Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Campaigning in Co-op City

Co-op City in the Bronx is the largest housing complex in the state. Built in the late 1960's as part of the Mitchell-Lama program, it is a self-contained city with over 50,000 residents, its own schools, a museum, and a shopping mall.

This fall, candidates running for City Council district 12 in the north Bronx will spend much of their effort trying to woo Co-op City voters - not only because a third of the district's population lives there – but because the incumbent council member and his Democratic challenger do as well.

City Councilmember Larry Seabrook said his record demonstrates his attention to Co-Op City issues; his Democratic challenger Shirley Saunders, who lost the 2001 race by just 103 votes, charges that the incumbent could have done more.

One key issue is property taxes, which the City Council increased by 18.5 percent in November 2002.

" Mr. Seabrook voted for that [property tax] increase," said Shirley Saunders. "Co-op City is largely senior citizens living on a fixed income and it would be harder for them to pay additional taxes."

Councilmember Larry Seabrook defends his record, arguing that the property tax generated revenue that helped save social services programs in the area. "The mayor wanted to do 25 percent; we did 18.5 percent," said Seabrook.

The incumbent and the challenger also take different views of the Bay Plaza Mall, a huge outdoor shopping center within Co-op City that contains chain stores and restaurants like Barnes and Noble, Toys R'Us, and Red Lobster.

Seabrook favors the jobs and the economic benefits the complex provides, while Saunders contends the shopping mall was poorly planned and creates traffic congestion. "Should an emergency vehicle try to get into Co-op City around Christmas time, it can't because there is too much traffic," she said.

As in many areas of the city, education is also a concern. Children in City Council district 12 attend schools that are satisfactory, with average attendance rates, test scores, and graduation rates. The school buildings themselves, however, suffer from a host of problems, including aging facilities and overcrowding.

Seabrook said he worked to address some of the most urgent needs. "I've been able to accommodate all the schools within the district that have made requests to me for computer labs, for intercom systems, for gym floors to be fixed," he said.

District 12 also contains six other neighborhoods, including Williamsbridge, Wakefield, and Baychester. Curtis Brooks, who is running on the Conservative ticket (a third challenger, Republican Annie Gentle, could not be reached), believes the rest of the district is being ignored.

"Co-op City does take the spotlight because you have a lot of what they call real voters there," Curtis Brooks said. "In my section just below Co-op City, which is Wakefield, you don't hear a lot about the people there because you have a lot of immigrants who are unable to vote."

The race between Seabrook, Saunders and Brooks also has a personal and political history.

In 2000, Larry Seabrook left his State Senate seat and ran for the 17th Congressional District against incumbent Eliot Engel. Shirley Saunders, who lost a previous race for City Council in 1997, works as an aid to Engel. Curtis Brooks was once a strong supporter of Seabrook, but challenged him in 2001 as well. "After the first term and then the second term, I didn't find him addressing any of the things that pertained to our dreams and aspirations," said Brooks.

Posted July 28, 2003

Campaign Update:

Long-term issues facing Co-op City reached a critical point in July, when five of the complex's eight garages were closed after city engineers declared them unsafe. Riverbay Corp., which manages the complex, cannot afford the $20 million needed for repairs, leaving 7,000 drivers with no place to park their vehicles for the foreseeable future. The closures came in the midst of a threatened strike by the complex's 500 maintenance workers, which was averted after Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion arranged last-minute negotiations.

Co-op City's problems have become New York City's problem. Riverbay Corp. required the help of several city agencies, including the mayor's office and Department of Transportation to find parking after the garage closures.

Candidates Shirley Saunders and Councilmember Larry Seabrook blame each other for not taking a more active role in trying to avert some of these problems.

"The current council person moved in when he was still [state] senator and it is not like these problems just arrived," said Saunders. "If I were a council person, I would have met with the Department of Buildings commissioner and tried to become proactive instead of reactive." Fred Lewis, Seabrook's chief of staff, countered that Saunders sat on Riverbay Corp's board of directors for 12 years. "Doesn't she feel that she has some responsibility for Co-op City since she was directly involved in the period of time that it started going downhill?"

In fundraising, Seabrook has the advantage. He has raised $39,900 and received $22,235 in matching funds. Saunders has raised $19,978 and will receive $16,514 in matching funds.

Curtis Brooks, who is running on the Republican/Conservative ticket, did not file with the Campaign Finance Board. A second Republican, Annie Gentile, has dropped out of the race.

Updated August 29, 2003


Heart of the Lead Belt

City Council District 37, which includes the neighborhoods of Cypress Hills, Wyckoff Heights, and Bushwick, has the highest incidence of childhood lead poisoning in the city. Between 1995 and 2000, over 3,000 children under the age of six were diagnosed with lead poisoning, which can cause brain damage and learning disabilities.

"We're in the heart of the lead belt," said Nellie Santiago, a former State Senator, who is trying to unseat the incumbent City Councilmember Erik Dilan and hopes to make the issue of lead poisoning a focus of the campaign. Santiago and Dilan also have a political rivalry from the past.

Erik Dilan, who was elected to City Council in 2001 after his father Martin Dilan was forced out of office because of term limits, is one of a few council members - 18 out of 51 - who has not sponsored a bill to create more stringent lead regulations in the city.

The bill, Intro 101-A, aims to replace the current lead paint law, which was recently rejected by the New York Court of Appeals. The new bill diverges from the current law, local law 38, by requiring landlords to remove lead dust in addition to lead paint and cuts in half the time a landlord has to clean up an apartment. The council is expected to vote on new lead legislation this fall.

"Clearly I'm not a sponsor of the bill, but that doesn't mean I'm against the bill," said Councilmember Dilan. "I thought local law 38 was effective, by the numbers."

Dilan said that he has worked on the issue of lead poisoning while in office. He fought to maintain lead-safe houses slated to be cut in this year's city budget, he said, and obtained $150,000 for a lead paint abatement program to clean up lead in potentially hazardous buildings.

However, Nellie Santiago said Dilan is ignoring the threat of lead dust by not signing on to Intro 101. "If you have children crawling around, putting toys in their mouths, they could easily ingest lead dust," said Santiago.

She also asserted that Erik Dilan's opposition to the bill stems from his allegiance to real estate lobbyists. Dilan said the charge is unfounded. "Has the real estate community donated to my campaign? Yes. So have the trial lawyers, and those are the two parties most interested in keeping [the bill] out. But it has nothing whatsoever to do with my position on the bill."

And apart from the disagreement over the lead paint legislation, the platforms of the two Democratic candidates are remarkably similar.

When asked which issues deserve immediate attention, Dilan said "safety, education and employment, in that order." Santiago also named the same issues.

In places, district 37 looks somewhat less urban than much of Brooklyn. There are few tall buildings. The side streets are comprised of one- and two-family homes, set back from the street, allowing for small yards, fences, and, in some cases, driveways. Families sit together on their porches while groups of boys throw around footballs in the street between cars.

Even though crime has decreased drastically in the area in the last few years, the 75th police precinct still has a disproportionate number of murders; 18 murders occurred in the first six months of 2003.

Both candidates also questioned the effectiveness of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's education reforms and stressed the need for bilingual education in the area.

They also share a concern over the unemployment. "We need to focus on trying to keep a lot of businesses that are fleeing into New Jersey," said Dilan.

While they may agree on many issues, the candidates have a personal rivalry.

When Erik Dilan's father left the City Council in 2001, he ran against Santiago in the State Senate and ended her five consecutive terms in office. Santiago now wants to unseat the younger Dilan, who she says is overly influenced by more powerful Brooklyn politicians. "My votes have been influenced by the people in the district," Dilan replied.

Posted July 28, 2003

Campaign Update:

The lead paint issue continues to generate the most debate in the district 37 primary. On July 29th, protestors demonstrated outside of Councilmember Dilan's district office, demanding that he sign onto the proposed lead paint bill, Intro 101A.

Dilan has thus far raised $90,275 in contributions and matching funds; Santiago has $77,456 in contributions and matching funds.

