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U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara heads to Albany

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 02/11/2016 - 11:07pm

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Federal prosecutor Preet Bharara is heading to Albany — a place he has sharply condemned as the epicenter of New York's political corruption.

The U.S. Attorney for New York's Southern District is scheduled to address a meeting of the state's Conference of Mayors on Monday at noon and then speak at a performing arts center later in the day.


Last year, Bharara's office successfully prosecuted former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and former Senate Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, who were found guilty of unrelated felony corruption charges.

Bharara's office has also investigated Gov. Andrew Cuomo's handling of an anti-corruption commission, though earlier this month Bharara said the probe found insufficient evidence of a federal crime.

Categories: State/Local

Funeral held for crane victim

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 02/11/2016 - 11:07pm

New York

A pedestrian killed by a collapsing crane was eulogized Sunday as a man of kindness and generosity as the final remnants of the crumpled steel were removed from the Manhattan street where they fell.

David Wichs, 38, has been described by relatives as a mathematical whiz who graduated from Harvard University and worked at a computerized-trading firm.

His good deeds also made him "an angel," said Haskel Lookstein, rabbi emeritus of the Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, where the funeral was held.

"We honor a very unique man whose life was a life of giving: giving from his possessions to causes he believed in passionately," Lookstein said.

The recipients included the Yeshiva of Flatbush, which had welcomed Wichs as a 14-year-old from Prague who barely spoke English and knew no Hebrew. "He never forgot it, and he gave back generously," the rabbi said.

"He gave an unusually large part of his income, but he gave of his person to everybody sitting here," Lookstein said. "He was a supreme mensch in every respect."

Wichs' widow, Rebecca Guttman, called her pain "unbearable."

"I want you to know that I will do my best to live for us both," Guttman told her fellow mourners.

Wichs' remains were taken for burial at Passaic Junction Cemetery in Saddle Brook, New Jersey.

Three other people were struck by debris and injured in the accident Friday.

"Given what happened here, it's extraordinary that there was not more damage, and it's extraordinary that we did not lose more people," Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference Sunday in which he announced a four-point plan to increase safety when large construction cranes are operating.

The mayor said there will be new restrictions on crawler cranes during windy conditions. Fines for failure to safeguard equipment will be doubled. He said there will be increased enforcement of pedestrian safety alongside crane sites. And neighboring buildings will get more notifications about crane activities.

City officials say it could take weeks to determine why the crane collapsed while it was being lowered during strong winds.

Categories: State/Local

Firefighter accused of using blue light to pull over motorist

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 02/11/2016 - 10:07pm

FLORIDA — A Guilderland man faces seven traffic tickets after police say he used the blue volunteer firefighter light on his vehicle to allegedly pull over another car in the town of Florida last month, Montgomery County deputies said Saturday.

John Russel James Cochran, 22, told police he had been driving a pickup with a large Peterbilt sticker on the back window on Jan. 23 when there were reports that the truck had signaled another motorist with the lights but then "sped off," deputies said.

The event was broadcast to local fire departments, then reported across social media, deputies said. That led to a sighting of the truck in Guilderland.

Cochran is scheduled to be in Florida Town Court on Feb. 18 for tickets alleging unauthorized use of a blue light, failure to dim high beams, following too close, an unregistered motor vehicle, littering, having an open container with an alcoholic beverage in the vehicle and having an unauthorized sticker in the rear window, deputies said.

Cochran is a fire department member in Albany County but he has been suspended pending the court outcome, deputies said. The department could not immediately be learned.

Categories: State/Local

One dead as crane topples

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 02/11/2016 - 10:07pm

New York

A huge construction crane being lowered to safety in a snow squall plummeted onto a Lower Manhattan street Friday, killing a Wall Street worker and leaving three people hurt by debris that scattered as the rig's lengthy boom fell, officials said.

The mobile crane's boom landed across an intersection, smashed several car roofs and stretched much of a block after the accident around 8:25 a.m. at a historic building about 10 blocks north of the World Trade Center.

Robert Harold heard a crashing sound as the rig fell right outside his office window at the Legal Aid Society.

"You could feel the vibration in the building," said Harold, who recounted seeing onlookers trying to rescue someone trapped in a parked car and seeing a person lying motionless on the street. After the collapse, the crane's big cab lay upside-down in the snow with its tank-like tracks pointed at the sky.

The collapse killed David Wichs, a mathematical whiz who worked at a computerized trading firm, his family said. Born in Prague, he had immigrated to the United States as a teenager and graduated from Harvard University, said his sister-in-law, Lisa Guttman.

"He really created a life for himself. He literally took every opportunity he could find," she said through tears.

Mayor Bill de Blasio initially said the person killed in the collapse was in a car, but police later said he was on the sidewalk.

De Blasio said two people were seriously injured, while a third suffered more minor injuries.

Buildings Commissioner Rick Chandler said inspectors found no problems then with the crane but would investigate further.

Categories: State/Local

Gay groups try to buy anti-gay church

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 02/11/2016 - 9:07pm

New York

The end may be nigh for a Harlem church known for hateful public messages condemning gays and President Barack Obama to eternal damnation, and two groups that serve gay New Yorkers are hoping to get an ironic last word on the matter.

They want to buy the Atlah World Missionary Church at a foreclosure auction. One wants to turn it into housing for gay homeless youth.

The congregation's pastor has vowed not to let that happen.

"We're not going to be pushed like this," said Dr. James David Manning, who literally thumped a leather-bound Bible during an interview at his church this week. "I'm tired of people ramming their ideas down one's throat."

A fixture in Harlem, The Atlah World Missionary Church has never been shy about expressing its own blunt ideas. The billboard in front of the church is emblazoned with messages like one that said to gays "cursed be thou with cancer, HIV, syphilis, stroke, madness, the itch, then Hell." Others have gone after Obama, calling him "a Taliban Muslim illegally elected president."

When the news broke that the church owed $1 million to creditors and was facing a foreclosure auction Feb. 24, some quarters received it with glee.

One nonprofit group, the Ali Forney Center, has raised $175,000 on its website as part of an effort to buy the church and convert the building into transitional housing for homeless gay youths — the very population, its leaders say, that is most harmed by the Atlah church's message.

"We ask our kids why they weren't safe in their homes. ... The No. 1 reason is because of the hostile religious beliefs of their parents," said the center's executive director, Carl Siciliano.

Categories: State/Local

Ammo database developed at less than bullet speed

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 02/11/2016 - 9:07pm


Controversy over the SAFE Act, the 2013 gun control law pushed through by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, continues across New York's political landscape.

The latest dispute erupted Thursday during a legislative budget hearing that revealed efforts to create an ammunition-sales registry are continuing — very slowly.

Margaret Miller, who oversees the state Office for Information Technology Services, told lawmakers that her agency had devised three options for setting up an ammunition database and presented them to the State Police, which under the SAFE Act would maintain the system.

At Thursday's hearing, Miller said all three potential designs for the system were rejected by the State Police.

The database would enable background checks by ammunition dealers, such as firearms or sporting good stores, for people buying bullets or shells. The dealers would have to report the sales, including the amount of ammunition sold, to the state. The program was intended to flag potential large purchases by individuals who might be planning acts of violence.

In July, Cuomo and Senate Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan signed a memorandum of understanding stating that no money would go toward funding or deploying the ammunition database without the approval of Flanagan.

