verizon, which filed a lawsuit against Time Warner charging the company had made false statements about Verizon's FiOS service. Verizon took issue with two statements made in a 60-second spot. In the ad an actor playing a customer tells a Verizon representative that Time Warner has "been using fiber optics for over a decade." Then the customer asks the representative, "Just to get TV from you, don't I need a satellite dish?" Time Warner edited the spot to remove the state about Verizon customers needing a satellite dish for FiOS service. (They don't.) In its current version, though, the ad still claims that Time Warner has been using fiber optics for years.

In a very limited, technical sense this is true. "All communication companies have some fiber optics, somewhere in their network," said Bonomo of Verizon. But, he added, FiOS is "100 percent fiber optics from our central offices directly to your home," while the cable companies use the old coaxial lines to wire customers' homes and bring service to them.

Time Warner's ad campaign capitalizes on its position as the incumbent. All it has to do is convince customers that Verizon's service is the same as Time Warner's and people lose the motivation to switch.

In another effort to fend off Verizon's invasion, Time Warner is pushing a "Price Lock Guarantee," which offers discounts of about 10 to 12 percent for customers who sign up for three-year contracts. Three years is a long time for Verizon investors to wait for a return.

In general, the financial facts work in the cable companies' favor. Verizon is under pressure from investors to generate income from its multi-billion dollar investment in a fully fiber optic network. Meanwhile, Time Warner and Cablevision can milk their existing, albeit weaker infrastructure.


Verizon, meanwhile, is taking steps of its own. The company launched its entry into television in New York City with an impressive 100 high definition channels. Not all of the HD channels are free - 54 are available with standard service for a basic rate of $47.99 a month that also includes a selection of high-definition videos on demand. The additional 46 HD channel are available with subscriptions to extra sports or premium movie packages. Still, it is a big selection compared to Time Warner, which currently offers 45 high-definition channels on its Digital Starter Pak service ($51.95 a month) in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens (60 total with the extra subscriptions) and just 30 in Manhattan (going up to 37 with the additional purchases). Time Warner has also introduced a new high definition version of its video on demand service in some parts of the city.

Cablevision, which has been going head to head with FiOS on Long Island since 2006, has been steadily increasing its high-definition channel options. The company announced the addition of 15 more ahead of the FiOS New York launch, but that still only brings its offerings to a total of 60 channels, well behind Verizon.

Time Warner chief operating officer Landel Hobbs recently acknowledged his company's need to increase high-definition options, saying that the current priority in New York is to offer it "in vast numbers." The company is promising 100 high definition channels by December, according to Novet, just enough to catch up to Verizon. But Verizon isn't resting. Newsday, which is owned by Cablevision, reported in July that Verizon's target is 150 channels by the end of the year.

Service Issues

Overall, more high definition channels may not seem like much of a benefit to cable customers whose complaints tend to focus on price and service. During its negotiations with the city, Verizon managed to get the penalty for missing a service appointment reduced from a free installation or entire month of service to just a $25 credit. This raises concerns that Verizon will sink to the level of its competitors rather than raise the bar. Time Warner, which still faces the old, larger penalty for missing an appointment, has responded by shortening the scheduled window for service appointments from four hours to two hours.

From the looks of things, the competition from a single new entrant into the market will spur only minor improvements. High-end customers will have access to higher speeds and more high definition channels. The average customer might have to agree to a long-term contract to see any savings on price. And any cell phone customer can tell you what long-term contracts mean for customer service.

The real test for Verizon's impact on cable service in New York will come this fall as the city begins negotiations with Time Warner and Cablevision for new franchise agreements. Will Time Warner and Cablevision commit to stricter customer service standards? Will the administration require them to provide their high definition and video on demand services to community and government channels? As the companies continue to slug it out, we need a referee to make sure consumers get real improvements, not confusing commercials and flashy doodads.

Joshua Breitbart and Kristofer R¡os run the Digital Expansion Initiative at People's Production House.  

The End of Wall Street as We Know It

The turbulent financial market events of recent days demonstrably signal the end of Wall Street as we know it. More uncertainty lies ahead, on Wall Street but also for the national economy. How is this affecting New York and what will it take to get the economy moving again?

After The Bubble Burst

Six months ago, a "disastrous foray into financial wizardry" by banks and lenders led us to the sight of the Federal Reserve giving J.P. Morgan Chase $28 billion to take over Bear Stearns. It was thought that this unprecedented action might calm the panic triggered by the sub-prime lending fiasco. The bursting of the housing bubble destroyed billions of dollars of equity people held in their homes and started to jeopardize millions of mortgages across the country, prime as well as sub-prime. This mortgage meltdown led the U.S. Treasury Department earlier this month to take over the two quasi-public mortgage giants- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which together hold nearly half of the $12 trillion in outstanding mortgage debt in the U.S.

gotham gazette commentary: the views expressed here are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Gotham Gazette or its publisher.

Despite several unprecedented actions by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department over the past six months, financial market conditions continued to worsen. Reportedly, hedge fund speculators, seeking to profit from the woes of others, used short-selling to drive down the share price of Lehman Brothers. Some market insiders contend this contributed to the demise of the fourth largest U.S. investment bank.

