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Cuomo after Astorino tax returns

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 09/19/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has a "Jerry Maguire"-style message for Rob Astorino: Show me the tax returns.

Democrats held a Monday-morning teleconference to call on the Republican gubernatorial candidate to reveal his tax returns for the past five years. They pointed to Cuomo's release of 22 years' worth of tax returns — including his 2013 documents, unveiled in April — and questioned what Astorino could be hiding by not yet making public his returns.

"It's really simple, folks — not complicated: Astorino is just not willing to reveal five years of taxes like everybody of consequence has done before him," Cuomo strategist Hank Sheinkopf said Monday morning. "He probably has something to hide, and that's the reason why he's not doing it. He should be called to task on this and conform to what is a reasonable standard to ensure that people have full knowledge of what he's been up to."

The Cuomo camp has drawn attention to Astorino's consultant job with Townsquare Media in Connecticut and a $3.8 million contract between Westchester County and Clear Channel Outdoor to advertise and maintain bus shelters, as the Journal News has previously reported.

Astorino has served as a guest host of a show on WOR-AM (710) in New York City, which is run by Clear Channel Communications.

Disclosure forms show Astorino earned $30,000 as a Townsquare consultant in 2013, and he reportedly made less than $5,000 as a WOR guest host, the Journal News reported in July.

Astorino spokeswoman Jessica Proud responded with a call for Cuomo to release building permits obtained for renovations to his Westchester County home and to allow a tax assessor to revalue the dwelling.

"Gov. Cuomo was caught underpaying his property taxes for several years and failing to get the necessary building permits required by law," Proud said. "Despite overwhelming evidence, the governor continues to deny the renovations were done and refuses to let the tax assessor inside. If the governor truly believes in the importance of disclosure, he will release the building permits and allow the tax assessor to conduct a proper valuation of his property."

Cuomo released his returns in April, prompting questions about what his book deal with the publisher HarperCollins is worth. The returns showed he had $188,333 coming from the deal, but it's unknown how much the entire advance is worth.

On Monday, State Democratic Committee spokesman Peter Kauffmann did not answer directly how much that contract is worth.

The Democrats pointed to Cuomo releasing returns since his run for state attorney general in 2006 (he released 14 years of returns in June of that year). But in 2010, he didn't release his returns during the last election cycle until December, after he had already won the race for governor.

The interest in candidate's taxes extended to other races Monday, with Republican 21st Congressional District candidate Elise Stefanik continuing her calls for Democrat Aaron Woolf to release his returns. Her prodding coincided with the release of her transparency plan and preliminary 2013 filings numbers.

Stefanik reported $60,775 of taxable income, $70,775 of adjusted gross income and $13,199 in taxes paid. Her campaign said she would make her full tax returns available later in the week.

mhamilton@timesunion.com • 518-454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

Battle on Capitol Hill over tax inversions

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 09/19/2014 - 1:07am

Washington, D.C.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and others on Capitol Hill are mounting an assault on corporate America's rising reliance on inversions, the minnow-swallows-whale merger tactic in which U.S. corporations avoid U.S. taxes by relocating overseas.

Typically in an inversion, a larger U.S. corporation merges with a smaller European counterpart and moves its legal business address to Dublin or London or Switzerland. More often than not, the company maintains its U.S. base and does business as normal.

But the move permits the businesses to save billions in U.S. tax liability and repatriate foreign earnings through a series of rapid-fire financial transactions designed to get around existing U.S. tax law.

"Inversions are economically rational deals as reimagined by Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty," said Edward Kleinbard, a professor of law and business at the University of Southern California.

According to the Congressional Research Service, 75 corporations have gone the inversion route in the past two decades, and the pace has picked up considerably in the past year.

Just this summer, two large U.S. pharmaceutical companies — AbbVie of Chicago and Mylan of Pittsburgh — agreed to mergers that would move them to Europe.

Burger King raised eyebrows by acquiring the Canadian doughnut king, Tim Hortons, and relocating north of the border. But the company insisted tax savings had nothing to do with its decision. Drugstore giant Walgreen Co. last month backed off a similar inversion deal.

President Barack Obama and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew have appealed to the corporate world's sense of "economic patriotism" in encouraging companies not to relocate, whatever the financial advantages might be.

But in more and more cases, the temptation of huge tax savings appears to be superseding flag-waving appeals.

The financial stakes are huge. Had it gone the inversion route, Walgreen could have saved up to $797 million annually, according to a Barclays report.

"We need to move quickly and aggressively to curtail inversions and prevent companies from using shady accounting practices to avoid their U.S. tax obligation," said Schumer, who last week introduced legislation to restrict the interest deductions that inverted companies use to avoid taxes.

On Capitol Hill, the tension is between lawmakers like Schumer who favor a crackdown on inversions that make them less appealing — the Democratic position — and lowering the top corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent — favored by Republicans.

The White House favors changing the law to require shareholders of the foreign company in an inversion to own 50 percent of the newly merged entity, up from 20 percent under current law. The president also favors a smell test in which inverted companies that continue to be managed in the United States, do most of their business in the United States and have few dealings in the new overseas location would still be treated as U.S. corporations for tax purposes.