Several Republican opponents of the SAFE Act crowed that the deal effectively meant the database would never go on line.

The Cuomo administration insisted that was not the case, arguing the memorandum merely meant the system wouldn't be implemented until it was ready.

At the session, Miller also drew a rebuke from Western New York Republican Sen. Cathy Young, recently named chairwoman of the chamber's Finance Committee.

Young took issue with Miller's contention that more than $27 million had been allocated in the 2013-2014 budget to support the SAFE Act's provisions. "That was not a true statement — there was no lining out in the state budget regarding those funds," Young said.

Miller apologized.

"We have not yet spent money on the ammunition database," Miller said in response to another question from the lawmaker.

"You're aware of the MOU that's in place ... not to develop the database?" Young asked.

" ... We have done research, but that's all we've done with regard to the ammunition database," Miller said.

The database was originally supposed to be up and running in January 2014. What happened?

That depends on who you talk to.

"I spoke with the governor's office earlier this week and indeed they are working on it," said Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, on Friday.

Barrett said she spoke recently with Cuomo's Counsel Alphonso David and Deputy Secretary for Public Safety Terence O'Leary, who assured her the work was proceeding.

The extent to which Miller's agency is actively developing a database, however, isn't clear. Her office on Friday refused to expand upon her comments at the hearing, or provide any information about the three systems proposed to the State Police.

The Republican-controlled Senate isn't going to approve more spending on the project any time soon.

The SAFE Act, which also expanded the definition of banned assault-style weapons, has been a rallying point for many upstate GOP lawmakers who represent areas with large populations of hunters and shooting enthusiasts, many of whom view the law as an infringement on their federal Second Amendment rights. Flanagan, who hails from suburban Long Island, voted in favor of the bill, which passed a month after the killings in Sandy Hook. He has subsequently criticized elements of the law.

Cuomo has touted the legislation as one of the signal accomplishments of his first term, though it has put a significant dent in his support in many parts of upstate.

On the other side of the issue, the governor drew criticism from downstate Democrats after signing the memorandum in July. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie called the two-way agreement "an ill-advised end run around the Legislature."

The governor's advocacy for more vigorous action against gun violence escalated sharply in September following the shooting of his aide Caray Gabay, who died days after being struck in the head by a stray bullet in Brooklyn.

Cuomo has said the establishment of the registry would be dependent in part on getting the proper technology. His office confirmed on Friday he was committed to the database.

Barrett was told that the database needs to be quickly and easily accessed by ammunition retailers, including those who live in regions without sufficient broadband capabilities.

"They don't want the system to prevent any significant delays for the purchaser," she said.


Categories: State/Local

Everyone's Talking About Paid Family Leave, Only Compromise Will Yield a Deal

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 02/11/2016 - 12:00am

Cuomo's paid family leave rally (photo via The Governor's Office)

Last week, the New York State Assembly passed a one-house bill creating a program that would allow workers to take time off to care for a new child or sick loved one while receiving a portion of their usual pay. It is the fifth year in a row the Assembly has done so. "It's appropriate we're here on Groundhog Day, since we've been coming back year after year for paid family leave," said Donna Dolan, head of the New York State Paid Family Leave Coalition, at a press conference announcing the vote.

Just a few days earlier Gov. Andrew Cuomo rallied with Vice President Joe Biden in Manhattan to push his newly-unveiled paid family leave bill. Both detailed their experiences of being torn between work and being at the side of a dying loved one.

"My friends, paid family leave has been an important issue for a long time, but it is an issue whose time has come because things happen," Cuomo told the crowd. "When the planets line up and the political will and the body politic develops, and the body politic says enough is enough – now is the time to pass paid family leave."

It was only last session that Cuomo insisted the legislature had no "appetite" for paid family leave. But now with major attention from media, elected officials, and advocates across the nation focused on whether New York will become the fourth state to pass a paid family leave bill, Cuomo is whipping up support for his plan. As are Assembly Democrats, whose plan is different, while all look to get the blessing of Senate Republicans, who control that chamber.

While Cuomo seeks to thread some middle ground with his plan, Assembly Democrats insist theirs, which includes higher benefits, is the way to go, and Senate Republicans indicate there may be room for compromise while saying they're wary of any additional burdens on businesses.

The Cuomo administration is proposing a plan that would pay benefits through contributions from employee paychecks and reimburse workers starting at the rate of 35 percent of earnings. The Assembly plan would expand the scope of the state Temporary Disability Insurance program to cover paid family leave and would also take contributions from employee paychecks, but would reimburse at a rate of two-thirds of a worker's pay for individuals on leave.

One central point of conflict is whether to connect the paid family leave program to the TDI--a move Senate Republicans appear to be sensitive to because of concerns that increasing the benefit for workers who take off time for their own disabilities would be a cost born by employers as well as workers. TDI is paid for by employers.

The state has kept the TDI reimbursement rate steady at $170 a week for decades. Legislators expect that increasing the rate will take immense political capital as it will almost certainly require contributions from employers.

However, there are also signs there may be room for compromise as the Cuomo administration has said it will introduce amendments to its leave proposal. Advocates expect the administration to increase the amount employees are reimbursed to bring it into line with the Assembly proposal.

"I think it is a very positive thing that everyone is talking about paid family leave," said Sen. Jeff Klein, head of the Independent Democratic Conference, who joined Cuomo and Biden for their rally last month, delivering opening remarks. "Serious discussions haven't started yet, but I'm hopeful."

Soon after speaking with Gotham Gazette, Klein introduced a new version of his paid family leave bill to the state Senate. Klein and the IDC jolted discussion of family leave last year when they successfully advocated for Senate Republicans, whom they have a coalition with and control the chamber, to include a paid family leave plan in their budget.

Before introducing his new compromise bill, Klein told Gotham Gazette that he believes negotiations should focus on Cuomo's proposal rather than the Assembly's because it is "more palatable" to Senate Republicans.

The dynamics around paid family leave have changed since last legislative session. Cuomo appears to have stepped into the role Klein's IDC was playing as they backed paid family leave supported in part by state funds and by deductions from employee paychecks. The Assembly Democrats' plan would use deductions from employee paychecks to expand the TDI, which currently provides partial pay for workers who are disabled and have to take off work.

Last year Cuomo rejected the Senate's family leave proposal put forward by the Independent Democratic Conference. "We need a paid family leave policy that is sustainable and would provide real protections to employees. What we should not accept is the Senate proposal, which is a half-loaf that does not provide sustainable funding or a workable framework for employees and employers," Cuomo spokesperson Melissa DeRosa said in a statement in March in response to the IDC's plan.

Klein's new plan would provide 12 weeks of paid leave starting at two-thirds of a worker's average weekly pay, or 35 percent of the state's average weekly wage by 2017. It would eventually offer 80 percent of a worker's salary, or 50 percent of the statewide average weekly by April 1, 2021. It would be paid for through a 27-cent-a-week contribution from employee paychecks and be distributed through a newly created paid leave system. It would not expand the TDI, but Klein has advocated doing so separately, to raise the TDI benefit after so many years of it staying flat.