With no clear roadmap on how to avert a collapse, the federal government's response swung wildly over the week in diametrically opposed directions. At first, the Fed and the Treasury sought to draw the line on further taxpayer bailouts, denying federal aid to Lehman Brothers. Lehman had no choice but to go into bankruptcy on Sept. 15. Pictures of dour-faced employees carrying their personal belongings out of Lehman's offices splashed across newspapers and television screens. To avoid Lehman's fate, Merrill Lynch hurriedly agreed to be taken over by Bank of America.

Initially, the Fed had denied aid to insurance giant AIG. The day after it stood by while Lehman went belly-up, though, the Fed reversed course. Officials decided there was an imminent danger of far-flung cascading financial defaults and agreed to an $85 billion taxpayer bailout of AIG in exchange for an 80 percent ownership stake in the company.

Initially euphoric after the AIG bailout announcement, financial markets went into full-blown panic on Sept. 17, and investors and speculators mercilessly drove down the share prices of the remaining financial industry leaders. Panic even spread to the $3.4 trillion money market fund industry where millions of average investors place their savings. The credit markets "seized up," meaning that institutions became fearful of lending to each other because of the tremendous uncertainty about whether the borrower would be able to repay. Stock markets dropped sharply around the world.

The Biggest Bailout

Writing in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker proposed the equivalent of a new Resolution Trust Corp. After the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, the RTC assumed the assets (mainly commercial properties) of failed institutions and sold them in an orderly fashion. Ultimately, billions of dollars were returned to the public treasury. The net taxpayer cost of that massive bailout was about $100 billion.

Volcker's support for a new Resolution Trust Corp. helped legitimize an idea that had been gaining currency in recent weeks. By the end of last week -- a week that started off with officials saying "no more bailouts" -- Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, after consulting with congressional leaders, announced that the federal government would provide what amounts to "the mother of all bailouts." Paulson's proposal, the details of which were still being negotiated with Congress as of this writing, amounted to an RTC on steroids but called for the Treasury Department itself -- rather than the new trust corporation -- to handle the purchase of shaky loans and other hard-to-sell securities.

What's the price tag for this umbrella Wall Street bailout? An eye-popping $700 billion, roughly the amount of U.S. government outlays to date in the phenomenally costly Iraq War. This would push the total tab for bailing out Wall Street to well over $1 trillion.

The White House also announced two other historic actions. The government would insure deposits in money market funds, the modern-day equivalent of the Great Depression move to have government insure bank deposits. And the Securities and Exchange Commission banned the short-selling of all financial sector stocks. (In a short sale, a stock is borrowed by an investor expecting the stock's value to drop, and then sold. After the price falls, the borrower buys the stock to re-pay the original owner, pocketing the difference.) Some market participants sharply criticized the short-selling ban, while many of those critics and others pointed the finger at the SEC for failing to properly oversee the financial markets in the first place.

The government's decision to seemingly empty the taxpayer's purse to provide a wall-to-wall Wall Street rescue produced euphoria on Wall Street at the end of last week. On Thursday and Friday, the Dow Jones industrials, which had plummeted earlier in the week, soared by 780 points. Despite that giddiness, it remains to be seen how exactly the Paulson bailout proposal will handle several highly contentious details and whether these actions will suffice to stabilize the financial markets.

The Ripple Effects Locally

In the early summer, experts projected 30,000 jobs would be lost on Wall Street, perhaps forever, while New York City would lose 80,000 to 90,000 jobs overall. Those estimated now are being revised upward. The state labor department now expects 40,000 lost Wall Street jobs and a total job loss for the city in the neighborhood of 120,000. As severe as those job losses would be, in the 2001 to 2003 recession/downturn, New York City lost about 40,000 Wall Street jobs and nearly 240,000 overall. In the downturn of the late 1980s and early 1990s following the bursting of the commercial real estate bubble and the savings and loan crisis, the city lost even more: 360,000 jobs or 10 percent of the total in the city.

The economic decline is well underway in New York City, extending beyond the financial district. Jobs are declining in businesses supplying Wall Street, such as law firms, temp agencies, caterers and car services, as well as in retail. Over the summer, the number of New York City workers filing for unemployment insurance jumped by 25 percent over the prior year. Workers' paychecks are taking a beating as well, as the price of gasoline, food and housing have soared. The Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that the inflation-adjusted median hourly wage in the city fell by 4 percent in the 12 months between June 2007 and June 2008.

The adverse effects to the city economy of the Lehman bankruptcy were moderated when London-based Barclay's Bank agreed to buy Lehman's investment banking and trading units. Barclay's also agreed to purchase Lehman's billion dollar headquarters building in Midtown. Still, shrinking financial firms will increase office vacancy rates in both Downtown and Midtown, and bring down asking rents. In this environment, it is unlikely that ground will be broken on any new office buildings. The loss of so many high-paying jobs will push Manhattan condo prices down, particularly now that the recession has spread to Europe. All of this will shrink tax revenues, leaving city and state budget officials to face the unwelcome pain of budget cuts and tax increases.

Crafting a Better Bailout

While the effects of the financial market meltdown are particularly acute in New York, Wall Street remains the core of the national financial system. The proposed Treasury bailout might help stabilize the financial markets, but that is far from certain.

A great deal is at stake in the negotiations that will occur before Congress passes the necessary authorizing legislation, promised by the time it adjourns on Sept. 26. It is clear, however, that other actions will be needed before a sustainable national recovery can get underway. New York cannot -- and should not -- face this crisis alone. The city, the state and the country all need a forceful and on-target response from the federal government.