The business world insists the culprit in this controversy is the high tax rate, 10 to 15 percentage points higher than England or Ireland or other nations where U.S. corporations relocate.

"Congressional and administrative attempts to artificially limit the ability to mitigate this difference will only exacerbate the situation, further disadvantaging American companies and encouraging foreign purchases of American companies," said Caroline Harris, U.S. Chamber of Commerce's chief tax counsel. "To truly address this problem, the U.S. must undertake comprehensive tax reform that lowers rates for all taxpayers and shifts to an internationally competitive tax system."

But some outside experts insist the claims about competitive rates have little bearing on U.S. corporations that go the inversion route.

Corporate claims of tax-rate victimization are "a false narrative," Kleinbard wrote in a research paper last month titled "'Competitiveness' Has Nothing to Do With It."

Inversions permit U.S. corporations with foreign partners to funnel a good chunk of the approximately $1 trillion parked overseas back to the United States without major tax liability, Kleinbard argues. The methods include what Kleinbard terms "hopscotching," in which a foreign subsidiary sends profits to its inverted parent now based overseas, which in turn can pay dividends to U.S. shareholders without incurring U.S. taxes.

Another is "income stripping," in which the foreign overseer lends money to the U.S.-based company and the U.S. company deducts interest payments from its U.S. taxes.

Schumer's legislation, co-authored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., addresses income stripping by limiting the interest expense deductions that inverters use and also by requiring U.S. subsidiaries of inverted companies to get IRS pre-approval for 10 years after departure.

"(Income) stripping is the number-one incentive driving the wave of inversions we've seen in recent months, and we need to shut it down," Schumer said. "This bill curtails the incentive for companies to use shady accounting gimmicks to avoid paying their U.S. tax obligations."

Corporate complaints about the oppressive U.S. tax burden are questionable, some analysts say, because few domestically based U.S. corporations pay anywhere near the 35 percent top tax rate.

"Both the high U.S. tax rate and the worldwide system of taxation have more bark than bite," said Kimberly Clausing, an economist at Reed College in Portland, Ore., who authored a paper on inversions last month. "Effective tax rates in the teens are common and some global corporations even pay rates in the single digits."

Among those corporations is General Electric, which maintains major facilities in the Capital Region.

GE, the nation's one-time household product icon that branched out into lending and production of turbines, jet engines and other industrial products, has earned a reputation for vigilant lobbying of Congress and mining the IRS code for tax breaks. GE's effective tax rate in 2013 was 4.2 percent.

Seth Martin, a GE spokesman, attributed the low rate to asset sales from shrinking GE Capital, the company's financial services unit. In 2013, GE earned $13 billion on revenues of $146 billion.

Because of its size, GE is an unlikely candidate for inversion. The company has never considered inversion and has no plans to do so, Martin said.

Congressional agreement on inversions is not likely to come anytime soon, but Republicans and Democrats are not that far apart on at least one aspect of the controversy. The president has advocated a top rate of 28 percent, just three percentage points higher than the Republican proposal of 25 percent put forward by House Ways & Means Chairman Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.

"I may be the only one in America who believes this, but I'm optimistic business tax reform can happen,'' Kleinbard said.

Reach Dan Freedman at dan@hearstdc.com.

Categories: State/Local

Nader brings support for local Greens

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 09/19/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Democrats and Republicans have lined up heavy-hitting support for their gubernatorial candidates. On Sunday, it was the Green Party's turn to bring in a power name of their own: Ralph Nader.

The former presidential candidate was the keynote speaker at a late-afternoon rally for Howie Hawkins, who is running for governor, and 21st Congressional District candidate Matt Funiciello at First Unitarian Universalist Society Church. Roughly 100 people gathered to hear Nader do something he says he doesn't do often — put his weight behind politicians seeking office.

"I have a very high standard," Nader said. "And if someone just throws their hat in the ring as a Green Party (candidate) and shows up disheveled, doesn't know what they're talking about but they're good-hearted, I wouldn't support them. They have to have a level of performance, of seriousness, of dedication, a record of experience taking on issues, and they have to know what they're talking about."

In Funiciello and Hawkins, whom he said he has known for years, Nader said he sees the necessary qualifications. "Until recently, I've never given a political contribution because, it's obvious, I'd be flooded with a lot of hard feelings," Nader told the crowd during the rally. "But I am so keen on these two candidates that I broke my rule."

Later, while signing copies of his new book, "Unstoppable," he said: "I've never seen better third-party candidates around the country. They're very authentic."

It remains to be seen if having the support of Nader — who has run for president five times, most recently in 2008 — will help raise the candidates' profiles among voters. What is known is they need support with Election Day less than two months away.

In polling released late last week, Hawkins had the support of 12 percent of voters in both the 19th and 21st Congressional Districts, which run from the North Country through the mid-Hudson Valley, including the Capital Region. In statewide polling earlier in the summer, Hawkins hadn't cracked 10 percent favorability, and the percentage of voters who knew of him was less than 15 percent. He was under 10 percent in head-to-head polling against Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republican candidate Rob Astorino.