Another candidate, Belinda Lindros, has entered the race, on the Republican and Conservative tickets. She has not filed with the campaign finance board and could not be reached for an interview.

Updated August 29, 2003


Musical Chairs in the Bronx

At times, Bronx politics can seem like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel: the plot is passed on from generation to generation and it is nearly impossible to follow without a family tree.

In the latest chapter in one of the city's most complex and bitter political rivalries, City Councilmember Pedro Espada, Jr. announced on July 15 that he would not be seeking reelection just five months after taking office. He named his son, Pedro G. Espada, as his successor.

Councilmember Espada Jr. said he made the decision not to run again because his long-time political nemesis, the Bronx Democratic Party, was seeking to throw him out of the party. When Espada Jr. was in the State Senate he switched to the Republican party.

"To the outside world it looks like a game of musical chairs," said Councilmember Espada Jr. "But this is a case of the Bronx Democratic machine disenfranchising me and trying to deny me a full opportunity to serve."

The younger Espada now seeking his father's seat has his own history in the New York City Council. He represented adjoining district 17 from 1997 to 2001, before he lost to Jose Serrano, son of Congressman Jose E. Serrano, who are also part of the Bronx Democratic Party.

Espada points to his record while in the council, which he said includes building three new youth centers and working to build over 2,000 new apartments, but he admitted there are distinct differences between the 17th City Council district - which encompasses the neighborhoods of the South Bronx - and the 18th district, which includes neighborhoods like Parkchester, Castle Hill, and parts of Soundview.

"The 18th district has a lot more working class people struggling to make ends meet as well as quality of life issues," said Espada.

Espada, who said he grew up in the area, will face five other candidates, including his primary opponent Annabel Palma, who has never run for office but has the backing of the Democratic Party, the Working Families Party, and several unions.

Annabel Palma said her background - also growing up in the district, raising a child as a single mother, and working as a labor organizer - provides the experience she needs to serve in the council. "I believe voters want an honest person, a leader, and not a career politician," said Palma.

Palma said if elected she will focus on issues like improving test scores and ensuring housing programs continue to be funded. She declined to speculate on the Espada family's political tactics. "I don't know what is going through their minds," she said. "I'm just concerned that people know my name and what I stand for."

Another Democrat Hilda Hernandez, a community activist and perennial candidate who has had trouble staying on the ballot after her petitions are challenged, said she hopes to represent "the will of the community and the people."

Republican candidate Fabian Feliciano, who works for the New York State Crime Victims Board, said the district has a history of "electing representatives that don’t show up for work."

"We need a councilman who will worry about pot holes, negotiate developments, and monitor speed traps," said Feliciano. Although he has never run for office, Feliciano said he learned about how local politics works when he recently served as a liaison between a new Home Depot and the community board.

Conservative candidate William Newmark said if elected he would reduce taxes, cut government spending, and support a voucher system for public schools.

Newmark said the rivalry between the Espadas and the Bronx machine is a distraction from the real issues facing the neighborhood. "It is a power grab and both sides are in it for their own benefit," he said.

The feud between the Espadas and the Bronx Democratic Party goes back over a decade to when the elder Espada, who runs a series of health clinics in the Bronx, was investigated for diverting campaign funds to his business. He was cleared of any wrongdoing, but he believes the Bronx Democratic Party was behind the allegations.

Espada first beat the Bronx machine in 1992 when he ran successfully for State Senate. In 1996, the party challenged the senator's petitions and he was knocked off the ballot. Espada was reelected again in 2000 then two years later switched to the Republican Party; Bronx Democratic leaders tried to have him removed from their party rolls. In 2002, he lost his State Senate seat to Councilmember Ruben Diaz. In February, Espada won the open City Council seat in a special election.

District 18 is most widely known as the neighborhood where an unarmed West African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, was shot 41 times by police officers in 1999. But the neighborhood also has some of the most affordable rents in the city and a recently renovated shopping district in Parkchester.

The district has also had a revolving door of representatives; the winner of the November election will be the fourth council member in the last two years.

Posted July 28, 2003

Campaign Update:

The district 18 race between Pedro G. Espada and Annabel Palma is shaping up to be a battle between the well-known Espada family and local unions like 1199 and Local 32BJ that are backing Palma. Espada promises to get his health care workers out on election day and Palma is counting on union help in getting elected.

Palma has raised $83,000 and will receive an additional $77,500 from the city's campaign finance board. Espada is not participating in the program, but told the New York Times that he had raised "between $30,000 and $40,000."

Democrat Hilda Hernandez was knocked off of the ballot by the Board of Elections and is no longer in the running.

Updated August 29, 2003


Challenging an Incumbent's Record

In 2001, insurgent Democrat James Gennaro won the primary race for City Council in district 24 by fewer than 600 votes. This year, Gennaro has the backing of the Queen's Democratic Party, but is still being challenged by two Democrats who claim that he has not done his job.

David Reich, a chief of staff for State Senator Seymour Lachman who came in third in the 2001 race, is incensed that Gennaro was absent the day the 18.5 percent property tax increase was approved last November; it one of the most contentious votes of the last two years.

"Now he says he would have voted against it," said Reich. "I find that hard to believe."

Florence Fisher, a former community board member who oversees an after-school program at P.S. 219, said that she decided to run because the incumbent has refused to take a stand on difficult issues, like childhood lead poisoning. Gennaro is one a handful of council members who has not sponsored the bill 101A, which aims to create tougher laws to prevent childhood lead poisoning.

"When I approached him and asked why he hadn't signed onto [the bill], he said I had to ask Speaker Gifford Miller and he walked away," Fisher said. "I have a councilman who can't take a position on a bill and I don't want that kind of person representing me."

Gennaro defends his record. He missed the property tax, he said, due to a death in the family. And Gennaro said that childhood lead poisoning is an issue "close to my heart," but that the bill being proposed contains some unnecessary requirements on landlords and building inspectors that may be not be enforceable.

"I could have taken the easy way out and supported Intro 101 and been done with it," said Gennaro. "We're going to pass the best bill that we possibly can that incorporates the best elements of Intro 101 and goes beyond it."

While the three candidates disagree about who would best represent the community, they agree that something must be done to deal with the influx of residents in recent years. The population is growing faster than new housing can be built and the zoning laws are out of date.

For Reich rezoning means protecting the neighborhood's single-family homes and quiet streets. "Developers come in and knock down one-family houses to put in four- or five-family homes," said Reich.

Fisher said that the area's zoning laws must be used to create new affordable apartments and believes that developers should be required to include low cost apartments in their new buildings.

Gennaro said he sees a need for both new housing and protecting the area's character and believes that a community based planning process, where residents help decided the future of their neighborhood, is the best option. "Throughout the city, people should be taking a good hard look at zoning," said Gennaro. "I can only let them know what their options are and help them fulfill their common vision."

The candidates also cite education as a top concern.

Reich complains that new schools are being built in the wrong places, such as one school that was recently built on the Queens College campus. The city is also considering putting an 800-seat school on the grounds of the Queens hospital.

Fisher complains about overcrowding and cites P.S. 219 as an example; in the school, closets were emptied to create classroom space. If elected, she hopes to build new floors onto existing schools. "It would be cheaper than trying to build more schools," she said.

During his time in office, Gennaro said that he has provided area schools with new science labs, libraries, and computers. "The best impact I can have is to get them money so that they can provide the tools they need to educate the students," said Gennaro. The council member said he is also concerned about the current education reforms and fears it will diminish community involvement in decision-making.

Another significant issue is sanitation. Overflowing garbage baskets and trash on the street have made the summer months particularly uncomfortable.

To combat the problem, Gennaro has obtained funds to increase the number of waste receptacles in the district. He has also introduced legislation that would require daily pickups citywide.

Reich attributes the problem to weak enforcement of sanitation laws. "Our shopping centers are filthy," Reich said. "We need workers from the sanitation department giving tickets to everyone who litters."