The key issue right now is stabilizing the housing market. Most financial institutions should be able to weather this storm if the Treasury removes from their balance sheets home mortgages whose values had been falling and if the housing market stabilizes as a result. To accomplish that, the Treasury should only take over home mortgage debt.

The legislation authorizing the proposed Treasury bailout should make sure that institutions are not let off the hook for making excessively risky investments in derivatives and other highly speculative debt instruments. Those institutions that had highly leveraged themselves with very speculative bets should have to fend for themselves. The legislation should require complete disclosure of holdings as a condition of assistance.

The legislation should also require that the Treasury go to great lengths to keep people in their homes by re-negotiating mortgages on favorable terms for moderate- and middle-income home owners who have a realistic chance of paying off a new mortgage. In those cases where home owners do not have sufficient income to carry even a modified mortgage, the Treasury should allow them to rent their home in order to minimize displacement.

Washington needs to establish a new regulatory regime that covers all financial institutions (including hedge funds), controls risk and introduces a tax on financial transactions to help repay U.S. taxpayers for coming to the industry's rescue.

Above all, regulations should prevent the development and trading of high-risk, speculative instruments that do not serve a clear economic purpose. Capital requirements should be raised to prevent dangerous degrees of leveraging. Transactions have to be much more transparent and fully disclosed. As many experts such as Dean Baker have suggested, there also should be limits on compensation on Wall Street because history has demonstrated that unlimited compensation promotes excessive risk-taking.


It is critically important that the bailout authorizing legislation be linked to a second round of stimulus measures sufficient to jump-start an economic rebound. The $150 billion federal stimulus package enacted by President Bush and Congress in February provided a brief up-tick in consumer spending in May and June, but the rising price of gas and food swallowed up a good chunk of those tax rebates. A more robust and better-targeted stimulus package should be a condition for passage of the bailout legislation, and it should include:

  • Sizable fiscal relief to the states so they will not have to cut spending, further eroding jobs and services and hurting the economy;
  • Extended unemployment benefits and increased food stamp and home heating assistance, all measures that offer the most economic stimulus per dollar;
  • Funding improvements in state and local infrastructure. This will not only address long-standing needs and support economic growth, but will ensure that there will be a stimulant a year or two down the road when it will still be needed.

Wall Street is going through a dramatic downsizing. Some of that is warranted because, motivated by unbridled greed and encouraged by reckless de-regulation, Wall Street assumed a disproportionate role for itself in the economy. According to The Economist magazine, the finance sector's share of U.S. corporate profits rose from 10 percent 25 years ago to 40 percent last year. This dramatic rise depended, in part, on a panoply of unsustainable practices that do not serve a productive purpose.

Wanted: A Real Recovery

The slumping housing market and the debt many households took on in recent years present the major impediments to an economic recovery. Families everywhere had turned to home equity and credit card debt to make up for stagnant wages. As the Economic Policy Institute has pointed out, the 2001 to 2007 economic cycle was the first time since at least the Great Depression when wages for most workers did not surpass their previous peak -- which, in this case, was reached in 2000.

A set of medium- and long-term policies is necessary to help rebuild the middle class and move the U.S. economy toward shared prosperity. These include:

  • Universal health insurance that will provide lower-cost, quality options for millions of the uninsured and aid U.S. businesses of all sizes;
  • Increasing the minimum wage to its 1969 peak value and then indexing it to inflation to help millions of workers struggling to escape poverty;
  • Enacting the Employee Free Choice Act to circumvent illegal employer actions that thwart the efforts of workers to unionize;
  • Instituting a progressive tax increase that would help pay for important investments, including in higher education and skills training for those young people who do not attend college.

Without these and similar measures that foster a middle class, the U.S. economy likely will continue to bump along from crisis to crisis, whether or not the financial markets recover.

Getting Back to Work

Wall Street Journal writer Dennis K. Berman recently observed:

"Perhaps some of the country's brightest students might now recognize that the new path to wealth isn't a few years of hit-and-run work on the Street or at a hedge fund. This is a positive thing. It encourages the country to get back to creating, building and doing, rather than shuffling paper and trading it. ... The market has indeed spoken. Its message is clear: It is time to get back to work. Real work."


While many New Yorkers justifiably took pride in our city's resilience and rebound after 9/11, we have to acknowledge that our rebound road a wave of Wall Street speculation and excess. Now, it's time to get back to work. Wall Street self-destructed. More than ever, all of us -- not only in New York -- need broadly shared prosperity, and we need a big boost from Uncle Sam to help get us there.

Maybe, a symbolic first step is to re-name Wall Street. "Broadly Shared Prosperity Place" might serve a useful reminder to financiers about the job they have to do.

James Parrott is deputy director and chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute ( He has been studying and writing about the New York economy since he landed in New York City a quarter century ago. 

Third Term's The Charm

term limits again
Illustration (c) Gotham Gazette

Councilmember Oliver Koppell, a career politician who has gone from state attorney general to a member of the Bronx delegation in City Hall, needs a new job.

Term limited out of his seat next year, the councilmember told Gotham Gazette in March he would not seek higher office in 2009. His plan was to leave public life behind after 38 years.

Well, maybe his plans have changed.

Just after Labor Day, Koppell said he would ask the council staff to draft a bill that could allow him, 34 other council members, four borough presidents and the mayor -- all of whom face being term limited out of office at the end of 2009 -- another four years in their posts. It would extend the city's term limit from two terms to three, from 8 years to 12. Councilmember David Weprin, followed by Tony Avella, plans to introduce competing legislation requiring a referendum on any extension of term limits.