Cuomo's plan, presented in conjunction with his State of the State and budget address in January, would create a paid family leave system that would offer up to 12 weeks leave paid for by a weekly, 60 cent payroll deduction. Workers would be able to take leave while earning 35 percent of their pay in 2018, rising to 66 percent by 2021. Leave pay would be capped at a weekly average of statewide pay - the 2014 average according to the state Department of Labor was $1,266.44.

The Assembly plan would expand TDI and provide workers with 12 weeks of paid leave at two thirds of their average weekly wage. It would be paid for with a weekly deduction from an employee's paycheck that would start at 45 cents. The plan would become effective July of 2017.

Advocates have leaned towards the Assembly plan as it provides workers with what they consider the minimum amount of pay to make taking leave feasible, as well as expanding the TDI, and requiring a smaller worker contribution.

Blue Carreker, head of Citizen Action of NY's paid family leave campaign said that her organization thinks any paid leave bill has to cover all workers and all businesses, provide 12 weeks leave, and increase the rates paid by TDI to bring it into parity with what will be paid by the family leave program.

Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has indicated he is open to negotiations. Following a speech he gave at an Association for a Better New York breakfast last month, Flanagan indicated he was moved by Cuomo's State of the State speech in which the governor described regretting not being at his father's side during his final days.

Flanagan tempered that openness with concerns he has about how a paid leave policy might impact small business. "If you're a business with four employees and someone is going to be gone for three or four months, that's a legitimate consideration," said Flanagan. "So a threshold on what's the size of the business, who pays for it, how are kids paid for, those are all absolutely important components and worthy of discussion, and I think those discussions are already taking place. Where it adds up, I don't have a crystal ball on that, but I think there's a lot more discussion about paid family leave now than there was even six months ago."

Republican Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb told Gotham Gazette, "A lot of business owners are saying 'Are you kidding me? Another thing that is telling me what to do and costing me time and money.'" He added that "there really aren't that many details except in that bill" from the Assembly Democrats, which "almost certainly won't become law."

A number of business groups stand against paid family leave. "Small employers are currently able to accommodate employees and provide flexibility in terms of scheduling," said Michael Durant, New York State director of The National Federation of Independent Businesses. "Those that can afford to offer paid time off already do and to require those that cannot afford the added expense will be dangerous to the small business sector. This is simply a solution in search of a problem and would be yet another government mandate on small business."

A recent DEMOS policy brief showed that 9 out of 10, or 6.4 million, working people in New York don't have paid family leave.

Increasing the TDI is an extremely sensitive issue for businesses and many legislators believe that including it with paid family leave will continue to be a poison pill. Most legislators are convinced by Cuomo's efforts on paid family leave and they see the inclusion of it in his budget and the way he rolled out the issue in the State of the State as a sign of steadfast commitment. They expect he will be willing to increase how much the leave program pays out and perhaps speed the implementation timeline, but not touch the TDI given his relationship with the business community. Increasing the TDI would be an immense victory for labor interests.

Carreker, who was waiting for a meeting with Cuomo administration representatives about paid leave when she spoke with Gotham Gazette, said she is confident a compromise can be reached and stressed she feels that advocates need to focus on educating legislators and small businesses on the impact paid family leave would actually have.

"It's about getting over that initial hurdle of the fear of change, of something different," said Carreker. "The more people that hear the details, the more they'll see it makes sense. This isn't a burden, it's an insurance program that covers the salaries so businesses can figure out coverage while an employee is away so that they don't have to lose good employees."

Klein agrees: "This is not something that puts a burden on business, but something that lends stability to the workforce. I think we're getting it done this year."

Paid Family Leave Proposals Gov. Cuomo Assembly Democrats Senate Independent Democratic Conference Funding Method

60 cent weekly deduction from employees' paychecks

State TDI program and 45 cent weekly deduction from employees' paychecks

27 cent weekly deduction from employees’ paychecks

Time Off & Payout

12 weeks of paid leave starting at 35% of worker’s pay starting in 2018, rising to 66% by 2021.

12 weeks of paid leave starting at two-thirds of a worker’s average weekly wage, effective July 2017

12 weeks of paid leave starting at two-thirds of a worker’s average weekly pay, or 35% of the state’s average weekly wage by 2017. Will eventually offer 80% of a worker’s salary, or 50% of the statewide average weekly by April 1, 2021

TDI Expansion?

Does not expand TDI

Plan would expand the scope of the state Temporary Disability Insurance program to cover paid family leave

Does not expand TDI

{module Author David King}

Categories: State/Local

Next Steps the State Must Make to Create and Maintain Affordable Housing

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 02/11/2016 - 12:00am

photo: a groundbreaking, via the Governor's Office

As the Legislature moves ahead with its 2016 session in Albany, a top priority must be creating and maintaining affordable housing across the state. We cannot be content with fellow New Yorkers sleeping in three-quarter houses, with too many to a room, because it’s the only alternative. It is only so long until the next severely rent burdened tenant - spending more than 50 percent of their earnings on rent - ends up homeless because they cannot afford their apartment.

Governor Cuomo’s State of the State agenda – including 20,000 units of supportive housing over 15 years and 100,000 units of permanent affordable housing - is a welcome first step. Now, there are steps the Legislature should take to spur the development and protection of affordable housing. As President Obama’s call to end chronic homelessness among veterans displays, when government acts and we mobilize on that action, we can address long-term, entrenched issues and ensure individuals have a safe and affordable place to live.

A high priority for Albany should be a new 421-a property tax credit for real estate developers who build affordable housing.

After developers and labor were unable to come to an agreement on construction wages by January 15, the 421-a tax credit expired. Still, Albany can seize the opportunity and craft a new program that maximizes the cost-effective development of truly affordable housing. For example, a new 421-a credit should not include a tax break for condo development. Approximately two-thirds of New York City’s households are renters. Moreover, the median household income of renters in New York City - about $41,000 annually according to the Furman Center’s 2014 State of New York City’s Housing & Neighborhoods - is unlikely enough to afford a co-op or condo.

The Legislature must also adequately fund the 20,000 units of supportive housing announced by Cuomo. In particular, Albany must ensure state contracts with supportive housing providers promote the long-term viability of the units. A consistent challenge that we at Urban Pathways face in operating scattered-site supportive housing - apartments in various private buildings throughout communities - is that the service contracts lack rent escalations. As scattered-site units are in market-rate apartments, they are subject to rent increases, making rent escalation provisions critical to their preservation.

Lastly, after March of this year, the state will receive National Housing Trust Fund dollars. New York will be obligated to spend these funds - potentially $20 million - predominantly on rental housing for extremely low-income (ELI) households. ELI households are those with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income (ranging from about $18,150 for a one-person household to $29,500 for a four-person household in New York City). This is another opportunity for the state to invest in adequate exit options for homeless individuals throughout the state.

Nicole Bramstedt is the Director of Policy at Urban Pathways, a nonprofit social services and supportive housing organization. On Twitter at @UrbanPathwaysNY

{module Author Opinion}

Categories: State/Local

Woman, 82, finds birth mother, 96

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 02/10/2016 - 10:07pm


Eighty-two years after she was born to a teenage girl and put up for adoption, Betty Morrell finally has met her 96-year-old birth mother, thanks to the dogged persistence of her granddaughter during 20 years of searching.

And as a bonus, she has forged a close friendship with a sister she never knew she had.

"After my adoptive parents died, that's when I started looking," Betty Morrell said Thursday by phone from her home in Spring Hill, Fla.