In addition to proposing different solutions to the district's problems, the candidates also found different issues on which to focus. Gennaro cited senior services and public safety as the most pressing issues. Reich is concerned about traffic brought into the district by the airport, hospital, and college, whereas Fisher focused on subway problems, firehouse closings, healthcare, and taxes.

The challengers have an tough battle ahead. Gennaro has a big advantage in fundraising, raising four times more than his opponents.

Conservative candidate Walter Lamp is also running but could not be reached for comment.

Posted August 29, 2003


Back to the GOP?

The 2001 City Council election saw the already paltry ranks of council Republicans cut from five members to three. The 19th district was one of those that switched party allegiances. This year, Philip Ragusa, vice chair of the Queens County Republican Party, hopes to win the seat back for the Republicans by defeating the incumbent Democrat, Tony Avella.

Ragusa sees some encouraging signs. When the seat was open in 2001, Avella defeated his Republican opponent, Dennis Safran, by just 357 votes. Redistricting since then has made the district more conservative. In his two years in office, Avella has taken some unpopular stands - and Ragusa boasts a record of community service and endorsements from two popular local politicians, Republican State Senators Frank Padavan and Serphin Maltese.

Taxes and quality of life are among the key issues in this district, which includes the affluent residential neighborhoods of Bayside, Whitestone, Bay Terrace, Douglaston, Little Neck, Auburndale, and parts of Flushing.

Avella voted for several taxes, including the absentee landlord tax, the increased sales tax and the increased income tax. But he was one of only six council members who voted against the 18.5 percent increase in the real estate tax last fall.

The council member's vote on the property tax pitted Avella against the mayor, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and most council Democrats.

Some observers speculate that the redrawing of Avella's district to include three more conservative neighborhoods and to increase the number of Republicans may have been an act of political revenge by the redistricting commission, most of whose members were appointed by the mayor and council speaker.

Ragusa says his opposition to tax hikes would not have stopped at the property tax: He would have voted not only against the sales and income tax increases as well. Instead of hiking taxes on city residents, Ragusa said, the council has to focus more on controlling costs.

"Revenue is not that easy to make," he said. "If we give [city government] $46 billion, they spend $46 billion. They have to be more prudent about what they are spending."

While Avella agrees the city could use money more efficiently, he thinks that, in many respects, the council did a good job with the budget this year. But he said the increase in the real estate tax remains the most important issue facing the district. Avella believes the city needed at least some of the revenue from the tax hike to repair city property, something that costs New York millions of dollars a year. So he has proposed a "You Break It, You Pay for It" bill, which would allow the city to recoup money spent to repair damages caused by the negligence of others.

Both Avella and Ragusa stress that district 19 must keep its pleasant residential character. To accomplish this, Avella has proposed limiting medical offices in low-density areas. Residents complain that the doctors' offices reduce the supply of private homes, and homeowners worry that parking by those visiting medical offices decreases property values.

Parking for the influx of religious institutions in the district also poses a problem.

Under city regulations, religious institutions have to provide parking only if their chairs or pews are bolted to a building's floors. And so many religious institutions bypass this law by buying private homes for services and not fastening the seats to the floor. Avella says he wants the regulation eliminated.

But Ragusa has doubts. "This is a touchy issue," he said, noting that repeal of the law could hamper religious expression. Rather than completely eliminating the non-fixed seating regulation, Ragusa thinks each case should be examined individually.

Meanwhile, Avella wants the district rezoned to "better reflect the character of the neighborhood," which has many one and two-family houses, and not create denser development.

In the past 10 years, he said, overdevelopment and improper construction has caused overcrowding in schools and traffic congestion. Avella, chair of the council Zoning and Franchises Committee, has hired a planner to study district 19, recommend areas that could be rezoned and find spots for more open space.

Ragusa said the proposal has merit. "I only question why he waited for the last few months of his term to conduct this study," Ragusa said. "I think it's a ploy to help him win the election."

Ragusa said that he has a long record that demonstrates his commitment to preserving the residential character of district 19. For example, as president of the Beechhurst Property Owners' Association, Ragusa helped fight the construction of high-rise buildings on the Hammerstein estate in Beechhurst. Instead, the city built town houses consistent with the neighborhood's low-density housing. Ragusa has also worked on the Fort Totten Revitalization Committee, which has been successful in having the federal government transfer the defunct military base to the city. Residents and lawmakers are hoping to find $25 million to convert Fort Totten into parkland.

But the record of the candidates may be less important than the record of this district. Was the election of a Democrat in 2001 an aberration or has this part of Queens switched solidly into the Democratic column?


Instead of Non-Partisan Elections, Consider Some Real Reforms


Mayor Bloomberg's attempt to put "non-partisan" elections on the Fall ballot is the wrong answer to a non-problem:

What's the Problem?

Did any citizen come up to the two major party nominees in the Fall, 2001 mayoral election and complain about the nominating process for City Hall? Based on my relevant experience, the expressed concern over unleashed dogs was far greater than over "party bosses" controlling nominations, to cite the phrase charter commission chair Frank J. Macchiarola used three times in his Gotham Gazette essay of a few weeks ago. And last week on NY1 the mayor seven times in about 15 minutes attacked the evil of the Democratic political "machine" to argue for the end of democratic primaries.

But exactly what "machine" and which "party bosses" chose Spitzer, Schumer, Clinton, McCall, Hevesi, Thompson, Gotbaum or me to be our party's standard-bearer in our respective elections? I believe fair-minded observers would agree that none of these aspirants were hand-picked by anyone and all worked hard to win competitive primaries (with the unique exception of a world famous former First Lady, who was the near-unanimous choice of rank-and-file Democrats as well as party leaders). While there are no doubt some local baronies, rhetorical attacks against bosses and the machine are largely 20 years out-of-date.

Indeed, Messrs. Bloomberg and Macchiarola should be careful about criticizing "party bosses" anointing nominees because two who did so chose Mr. Bloomberg. Governor Pataki, who must be considered the Republican party boss, decisively helped the former Democrat win the GOP mayoral nod; also, the occasionally anti-Semitic Lenora Fulani gave Bloomberg her Independence Party line in 2001 when he supported her key platform plank of non-partisan elections (and the votes on this line exceeded Bloomberg's 36,000 vote margin).

It is wrong for a mayor to repay a "party boss" by convening the fifth charter commission in six years after the city previously had only five over the prior 100 years -- and those earlier ones were due to real governmental necessities, such as the Supreme Court decision in 1989 declaring the Board of Estimate unconstitutional.

Elections or Auctions?

Allowing party primaries means that candidates can run in the General Election with a D or R after a nominee's name. A party affiliation should not be sufficient information in an election. (Thomas Jefferson once said, "Don't ask if [a candidate] is a Federalist or a Whig. Ask, is he honest and does he believe in the Constitution?") But a person's party still tells a lot about a person's values, surely more than poll-driven, consultant-written 30 second TV spots. If we eliminate party identification in elections, it means that voters will have even less useful information and that wealthy candidates will be more likely to win with commercials. GOTV would then mean go-on-television rather than get-out-the-vote.

Minority Representation?

This is an important point, one that will be more fully debated before a November vote. But isn't it more likely for a credible minority candidate to enter a general election by getting 40 percent (primary) or 50 percent (run-off) of a Democratic primary electorate that's half "minority" than it would be for him/her to do comparably well in an initial non-partisan "primary" with an electorate (including Republicans and Independents) that's under 40 percent minority?

Encourage Voter Participation?