Though Koppell says he has not decided whether he would seek a third term if the legislation passes, the councilmember argues that allowing his colleagues the opportunity to win one more term would boost the power of the people.

"The people should have a right to vote (for or against incumbent council members)," said Koppell. "There are outstanding members of the council who would run."

That is, if they can get the necessary bill or referendum passed first.

Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg first floated the possibility of extending term limits, pundits, pollsters and politicians have mulled how city officials would go about doing it.

Would – or, more importantly, could -- the City Council pass legislation? Would it send the question to voters before 2009? Would any movement be able to withstand the all but certain lawsuit? And when would the council need to act?

None of these questions have sure answers.

Capping Terms

Twice – in 1993 and 1996 -- voters in New York City approved a two-term cap on how long members of the City Council, borough presidents, the public advocate, comptroller and mayor could serve. They hoped that the limits would infuse City Hall with new blood. Many new politicians entering office in 2002 expressed support for the measure.

"There's no company that I know of that doesn't benefit when they have changes in management once in a while," Bloomberg told the New York Post in 2005 after winning his second – maybe his final – term.

The majority of the city's veteran politicians had to leave office in 2001, and next year, City Hall will face a similar change: two thirds of the 51 members of the City Council are in their second term.

When the issue of extending term limits came up as council members vied to become speaker in 2005 (the previous speaker, Gifford Miller, had to leave because of term limits), current Speaker Christine Quinn promised to take up the issue "immediately" if elected speaker. Despite that, the subject basically has been off the table since then.

In the meantime, many council members have already declared candidacies for other office – from mayor to borough president to the state legislature – and have started fundraising campaigns to match their ambitions.

Then a few weeks ago, the landscape shifted.

Bloomberg -- in what could be an attempt to keep City Hall observers on their toes, a grab for power or publicity, or an effort to stave off lame-duck status -- met with the publishers of three major newspapers, seeking their opinion on extending term limits. He then flirted with the idea at press conferences, punting the term-limit question back to the council, saying he would have to think "long and hard" if a bill upping the term-limit cap to three crossed his desk.

As the term-limit debate revs up again – commercials are hitting television screens urging the City Council to abandon the issue – some observers are not only wondering if, but how it could be done.

Term Limit Options: A Referendum

Regardless of what one thinks of term limits, New York has them because voters wanted them. More than a million New Yorkers voted for term limits in two elections, according to New Yorkers for Term Limits – a lobbying group that opposes an extension. That group is funded by billionaire cosmetics heir Ronald S. Lauder, who funded the original campaign for term limits.

The voters could have another opportunity to weigh in on the issue.

Under state law, a legislature, such as the City Council, can put a question on the ballot if it collects 30,000 signatures. Ordinary citizens, though, need to collect 45,000 signatures to get a referendum on the ballot.

Good government groups in the city, including Citizens Union, whose sister organization publishes Gotham Gazette, and the New York Public Interest Research Group, support a referendum, allowing the voters to decide, if the city chooses to look into extending term limits.

A Referendum, But When?

It is too late to get this on the ballot for November. So, if term limits were to be extended in time to save the jobs of Bloomberg, Quinn, Koppell and so on, a special election would have to be held. The council has not called a special election – that power is usually reserved for the mayor – and it is unclear whether the council can call one on its own.

If a legislature approves a bill changing a public office's power, state law requires a referendum be held. Some interpretations of the law, according to a memo from Citizens Union, say it may be possible for the council to call a special election on term limits for this reason. Whether term limits falls into this "power" category is unclear. Given the historically low turnout for special elections, some fear an election could be timed to place incumbents at an advantage.

Bloomberg could also place a term limits question on the ballot via the City Charter Revision Commission. In his State of the City address earlier this year, the mayor said he would set up a committee to examine the City Charter. The scope of that committee has not yet been announced. If it eventually gets off of the ground, it could look at term limits and then put a referendum to the voters in the 2009 general election.

The mayor's office declined to comment on whether the commission would be looking into this issue.

To ensure the council would allow voters to determine the fate of term limits, Weprin asked the council's legal arm -- one day after Koppell made his legislative request -- to draft legislation that would explicitly require a referendum for term limit revisions.

At a press conference on Sunday, Weprin and council members Bill de Blasio and Eric Gioia stood on the City Hall steps in the sweltering heat, vowing to vote against any bill that extends term limits without a referendum.The members called Koppell's bill "corrosive" and said it undermined the public interest.

In the Chamber

Some interpretations of the law suggest that the council does have the authority to expand term limits without putting the question to voters – as in Koppell's proposal. If vetoed by the mayor, the council could override it with a three-fourths majority.

This scenario, by far, has sparked the most criticism.

"I don't know why these people think they have the ability or the authority to make a decision that the voters already said they shouldn't do," said Hank Sheinkopf, a consultant who works on many local campaigns.

The council's power to extend term limits legislatively hinges on a 2003 state appellate court opinion. The council had redefined term limits to mean two consecutive full four-year terms, as opposed to just two terms. This meant that some members, elected mid-term in a special election or during redistricting years, could actually serve 10 years, say, instead of the usual eight. Some potential City Council candidates challenged the 2002 law. The state courts, though, ruled in the council's favor.

Several council members said their legal staff interprets the court's finding as a green light for additional term-limit changes. Other advocates say the latest proposal is different, because it is not clearing up ambiguity in the law, but fundamentally changing it. For that reason, it could be susceptible to a legal challenge.