Morrell was born in 1933 in Utica to Lena Pierce, who named her Eva May. Social welfare officials took the baby away because Pierce, then 13, was herself a ward of the state.

Eva May was adopted by a family on Long Island and grew up as Betty Morrell, an only child. "I grew up a very happy child," Morrell said. "I was so content in the family I was adopted by."

She was in her early 30s when she started looking for information about her birth family. She had been told her birth mother had died during childbirth and was shocked when she eventually learned she was still alive.

Morrell lfinally earned she had four sisters and two brothers, and that her mother was alive and well, living in an assisted living apartment complex in Hallstead, Pa.

Categories: State/Local

Lawmakers question prison security, safety

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 02/10/2016 - 10:07pm


Correctional officers in state prisons may soon be using pepper spray to quell potential fights with and among inmates.

They're deploying portable metal detectors to better ferret out homemade knives.

And they plan to cut the use of canned goods in prison commissaries, thus denying troublemakers the use of sharp metal lids that can be turned into weapons.

Another move: showing correctional officers a video dubbed "Games Inmates Play'' alerting them to efforts that prisoners may use to manipulate guards.

Despite these increased security efforts, lawmakers had plenty of questions during a budget hearing Thursday for Acting Corrections and Community Supervision Commissioner Anthony Annucci.

Several asked about the cost (an estimated $25 million, mostly for police and prison guard overtime) of June's prison break at the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.

That was when Richard Matt and David Sweat tunneled their way out of the prison, setting off a weeks-long manhunt. Matt was eventually shot and killed while Sweat was shot and recaptured. Investigations found evidence of laxity in the prison. Prison guard Gene Palmer was charged with two felonies for inadvertently helping the pair and a civilian employee, Joyce Mitchell, was convicted of helping Matt and Sweat.

Then came a series of newspaper reports in The New York Times about mistreatment and beatings of prisoners, followed by a Times Union exposé of corruption and mismanagement in the prison system's own internal affairs or Inspector General's office.

Annucci told lawmakers that he has since revamped the inspector general's office, replacing it with a new Office of Special Investigations with a chief reporting to him directly. Not everyone was impressed.

Manhattan Democratic Assemblyman Danny O'Donnell quipped that "I went out and bought some skinny jeans but that doesn't mean I'm skinny.''

O'Donnell, who earlier in the year led hearings on allegations of prisoner abuse, has called for an independent outside oversight agency.

Critiques came from those like O'Donnell, who was concerned with the treatment of inmates, as well as from GOP lawmakers who wanted more protections for guards as well as better information on and watchfulness of parolees. "I've seen way too many assaults on correctional officers,'' said Republican Assemblywoman Janet Duprey of Plattsurgh.

Finger Lakes Republican Sen. Mike Nozzolio got cheers from the audience when he called for more parole officers.

"If the parole system is not broken, it is severely cracked," said Rochester-area GOP Sen. Richard Funke, who recited three cases in which parolees killed people in the area. • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Family leave, battle for Senate to be discussed

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 02/10/2016 - 10:07pm

Don't miss this week's episode of "New York Now," the award-winning coproduction of WMHT and the Times Union. Highlights include:

Matt Ryan of WMHT surveys the week's headlines, including the Assembly's passage of a paid family leave program.

Karen DeWitt of New York State Public Radio chats with Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins about the fight for control of the chamber and her support for Hillary Clinton.

DeWitt joins the TU's Casey Seiler and Matthew Hamilton at the Reporters Roundtable to discuss legislative jockeying over tax policy, and the controversy over state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia's visit to a charter school rally.

"New York Now" airs on WMHT Ch. 17 at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 11:30 p.m. Sunday.

Categories: State/Local

Comptroller Raises Several Flags in Budget Analysis

Gotham Gazette - Wed, 02/10/2016 - 12:00am

Comptroller Scott Stringer (photo via Stringer's office)



In an analysis of Mayor Bill de Blasio's preliminary fiscal year 2017 budget unveiled on Wednesday, Comptroller Scott Stringer pointed to several areas of concern amid a still-positive overall financial picture for New York City.

Speaking to members of the media assembled in a conference room at his Manhattan offices, Stringer said that the "budget cushion," or savings, that de Blasio has allocated is insufficient to properly prepare for an economic downturn and explained that his office foresees larger budget gaps in the coming years than the mayor's plan outlines.

Looking at the New York City economy and the larger fiscal picture around it, Stringer struck a tone similar to de Blasio's during the mayor's recent presentation of an $82 billion spending plan. Both Stringer and de Blasio point to concerning volatility on Wall Street and in China. "The storm clouds are gathering," Stringer said Wednesday, but "we do not expect a downturn in the near future."

On a theme that both the mayor and comptroller strike regularly, Stringer also showed Wednesday that while the ongoing recovery from the Great Recession has generally benefited the city and its budget, "not all New Yorkers have shared equally in those gains." In fact, he said, that was far from being the case.

Unemployment continues to drop across New York City but "real wages for low-income employees have declined by more than 3 percent," Stringer said. More and more jobs are good, but actual earnings are not keeping up for all workers.

While many of these sentiments echoed de Blasio budget statements over the past two years, Stringer did point to a few specifics in de Blasio's budgeting as problematic. Before going into those concerns, Stringer did praise additional de Blasio spending on increasing the minimum wage for city employees and human services workers the city contracts with and investments in mental health services, education, and supportive housing.

Stringer reiterated his call to help reduce budget deficits at the city's public housing authority by funneling millions of dollars in "excess funds" from the Battery Park City Authority to NYCHA, which has $17 billion in capital needs. The mayor has thus far resisted this call.

As he moved toward criticism of the de Blasio administration, Stringer said the city is now committing $1.7 billion on homeless services across three agencies, a 46 percent increase over two years under this mayor. The comptroller said the city must get a return on this investment and that his office will continue its aggressive audits and investigations. "Money's not the issue," he said, "it's more coordination, management."

Asked to respond to Stringer's analysis, a spokesperson for the mayor, Amy Spitalnick, wrote that the administration is "immediately and aggressively tackling this issue with the most comprehensive effort in the country to prevent homelessness and move people out of shelter and into permanent homes."

Citing a homelessness problem "created by years of disinvestment," Spitalnick said that "political grandstanding won't solve the crisis for families around the city. It takes sustained resources and smart management to address it, and that's exactly what this administration is doing – and a comprehensive review is underway to further improve these vital efforts."

The comptroller also pointed to the need for the city to get uniformed worker overtime expenditures under control, noting that the city is projected to exceed the NYPD overtime cap agreed to as part of the deal adding about 2,000 new officers to the workforce. There are significant overtime costs at the other uniformed agencies - fire, correction, sanitation - as there have been for years. Hundreds of millions of dollars in savings could be found through hard OT spending caps, Stringer showed.

Spitalnick pushed back on this, too, saying "This administration has taken major steps to reduce overtime, such as unprecedented overtime reforms at the NYPD that will ultimately save $70 million a year."

As for the "budget cushion," while the de Blasio administration has touted a record amount of savings, Stringer points to target percentages of operating expenses that should be set aside, with the city falling short.

The comptroller says that in order to be best prepared for a downturn and avoid major city layoffs and cuts, the cushion should be between 12 and 18 percent of expenses. It is currently at 10.6 percent and in need of at least another $1.2 billion in order to reach the floor of that safer range.