In last week's WWNY-7 News/Siena College poll, Funiciello fared about the same, polling at 10 percent in the race for the 21st district seat. His opponents, Republican Elise Stefanik (46 percent) and Democrat Aaron Woolf (33 percent), more than doubled his percentage.

Still, Nader was bullish about Hawkins' and Funiciello's numbers. "They are at the takeoff stage," he said. "If they get to 15 percent, they're going to get more media coverage. And if they get to 20 percent, then it's a three-way race, and it's off to the races. Word of mouth can be very fast. Look at Zephyr Teachout; she didn't have much TV ads."

Teachout, a Fordham Law School professor, won 34 percent of the vote and 30 counties in last week's Democratic primary loss to Cuomo.

Hawkins said he has a base of voters upstate who know who he is and are responding to the message, and polls show more votes could come from New York City and its suburbs.

mhamilton@timesunion.com • 518-454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

The Week Ahead

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 09/19/2014 - 1:07am

The primary is over, enabling government to get back to relatively normal business — or at least as normal as it can get eight weeks before a general election:

Monday

The state Labor Department's newly minted Wage Board meets at 9:30 a.m. in Building 12 at the Harriman State Office Campus. Though the purpose of the meeting is to discuss its mission and set up a schedule of public hearings, labor groups will take the opportunity to call on the panel to take action on boosting wages for tipped employees, many of whom currently work at subminimum wage.

The state Franchise Oversight Board meets at 11:30 a.m. in Room 131 of the Capitol.

With students back in class, the Board of Regents meets Monday and Tuesday at the State Education Building.

Tuesday

The Alliance for Quality Education holds a news conference at 11 a.m. in the LCA pressroom in the Legislative Office Building.

Wednesday

The Public Authorities Control Board meets at 2 p.m. in Capitol Room 131.

The Business Council kicks off its annual conference at The Sagamore Resort in Bolton Landing with a keynote address by onetime presidential candidate Steve Forbes.

Assemblyman John McDonald holds a community education forum on heroin/opiate abuse from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the Joslin Office Meeting Room, 2400 Second Ave., Watervliet.

— Casey Seiler, NYSNYS.com

Categories: State/Local

As Mexican Community Grows, Local Leaders Eye Greater Political Prowess

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 09/19/2014 - 1:00am

CM Menchaca speaks at Mexican Indpendence Day celebration (William Alatriste)

NEW YORK - For the first time ever, the grito – a traditional cheer that marks Mexican Independence Day – echoed through City Hall on Tuesday night.

"Viva Mexico!" shouted Sandra Fuentes-Berain, the Mexican consul general in New York. About 250 New Yorkers assembled in the lavish City Council Chambers returned her cry: "Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico!"

Local Mexican-American leaders hope it's a call that will soon reverberate throughout New York political circles. Some say Mexicans – the fastest-growing Latino group in New York City – are poised to take a larger role in city and state politics, pointing to recent trends and milestones as evidence.

But challenges like geography, citizenship, and educational achievement remain for the political ambitions of the Mexican community, which is New York's third largest Latino ethnic group after Puerto Ricans and Dominicans.

"We are trying to send a clear message that the Mexican community is here in a big way, and that our contributions are central to the diversity of the city," said City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, who became the first Mexican elected official in New York State when he won his seat last year.

Menchaca, 34, is from El Paso, TX and represents the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Sunset Park and Red Hook, which have large Mexican populations. His election is seen as a marker of things to come.

"Carlos Menchaca is the first Mexican-American in the City Council, but he's not going to be the last," Fuentes-Berain said. "We have to have many more Mexicans in elected office in order to make public policies that will benefit the Mexicans in the city and the state."

While legislation like The DREAM Act has stalled in Albany, New York City recently passed into law a municipal identification card program intended to benefit undocumented immigrants. Additionally, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that "the City is stationing representatives at the federal immigration court to directly address the needs of unaccompanied minor children undergoing deportation proceedings," according to a September 16 press release.

The grito is celebrated across Mexico on the night of September 15 to commemorate the 1810 speech of Father Miguel Hidalgo, who called upon his countrymen to rise up against Spanish rule, leading to the Mexican War of Independence.

Several events around New York marked the holiday in the past week. At City Hall, dancers and a mariachi band performed, proclamations were read, and a parade of politicians and community leaders - including City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Public Advocate Tish James - expressed pride in Menchaca.

"I had goosebumps," Menchaca told Gotham Gazette. "It felt like home."

He said Mexicans in New York need more political representation.

"Today really marks an important moment for our city as we continue to define what it means to be Mexican, what it means to be Mexicano-Americano in the United States, in New York City," Menchaca said. "We are one of the largest growing populations in the city, and we are eager - eager to make an imprint."

Quickly-growing community
There are more than 319,000 Mexicans in New York City, according to data from the 2010 census. According to a 2013 CUNY study, the Mexican population of the New York metropolitan area grew 6.5% annually from 2000 to 2010.

Mexicans are expected to overtake Puerto Ricans and Dominicans as the largest Latino group in the city sometime in the 2020s if similar growth rates continue.

"The Mexican population is one of the fastest growing in the city," said Daniel R. Fernández, the director of CUNY's Institute for Mexican Studies. "It is a very recent group here, but we're building up."