On NY1 and in Gotham Gazette, Chairman Macchiarola repeatedly said that the essential reason for creating this charter commission was to encourage "greater participation" in our democracy. That's fine and laudable — and already occurring. Because our city has an excellent campaign finance law and term limits, there were some 250 candidates for the 51 city council seats and an obviously competitive Democratic primary for mayor in 2001, a year that saw an increase in voting over the 1997 city-elections. But if the Bloomberg charter commission is serious about expanding democracy rather than merely rubber-stamping this mayor, here are several pro-democracy reforms they should also consider:

  • Fund the struggling Voter Assistance Commission at some fixed percentage of the mayor's own office (as the Independent Budget Office is funded by a fixed ratio of the Office of Management and the Budget in the Charter) so the city itself registers more voters based on the "agency-based registration" strategy of the National Voter Registration Act.
  • Enact "instant run-offs," as San Francisco has, where voters on primary day vote their top three choices, allowing for a conclusive result between the final two without the need for a costly run-off election eating into an already abbreviated Fall General Election.
  • Implement balloting-by-mail, as Oregon has done, which increased turnout there by a very considerable 10 percentage points.
  • Fix the campaign finance system as board chair Fritz Schwarz has suggested to encourage self-financed candidates to limit their spending like everyone else. And if a wealthy candidate refuses to play by Campaign Finance Board rules, then instead of one "extra match" in the general election (which amounted to $700,000 in 2001, or one percent of $74 million), the complying candidate would get a one-time grant of half the disparity in spending, up to a maximum of $5 million. Too expensive? If one's concern is participation in competitive elections, it's far less expensive than a City Hall for sale.

Buying a Charter Change?

Some cities have "non-partisan elections" — L.A., Chicago, Houston — and some have "democratic elections" — Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. But that really says nothing about whether we should reverse a century of precedent in Gotham. Frankly, the arguments for a charter referendum are so weak and so personal to Michael Bloomberg — a Republican who stands to politically benefit from the elimination of party labels in a Democratic city — that it would not be taken seriously except for the fact that he has threatened, again, to spend his own wealth to accomplish an electoral result. Indeed, when a reporter recently asked if he'd refuse to spend his own funds, the Mayor snapped, "Why should I do that? I don't ask you what you're going to do with your money. And I don't think it's any of your business what I'm going to do with mine."

I'm in no position to objectively argue whether a billionaire should be constitutionally allowed to spend significantly more in one city to win the mayoralty than LBJ spent (in current dollars) in 50 states to win the presidency. But surely it is the public's "business" if someone spends $74 million in private funds to win elected office, then uses his public authority to repay a special interest by putting a self-serving plank on the ballot and then, in effect, buys the law in question. This would be an abuse of power literally unprecedented in American history.

Space does not permit a discussion of whether it would be constitutional to limit an office-holder — not a citizen but someone with governmental power — from spending his private sector wealth to obtain public sector law. But even First Amendment purists should appreciate the irony that a two century old rule intended to stop one King George-type from monopolizing debate by guaranteeing speech for all would be used now to justify one person combining unique governmental and economic power to stifle the public conversation. How does that encourage the "robust debate" that's the foundation of the First Amendment? Nor is it any answer to trot out the boilerplate phrase that "the answer to bad speech is more speech." For when one side in a referendum spends, say, $10 million on TV and mail and the other peanuts, where's the "more speech" solution?

If a Nelson Rockefeller could be forced to file a financial disclosure and prohibited from spending his own vast wealth to overpay staff because he was governor, I believe it would be both desirable and constitutional, as council members Bill Perkins and David Yassky have proposed, to prohibit Michael Bloomberg from similarly using his assets because he is mayor. But even if it turns out that he has the "right" to do this, the real question is whether it's right for him to do so.

It's an excuse, not a justification, when the 29th wealthiest American complains about being called a billionaire mayor yet then hints he may spend like one by hiding behind an amendment that's historically allowed despised, powerless dissidents to have some voice in their democracy. His self-serving arguments remind me of a favorite aphorism of ex-Senator Warren Magnuson: "All anybody wants in life is an unfair advantage."

Which leads me to respectfully ask three simple questions of the mayor who chose this unnecessary fight and who can alone resolve some of these apparent conflicts:

  • Will you commit not to spend your own money to, in effect, buy a charter change?
  • Would you agree that such a significant change only be considered prospectively, after the 2005 elections, so that it not appear to benefit the politician behind its enactment? (By law, any congressional pay increase must apply to the next congress after the next election so there is no appearance of a self-enriching vote. And when Congress in the late 1940s was considering Presidential term limits, even anti-Truman Republicans never thought to apply it to the sitting president since it would be wrong to institute a new standard within a term of office.)
  • Since you ordered the charter commission to put your idea on the ballot because you wanted to encourage more democracy, will you also urge them to consider other pro-democracy ideas of the kind suggested above?

Mark Green, the former public advocate of New York City (from 1994 to 2002) and the Democratic nominee for mayor in 2001, is president of the New Democracy Project, a public policy institute.


Non-Partisan Man

Voters in most of the country's largest cities choose their mayors in elections in which candidates run not as Democrats or Republicans but as individuals. Frank Macchiarola, chair of the mayor's Charter Revision Commission, writes that it is time for New York to join this group.

It Is Time For Non-Partisan Elections In NYC

In more than 80 percent of the nation’s largest cities, mayors are elected through nonpartisan elections — elections in which the candidates do not run on the Democratic or Republican or any other established party line, but as individuals. The cities where there are non-partisan elections include Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Detroit, Denver, and San Francisco. New York City is the exception.

That is why the new Charter Revision Commission, which Mayor Bloomberg asked me to chair, will be considering this important matter, with the intention of putting it on the ballot for the voters to decide, along with several other issues. (See Blue Box for some of the other issues).

I have been a member of two previous Charter Commissions, and was interested in the work of the last commission, chaired by Robert McGuire, and felt that it was important to build on what they had done. Because of the pressures of time, they had left several important matters on the table, including not whether but when to offer the voters a chance to choose nonpartisan elections on a ballot referendum.

The opportunity for citizens to choose freely and fairly those who represent them is at the core of democracy. Steps toward promoting democracy include encouraging greater participation of voters and a wider range of candidates, increasing the electorate’s knowledge of candidates and issues, and providing resources for those who seek public office. Nonpartisan elections may better complement and support these goals than the current partisan system.

The Commission's Other Tasks

The Charter Revision Commission will be addressing several issues, in addition to nonpartisan elections. Among the issues that the mayor has asked the Commission to address are government purchasing, agency (re)organization, and issues of fiscal management. The purchase of goods and services accounts for greater than $8 billion in public funds. These include the purchase of fuel for the city's police cars, fire engines, and other vehicles; office supplies and equipment; the construction of schools and other municipal buildings; as well as contracting with community organizations for the provision of health services, social services, educational and recreational activities. In doing this the city needs not only to purchase goods and services of a high quality, at a fair price, delivered in a timely manner, it must, as well, be concerned with the integrity of the process and fair dealing with vendors.

At a time of great strain on the city's resources, we must ensure that in the organization and structure of our governmental agencies that redundancy, duplication, and overlap are eliminated, both to save the public's money and to improve the quality of services the city's provides. At the same time, we need to address where areas requiring government attention are lacking. The establishment of the "311" system is a harbinger of the changes needed.

The financial reforms established during the fiscal crisis were established to assure lenders that the city was managing its funds in a prudent manner and to allow it to issue and market bonds. With the anticipated payoff of the bonds issued at that time, many of these reform provisions "sunset." The Commission will be looking at areas where the city can set its own program of fiscal self-discipline. In these issues, as with nonpartisan elections, the principles of access and transparency apply. And, as with the provisions regarding nonpartisan elections, the Commission's recommendations (in these and any other areas)
will go to the voters to decide.

-Frank Macchiarola

As the Charter Revision Commission considers nonpartisan elections, there are issues both concerning the “why” and the “how.”

Why nonpartisan elections?

Writing on these pages in January, Doug Muzzio cited the learned Yogi Berra: “Before you build a better mousetrap, it helps to know if there are mice out there.” Indeed, there are plenty of mice out there:

• Voting in local elections is declining. The number of non-enrolled voters is growing rapidly, particularly among youth and recent immigrants.
• The ballot petition procedures candidates must follow are famously burdensome and knocking opponents off the ballot absurdly common
• Party bosses still seek to stifle competition and exact patronage
• Perhaps most significantly, many candidates win their party primary with fewer than a third of the votes, with general elections serving as confirmations rather than contests. What should be a fierce competition is instead a fait accompli.