To find more savings, Stringer wants the city to implement a PEG, or program to eliminate the gap, which would require city agencies to identify potential savings of a certain percentage of their expenses. "This is about finding efficiencies in agency budgets, not about cutting jobs or vital services," Stringer said.

About half the City Council has also formally called on the mayor to institute a PEG, though he has not. Still, de Blasio indicated in his preliminary budget presentation that a PEG is on the table as he engages with the Council and heads toward releasing his executive budget in May. More will be said on the subject when City Council budget hearings begin in the next few weeks.

On savings, Spitalnick wrote that "budget monitors and rating agencies have all applauded this administration's fiscal prudence and focus on protecting against economic uncertainty – and investors agree."

Spitalnick added that "the administration has implemented an aggressive savings program of over $1 billion each year for the last two years -- in addition to billions in unprecedented health savings secured" in municipal labor contracts. "As the Mayor has made clear," she wrote, "we'll build on those savings in the Executive Budget this spring."

Asked by Gotham Gazette about the conversations between the comptroller's office and the mayor's office about a PEG, Stringer said "I have met with the mayor...he does recognize that we need to do an efficiency." Reminding everyone that the budget process has just begun, Stringer said that de Blasio "has not said no to the PEG...he's going to come back, as he should, and tell us what his plan is."

On outyear budget gaps - projected gaps between revenue and expenses - Stringer said that he foresees about a billion dollars more to make up in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 than the mayor is projecting. This is due, he explained, to his office's projection that, among other differences, the city will receive far less in taxi medallion sales and spend more on the public hospital system than currently budgeted.

Spitalnick, of de Blasio's office, said that "reserves are at unprecedented highs" and that "out-year gaps are low and based on the City's always-cautious revenue projections." She indicated that the administration believes Stringer is being overly cautious about taxi medallion sales by zeroing them out and that the administration was already adjusting those projections.

In his presentation Wednesday, Stringer also addressed the looming threat of cuts in funding for New York City through the state budget. That state will decide its fiscal 2017 budget before April 1, at which time the de Blasio administration may need to adjust its spending plan further than it may otherwise.

Referencing his recent trip to testify at a budget hearing in Albany, Stringer said that "a lot of our upstate legislators simply don't get it, they really think that New York City is their piggy bank." Despite the recovery, Stringer said, there are significant challenges, and the state cannot go through with significant cuts to city funding as are being threatened - most notably those to Medicaid and CUNY outlined by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

{module Author Ben Max}

Categories: State/Local

After New Hampshire: Debates & Voting Dates Until New York

Gotham Gazette - Wed, 02/10/2016 - 12:00am

image via NYC Board of Elections

On Tuesday, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump won their respective Democratic and Republican New Hampshire primaries by wide margins. This, after Sanders lost narrowly to Hillary Clinton and Trump lost to Ted Cruz in Iowa. On the Democratic side, there are only two candidates - Hillary Clinton came in second to Sanders in New Hampshire. For the Republicans, John Kasich came in second, adding a sense of momentum to his campaign.

Now, there are 48 more states and the District of Columbia to vote before the primary season is over. New York will be the 37th state to hold a vote when April 19 comes around.

It is unclear whether there will still be a race on either side of the aisle when voting comes to New York. The Republican field has a lot of winnowing to do and the two remaining Democrats could be in for a long slog - but, April 19 is a long way away.

Next up, South Carolina and Nevada take center stage. More debates are on the horizon, too, of course. The Democrats are set to debate on Feb. 11, March 6, and March 9. They're also scheduled to debate once in April and once in May, with dates and locations to be determined.

On the Republican side, there are debates set for Feb. 13 and 26; as well as for March 10. There could always be others added, of course.

As for the votes to take place leading up to New York, 34 states will have held either caucus or primary votes for both major parties, while two states - North Dakota and Kentucky - will have only held their Republican vote, with their Democratic vote coming later in the spring. The calendar is below.

Keep in mind that there are actually four election days in New York this year: presidential primary on April 19, followed by congressional primaries in June, state-level primaries in September, and the November Election Day.

The presidential primary calendar (if no party is noted, both major party votes will occur the same day):

Feb. 20
Nevada caucus (D)
South Carolina (R)
Washington caucus (R)

Feb. 23
Nevada caucus (R)

Feb. 27
South Carolina (D)

March 1
Alaska caucus (R)
Colorado caucus
Minnesota caucus
North Dakota caucus (R)
Wyoming caucus (R)

March 5
Kansas caucus
Kentucky caucus (R)
Maine caucus (R)
Nebraska caucus (D)

March 6
Maine caucus (D)

March 8
Hawaii caucus (R)
Idaho (R)

March 15
North Carolina

March 22
Idaho caucus (D)

March 26
Alaska caucus (D)
Hawaii caucus (D)
Washington caucus (D)

April 5

April 9
Wyoming caucus (D)

April 19
New York

April 26
Rhode Island

May 3

May 10
Nebraska (R)
West Virginia

May 17
Kentucky (D)

May 24
Washington (R)

June 7
New Jersey
New Mexico
North Dakota caucus (D)
South Dakota

June 14
District of Columbia 

{module Author Ben Max}

Categories: State/Local

Time for NYCHA to Stop Wasting Our Money

Gotham Gazette - Wed, 02/10/2016 - 12:00am

photo via NYCHA

In following the news over the past years, it has become readily apparent that the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) must either be severely underfunded or grossly mismanaged. Unfortunately it's the latter.

There is no shortage of issues that have come up that demonstrate the ineptitude of NYCHA leadership. From failing to protect residents in advance of Hurricane Sandy to toxic molds to turning on the heat only if it gets to 25 degrees, NYCHA is failing its residents. To say that NYCHA is mismanaged and wasting our tax money is an understatement. Officials are throwing it away, literally - NYCHA actually recently threw away $550,000 of new supplies that were purchased but determined to not be useful.

But wasteful spending doesn't end there. NYCHA attaches Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) to all of their rehab and construction projects. These costly provisions mandate that a vast majority of workers come from the union halls, leading to fewer contractors bidding on the work and diminished competition.

Officials agree to these provisions even though studies show PLAs increase construction costs up to 30 percent. These additional costs come from reduced competition and antiquated jurisdictional work rules that prevent efficiencies. At a time when Mayor de Blasio has taken a stand for increased affordable housing in New York City by standing up to the powerful trades unions and telling them that they've out-priced themselves, NYCHA is acquiescing to their every demand, to the detriment of taxpayers and tenants alike.

An increasing amount of work is being done throughout New York City by merit shop contractors, and with good reason. These men and women have found innovative ways to build the best projects in efficient, cost-effective ways, while still taking great care of their employees. Go to any private job site today and you will more than likely see a diverse group of professionals working together as a team to get the job done. There is no bickering among differing trades as to whose responsibility it is to do key tasks like you see on public or taxpayer funded job sites.

Unfortunately, while these advancements have made construction better and cheaper, our union counterparts have been left behind, instead being forced to rely on their political influence to get publicly funded work such as at NYCHA. But as more and more of the general public is becoming aware of how this impacts their wallets and how much farther their dollar could go, this is changing too.

These changes have spurred the unfortunate rhetoric and baseless claims from union bosses who see their empires slipping away.