"I ultimately believes this goes to court," said Councilmember Vincent Ignizio, who is not term limited and says any bill the council considers needs to be for the next class of legislators.

The question is whether allowing additional terms amounts to an extension of the council's power, thus triggering a referendum, or whether it is revising the current law.

Koppell, citing his experience as a former state attorney general, insists that the proposal could survive a legal challenge.

Others, not surprisingly, disagree.

"Do they have the power? The power is from the people and the people have already voted on it," said Kenneth Moltner, a spokesman for New Yorkers For Term Limits. "There is absolutely nothing the City Council should be doing."

Council members say a majority of members would approve a bill to extend term limits. If the mayor vetoed it, most members believe the council would not have enough votes to override that veto.

The city's Law Department declined to comment on the legality of Koppell's approach.

A Constituent Backlash?

So, let's say the council can revise the term-limit law legislatively and give members the opportunity to snag four more years. But, should it?

Many advocates and consultants say no, arguing the council would be acting primarily in its own self interest (Even Koppell said half of the support for the bill is motivated by self interest – the other half being a policy-based decision).

"This is not a good way to be having a debate," said David Birdsell, the dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College. "It should not be a debate about individuals. It should be about structure of choice."

For that reason, some members argue any change should be done prospectively for the next class of council members. The council, as a legislative body, could get all the benefits of a longer term (including, the enhanced ability to stand up to the all-powerful executive branch, experience to get larger policy initiatives passed, less reliance on staff members, etc.) without the political ramifications.

If they made any change take effect immediately -- benefiting themselves -- political consultants say the council might see a backlash from the electorate, who could vote them out of office anyway.

"There is a danger that the voters may revolt and might go in and elect (challengers)," said Shienkopf.

On the other hand, the incumbents' popularity, particularly the mayor's, is precisely what's fueling the debate. More than 70 percent of voters approve of Bloomberg, according to a poll this summer by Quinnipiac University, but 56 percent don't want to see a change in term limit law.

That said, some New Yorkers would like to see him stick around anyway. "Michael Bloomberg runs a quality mayoralty. New York City could do worse than to have him around for another four years," read one editorialin the New York Post this June."And it probably will do worse - thanks (or no thanks) to term limits."

Campaign Confusion

To add to the confusion over legislative power, at least 24 term-limited officeholders are fundraising for another office. If some of them decided to run for a third term instead, they may have to return donations.

A candidate for City Council can accept contributions of $2,750 each, while a candidate for a citywide office can accept $4,950.

In addition, spending limits vary by office. Council candidates, if they participate in the public financing program, can spend $161,000 on a primary and the same amount on a general election. A mayoral candidate can spend about $6.2 million, while an aspirant for borough president can spend $1.4 million.

De Blasio, who is running for Brooklyn borough president, said, "We cannot change the game in the 11th hour." He would not say on Sunday whether he would consider running for a third term if the voters approved an extension.

Campaign Finance Board Press Secretary Eric Friedman said the board is already considering how to react if incumbents change their '09 plans. Office space in Manhattan, would not help a candidate if he or she decided to skip the citywide races and instead run for a third term in a council seat in Queens. Should spending in Manhattan count in a Queens race?

Already, candidates who could potentially run for a third term if term limits were extended, like council members Melinda Katz and Weprin, have far exceeded the spending limit for council races.

"You think of a monopoly board and someone walks by and flips it upside down," said Friedman. "You have to put the pieces back together."

A Extension Deadline

Because the city could hold a special election to determine term limits and the City Council could pass legislation anytime, term limits are very much in limbo.

Friedman said candidates have until June 2009 to decide whether they would enter the campaign finance program. Realistically, candidates need to know the term limits situation if they are to direct fundraising and outreach far sooner than that date.

The speaker's office will have until November to comply with both Koppell's and Weprin's legislative requests. Before that though, we will need to get direction from Quinn on whether either bill will get a hearing. In almost all cases, legislation does not move unless the speaker wants it to.

But insiders say it's really Bloomberg who will determine how, if and when any referendum or legislation moves forward. For now, both Quinn and Bloomberg aren't answering any questions.

"I'm very confident, if (the mayor) decides to move a piece of legislation on term limits, or anything else, he will call me, we will talk," said Quinn at a recent press conference. "If that happens, then there will be more to say. But there is nothing to say right now on term limits."


After 7 Years, Breathing Ailments Persist

Graphic from the EPA

As the world waits -- and waits -- for the World Trade Center's redevelopment project to rise from the gaping hole along Church Street, downtown residents and recovery workers continue to suffer from the illnesses related to the September 11th attacks. Sinus pressure, coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing are just a handful of symptoms afflicting thousands of those who lived and worked in lower Manhattan during and immediately after the tragedy -- all are effects of the air's contamination.

Years after the attacks, New Yorkers and out-of-state volunteers continue to emerge saying they suffer from a World Trade Center related illness. Last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a campaign to seek out such victims -- with advertisements soon to appear on subways and television screens across the city. The mayor and medical experts predicted thousands -- maybe hundreds of thousands -- of untreated responders, volunteers and residents could be eligible for medical care.

At least for now.

Though advocates say the city has adequately responded in the last year to the health effects of the World Trade Center attacks, its ability to treat victims is threatened. Calling federal support "inconsistent and episodic," Bloomberg said the city needs to have a stable funding source from Washington if it is to continue providing medical care to 9-11 workers and residents.

