Members of the City Council can say goodbye to their "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukkah" holiday greetings in local media. Under new rules approved by the City Council at its stated meeting on Thursday, members will no longer be able to give well wishes in the local media at the taxpayer's expense, which some groups contend only boosts a member's visibility and serves no public purpose.
The council also approved a resolution that opposes new regulations by the Bush administration that place income restrictions on a children's health insurance program. It also approved an extension of a housing rehabilitation program.
Adding Up Ads
The new advertising restrictions are in response to a report by Citizens Union, a good government group and sister organization to Gotham Gazette's publisher - the Citizens Union Foundation. The report, released last month, revealed members of the City Council spent more than $780,000 on advertisements from 2002 to 2006.
The group took issue with the ads because they are paid for with taxpayer dollars and are primarily congratulatory and political in nature. Some said the ads could boost members' political prospects, upping their chances for a re-election bid or for higher office by enhancing their visibility.
The day the report was released, Council Speaker Christine Quinn said she would propose changes to prevent the use of taxpayer funds to purchase ads that served no public purpose.
The revised rules (Reso. 1168) prohibit members from buying ads in local media that merely wish constituents a happy holiday or are entirely congratulatory - which comprised the bulk of advertisements examined in the Citizens Union report. The new rules also ban advertisements in organizational newsletters, journals or bulletins, which some contend could persuade that group or constituency to support a certain council member.
The only advertisements council members will be allowed to take out will be announcements for town hall meetings or for government-sponsored events. Quinn said she expected all members to comply with the new regulations, adding that a copy of the ad or a detailed description along with its invoice would be needed to receive public funding.
"The issue that was raised was not that the council members were not following the rules," said Quinn. "The issue was there were no rules."
Prior to the rule chance, council members had paid for the advertisements out of their individual budgets, which top approximately $300,000 annually. The council approved the change by a vote of 48 to 1, with Councilmember Helen Foster dissenting. According to the Citizens Union report, however, Foster did not spend any money on ads.
Foster said she did not support the proposal, because she believes the council should proactively legislate, not reactively. Even if she did decide to place an ad, Foster said she did not want it subject to approval from the speaker's office.
"I was elected by a community and the part of the legislation that it requires approval by the speakers designee has me as an elected answering to a (employee) of the speaker," said Foster.
Extending Housing Incentives
The council also approved extending an affordable housing program that provides tax breaks for property owners in exchange for building improvements. The program was set to expire this year and has now been extended to 2011.
The bills (Intro 525) and (Intro 526), were approved by a vote of 48 to 0, with Councilmember Gale Brewer abstaining.
Brewer said she abstained because the program, though improved, still harbored several loopholes. Among them, she said, some residents could lose their rent stabilization if the affordable housing program was not renewed at their building. Some of these loopholes, Brewer added, need to be closed in Albany.
Landlords can receive the tax benefit if they make improvements such as the installation or replacement of heating, plumbing or roofing systems, wiring, windows and elevators.
Children's Health Insurance
When the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services decided to turn down New York State's application to expand a popular child health insurance program, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, along with the leaders of Maryland, Illinois and Washington, decided to file a lawsuit.
Thanks to new restrictions by the federal government, states cannot expand children's insurance programs, known here as Child Health Plus, unless they can enroll 95 percent of children below 200 percent of the poverty line. That high level, officials in New York say, is nearly impossible to achieve.
The state was attempting to expand its program eligibility to children 400 percent of the poverty line or below. For a family of four, that is an annual income of $83,000.
In order for Quinn to file an amicus brief in support of the state's actions, the City Council must approve a resolution. The council unanimously approved the resolution, (Reso. 1151) by a vote of 49 to 0.
Empire Zone Extension
The council also approved the inclusion of a Long Island City business within a state Empire Zone - an area that can receive tax breaks and incentives -that is two miles away. The bill (Intro 626) was approved 49 to 0.
The business, Bimmy's LLC, is an airport food supply company, and it will be required to create jobs to receive state approval.
Office of Administrative Tax Appeals
The council voted 49 to 0 to consolidate the offices of Tax Appeals Tribunal and the Tax Commission, creating the Office of Administrative Tax Appeals.
The bill (Intro 597-A) will better reflect the body's independence from the Department of Finance, city officials said.