Imagine how much work could get done with 30 percent more capital to work with? Maybe those elevators could finally get fixed or the mold would finally be eradicated. Perhaps NYCHA could be more prepared for a disaster. And what if, not to be too bold, NYCHA could actually turn the heat on before it hits 25 degrees?

As a public authority, NYCHA has a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers of this city. This should encourage its leaders to stretch tax dollars as far as they can to get the most bang for the buck. They also have a moral obligation to the tenants of their housing. This means they should do everything they can to get the best housing available at the most competitive pricing - making more housing available to those who need it.

NYCHA needs to be cleaned up, and the corruption and mismanagement that have plagued the tenants and taxpayers of New York City needs to be addressed. The process by which NYCHA officials spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars is a start.

Our message to NYCHA is clear: while you've gotten used to throwing our money away, you owe it to taxpayers and tenants to open bids up, create competition, and get the most bang for our buck.

Brian Sampson is the President of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Empire State Chapter. The Association was founded on the shared belief that construction projects should be awarded on merit to the most qualified and responsible low bidders. The Chapter represents nearly 400 members in the construction industry throughout NYS.

{module Author Opinion}

Categories: State/Local

Sanders campaign delivering signatures for NY ballot

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 02/09/2016 - 11:07pm


A group of around 80 supporters of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' White House bid rallied Thursday outside the Pearl Street headquarters of the state Board of Elections as they awaited the arrival of boxes of petitions.

Once filed, the petitions will allow Sanders to run on the April 19 Democratic primary ballot in New York.

Statewide, Sanders' supporters — including the state Working Families Party — said they had collected roughly 85,000 signatures. The stack of boxes on the counter at the board's offices were arranged by congressional district as they were taken in by elections officials.

Richard Sahr of East Nassau was one of the first petition-haulers to arrive at the fifth-floor offices. He spent a week collecting signatures in his predominantly rural stretch of the 19th Congressional District.

He described the general response to his outreach as "very positive."

"I went to one house where the guy went ballistic. ... 'He's a socialist! Are you crazy?'" Sahr said.

Volunteers in the sprawling 19th district, which stretches from Rensselaer County to Poughkeepsie, ended up collecting around 4,000 signatures, Sahr said — far above the initial goal of 500.

Sahr said he had to revisit about 15 people after he discovered he had mistakenly been given a New York City petition form.

Hillary Clinton's team reported filing roughly the same number of signatures.

Categories: State/Local

Elections complaint targets Heaney

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 02/09/2016 - 8:07pm

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated David Catalfamo's position. He is a spokesman for U.S. Congressional candidate Andrew Heaney.


A Washington, D.C., watchdog group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission that alleges Republican 19th Congressional District primary candidate Andrew Heaney's campaign is illegally coordinating with a super PAC, called New York Jobs Council, that has received donations from Heaney.

Campaign for Accountability, which bills itself as a nonpartisan watchdog and accountability group brought the complaint, which an FEC spokeswoman said early Wednesday afternoon was not yet on file with its general counsel's office.

Campaign for Accountability points to donations to the PAC made by companies owned by Heaney and his sister Allison. Heaney runs Heaney Energy Corporation, a fuel oil dealer.

New York Jobs Council has attacked the campaign of Republican primary candidate John Faso on Twitter, using hashtags such as "#NoToFaso."

Campaign for Accountability also raises concerns about the Heaney campaign working with two vendors that had consulted with the PAC, according to the complaint.

Other elements of the complaint are speculative, such as the charge that future public communications in the district made by New York Jobs Council could represent an in-kind contribution to the Heaney campaign, given its anti-Faso stance.

"In his role as executive director of the super PAC, Mr. (Rob) Cole disingenuously (to say the least) claimed in October that NY Jobs Council hadn't decided which candidate to back in the 19th District, but said, 'We know Mr. Faso is not going to be our chosen candidate,'" the complaint states, citing a Middletown Times Herald-Record article from Oct. 17. It goes on to allege that "eight out of the ten individual donors to the super PAC are associated with the Heaney campaign."

At other points, the complaint is less definitive, claiming Heaney "almost certainly" directed three companies he owns or controls to contribute to the PAC.

"This baseless complaint is just a desperate, slimy and cowardly effort by John Faso to deflect from his record as a disgraced lobbyist and political bagman," said David Catalfamo, a Heaney spokesman.

The Faso campaign said the complaint included "substantive allegations filed by a serious organization."

Attorney Elizabeth Beacham White, legal counsel for the PAC, called the filing "a frivolous complaint filed by a liberal activist group that harasses conservative leaders."

"This liberal nonprofit group's time would be better spent investigating John Faso's lobbying scandals," she said in an email, "unless of course he's behind these attacks?"The full complaint filed by Campaign for Accountability is below:

FEC Complaint Against Heaney for Congress and NY Jobs Council by Campaign for Accountability

Categories: State/Local

Tonko urges aid for water repairs

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 02/09/2016 - 8:07pm


Water main breaks like the one in Troy last month that flooded streets and basements will be commonplace unless the federal government significantly ups its spending on aging underground water-supply systems, Rep. Paul Tonko told fellow lawmakers Wednesday.

The Amsterdam Democrat appeared before the House Budget Committee to pitch his local-needs wish list, and chose the occasion to talk about the nation's basic need for safe and reliable drinking water.

He touched not only on Troy but also the scandal in Flint, Mich., in which children and adults suffered lead poisoning after officials started drawing water from a polluted local river as a cost-saving measure.

"It is extremely difficult for financially distressed cities, let alone small and rural communities, to find the funds to repair and upgrade their water systems," Tonko said. "Some older cities have been hollowed out and their unreliable, century-old water systems make it nearly impossible to attract new businesses and investments."

Flint, Troy and other areas with water problems are "not isolated cases," Tonko said.

There are about 240,000 water main breaks every year, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. On top of that, leaking pipes lose about 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water each day, Tonko said.

Tonko appeared alongside several other House lawmakers who also pleaded for federal dollars aimed at addressing local concerns. Next week, President Barack Obama roles out the administration's 2017 budget, which itself is little more than a wish-list subject to congressional scrutiny.

The fourth-term Democrat recalled touring water systems in the Albany-based 20th Congressional District, including a portion of Albany's 317 miles of pipes. Some of them are 135 years old, dating back to when Rutherford B. Hayes was in the White House, he said.

"Without adequate water systems, small businesses, major manufacturers, electric utilities, and farms cannot function, let alone grow," he said.

Tonko pledged to reinvigorate the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which provides federal dollars to support drinking water infrastructure. Created in 1996, its authorization expired in 2003 and it has not been reauthorized since. Flat funding levels have caused a "greater and greater burden to fall upon cash-strapped local governments," Tonko said.

Categories: State/Local

State roundup

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 02/09/2016 - 8:07pm

Subway sleepers get nudge from police

NEW YORK — New York City police will be waking up people who take naps while riding the subway.

Police Commissioner William Bratton said Wednesday that more officers will be sent into the transit system to make sure people are staying awake.

According to the Daily News, Bratton says he realizes people are tired when they get off work. But he says subway snoozing puts riders at a higher risk of sexual assault and pickpocketing.

Says the commissioner: "Subways are not for sleeping."