It is not surprising, given the sum of these variables, that incumbent re-election rates approach 100 percent, as party bosses continue to wield power.

The system is indeed broken. The city’s independent voters, ever-growing in number, are effectively disenfranchised, since the party primary decides all but a few elections. As the noted political scientist V.O. Key wrote about the segregated south, a one party system is the functional equivalent of a no party system.

How would nonpartisan elections work?

Over the next few months, as the Commission studies nonpartisan elections and their potential impact on New York City, our attention will focus on several key areas.

Nonpartisan elections across the nation and in New York City
Non-partisan elections are not some untried scheme. Indeed, they are not even new to New York City. Since the Charter revision of 1989, a proposal that I made has been in effect. Special elections to fill a vacancy in the term of a City Council member have been conducted on a nonpartisan basis. Speaker Gifford Miller, Majority Leader Joel Rivera, and Minority Leader James Oddo were first elected to the Council in nonpartisan elections. And earlier this year, there was a spirited nonpartisan election for a vacant City Council seat in Bay Ridge.

As the commission explores the design of nonpartisan elections, a number of variables will be considered. These include:

• which municipal offices should be covered;
• when should the elections be held;
• when should the new arrangements go into effect;
• how would candidates get on the ballot;
• how would the nonpartisan format affect the city’s campaign finance program and vice versa;
• how would votes be counted;
• what is a sufficient threshold of votes to elect a candidate;
• what would be the role of political parties; and many more.

As we examine the experience of other cities and consider the lessons they hold for New York, it is important to note several features unique to New York that can serve to enhance the effects of nonpartisan elections. New York is the only city in the nation with term limits, a generous campaign finance program, and a widely distributed Voter Guide. Contributing to civic debate and voter information in New York are the number of competing daily newspapers, weekly papers, cable news stations, ethnic and general radio stations, and powerful unions and other organized groups.

Voter turnout: Some have asserted that nonpartisan elections lead to reduced voter turnout. The research here is scanty, and often fails to compare turnouts in large cities. A further contradiction in opponents’ arguments concerns the assertion that in the absence of party labels voters will not have a cue as to a candidate’s views. Yet in the Democratic primary, where most elections are decided, voters differentiate among candidates without any party label to assist them. They do this by using information gleaned from the Voter Guide, the community newspapers, and the abundance of campaign literature that the campaign finance program funds. In New York City, at least, this argument lacks salience and is demeaning to voters.

Minority participation: In a city with a majority “minority” population, this is an important issue. Nonpartisan elections are held in forty-one of the nation’s fifty largest cities. Compared to partisan election cities in recent elections, nonpartisan election cities have elected a higher percentage of black and Latino mayors – 34 percent vs. 22 percent. At the least, this suggests than minorities are likely to do at least as well in nonpartisan cities as in partisan ones.

Of course, I am aware of the requirement that our proposal will require “preclearance” from the Department of Justice to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act. This is a process with which I am familiar, as we went through the same one when the districting plan that the Commission I chaired was submitted and approved following the 1990 census. It is important to remember here that the Voting Rights Act protects the rights of members of the electorate, not candidates or political parties!

At bottom, the issue is whether we continue to allow a small group of party officials to determine both who gets on the ballot and who can vote in the elections that matter or do we expand opportunity and access. This is not a matter of abstract “good government” principle, but rather a response to the increasing numbers of voters who feel left out of the process as it operates today.

In developing its recommendations concerning nonpartisan elections, the commission will review the work of four previous Charter Revision Commissions which have addressed the topic, carry out its own data collection work, and conduct an extensive program of community engagement. Currently, the commission is in the midst of an initial series of public outreach activities, hearings in each of the boroughs and policy forums on selected subjects. (For a schedule of these activities, please see the commission’s web site.)

If as Clemenceau said, war is too important to leave to the generals, then democracy is too precious to leave to the party bosses. The recommendations put forward by the Commission will be on the basis of consulting widely, listening closely, thinking creatively, and proposing carefully. And, then, it will be for the voters to decide. Democracy is for all.

Frank Macchiarola, president of St. Francis College in Brooklyn and former New York City public schools chancellor (1978 – 1983), is the chair of the Charter Review Commission.


Partisan Man to the Rescue!

Mark Green criticizes Mayor Michael Bloomberg's attempt to put the issue of non-partisan elections on the ballot in November, explaining why he calls it "the wrong answer to a non-problem," and suggesting some real "pro-democracy reforms."


The Tech Lag In Community Boards

The 59 community boards of New York City were created decades ago as a form of neighborhood City Halls. But unlike the central City Hall, presided over these days by a man who made a fortune in technology, many of these local offices are on the other side of the digital divide, according to a report (in pdf format) that the City Council released this month.

Surveyed last October, many of the community boards were found to have computers that were at least ten years old. Worse, 19 of the community boards had no access to the Internet, and 34 did not have their own web sites.

There have been on-going efforts to improve this situation by the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, or DoITT. Even in the few months since the survey has taken, DoITT has given one new computer to each of the 59 community boards, and 50 of the boards now have high-speed Internet access, half of them for free as a result of an agreement between DoITT and Verizon.

But community boards face significant obstacles — inadequate staffing and training, lack of state-of-the-art equipment — which prevent many of them from taking advantage of some very common technology, such as e-mail, much less the more sophisticated plans the mayor has for the city.

"We can and must do more to expand the presence and accessibility of our boards by further leveraging the powerful information technology tools and resources which the city already possesses," said Councilmember Gale Brewer, who is chair of the council's select committee on technology in government. "In most cases, this can be done at little cost to the city since we have already invested substantial sums in creating, implementing, and customizing the various systems."

Current proposals to improve the technological capacity of community boards include:

  • plugging community boards into the mayor's 311 telephone call center system
  • allowing boards access to high-tech mapping data which is already available to city agencies
  • expanding access to the city's Intranet (its internal online community)


Thomas Lowenhaupt, the vice chair of Queens community board three, believes that only about a fifth of city residents even know that community boards exist, and even fewer (he guesses five percent) know which board represents them.

Web sites would greatly improve awareness of the vital work that community boards do in their communities, Lowenhaupt says, which is why, in 1999, his community board, with financial assistance from City Hall, began working on a prototype web site that could be rolled out for all 59 boards. Mayor Rudy Giuliani was a strong supporter of the project, which was supposed to have been completed by 2001. But the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications was about to hire a contractor when the attacks of 9/11 forced them to evacuate their offices, and required their around-the-clock attention to recover New York's critical telecommunications infrastructure.

And this year the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, citing the budget deficit, cut the funding for the project.

Lowenhaupt and other supporters of the project have been looking for other sources of funding, including the private sector, which could greatly change the direction of the project. Community boards could end up waiting several more years for funding.

The council's technology committee has recently proposed that be used as a portal to quickly build out web sites for all community boards. This could be accomplished using the city's new content management software. Thus, the prototype project could be rolled out and linked to the Mayor's Community Assistance Unit.


Another technology that community boards could take more advantage of is ComNet or Computerized Neighborhood Environment Tracking, a program of the Fund for the City of New York's Center on Municipal Government Performance. ComNet allows communities to survey their neighborhood using small hand-held computers to collect data, including photographs, about street level conditions. The data can be uploaded to the Internet and reported to the appropriate government agencies in charge of fixing the problems identified. However, in order to use this technology successfully, community boards must have computers capable of processing the data and a high-speed Internet connection.

IN OTHER NEWS: Buy NY Campaign

According to Crains New York, New York City's technology sector has lost more than 30,000 jobs in the last two years. In an effort to stimulate the tech sector, the New York Software Industry Association is kicking of a Buy NY campaign in order to convince buyers to purchase software and information technology locally rather than outsourcing their needs to overseas markets. Councilmember Brewer has introduced a resolution to support this initiative.