As of now, the funding the city receives could be cut off in 2009 -- eight years after the attacks. With little known of the long-term effects of air contamination downtown, a lack of funding, advocates and city officials say, can cripple the city's ability to adequately address the health needs of victims in the future.

The Response and Results

A report released last week from the World Trade Center Working Group -- an expert panel appointed by Bloomberg to monitor Sept. 11th health-related studies and issues -- showed studies were consistent in finding the prevalence of elevated rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases among recovery workers and those who lived or worked downtown. It also found the prevalence of mental health issues, such as post traumatic stress disorder.

That report, advocates and community representatives say, further solidifies the city's acceptance of scientific evidence that the attacks on the World Trade Center has led to -- and could still be causing -- serious health issues for residents and recovery workers.

This represents a change from years ago.

"As an employer (the city) didn’t provide adequate protection to the thousands of workers around ground zero," said David Newman, the industrial hygienist for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, an advocacy group. "However, recent developments are quite welcome. The city has acknowledged that people's health has been impacted across a wide variety of populations."

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, said advocates, the city mismanaged its own workers in the recovery effort -- who, in an attempt to find human remains, picked through a massive, smoldering pile rife with dangerous materials. Those workers suffer from respiratory illnesses caused by inhaling contaminants that tore through their lungs.

Rates of asthma, for example, are two to three times higher for Lower Manhattan residents and recovery workers. Children caught in the attack's dust cloud were twice as likely to be diagnosed with asthma two to three years after Sept. 11, according to the working group's report.

About 25 percent of firefighters experienced symptoms two to four years after the attacks, according to the report. Before the attacks, 5 percent had respiratory illnesses.

The city has allocated $100 million to health care for those affected by the attacks over five years. Some of that funding will go toward the city's World Trade Center Environmental Health Center at Bellevue Hospital Center, Gouverneur Health Care Services and Elmhurst Hospital Center as well as programs at Mount Sinai and at the Fire Department. At Bellevue alone, said city officials, 2,800 people are being treated. A total of about 10,000 are within the Health and Hospitals Corporation system for World Trade Center treatment.

That number, though, is expected to grow with the city's new advertising campaign slated to launch this week. Dr. Joan Reibman of the World Trade Center Environmental Health Center said the centers' total capacity would be about 20,000. Thousands more, she added, could need treatment.

While many advocates now appear satisfied with the city's actions, they are far less so with the federal response.

Indoor Quality

Having an air purifier in a residence in Lower Manhattan has become commonplace. With the constant construction (or in some cases lack thereof -- see related story) and catastrophe, especially at 130 Liberty Street, residents have taken air quality in their own homes into their own hands.

They have had to, they say, since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's response was wholly inadequate.

Twice the agency sent its inspectors around to check out residences and commercial establishments in the lower Manhattan area for contaminants. As part of this program, known as "Test and Clean," the agency committed to ridding the area of the toxic material. Its initial inspection in 2002 -- a program the tested nearly 3,500 residences for contaminants -- was fiercely criticized by city, state and federal officials, because it only included areas below Canal Street and it failed to test workplaces.

After a lengthy review process, the agency tried again. But residents and advocates say the program tested only four materials, including asbestos and lead, and did not expand the area within the program.

The agency began testing again in 2007 -- six years after contaminants and dangerous dust would have landed in workplaces and apartments downtown.

"We're seeing the physical impacts from the World Trade Center exposure and (last week's) report makes you wonder whether there could have been less of a physical impact on building occupants if there had been a proper test and clean program in place earlier," said Community Board 1's Vice Chair Catherine McVay Hughes. "It highlights the importance for it to be done properly if, unfortunately, if there is another incident like this."

According to the latest data from the Environmental Protection Agency, 2 out of 1,092 samples exceeded asbestos regulations. For lead, 77 samples out of 841 exceeded regulatory levels. A spokeswoman attributed a majority of the high lead levels to lead paint, not necessarily toxins from the September 11th attacks.

In response to the community's disapproval of the program, which should be completed within weeks, Agency Spokeswoman Bonnie Bellow said, "We believe we've addressed the concerns of lower Manhattan residents. Our findings were consistent with what we expected."

Outdoor Quality

As for the outdoors, the city, under the purview of its Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, has several monitoring devices throughout downtown that continue to test air quality on a daily basis.

Recent reports show average and normal levels of particulate matter, from dust to chemical components, at all of the center's mentoring stations, including Greenwich Street, Catherine Street, the World Financial Center and Nassau Street.

Much of the continuous air monitoring was a result of lobbying from Community Board 1.

"The Community Board has been extremely proactive and vocal," said Julie Menin, the board's chair. "We insisted there are these air monitors downtown so it does give us some assurance."

While levels appear to be normal, some still fear what the ongoing construction could do to air quality downtown. Given many of the structures that are currently being taken down -- like the Deutsche Bank building -- are highly contaminated, residents are promoting constant, daily monitoring to ensure nothing is leaked into Lower Manhattan.

The Deutsche Bank fire is one example, said advocates, of how the air quality can still be threatened.

A Federal Answer

Though the city is attempting to keep tabs on air quality downtown, its ability to treat victims of these contaminants hangs in limbo.

This year, the city received $108 million from Washington for health-related World Trade Center programs. But that funding didn't come without a fight.