The growth over the past two decades is due to a rising immigration rate and a higher birth rate than other Latinos in New York. Mexican New Yorkers also have a lower median age than many ethnic groups.

So why is Menchaca still the only Mexican-American elected official in the city?

It's not that others aren't running for office. Ceasar Zuniga, a Sunset Park non-profit official and Community Board member, challenged State Assembly member Felix Ortiz in last week's Democratic primary, and lost 70.7% to 29.3%. Menchaca endorsed and campaigned with Zuniga leading up to the primary.

Despite his defeat, Zuniga said he was proud of his campaign, especially because he was going up against a well-funded incumbent.

"We're a community that is awakening to the fact that we need political representation," he told Gotham Gazette. "We motivated the community, and you know, I'm not going anywhere."

The "secret weapon" for future Mexican political success is "all of the kids, born in '95, '96, who are now becoming eligible to vote," said Zuniga (pictured below).

"That's going to be instrumental in the next few years," he said.

Zuniga (photo: Shen Qiu)

Geography, citizenship, education
Part of the reason that more Mexican-Americans haven't been elected in New York is geography, said Juan Carlos Aguirre, executive director of Mano a Mano, a local nonprofit that promotes Mexican culture.

"Mexicans are scattered all over the city," he said, in neighborhoods like Sunset Park, Corona in Queens, and East Harlem in Manhattan.

"They're not concentrated in one area like other immigrant groups," Aguirre said. "For other immigrant groups, it has been easier for them to gain political power. For Mexicans, it's going to be very difficult unless there's a strategy for them to work together."

That's a strategy that hasn't been figured out yet, he said.

Many Mexicans in the city are also not eligible to vote. The number of U.S. citizens age 18 or older of Mexican descent more than doubled from 2000 to 2010. But in 2010, only 51% of Mexican-Americans in the New York metro area were citizens, according to the CUNY report.

"My parents are immigrants. They came from Mexico to give us a better life," said Yhasmine Moran, a Sunset Park resident who volunteered on Menchaca's campaign. "They deserve a voice, a vote."

Another major challenge is educational attainment. Mexicans have the lowest college graduation rate among Latino groups in New York and the lowest high school graduation rate, the CUNY report found. Forty-nine percent of adult New Yorkers of Mexican descent – mostly those born outside the U.S. - had not graduated high school in 2010.

CUNY's Institute for Mexican Studies, which received a major donation last week, awards scholarships to students who can't get other financial aid because they aren't citizens.

"This is one scholarship that doesn't ask for your social security number," Fernández said, adding that many of his students at CUNY's Lehman College have "a very strong political consciousness."

"They care about giving people access to education, and they believe they can go out and change the community," he said.

If more Mexican candidates do start running for office, they could end up facing other Latino politicians. Both Zuniga and Menchaca ran against Puerto Rican incumbents with long political histories.

But they say they don't want to create divisive ethnic politics. "I don't ever want to be perceived as the Mexican candidate who's just a candidate for Mexicans," Zuniga said. While some politicians "want to divide and conquer," he said, "we can't play into that tension if it exists."

"We need to make sure we honor the pathways that were opened by our other Latino brothers and sisters, the Puerto Rican, Dominican, Ecuadorian community," Menchaca said.

Uptown surge
Many of the neighborhoods that have the largest Mexican communities are also home to Latino groups who have been in New York for longer. Take Washington Heights, in Upper Manhattan. Long a Dominican enclave, more Mexicans are moving in, locals say.

At another grito celebration on Friday night, about 250 people, many wearing red, white, and green clothing, gathered at the Church of the Intercession on 155th Street. Locals sipped horchata and tamarindo while mariachi music filled the church and children ran through the aisles. Unlike the City Hall event, in which many of the dignitaries gave speeches in English, almost all of the speakers at the Washington Heights event spoke in Spanish.

Fuentes-Berain (photo: Shen Qiu)

"In West Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood, the Mexican population has skyrocketed," said Juan Rosa, a West Harlem resident who helped organize the celebration. "We wanted to do this so the Mexican community can come and celebrate this important event in their own backyards."

Mano a Mano, which offers language classes and helped put on the grito, moved to Washington Heights in order to serve its growing Mexican population.

"In this area there are many Mexicans who don't speak English or Spanish – they speak indigenous languages," Aguirre said.

As the night went on, Fuentes-Berain led the "Viva Mexico" refrain, hoisted the Mexican flag (pictured above), and directed a rendition of the national anthem. Some attendees sang the song by heart, while others read the lyrics off a program. A few wiped away tears.

Mark Levine, the city council member who represents the area, said he had visited schools in his district where 70% of the students are Mexican-American.

"You are the future of our neighborhood," he told attendees in Spanish, noting that he had spent summers in Mexico as a kid.

Rebeca Madrigal, who lives in Riverdale in the Bronx, brought her whole family to the event in Washington Heights, where she teaches English and Spanish.

"It's important to cultivate the roots here," said Madrigal (pictured below), who came to the U.S. from Mexico City when she was 14. "Now, Mexicans are more represented in schools, in our neighborhoods. I'm proud to be Mexican."