—Associated Press

De Blasio pushing clean streets effort

NEW YORK — Mayor Bill de Blasio is unveiling a new program he believes will keep New York City's streets cleaner.

The program will step up anti-graffiti efforts, increase power-washing of sidewalks in busy commercial areas and bolster anti-litter efforts along the city's highways and onramps.

The plan, dubbed CleaNYC, will also increase the frequency of public wastebasket collections on city streets.

De Blasio announced the plan Wednesday at a Sanitation Department depot in Manhattan. He says the city's residents "deserve clean streets."

The program will cost $4.2 million in expense funds in the upcoming fiscal year and $2.5 million in capital funds.

The plan will go into effect in all five of the city's boroughs.

— Associated Press

Cops: Two scammed $1M at senior sites

NEW YORK — A Long Island couple has been charged with fraud and embezzlement for allegedly diverting nearly $1 million from programs for senior centers.

The charges were announced Wednesday by federal and New York City officials. Authorities say Kwame Insaidoo and Roxanna Pearson used the money to pay for personal expenses, including the mortgage on their Bay Shore home.

Authorities said Insaidoo was executive director of United Block Association when he misappropriated over $953,000 in funds stemming from contracts his organization received to operate senior centers for New York City.

Authorities said the non-profit organization overbilled the city for food supplies at four upper Manhattan senior centers while Insaidoo and his wife embezzled money.

Lawyers for the defendants did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

— Associated Press

Categories: State/Local

Heastie Takes to Twitter to Respond to Cuomo on Tax Plan

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 02/09/2016 - 12:00am

Cuomo and Heastie (photo: The Governor's Office)

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie's Twitter account lit up Tuesday with a stream of "fun facts" about income inequality and his proposed millionaire's tax just a day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo dismissed the plan.

Fun Fact: New Yorkers earning more than $10 Million pay only 16.2% of NY’s taxes #MillionairesTax#NYInequality

— Carl E. Heastie (@CarlHeastie) February 9, 2016

"I don't believe there's any reason or appetite to take up taxes this year," Cuomo told reporters on Monday, responding to questions about the taxation agenda put forth by the Democratic Assembly majority on Feb. 2, which calls for increasing taxes on the state's highest earners.

Heastie's tweet storm appeared to be a rebuke to Cuomo, though it did not mention the governor by name.

A few hours after Heastie's tweets stopped, the Working Families Party issued its own retort. "We need our tax system to put working families first, not hedge funds and wealthy campaign donors. That's what both Democratic presidential candidates have been calling for, and it's what New Yorkers expect from our elected officials in Albany too," said WFP New York State Director Bill Lipton in a statement.

Heastie surprised some when he proposed expanding and extending the state's millionaire's tax that isn't set to expire until 2017. Assembly Democrats' plan would create a number of higher tax brackets with those who earn from $1 million to $5 million a year paying the state's current highest rate of 8.82 percent. Those earning from $5 to $10 million annually would pay 9.32 percent and those making over $10 million would pay 9.82 percent.

The increase for millionaires would be paired with a middle-class tax cut. And according to Heastie the income generated by new tax brackets would add funding to education, infrastructure repair, and "other priorities."

Many see Heastie's plan as a way to strengthen his position as leader, cater to major interest groups that back his conference, and give him a popular proposal to use during budget negotiations.

Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has said that higher taxes would drive millionaires out of the state. "We don't support raising taxes," replied Scott Reif, spokesperson for the Senate Republican Conference when asked for a comment on Heastie's tweets.

A spokesperon for Gov. Cuomo, Rich Azzopardi, said by email that "What the public is hungry for, post Shelly Silver, is ethics reform -- specifically the pension forfeiture bill that was agreed to last year and promptly reneged on by the assembly. We hope they will join us this year and pass this and the other important reforms the Governor outlined."

Heastie's office did not reply to inquiries about whether Heastie was the author of the tweets. As the day progressed, Heastie's spokesperon, Mike Whyland, also took to Twitter on the subject, and more directly criticized the governor.

The speaker's earlier messages had a distinctly populist tone:

NYers are hungry for a system that puts the working poor and middle class ahead of millionaires #NYInequality #IncomeInequality #FairShare

— Carl E. Heastie (@CarlHeastie) February 9, 2016

E.J. McMahon, director of the fiscally conservative Empire Center, quickly responded to Heastie on Twitter, questioning the data Heastie cited and combatting the notion he said Heastie was propagating that millionaires don't pay anything.

"The whole premise that they are not paying their fair share is nonsense," McMahon told Gotham Gazette of millionaires and taxes. "There is no standard in existence under which they don't pay a major share of their income. Eighty percent of filers in New York pay 15 percent of the taxes collected."

"The premise of these tweets is unsupported by facts," McMahon continued. "They aren't tweeting 'Hey, we need money and here is the best way to get it.' The whole point of these tweets seems to be to make someone who doesn't know better think millionaires aren't paying anything and that just isn't true."

McMahon said that he felt Heastie's tax proposal was motivated by the education lobby that wants to see an increase in education spending. Cuomo's budget factors in a 4 percent increase in education spending but advocates and unions have demanded no less than eight percent.

"You can see the people who support this and are retweeting Heastie are the people tied to the education lobby who think taxes can never be high enough," said McMahon.

Michael Kink, director of Strong Economy for All, a labor-backed progressive group falling into the category mentioned by McMahon, praised Heastie's proposal and said that it is about funding schools as well as having enough funding for other major proposals and needs.

Kink and his allies appear ready to hammer Gov. Cuomo on recent infrastructure problems such as a water main break in Troy that shut off water to at least two towns and the environmental disaster in Hoosick where it was found that toxic chemicals had poisoned the public water supply. Cuomo has recently tried to downplay the Hoosick issue.

"Assembly members have sat in day-long hearings about the budget and heard parents and students testify they need school funding, heard businesses say they support the $15 minimum wage but need some help so it doesn't overburden them; they know about the water line explosion in Troy and not too far away they've seen families drinking poisoned water coming out of a source that should have been overseen by an agency that is suffering under the governor's austerity budget," Kink told Gotham Gazette. "If the state wants to meet these significant needs it is entirely responsible to have a strong funding mechanism."

Kink said that the tenor of the presidential race shows that the electorate is in a populist mood. "I think these will be an interesting set of budget negotiations because the Assembly is more in tune with the populist mood than Flanagan or the austerity version of Governor Cuomo," Kink said.

The idea that there are 'two versions' of Cuomo have supporters of the tax plan ready to campaign hard for it as they've seen Cuomo flip on proposals after gauging voter sentiment. It was only last year that Cuomo said a $13 minimum wage was a non-starter and there was "no appetite" for paid family leave. Now the Governor has made a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave top priorities, expressing strong personal connections to both issues.

McMahon notes that Cuomo actually changed his position on the millionaire's tax in 2011. "He pivoted in 2011 on this issue. So nothing he says is frankly dispositive that this tax will be part of the budget," said McMahon. "The fact [the governor] does things like this encourages them to keep pushing."

Karen Scharff of Citizen Action NY, a grassroots progressive group that supports Heastie's plan, said she certainly won't be writing off the plan until the budget is actually decided on, since negotiations tend to lead to surprising results, no matter what any stakeholder has said. "This is the right time for this plan because one, the wealthiest New Yorkers are wealthier than ever, and, at the same time, the state has desperate needs that have to be funded. Every year things in the budget are up in the air until negotiations are over. And they aren't over."