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

State Of City Address

This is an important moment in the life of our great city. And the dedication of the people present in this room - and the millions of others whom you represent - gives us confidence in our ability to meet the challenges we face and to secure our future as the world's greatest city.

Around the world, New Yorkers have earned a reputation for being gutsy, creative, tough, brave. Some characterize us as loud and opinionated. But that's what comes from speaking our minds with candor and making our point with vigor.

It is in this spirit that I come before you today to discuss the state of our city.

We in the council began the past year with many questioning the ability of a brand new body to lead this city. We answered those questions by discharging our duties responsibly.

The council succeeded in making city government more efficient and cost-effective, and in addressing some of this city's lingering injustices.

And we did this together - 51 members of the council representing every community in the most diverse city on earth. Everything this body achieved, we achieved as a team.

Because we understand that what we do here in this room has a real and lasting impact on people's lives�. Every budget we pass affects millions of New Yorkers and every piece of legislation has a real life story behind it.

In a tough environment, the council flexed its legislative muscle in defense of real people. And I want you to meet a few of the real life faces behind some of the bills we passed this year.

Too many New Yorkers are unable to lift themselves out of poverty despite working full time. That's why we passed a living wage bill�to help hard working people like Marie Watson, Niteka Petgrave and Yu Wa Chan who are here with us now�these women all work as home health aides, caring for the elderly. The living wage bill means that they can keep the jobs they love, their clients will benefit from their experience and expertise and they can still afford to pay their bills and build a better future for their children and grandchildren.

Last year, we also passed a displaced workers bill, which has already saved the jobs of many workers and will save the jobs of many more�workers like Ardian Meta. Mr. Meta cleans offices at a midtown company. When the company changed contractors he would have been laid off - and lost his family health plan - were it not for this important law that protects workers during these transitions.

We also passed a bill to protect people from losing their homes. Sadly, many New Yorkers fall victim to predatory lenders who cheat them with credit terms they know can never be repaid. Repeated refinancing of homes drives people deeper and deeper into debt. That's why I am proud we passed the most innovative and effective legislation in the country to prevent predators from taking the homes of people ever again.

We also passed and fought for important initiatives to:

  • improve the administration of New York City public schools;
  • provide better access to health care;
  • expand domestic partnership rights;
  • protect employees from the dangers of second hand smoke;
  • improve access to breast cancer screening;
  • reform the city's procurement procedures;
  • exempt seniors from rent increases;
  • create affordable housing;
  • and, of course, begin the long process of rebuilding and revitalizing downtown Manhattan.

The council stepped up to make some very tough decisions. And we got results.

But as everyone knows, New York City continues to face a daunting budget deficit.

Tackling this deficit was job number one last year; it remains job number one this year.

Last year, the council worked with the mayor to adopt nearly $2.7 billion dollars in spending cuts and we proposed an additional $500 million in further cost savings that we're going to continue to fight for. And in what had to be the most difficult step taken in 2002, we negotiated down the mayor's proposed 25 percent property tax increase to 18 and a half percent.

We understand that this is a financial strain for many working New Yorkers�that it's a sacrifice in these difficult times.

But we simply had no choice. We needed the revenue to sustain the essential services New Yorkers depend upon.

Unfortunately, our budget problems are still not solved. We face a deficit next year of more than $3 billion dollars. And I want to commend Mayor Bloomberg for his honesty about the severity of our predicament.

New Yorkers are tough, and I believe we are prepared to take steps necessary to ease future burdens. As for how the council will respond to the specifics of the mayor's recently released preliminary budget, I will say this now:

The council's job is to listen to the people � to hold hearings and deliberations� to thoughtfully and conscientiously consider the budget and its impact on our quality of life.

This is what allowed us, during the course of the last budget negotiations, to not only say "education first," but to actually put education first.

To not only advocate for our city's seniors and children, but to actually protect senior centers and day care services from dangerous cuts.

We are prepared to scrutinize the budget� line by line, comma by comma� as we protect essential services and find additional savings. We will also creatively work to find new revenues.

With deficits looming in the city and state, we will make every penny count.

But if we are to discuss our needs realistically, then we must also discuss, just as frankly, the causes of this fiscal crisis. There are four significant factors.

First of all, we were bombed.

We were the site of the worst terrorist attack in our country's history. We saw thousands of our loved ones die in just a few moments. The human cost of this tragedy is immeasurable.

But the economic impact is also enormous. The comptroller put the overall cost to our economy at $95 billion dollars for just the first two years. And the GAO estimated that, as a direct result of the September 11th attacks, we lost $3 billion dollars in local revenue.

Second, we are experiencing a national recession that is particularly harmful to key sectors of New York's economy. Wall Street's downturn alone has cost our city nearly one billion dollars in local revenue. We need to broaden our economic base so that our fortunes will not be so directly linked to the ups and downs of the stock market.

Third, if we are to be honest with ourselves, we should admit that we probably lived a little too high during the boom 1990's. We could have paid down more debt and put more aside for the rainy day that we knew would come, although I don't think anyone could have anticipated such a downpour.

We must not make that mistake again. And so the council will be sending up to Albany legislation to enact a real rainy day fund that will help this city put away money in the good times we know will return so that we have resources in the bad.

But I want to direct your attention today to a fourth cause�a more consistent and less acknowledged component of our city's fiscal stress.

In recent decades, a structural imbalance of both responsibilities and payments has developed between the federal, state and city governments.

Just last year, New York City sent Washington $6.3 billion dollars more than we got back� and we sent Albany $3.5 billion dollars more than we got back.

This imbalance fuels a cycle of crisis. In boom times, it makes us less competitive. In difficult times, it is crippling. At all times, it costs our city jobs and growth.

Simply put: we pay more than our fair share, we get back less than our fair share, and the result is that we are forced to compete with both hands tied behind our back. It's been going on too long, it's wrong and it's time we put an end to it.

Let's start with Washington. The government mandates federal programs and fails to fund them, leaving states and localities to pick up the check. More accurately, the federal government fails to fund some programs while fully funding others.

For example, each year Washington distributes $32 billion dollars in agricultural support to farmers. Federal funds flow in and no matching funds are required of the states and localities. Arkansas received $832 million dollars in farm support last year and didn't contribute a nickel of its own.

Why must states match federal funds for TANF -- temporary assistance for needy families -- but not for permanent assistance for needy farmers?

Medicare is another fully-funded federal program, one to which states aren't required to contribute.

Why, then, should all states and localities be required to match federal funds for Medicaid but not Medicare? Why does the federal government pay for the health care of seniors but not poor people?

Where is the logic?

Where is the justice?

This is not an academic question. The federal government's inconsistent and unfair funding formulas suck billions of dollars out of New York City year after year after year.

$6.3 billion dollars in 2001�. 6.3 billion dollars.

They take our money, distribute it elsewhere and we never see it again. Is it any wonder why New Yorkers are so highly taxed?

New York City spends nearly $4 billion in matching funds for Medicaid. That's $4 billion dollars that our residents have to pay in taxes. That's almost the same amount as our entire personal income tax receipts.

Think about that.

Close to 80% of our entire personal income tax� four out of the first five dollars that every New Yorker pays in their personal income tax goes to pay matching funds for a program we have no control over. That money could be used to pay for teachers, cops and firefighters. Other cities don't have this burden and it undermines our competitiveness.

What we need from Washington is responsible leadership.

And what are we being offered instead?

Well � let's take a look at the economic stimulus plan that the president proposed last month.

First of all, there is nothing stimulating about a tax cut on dividends. Most working Americans who get dividends do so through their 401 k plans.

They're already not paying taxes on dividends. And even under the president's plan, they will pay taxes when they finally retire and take their money out. Those who will realize savings from the dividend cut will reallocate the savings within their stock portfolios. This is not going to create one single job.

But it's worse than that. The proposed exemption on dividends is a disaster for cities, who rely on the benefits of municipal tax-free bonds.

By making our bonds less attractive, president bush's proposal will directly increase the cost of raising capital to improve and maintain our subways, roads, parks and schools.