Madrigal and her son (photo: Shen Qiu)

***
by Casey Tolan, Gotham Gazette
@CaseyTolan

Categories: State/Local

Around NY

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 09/18/2014 - 1:07am

State Police hosting annual homicide seminar

ALBANY — Investigators from law enforcement agencies across the U.S. and Europe will be gather for the State Police's annual homicide seminar. The 27th Col. Henry F. Williams International Homicide Seminar starts Monday and runs through Thursday at the State Police Academy. The conference brings together police investigators and forensic scientists to discuss past high-profile cases.

— Associated Press

Damaged subway tunnel restored to service

NEW YORK — Trains will once again roll through a New York subway tunnel that was severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy and took in 27 million gallons of water.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and officials from the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority took a ride Sunday through the reconstructed Montague Tunnel linking Brooklyn and lower Manhattan.

Nearly two years after Sandy raged through, the $250 million job is finished — one month ahead of schedule and $60 million under budget, officials said.

— Associated Press

Schneiderman kicks off re-election campaign

NEW YORK — New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, 59, says he's running for re-election to keep fighting corruption, both public and private.

The state's chief prosecutor announced his campaign Sunday at a rally outside City Hall.

Schneiderman was endorsed Sunday by fellow Democrats, including New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James. He faces Republican candidate John Cahill.

— Associated Press

Categories: State/Local

Worker electrocuted at yogurt plant

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 09/18/2014 - 1:07am

JOHNSTOWN — A worker was electrocuted at the Fage USA yogurt plant Thursday morning, city police confirmed Saturday.

Police did not identify the victim, but Donald Klose of Bond Funeral Home in Schenectady said the man killed was a Shannon Street resident, Roopnarine Surajpel, 28.

Johnstown police reported that the electrocution happened at the 1 Opportunity Drive plant when electrical work was being performed.

Police said he was pronounced dead at Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville.

A story in the Leader-Dispatch reported that Surajpel was employed at Schenectady Hardware & Electric Co. and that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the incident.

Categories: State/Local

Restacking cuts $7M more than projected

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 09/18/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Though it upended the daily commutes of hundreds of state employees, New York's efforts to reduce the money it spends on leased office space has paid off beyond expectations.

An audit released Friday by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli's office concluded that the "restacking" project begun early in Gov. Andrew Cuomo administration's has resulted in net savings of $33.1 million — roughly $7 million ahead what was projected when the reshuffling of state workers began in 2011.

Under the initiative, the state reduced its use of leased real estate for agencies by moving workers into state-owned space that was at the time an average of 25 percent empty due to attrition and past reductions.

The restacking was carried out by the state Budget Division and Office of General Services, New York's property manager. OGS created a new office, the state Real Estate Center, to centralize space procurement instead of duplicating the tasks across multiple agencies.

A private contractor, United Group Limited Equis Operations, developed a system to track cost savings. The benefits totaled $51.2 million over the past three fiscal years, according to the audit: $6.4 million for fiscal year 2011-12, $15.8 million for 2012-13 and $29 million for 2013-14.

Moving expenses and other costs reduced savings by $18.1 million, auditors found.

The undertaking was not without controversy. In late 2011, Troy's then-Mayor-elect Lou Rosamilia asked the Cuomo administration to reconsider pulling some 600 state workers from more than 136,000 square feet of space in the Hedley Building and Flanagan Square and moving them into Albany's Corning Tower. At the time, the state was paying rent on the Troy spaces that together added up to roughly $1.6 million. Both leases had expired.

In Albany, employees from the Empire State Development Corp. and Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation moved into 625 Broadway, the state-owned building that houses the state Department of Environmental Conservation. When the move occurred, DEC workers groused that spare chairs used for meetings had been appropriated for use by the newcomers. (OGS said the complaints were overblown.)

More than 700 employees from the Division of Criminal Justice Services gave up Executive Park Tower near Stuyvesant Plaza for new offices at the Alfred E. Smith Building. In Schenectady, some 240 Department of Transportation employees were moved to that agency's main headquarters on Wolf Road in Colonie.

The restacking effort, which was declared largely complete by the end of 2012, reversed an effort by former Gov. George Pataki to farm out state jobs to surrounding communities as an economic development boost.

Local real estate developers have viewed the state's consolidation as a challenge and an opportunity. The tenant vacuum, mostly in Class B and Class C office space, has in many cases led to the renovation of buildings as residential units.

The project also prompted the state to undertake a major inventory of the parking spaces available for state employees. That effort has resulted in OGS' efforts in recent months to centralize parking administration across all agencies.

The only criticism contained in the comptroller's analysis was the prescription that the state should track the costs of the restacking effort as doggedly as it calculates the savings.

In a letter included in the release, OGS Commissioner RoAnn Destito said the restacking efforts would continue as part of the general push to make state government "more efficient and less costly."

cseiler@timesunion.com518-454-5619@CaseySeiler

Categories: State/Local

What makes panel independent?

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 09/18/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Lawyers for Common Cause were in court Friday, fighting to change the language on a legislative redistricting plan before voters in the form of a constitutional amendment in November.

At issue is language in Proposition 1 that Common Cause says doesn't make clear that politicians appoint most members of what is called an "independent" 10-person panel to draw new legislative district lines.