Some say it's politics at play, but every year the city religiously lobbies for funding to treat Sept. 11 related illnesses and is denied a consistent funding stream. As a solution, the Bloomberg administration is pushing for the passage of the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which could guarantee long-term funding for this type of care.

Because it was a tragedy affecting the whole nation, the city says it is the federal government's responsibility to cover the cost. Annual funding guaranteed without begging will also be crucial if longer-term health effects, like cancer, start to appear (The city is currently studying whether some diseases which have passed their latency periods, like leukemia, are appearing in clusters).

"It really is a federal obligation, not a city obligation," said Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler at a press conference last week.

Bloomberg could not estimate how much funding the city would need to address the health issues. Though the administration has gained the endorsement of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, advocates say passage of this legislation in the Senate is highly unlikely this year.


The Question Mark Over Fiterman Hall

fiterman hall
Photos by Gail Robinson

Standing on the 52nd floor of his new building at 7 World Trade Center, developer Larry Silverstein recently declared the structure a monument to what private enterprise can do. If that is indeed the case, then many would no doubt see its neighbor, Fiterman Hall, as a monument to what government cannot, or will not, do. Certainly, if Silverstein's office building epitomizes what has been accomplished in Lower Manhattan since 9/11, Fiterman offers mute testimony to how much remains to be done.

Fiterman had served as an academic building for Borough of Manhattan Community College when the World Trade Center twin towers collapsed on 9/11 and debris from the original 7 World Trade Center damaged its facade. Since then, Fiterman has remained vacant and unused. Today workers have decontaminated much of the building, but doubts remain about if and when the structure will come down and when work can begin on something to take its place. Amid the billions being spent at Ground Zero, the dispute at Fiterman centers around some $60 million and who -- in this time of tightening budgets-- should pick up the bill.

"The city and state are playing ping pong as to who should ante up, and the ball has not landed," said City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who represents Lower Manhattan. And so, he said, some worry the site will become another vacant spot in the downtown cityscape -- a bleak counterpoint to the shiny red sculpture between it and 7 World Trade Center.

The Long Delay

A 15-story building constructed in the 1950s, Fiterman began serving BMCC faculty and students in 1993. A major renovation there had been almost completed when the 9/11 attacks took place. While officials originally hoped the building could be cleaned and repaired, they eventually determined that, due to mold and the dust from the adjacent destroyed buildings, Fiterman needed to be razed, or in the parlance of those involved, "deconstructed."

damage of Fiterman Hall
photo from wikicommons

For years, though, little happened. By many accounts, Fiterman became enmeshed in jurisdictional and funding disputes between the city, the state and the City University of New York, of which BMCC is a part. Top officials, Steve Cuozzo of the New York Post has written, seemed less interested in Fiterman than other downtown projects. George Pataki, then governor, "ignored Fiterman Hall entirely," as did Mayor Michael Bloomberg, according to Cuozzo.

Selecting a contractor to recommend a decontamination plan and then getting the federal Environmental Protection Agency's approval further delayed matters, as did finding a contractor to do the actual work.

Finally, now, the decontamination is underway, with workers removing furniture, rugs, non-structural wall and the like.

"Everything that is not the skeleton has come down or is about to come down," said Mark Violette, spokesperson for the New York State Dormitory Authority, which is overseeing the work for CUNY -- much like a contractor might oversee a kitchen renovation, according to Violette. Workers pack the debris into boxes about the size of a large television set and the boxes -- tripled-wrapped are loaded onto trucks for removal. So far, Violette said, the debris has filled 280 tractor-trailers.

The next step calls for demolishing the elevator shafts and finally for cleaning to a "dime standard" -- where workers remove any piece of dirt or other material larger than a dime.

The authority anticipates finishing the decontamination by late December 2008 or early January 2009, a few months later than anticipated partly because the authority has had to go back to the EPA to request minor changes in the plan.

After the Decontamination

While all of that proceeds, the next step remains in doubts.

CUNY knows what it would like to do. It wants to demolish Fiterman. To do that, it will require another permit from the EPA.

But even more ticklish is the issue of what would then occupy the then vacant space where West Broadway and Greenwich Street intersect.

CUNY wants to build there. Noting that BMCC currently has 21,000 students -- several thousand more than on 9/11 -- Michael Arena, director of communications and marketing for CUNY said, "they are an institution that's bursting at the seams."

To remedy that, CUNY has proposed placing a new facility on the site that the university thinks would benefit BMCC and the surrounding area. "What's gotten lost in the discussion is the impact the new building will have on the community," Arena said.

In addition to classrooms, the new Fiterman Hall would include a public gallery on the ground floor, a meeting space on the top and a public plaza. "It's not just a series of isolated classrooms slapped in the zone," said Arena. (For a video on the proposed building, click here.)

Before that can happen, though, CUNY has to come up with the money, estimated, according to various accounts, at about $340 million. Under the rules governing community colleges in the City University, the state and city split that.

According to testimony prepared by Noah Pfefferblit, district manager for Community Board 1, which covers lower Manhattan, the proposed demolition and the new building would cost about $340 million with the city and state each contributing $98.6 million and the rest coming from insurance funds, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the 9/11 fund.

By many accounts, the city has balked at paying what some observers believe is its fair share.

Last May, Community Board 1 unanimously passed a resolution calling on Bloomberg "to allocate sufficient funds in this year’s budget to match the amount allocated by the state so that Fiterman Hall can be demolished and redeveloped in the coming year."

