Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

City Council Stated Meeting - November 16, 2005

Every two weeks the New York City Council meets for its Stated Meeting to introduce and pass legislation. Gotham Gazette covers these meetings and posts a summary of the bills passed.

"The unions saved this city in the 1970s, they were part of the inception of campaign finance in the 1980s, and they should be given a fair and equal opportunity to have full participation [in the political process.]" - Councilmember Leroy Comrie on easing campaign finance restrictions for union donations.

New York City's Campaign Finance system, which offers candidates matching funds in return for agreeing to spending limits, has been hailed as a model for the rest of the nation. It is also a system that has benefited all 51 City Council members, who receive $4 for every $1 they raise in small donations.

On November 16, the City Council voted to amend the Campaign Finance law as it relates to donations from labor unions. The council says it is protecting city workers' interests; critics say it is giving too much power to organized labor.

Earlier this year, the Campaign Finance Board voted to prevent unions, who can give up to $2,750, from using their local affiliates to funnel additional money to candidates. Under the decision, a union like the Service Employees International Union could only give one donation to a candidate even though it is comprised of local groups like Local 32B and 32J, which represents maintenance workers, and 1199, which represents health care workers.

The council argues that the Campaign Finance Board went too far and is being unfair to workers, who have distinct needs and may want to support different candidates. For example, in the recent election, Local 32B-32J supported Mayor Michael Bloomberg, while 1199 supported Fernando Ferrer.

Under the council's bill (Intro 564-A), a candidate can accept multiple donations from a union and its affiliates as long as:
- the donations come from different bank accounts
- the unions maintain different signatories
- they have distinct governing boards
- and they do not share a majority of officers.

"This is an important effort to protect the rights of free speech of working men and women and protecting their ability to participate in the political process," said Councilmember Bill deBlasio, who authored the bill.

"The unions saved this city in the 1970s, they were part of the inception of campaign finance in the 1980s," said Councilmember Leroy Comrie, "and they should be given a fair and equal opportunity to have full participation."

But critics say that the council has created a loophole that gives labor unions too much influence. Newspaper editorials have called the legislation a "City Council Money Grab" and "a suck up to [labor] bosses."

The measure passed easily by a vote of 43 to 3; only Madeline Provenzano, Eva Moskowitz, and Andrew Lanza voted against it.

Councilmember Peter Vallone, Jr. abstained, calling it a "flawed bill."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he will veto the measure; the council has more than the 34 votes needed to override the veto.

In an effort to shift the city's property tax burden from homeowners to commercial property owners, the council approved a change in the tax rates.

Although the citywide property tax has remained the same since Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council increased it by 18.5 percent in 2002, the state adjusts rates annually to keep pace with the real estate market.

The council's action lowers the state's proposed 7 percent tax increase for single family homes to 4.3 percent , which will save the average homeowner $80. It also increases taxes for Class A office buildings; the average building in Manhattan will see a $168,000 hike.

While most council members applauded the move, others complained that homeowners will still see an increase when their next bill arrives.

"While we can all be pleased that we are doing the right thing... the next tax bill they get will be more than the last," said Councilmember Lew Fidler. "I guarantee you at the end of December, my office and all of yours will be besieged with phone calls saying, 'How come you raised our property tax bill again.'"

The three Republican members - James Oddo, Andrew Lanza, and Dennis Gallagher - voted against the adjustment, arguing that property taxes should be reduced.

The council's action does not affect the $400 property tax rebate for homeowners, which the mayor has promised to continue next year.

In 2004, there were 350 documented Anti-Semitic incidents in New York City, according to the Anti-Defamation League. In response, the council passed a bill (Intro 703-A) increasing fines from $10,000 to $25,000 for vandalizing religious properties.

"I am not sure it will be a deterrent for a knucklehead who is so full of hate and stupidity that he desecrates a house of worship," said James Oddo. "It is intended to be a 'financial life sentence' of sorts."

In 2003, the City Council passed a law making trespassing on professional sports playing areas a misdemeanor and increasing fines and penalties for those who violate the law.

The council strengthened its "sports stadium security policy" with a bill (Intro 528-A) that adds spitting, throwing objects, or physically hitting someone on the field to the regulations.

"Our families should not be intimidated by drunken idiots in any stadium," said Councilmember Peter Vallone, Jr.

The council also approved new recycling programs (Intro 70-A) for rechargeable batteries.

"Rechargeable batteries have many toxic substances and people throw them away by the millions," said Councilmember Oliver Koppell. "They get into the waste stream, and they poison our land and our water."

Manufacturers and marketers of products that use rechargeable batteries will fund the project. Approximately 37,000 retail stores throughout the city and on the Internet, such as Radio Shack, Home Depot and Verizon Wireless will collect the batteries and send them to manufacturers. There is no cost to the city.

Only one member, Simcha Felder, voted against the measure.

The council approved a new 400-page plumbing code (Intro 478-A). It is the first part of an entire overhaul of the city's building code that the council's housing and building committee has been working on for much of the last four years.

The council also voted to create a business improvement district (Intro 691) in the Brooklyn neighborhood DUMBO. Business improvement districts provide activities or amenities that promote business in a specific area, including maintenance and sanitation, holiday decorations and other efforts. They are funded by assessments on property owners within the area and overseen by the city's Department of Small Business Services.

All bills (except for the campaign finance, property tax adjustment, and the battery recycling program) passed unanimously by a vote of 48 to 0. Maria Baez, Phil Reed, and Larry Seabrook were absent.

The next Stated Meeting is scheduled for November 30, 2005.


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