Under the proposal, legislative leaders, Republican and Democratic, from the Assembly and Senate, would each appoint two of the eight members of a new redistricting panel. Then those eight would vote to appoint two more members — who haven't been enrolled in a major party for the past five years.

Under the current system, the parties in control of the Senate and Assembly make most of the appointments, guaranteeing that districts are heavily gerrymandered or tailored to meet the electoral needs of incumbents.

Common Cause believes the lawmakers still have too much power under the proposal, and they object to calling the panel "independent'' because most would still be appointed by lawmakers.

"The commission isn't independent, and it's misleading to call it that," said Neil Steiner who argued on behalf of Common Cause before Justice Patrick McGrath in state Supreme Court.

"'Bipartisan' is fine. 'Politically balanced is fine,'" Steiner said of what he would view as acceptable language on the ballot.

Board of Elections lawyer Kathleen O'Keefe countered that the proposed system represents a real departure, and the term "independent'' isn't inaccurate.

"It really puts a check on the Legislature," she said. " They don't have a free tablet."

The suit by Common Cause represents a split from other good-government groups including League of Women Voters and Citizens Union, which filed an amicus brief in support of the amendment language.

Common Cause's Susan Lerner noted that a constitutional amendment is hard to go back on, once it's approved. "Why lock it into the Constitution?" she asked.

When asked about timetables, O'Keefe told McGrath a decision would be needed by September 28, which would just be enough time to the BOE to certify any new language and get the changes on the ballots by the November election. Those changes would be added to voice commands for blind voters and placed on ballots to be sent overseas to members of the armed forces. McGrath said he would attempt to render a decision next week.

Timing was also an issue in 2013 when opponents of a constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling sued, saying the ballot amendment wording appeared designed to promote "yes" votes.

The courts concluded that the suit, which came up in October, was filed too close to the November elections. Voters approved the amendment.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Eyeing Social Services, Levin Tackles the General Welfare

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 09/18/2014 - 1:00am

CM Levin, left, gives a tour of his district to NY1's Errol Louis (@InsideCityHall)

In a small town known more for drugs and teen pregnancy than high school graduation rates, Stephen Levin grew up seeing the problems that he would later work to address on a much larger scale as an advocate and elected official in New York City. Plainfield, New Jersey is a poverty-stricken town of 50,000 where Levin began on a path to where he is now: two-term city council member and chair of one high-profile council issue committee.

Growing up, Levin saw problems faced by those in Plainfield that he now addresses on a daily basis as a council member and as chair of the general welfare committee of the New York City Council. Levin's aunt, Natalie Buzby, worked for Nurse-Family Partnership, a program that assists young, poor mothers by assigning a trained nurse from pregnancy until the child's second birthday. Her work, Levin said in a recent interview with Gotham Gazette, was really what helped him come to a full understanding of the challenges everyday people are trying to overcome.

"When she was done with work, she'd often come over to my house...so I was often hearing the stories of her day," said Levin. "I always used to remember having these significant conversations with her. They really taught me what families are going through and what models are helpful and hurtful."

Soon, Levin's own work in social services began. He spent a good deal of time as a teenager volunteering, he said, and after graduating from Brown University, Levin decided it was time to cross state lines to New York.

In Brooklyn, Levin dove head first into the issues he would later be legislating and holding city council hearings on. He volunteered in Bushwick by running a Lead Safe House program, which relocated families from lead-contaminated homes. Levin also directed an anti-predatory lending program, which used "grassroots outreach and community workshops" to warn of the risks of subprime mortgages.

It was during his work with the Lead Safe House program that he got a first-hand look at the challenges facing poverty-stricken individuals and families in those Brooklyn neighborhoods and saw his path ahead.

"I committed to myself that I would work in the field," Levin said. "If I had the opportunity to run for office, I would, in order to try to make a difference."

In 2009, that opportunity presented itself and Levin ran a winning campaign to be elected to represent the 33rd District in the New York City Council. He then joined the Committee on General Welfare, on which he served during his first four-year term, becoming chair in early 2014 when his second council term began and both council and committee positions reshuffled.

"I had indicated that I cared very deeply about the issues and had the experience of serving on a committee and had a desire to chair it," said Levin of moving into the new role. While Levin continues to mostly fly under the radar compared to other more attention-grabbing colleagues, he has embraced the hefty responsibilities his committee has.

The committee's big name gives indication of its scope: general welfare encompasses many issues and relevant social services; and the committee often works collaboratively with others like those on juvenile justice; health; and women's issues.

"The General Welfare Committee oversees all sorts of services in New York City...that includes three large agencies," Levin said. One such agency is the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), which seeks to prevent homelessness and provide short-term, emergency shelter for individuals and families who have no other housing options available. The city's homelessness crisis has been a major focus of the committee's and of Levin's.

The committee also oversees the Human Resources Administration (HRA), or the Department of Social Services, which oversees Medicaid, public assistance, SNAP benefits, and a number of other social service programs.