While the Bloomberg administration did not comment for this story, earlier this year, it said it had in fact anted up $80 million. Its critics say the city really has paid only $20 million and is trying to take credit for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds. But the administration has countered that the $60 million in question really came from the city -- not Washington.

More fundamentally, the city has expressed qualms about what it sees as CUNY's skyrocketing cost estimates for the project, now put at $325 million. Of course,the longer the dispute drags on, the more costs are likely to increase.

"The city and state and CUNY are all pointing their fingers at one another," Gerson said. "It's the craziest situation I've ever encountered in terms of funding."

Whatever the merits of the arguments, Arena said CUNY wants to see the dispute settled. "There certainly is a need for the project and we're hopeful it can be resolved shortly," he said.

For his part, Gerson thinks all those involved need to go into a room and stay there until they can solve the funding issue once and for all. And, he said, "I'm happy to keep the door locked."

CORRECTION: This story originally reported the cost of the new Fiterman Hall at $430 million. According to CUNY, it will cost $325 million. The article has been corrected.


Seven Years Later

photo by Benjamin Jarosch
Photo by Benjamin Jarosch, courtesy of WTC Documentary Arts Project

On June 30, the Port Authority told Gov David Paterson what many New Yorkers suspected: Almost seven years after the 9/11 attacks killed thousands and devastated a swath of Lower Manhattan, every public project planned for the World Trade Center site was behind schedule and over budget. In particular, the authority said, the memorial would probably not open on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the two transportation centers do not have final designs, and demolition of the Deutsche Bank Building, which has to take place before some other parts of the plan can move forward, had fallen woefully behind schedule. And so on.

The area around ground zero presents better news than the site itself, officials say. “Lower Manhattan has been rebuilt, reinvented and renewed into one of the most exciting neighborhoods we have in the five boroughs of New York City,” Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber said at a press briefing on Tuesday, boasting of business, homes, shops and culture. At the site, though, he conceded, there have been “unmeetable deadlines and unrealistic timetables.”

Similarly Avi Schick, chair of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., admitted problems at what he repeatedly called “the 16-acre site,” but went on to say, “What’s truly amazing is the transformation Lower Manhattan has undergone since 9/11."

The site's redevelopment, though, remains crucial to the city -- as a symbol and because no neighborhood or city is likely to thrive with a gaping hole at its very heart. To address the problems, Paterson has asked for a new, realistic budget and deadlines on Sept. 30. "We’re not going to give any phony dates or timetables and follow it up with phony ribbon-cuttings and encouraging words,” he has said. But that does not mean the plans may not be scaled back, delayed or even scrapped.

We look at four facets of the aftermath of 9/11 -- seven years after the attacks and three weeks before a possible new stage in our effort to remember, recover and rebuild.


A Longtime Incumbent Faces Another Challenger

ny congressional district 10

We all know the conventional wisdom about congressional races in New York City: Incumbents don't lose. That has not stopped a number of people over the years from taking on Brooklyn's Edolphus Towns, but Towns has always prevailed.

This year, Kevin Powell, a former cast member of the Real World turned author and speaker, wants to change that and defeat the 26-year congressional veteran.

The two faced off briefly in the 2006 to represent this district, which encompasses East New York, Canarsie, Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Cypress Hills, Clinton Hill, Mill Basin, Midwood, downtown Brooklyn, Boreum Hill, Fort Greene and Williamsburg. That year, Powell campaigned initially but did not stay on the ballot for the primary -- reportedly getting sidetracked by the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort. Two other candidates -- City Councilmember Charles Barron and then Assemblymember Roger Green remained in the race. Towns eventually won but with less than 50 percent of the vote.

Because Towns saw a difficult primary two years ago, some say Powell may present a significant challenge this September despite the incumbent's long tenure in the capital and support from many key Democrats.

So far, the race has featured little debate on issues. Observers say Towns has highlighted Powell's previous violence against women -- something Powell admits to in his book, "Who's Gonna Take the Weight: Manhood, Race and Power in America." Powell says that that violence is far behind him. Towns refused to participate in a debate with Powell hosted by the Brooklyn Paper, which some said was an attempt to belittle the threat his challenger posed.

On the other hand, Powell has accused Towns of being invisible in the district, arguing he has done little to address the area's problems. He has also noted that Towns backed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary while most voters in the district, which has the largest number of blacks of any district in the state, supported Barack Obama.

According to the Federal Election Commission, Towns has garnered $975,792 in campaign contributions, while Powell has $46,607 through June 30.

Whoever is the victor next week, will face Republican Salvatore Grupico this November.


Taking on the Brownsville Dynasty

ny state assembly district 55

The Boyland family has been a power in Brownsville for decades, and now the nephew of the founder of the local dynasty, William F. Boyland Jr., represents the area in the Assembly. This Boyland won the seat in a special election, called when his father resigned only weeks after being re-elected.

This year, he faces a challenge from Rev. Leonard Hatter, who reportedly is a longtime religious-activist, founded a youth empowerment program named called "Courage to Change" and is pastor and founder of "Partnership Ministries," a Brownsville church. He will be joined on the ballot, blogger Rock Hackshaw reports, by two other community activists -- Cleopatra Brown and Daniel Gourdine, who are running for district leaders.

Jonathan Anderson, a Republican district leader, will run for the Assembly seat on that party's line in November.

Campaign finance information was not available for any of the three candidates.


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