The exemption on dividends would also reduce New York City's revenue by over a hundred million dollars in tax year 2003, with New York state losing around $550 million in revenue.

The president's economic plan may leave no multi- millionaire behind, but it soaks America's local governments and decimates the services that working people depend upon.

So what do we need from Washington?

Today I ask the federal government to take several actions that would dramatically improve the city's ability to realize genuine and sustainable recovery.

First: release the three billion dollars the city deserves in disaster aid. That's how much the GAO says the city lost in local revenues as direct a result of September 11th.

It's actually a simple measure requiring congress to pass a bill to remove the recently imposed cap on the community disaster loan program.

This was a good, common sense program that the federal government used to offer to cities that were struck by a disaster. Other cities and counties got this when they were struck by hurricanes or floods.

Why shouldn't New York get this assistance when we have been bombed by Al Qaeda? All New York City wants is what other local governments were granted in the past.

Second, we need Washington to provide full funding for public safety needs relating to anti-terrorist activity. The current budget of the New York City police department includes $110 million in national security expenditures to combat terrorism and protect foreign dignitaries.

When did Washington decide that cities and towns are responsible for national defense?!?

Third, and most importantly, let's deal with unfunded mandates. The federal government needs to pick up the cost of Medicaid and other mandates and stop heaping a disproportionate share of the weight on the backs of local governments.

But until they do this, Washington should give New York City� and every other city in America that's drowning in red ink� what we need most - real revenue sharing.

Right now the bush administration is perpetuating a cycle of crisis in every city in the country. With one hand, president bush offers the illusion of billions in tax cuts. And with the other, he forces city and local governments to raise their taxes on homeowners. It's a shell game.

During an economic downturn, the burden on local governments increases at the same time as revenues fall. There is greater joblessness, homelessness, and more pressure on police departments to keep crime low. And we have to respond to all these challenges with fewer resources.

Without help from Washington, local governments have to respond by increasing the taxes at their disposal. Take a look at what's happening in Westchester, Suffolk, and Nassau counties. They've been forced to raise property taxes too.

Across the country, there is a growing realization that the system is not working. Forty-six states have budget gaps:

  • Oregon is trying to save money by shortening the school year.
  • Oklahoma has plans to lay off thousands of teachers.
  • and Kentucky is planning the release of 500 prisoners as a cost saving measure.

All of these states are hampered by a system that holds America back.

If the president was really serious about stimulating our economy and addressing the needs of working people, he would support federal revenue sharing.

Let's take the $80 billion dollars that the president set aside in tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and use it instead to finance a federal revenue sharing program to help all Americans.

With this program, the federal government could distribute money among localities, who in return would agree to use the funds they receive for two purposes: to keep our cities safe, educate our children and allow our seniors to grow old in dignity� and decrease property taxes.

In New York City, this program would provide more than a billion dollars in budget relief and more than a billion dollars in property tax relief for homeowners. That's a two-thirds rebate on the property tax increase that the city was forced to enact last November.

That's the kind of stimulus New York and the nation need � stimulus for all of us and not just the lucky few. And I am pleased to say that Congressmen Weiner and Sweeney will soon introduce bipartisan legislation to accomplish just that. And Senator Schumer has already introduced a bill to support federal revenue sharing. All of their efforts deserve our support.

Now, there are those who say this is unrealistic. But they need only look a few short decades back. That's when Congressman Ed Koch led the fight to pass a similar program, which was then enacted by President Richard Nixon. Back then, revenue sharing was a rational, sound measure to relieve budget deficits in states and cities around the country. It remains so today.

We can change policy in Washington.

And if America is going to get moving again� if New York City is going to get moving again� then we must change policy in Washington.

But it doesn't stop there. We need change in Albany, too.

Because in case after case� instance after instance� the state shortchanges New York City in a wide and costly variety of ways.

Currently, the state shortchanges the city with:

  • $258 million in foster care payments;
  • $166 million for early childhood intervention;
  • we're short $141 million in indigent defense costs;
  • $50 million of our share of funding from the environmental bond act;
  • the state doesn't even reimburse us for $10 million in expenses for supervising state prisoners!

The list goes on and on and on and on� and to add insult to injury, consider this: when the governor established 75 economic development zones across the state, only 10 went to New York City.

It's gotten so that whenever I hear the word "formula" in Albany, I wince�because I know that it means, one way or another, New York City is about to get cheated.

Take the transportation formula. Currently New York City moves about 84 percent of the state's transit riders but receives only 63 percent of all state aid for mass transit. This costs us $325 million.

Finally, the state's repeal of the commuter tax was a cynical exercise that has cost New York City $1.5 billion dollars to date.

Given this state of affairs, what is Albany offering New York City?

The governor says his top priority is to avoid tax increases. Strong words. But let's look at his actions.

Take his proposal for a transit-fare increase. The governor likes to pretend it isn't a tax. But what else do you call it, governor, when you take money from the pockets of working people?

Before we even consider a fare increase, the governor ought to give New York City the transit aid we deserve.

And let's look at his tuition hikes for students at our state and city universities. Making it harder for people to get a college education doesn't just kill jobs, governor, it kills hope and opportunity.

I urge the governor to reverse this decision�. And while you're at it, meet your obligation to fully fund associate degree programs at all of the city's four-year institutions.

John Jay College� the College of Staten Island� Medgar Evers College� and New York City Technical College� all are still denied the state funds to which they are entitled.

And as it turns out the governor is proposing new taxes. Now he wants to put back the sales tax back on clothing items under $110.

The mayor and the city council pushed for getting rid of this tax to create retail jobs and ease the burden on lower-income families. How did it become the one tax the governor was willing to impose?

Unfortunately, the news gets worse from here.

The governor actually found a way to cut $1.2 billion from Medicaid without saving the city any money at all. Just a week ago, most of you wouldn't think that was possible.

Now he wants to take over the cost of prescription drugs, (a burden that the federal government is actually considering assuming), and increase the city's share of hospital, clinic and outpatient costs to 37%.

We're already paying 25% more than almost any locality in the country. In the midst of our fiscal crisis, he wants us to pay more?

Now New Yorkers admire chutzpah. But we don't like having our pockets picked. And the governor's Medicaid proposal is a disaster for our city, our health care industry and all working New Yorkers.

But amazingly it gets even worse. The governor's cuts in education aid add up to more than $700 million dollars and fall directly upon the most vulnerable among us - our children.

We're trying to turn our schools around. We cannot possibly absorb these cuts to public education and our children cannot be forced to languish in a second-rate school system.

Remember this: it costs the state more to sacrifice a generation of students than it does to invest in them.

Governor Pataki, please, stop your assault on public education.

If the governor was serious about addressing our real problems, he wouldn't resort to false solutions�

We need real help. New Yorkers have stepped up to the plate already. We have cut our budget dramatically and raised our property taxes. Now it's time for Albany to match our commitment.

Today, I call on the state to give us the opportunity to address our own fiscal problems. Give us the power to enact a $1 billion commuter tax. Twenty cities currently have some form of commuter tax - including Yonkers. The state imposes its own commuter tax. Why should we be treated differently?

Let New York City decide its own fate� and let us provide real fiscal relief for our citizens and our commuters alike� because our commuters have just as much stake in the fiscal integrity of the city as our residents.

Next, I ask the state to, once and for all, give our city the right to begin property tax reform through an absentee landlord surcharge.

Right now, absentee commercial landlords enjoy the same property tax rates as those who actually live in their single family homes.

This eludes both fairness and logic. Renting apartments is, after all, a business. And if absentee landlords paid commercial property taxes as they should, the city would realize hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue - revenue we desperately need.

It's time for Albany to change its ways�. And it's time for all of us to dedicate ourselves to restoring balance and fairness to the system.

Because only when we get our fair share will our city be as productive and competitive as the talents of our citizens allow.

Only when we get our fair share will our schools truly meet the needs of all our children. Only when we get our fair share will our police officers and firefighters have all the resources they need to keep crime low and protect our families from harm.