Third, Levin explained, is "the Administration of Children Services, commonly referred to as ACS. The ACS includes child protective services, preventive services, foster care and early childhood education. He continued, "In addition, we also spend a lot of time examining how [the departments] work together for the most vulnerable New Yorkers."

Upon becoming chair of the committee nine months ago, Levin took aim at helping to reverse key pieces of Bloomberg Administration policy related to social services. One goal was reinstating rent subsidies for families leaving homeless shelters.

"What happened was the Bloomberg Administration and the state discontinued the subsidies entirely," Levin said. "So, for the last three years, we didn't have any subsides in place whatsoever."

The first step toward progress was changing the language in the state budget to allow for more finances to address homelessness, especially through subsidy programs. Levin wants to see more families moved from shelters to permanent housing. His district has not been exempt from the growing number of shelters in the city, including the 2012 opening of the controversial Bowery Residents' Committee shelter for men in Greenpoint.

"I [worked] with the [de Blasio] administration to get the State to change the budget language around providing subsidies for homeless families. It took a lot effort," said Levin. "I went up with folks from HRA and DHS to get the state to change budget language which was previously preventing the city from drawing out its own funds [that could] help...families living in shelters." Levin called the successful shift "a really important component to helping get ourselves out of this homelessness crisis that we find ourselves in right now."

In August, after negotiations with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the City announced it would create two rent subsidy programs to ease the plight of chronically homeless families with children.

According to Levin, the general welfare committee will soon be addressing a variety of other issues related to social services, including reevaluating the HRA employment program and adult protective services. The committee will also put the Early Learn program under the microscope, he said.

Critics of the Bloomberg program were livid when the City cut the number of children allowed in City child care services and Head Start programs from 50,000 to 43,000.

"We're looking at how to reform the early childhood education system that's in place right now, called Early Learn, which is facing serious challenges," Levin said.

Since Levin became chair, the committee has held meetings to address the need for better data collection about youth in foster care; including on those aging out of the system, obtaining government-issued identification, and graduating from high school. At the committee's September 8 meeting, bills to these ends were passed and will be sent to the full Council for votes.

Levin has had a busy first nine months as chair, but his work has only just begun. With the homelessness crisis, a huge population of New Yorkers living in poverty, and social services stretched thin, the general welfare committee and its chair will continue to have much to tackle. The committee is next scheduled to meet on September 29.

***
by Tess Danielson for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Categories: State/Local

Assessing Safety, Council Pays Another Visit to NYCHA Residents

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 09/18/2014 - 1:00am

CM Torres led a public housing committee hearing in Brooklyn (all photos: Katrina Shakarian)

"Fix the locks! Put up security cameras!" called out Olivia Taylor from a corner of the Breukelen Houses' Community Center in southeast Brooklyn. Taylor interrupted the crowd's silent focus on the City Council's latest public housing hearing, until order was restored with several strikes of the committee chair's gavel.

Taylor was one of several public housing residents, lawmakers, and advocates who gathered at the public housing complex on Tuesday, September 16, for a hearing to discuss the roll out and progress of Mayor Bill de Blasio's $210.5 million plan to reduce violent crime in public housing.

Between 2009 and 2014, overall crime across the New York City Housing Authority's (NYCHA) 334 developments rose 30%, according to NYPD Housing Bureau Chief Carlos Gomez, a key speaker at the hearing. The spike in crime is explained, in part, by rising incidences of domestic violence and gang activity.

The Mayor's plan is coordinated among ten different agencies and targets 15 public housing developments, where 17 percent of NYCHA's violent crime has been concentrated for the past three years. Since the program's launch on July 8th, the NYPD's Housing Bureau has reported an overall drop in crime across NYCHA, though certain developments and categories of crime have seen increases.

Tuesday's hearing was the second ever to take place at a public housing complex, both coming this year under the leadership of new City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and new Public Housing Committee Chair Ritchie Torres. The Breukelen Center was chosen as the site due to its proximity to the Boulevard Houses, the development where 6-year old Prince Joshua (PJ) Avitto and 7-year old Mikayla Capers were brutally stabbed in June. A recently paroled, paranoid-schizophrenic man wandered into their building through doors with broken locks and in the absence of security cameras. He got into an elevator with both children, who were en route to get ice pops, where he stabbed them.

"Kids in NYCHA developments deserve to grow up in a safe environment just like kids in any other part of the city. We are here today to remember PJ and to work together to ensure the safety of all NYCHA residents," said Torres in his opening statement, before convening the meeting with a moment of silence for PJ Avitto, who died from the attack.

Crime data, as outlined in a city council briefing paper, indicates that between January 1 and August 24 2014 overall crime decreased by 4% across all NYCHA developments and by 3% at the 15 targeted ones, compared to the same period in 2013.

At the hearing, Chief Gomez presented attendees with post-launch crime statistics, which he described as "a significant step in the right direction." Between July 1st, when the NYPD received funding to implement their portion of the new initiative, and September 14th of this year, overall crime in public housing decreased 14.4 percent. In the 15 targeted developments overall crime dropped by 7.4 percent, said Gomez.