{module Author David King}

Note: this story has been updated with comment from the governor's spokesperson and news of social media response from Heastie's spokesperson.

Categories: State/Local

At Hearings, City Council to Examine Mayor's Zoning Proposals

Gotham Gazette - Tue, 02/09/2016 - 12:00am

Council Member Donovan Richards (photo via @DRichards13)

Amid light flakes of snow, about 20 ralliers stood outside City Hall Monday morning and unleashed a flurry of criticism of a key piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio's affordable housing plan. De Blasio's plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing relies in part on proposed changes to the city's land use rules, which are set to go before City Council review this week.

Members of the Real Affordability for All coalition, including construction union members, low-wage workers, and community organizers, believe that the mayor's plan to change the city's zoning codes do not account for enough affordable units for those at the lowest end of the income spectrum. They also want to see provisions for union labor in the development of affordable housing across New York City.

Monday's rally is just one example of a barrage of actions taken over the past months, heightened in recent days, as advocacy groups, urban planners, editorial writers, and city officials express various opinions about the administration's proposals, which would help shape the character of neighborhoods across the city for generations.

Having had little luck influencing the de Blasio administration to change the details of its Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) proposal, advocates seeking deeper affordability provisions say they are hoping to see City Council members push for changes as they consider both MIH and its sibling zoning amendment, Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA). They got good news when, just ahead of City Council hearings on the plan, the Council's Progressive Caucus announced its desired tweaks to the proposals, which include units at lower rents (first reported by the Daily News).

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the zoning subcommittee of the City Council land use committee will hold hearings on MIH and ZQA, two proposals key to the de Blasio administration's goal of building 80,000 new units of affordable housing by 2024. The de Blasio administration hopes to create a new framework for development across the city, allowing for more density and encouraging more construction, while insisting on more units of rental housing with set caps on monthly charges along with an increase in market-rate apartments.

City Council Member Donovan Richards chairs the zoning subcommittee of the Council's land use committee and will be at the center of the two hearings this week, as will Council Member David Greenfield, chair of the land use committee.

Richards, who is a co-chair of the Council's Progressive Caucus but abstained from signing onto its MIH letter due to his role as subcommittee chair, has previously expressed concerns about ZQA. Like many of his colleagues, he is supportive of the idea behind MIH - requiring developers receiving a rezoning to include a set number of affordable units in their project - but has not committed to a specific position on the numbers behind those affordability requirements. Greenfield has expressed concerns as well, and has indicated that the Council may seek some significant adjustments to the proposals.

Richards' office tells Gotham Gazette that long hearings are expected on both days, with de Blasio administration officials testifying to kick things off Tuesday morning. MIH will be the focus on Tuesday, ZQA on Wednesday, though the Council will take testimony on either both days. The Council will give numbers to people signed up to testify and update where testimony stands through Twitter and the livestream of the hearing. As the City Planning Commission did, the Council will alternate panels based on whether those testifying are there largely in support of the zoning changes or against them, Richards' office said.

De Blasio's top three housing officials will be the first panel to speak before the zoning subcommittee on Tuesday: Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Vicki Been, and City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod. The three held a press briefing on Monday afternoon at City Hall in order to give the administration's latest take on the overall housing plan and where MIH and ZQA fit in. As they surely will in front of the Council, Glen, Been, and Weisbrod sought to stress that the zoning amendments are just one piece of the larger plan, and that deeper levels of affordable housing will be created through several means, including city subsidies to developers.

Saying that it "gets lost" that MIH is "only one part of our housing plan," Been explained to reporters that "mandatory inclusionary housing" means "harness[ing] the private market to create affordable housing." She went on to explain the "subsidies," "vouchers," and "term-sheets" that her agency uses to "reach those lower incomes" that won't be reached through MIH.

Deputy Mayor Glen repeatedly called MIH "a game-changer" Monday, referring to the fact that it would create a first-of-its-kind framework to require set levels of affordable units as part of any development receiving an up-zoning. In an interview on NY1 Monday evening, Mayor de Blasio defended the plans, saying that MIH means the city will "demand more from developers than we ever have before."

De Blasio acknowledged that City Council members have concerns, and as his top aides said, he appeared open to continuing to tweak the zoning changes. "We're going to be working with the Council," de Blasio told NY1 anchor Errol Louis. "The Council's asked for some changes, we're going to be very receptive, to see if we can find a good balance."

Along with administration officials, many of the same groups and individuals who have been outspoken on housing issues for a long time and throughout the recent process are expected to testify. The City Planning Commission, which recently passed MIH and ZQA with a few tweaks, held a lengthy public hearing in December. Much of the conversation is likely to be similar this week at the City Council, though Council members sharing their thoughts and asking their questions will be an important added dimension.

Groups expected to testify include affordable housing advocates like the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) and Municipal Arts Society, which want to see changes to the plan; representatives of AARP, which has endorsed the mayor's plans citing benefits for senior affordable housing; the Real Estate Board of New York, which is supportive; New York Communities for Change, which is not; and those from other trade and advocacy groups and think tanks.

Unions behind de Blasio's plans, including the Hotel Trades Council, 1199 SEIU, 32BJ, and District Council 37 may also send representatives to testify in support. As reported by Politico New York, these unions have just helped form a new organization created to support these and other housing proposals from the de Blasio administration.

Many are indeed supportive of the administration's plans, saying that this is the first real attempt at responsible housing development across a changing New York City, and, combined with other aspects of de Blasio's plans - like tenant legal protections and affordable housing subsidies - will stem the tide of gentrification, increase housing options, and improve neighborhoods.

However, many across the city believe that the mayor's plan does not go far enough in terms of the affordable units that would be required of real estate developers seeking a rezoning of a piece of land in order to build housing on it. Furthermore, there are concerns about the myriad provisions in ZQA that change a variety of rules around building heights, parking requirements, and more.

All eyes are on the City Council now. While other Council members may join for the hearings, along with Council Members Richards and Greenfield, the rest of the zoning subcommittee will take center stage. Other members of the committee are Council Members Dan Garodnick, Antonio Reynoso, Ruben Wills, Ritchie Torres, Jumaane Williams, and Vincent Gentile. If the subcommitte votes through MIH and ZQA (with tweaks acceptable to the City Planning Commission as "within scope" of the original proposals), the land use committee will vote, then the full Council. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito remains a key decision-maker in the process. She has indicated that the plans need some changes, but has not spoken in much detail about what she wants to see changed.

In a recent update, called "MIH Moves to City Council," ANHD leaders wrote that "Local community groups will be looking to the Council to revise MIH and make it a tool that can actually help meet the needs of all New Yorkers - particularly the lowest-income members of our communities, who are most in need of affordable housing."

While they called it a "game-changer," de Blasio's top housing officials also called MIH "one tool in a toolkit" Monday as they explained the ways in which the city creates that deeper affordable housing so that people and families earning less than $30,000 a year can afford an apartment.

Asked Monday about getting the City Council on board with the plan, Deputy Mayor Glen said that there's been a "radical shift" over the last couple of months in terms of Council members coming to understand what the administration is doing, what she called a "growing consensus among the Council that we need to do something game-changing."

{module Author Ben Max}

Categories: State/Local
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