Our city's relations with the state and federal governments are fundamentally unfair. We are overtaxed and we are undeserved.

And we are fed up.

Today, I propose an organized, concerted effort, a campaign called "fair share," to realign federal, state and city responsibilities and the balance of payments between them. It is a campaign for equity and responsibility.

I am a realist. I know when we are standing at the bottom of a very steep hill, looking up. But I also know that we are not alone. We have so many dedicated and effective allies in this battle. We have two extraordinary U.S. Senators -- Senators Schumer and Clinton -- who have fought for the community disaster loan act and federal revenue sharing.

We have an outstanding congressional delegation, led by the Honorable Charles Rangel, to argue our case on Capitol Hill.

We have a State Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, who has always stood up for New York City and will continue to fight.

And we have committed state assembly members and state senators who fight for us in the trenches everyday. I know we will prevail.

Our history is full of imposing mountains and rugged hills made plain by the determination and commitment of our people. We've spanned rivers and tunneled beneath them; built skyscrapers and subways.

Is it really beyond us to order our affairs of government in a responsible and equitable manner? I don't believe it is.

We have already begun to reach out to cities across our nation who will join us in this fight for federal revenue sharing.

Over the last month, I have heard a chorus of support from mayors, council presidents and county executives from California to Georgia�from New Mexico to Connecticut. Like New York City, they all want to be treated fairly.

What we are doing here is building a movement�. A movement where public officials and private citizens alike will join in the fight to help New York City get the resources we need and deserve. We can get justice in Washington, justice in Albany� we can boost New York City high above the inequitable formulas and cycles of crisis that threaten to hold us back.

We will become New York City boosters� foot soldiers in the fight for equity and fairness.

In the months ahead, we'll be rolling out a series of grassroots ideas to fuel this campaign. And everyone will be encouraged to participate.

We have recently created a website -- It will be a great resource to raise public awareness and let New Yorkers know what they can do to help. We ask all New Yorkers to log on. There you will soon find information about rallies and bus trips to attend� we will be asking you to write letters and make phone calls. The important thing is that we bring to the attention of every New Yorker the terrible injustices our city faces. And we need to confront our leaders in Washington and Albany with one voice, united.

The good news is that we have plenty of opportunities to drive our points home. New Yorkers are civic-minded people. We belong to thousands of organizations that support causes and candidates across this country.

New York City is a regular stop on the campaign trail for almost every political office in the nation. When candidates ask for our support and contributions, we usually ask them where they stand on a variety of issues that are important to us. From now on, when a candidate asks you for your support, I want you to ask them:

What are you doing for New York City? Do you support revenue sharing?

New York's generous fundraisers, business organizations and labor unions are already united by a deep and abiding love for this great city. Now we need to band together to ask candidates this one simple question: what are you doing for New York City? Do you support our commuter tax?

I can promise you that when every presidential candidate comes here I won't be shy in asking, what are you doing for New York City?

Mr. President and Governor Pataki: something's got to give. Because so far, the citizens of New York City have been doing all the giving.

The numbers tell the tale of inequity. Yet as significant as those numbers are, they don't begin to tell the story of this city's enormous contributions to our state and to our nation.

New York City is truly the finance capital of the world. But we represent a lot more than money. We're also the cultural and intellectual capital of the world. We're home to the stock market� and the United Nations� and the world's greatest cultural institutions. We're home to the most extraordinary� most diverse� most industrious� innovative and accomplished citizens on the planet.

We have public schools where the kids speak more languages than the delegates at the U.N.

We're a hub for global transportation and an incubator for today's most important ideas and tomorrow's most compelling vision.

And that's just a small sampling of the intangible, incalculable contributions our city makes to our nation and the world every day. Because of those extraordinary qualities, New York City will rebound. We will recover and we will come back stronger than ever.

In the end, we are still the greatest city in the world. I can't imagine living anywhere else. My wife and I can't imagine raising our two kids anywhere else.

After September 11th, the entire nation poured out its heart and demonstrated to the world an astounding commitment to the people of New York City.

We are all tremendously grateful. And it is this spirit of generosity and faith in humankind that inspire us to move forward � to seize this moment in history and rededicate ourselves to building a better, more competitive, and more just 21st century city.

And when we have succeeded, we will look back and say to ourselves and our children that we helped the greatest city on earth meet its greatest challenge.

I thank you all for your confidence in the future of New York City.

New York City Council Stated Meeting Report

 Every two weeks the New York City Council meets for its Stated Meeting, when the 51 members of the council introduce and pass legislation. As a regular feature, Searchlight covers these meetings and posts a summary of what happened and what bills were passed. The articles are posted by 5 p.m. on the day of the meeting.

Stated Meeting ­ January 29, 2003
Quote Of The Day:

"The Department of Employment is currently reviewing a summer youth employment program that represents a 91 percent cut from last years program. They are planning on fewer than 6,000 summer jobs in the city this summer." - Brooklyn Councilmember Lewis Fidler, chair of Youth Services Committee on budget cuts.

Meeting Summary:

Council Speaker Gifford Miller opened the meeting saying it was a day for "good government legislation."

The council voted unanimously to broaden the city's whistleblower laws (Intro 63-A) to include all city employees who report gross mismanagement or abuse of authority; require all city agencies to post government reports online within 10 days (Intro 119A); and revise city regulations on sidewalk cafes (Intro 294). The measure on sidewalk cafes, the council said, would reduce the waiting time in obtaining a permit from more than 200 days to 110 days and make it easier for the Department of Consumer Affairs to take action against restaurants that break the law. "If you violate the law in any way, the city will shut you down," said Queens Councilmember Melinda Katz.

The council also passed a bill requiring the schools chancellor to provide quarterly reports to the council on school construction projects, a measure the mayor's administration said was not necessary. Only one council member - Madeline Provenzano - abstained from the vote.

Two other bills amended the city's campaign finance laws, which offer matching funds for candidates running for city office. The first bill (Intro 171A) clarifies regulations for accepting campaign donations (It passed by a vote of 46 in favor and 3 abstentions.) The second (Intro 313A) lets candidates use donations after an election to pay back their debts. One politician who would benefit is former Mayor David Dinkins, who would be able to clear up $200,000 in old campaign debts under the measure. It passed with 45 "yes" votes and 3 "no" votes.

Republican members, who voted against the measure, said that the campaign finance program should face the same cuts as every other city agency. "I'm just wondering how many of my constituents who find themselves personally or professionally in some sort of debt can call up friends in government and have their debt legislated away," said Minority Leader James Oddo.

A bill that would allow GED and English language classes to count toward work requirements for welfare recipients (Intro 93) was laid over by Speaker Miller. Brooklyn Councilmember Bill DeBlasio, who helped draft the bill, said the speaker has promised a vote on the measure sometime in February.

The council also officially received Mayor Michael Bloomberg's veto of a bill (Intro 257A) that would restrict the use of cell phones in theaters and concert halls. The mayor said the bill would be "virtually impossible to enforce." East Harlem Councilmember Phil Reed said the bill is meant to increase awareness of the issue. "Ringing cell phones and loud, one-sided conversations offer only headaches," said Reed, who expects the council to override the veto.

During the meeting, members also took time out to blast the mayor's and governor's budget proposals. "We have a $3 billion deficit, and we can't keep increasing parking fines and the fees for birth certificates," said Brooklyn Councilmember Charles Barron. "It's time to do something courageous in Albany."

The next Stated Meeting is scheduled for February 12.

Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: New York Voters Approve $4.2 Billion Environmental Bond Act
New York Voters Approve $4.2 Billion Environmental Bond Act
Gotham Gazette: 
New York City Voters Approve Racial Justice Ballot Measures
New York City Voters Approve Racial Justice Ballot Measures
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast: A Winning Formula for Democrats in Tough New York Races
Max Politics Podcast: A Winning Formula for Democrats in Tough New York Races
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast Max Politics Podcast