Yet, despite the overall decrease in crime, a deeper dive into the statistics reveals that the gains are not all-encompassing. According to Gomez, there were 54 shootings across the bureau versus 52 in the same July to September period last year. Even with additional resources, crime spiked in six of the 15 the developments being targeted. The Bushwick Houses, for example, saw ten felony assaults between July 1st and September 14, compared with just two during the same time last year.


Torres was joined at the hearing by Council Members Cumbo, Barron, and Gibson, among others

The mayor's initiative to combat these trends is four fold. It includes security related infrastructural improvements such as the installment of light towers and security cameras; increased police presence; the expansion of resident programming such as the Summer Youth Employment Program, domestic violence support and mentoring services; and community outreach and engagement such as collecting resident feedback through surveys.

"The success of the plan hinges on that last part," asserted City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in her statement at Tuesday's hearing. Mark-Viverito and others are looking at the initiative's success in collaborating with community leaders, organizations, and residents that do the heavy lifting on the ground to make their neighborhoods better places on a daily basis.

"These leaders and residents must be meaningfully engaged and consulted every step of the way," Mark-Viverito said, eliciting applause from the crowd. "They know what the community needs, because they are the community."

Elizabeth Glazer, Director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, touted some initial results in each of these categories, which taken with Gomez's statistics, suggest that the mayor's initiative has made a dent. She ran down a list of accomplishments:

  • 184 light towers, meant to increase visibility and deter illicit activity, installed at different developments since July launch
  • the plan to install roughly 2,000 security cameras in 43 developments, has completed installation in 19
  • Almost 20,000 feet of shedding or scaffolding not associated with active construction has been removed from developments since May
  • 150 police officers deployed on the ground in targeted developments each week
  • extended summer hours in NYCHA's 105 community centers for the first time in 30 years
  • 1000 additional youth from the 15 targeted developments were employed through the Summer Youth Employment Program in 2014

Nonetheless, Mark-Viverito captured the sentiment of many at the hearing when she asserted, "the success of this plan should not be just measured by crime statistics or numbers of officers and cameras, but also by whether residents actually feel safer in their homes." Her statement underscored the significance of the location and format of Tuesday's hearing.

Marie Boone, resident leader at the Tilden Houses in Brooklyn, testified at Tuesday's hearing. "When I heard about the development list of 15, I could not understand, why was Tilden omitted," she said to the panel of council members. Tilden Houses is adjacent to the Brownsville and Van Dyke Houses, both of which are targeted by the mayor's initiative.

"For the last two years, Tilden has been plagued with street gangs," Boone explained. "Street gangs mean children between the ages of 9 to 21, using bats, sticks, wrapping the hand chain...the kids were constantly fighting each other, without no real reason." At the end of August, the fighting culminated in the death of a young man, an 18 year old from Boone's community, who planned to attend college this fall, she said.

Tilden's testimony was a sobering reminder of what's at stake behind the numbers, and highlights the need for what many have already called for: that the mayor's initiative is scaled beyond the current 15 developments.

***
by Katrina Shakarian, Gotham Gazette
@KatShakarian

Categories: State/Local

Opening a Beer Hall in the Bronx: Lessons in Trial and Error

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 09/18/2014 - 1:00am

The Bronx Beer Hall (photo: Brian Nobili)

The following entry is part of The Small Business Corner, a collaboration between Gotham Gazette and GoBizNYC:

Recently, GoBizNYC met with Bronxites Anthony Ramirez II, Paul Ramirez, and John Martin to discuss their experience starting up The Bronx Beer Hall. Located in the historic Arthur Avenue Retail Market, The Bronx Beer Hall was founded in February 2013 and has since become an indelible part of the community. Anthony and John are serial entrepreneurs — in 2006, they founded Mainland Media, a company that sells Bronx-themed merchandise designed by local artists.

The team's ongoing mission is to find success while promoting the Bronx and it has earned tremendous local support. In the early stages of starting their business, however, the three had a tough time identifying information about what was required of New York small business owners to satisfy government regulations. To its credit, the City does provide resources about business regulations through the NYC Business internet portal as well as the NYC Business Solutions and NYC Business Acceleration services. New Small Business Services Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer has outlined her vision for helping small business owners and budding entrepreneurs.

The Bronx Beer Hall founders discovered, though, that every business faces unique challenges and becoming a fully compliant owner and employer can be a process of trial and error. Their experience is informative of what many small business owners go through in attempting to realize their goals. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

Why a beer hall? Why the Bronx?

Beer halls are inherently communal spaces. There are about 130 beer halls across the five boroughs now, but just one in the Bronx when we opened. But this is not just a beer hall. It's not just a bar. It's a celebration of the community. Everything we sell is locally brewed within New York State, if not in the Bronx. And our food is sourced from within the market or within the neighborhood, so we're supportive of other local businesses as well.

What were the biggest challenges of starting up your business? How did you overcome these challenges?

It's not as easy as saying you're a business and that's it. It's not just shaking hands. You have to do your research. There are government regulations to comply with. There are taxes to pay. There is paperwork to file and legal entities to form.

When it came down to the beer hall itself, we had to learn all the little intricate things you never think about. We've all gone to bars. I know how to order a drink very well. But I didn't know anything about health codes, inspections, or liquor licenses. None of us had actually owned a bar before. I know for a fact that if we opened a bar again, we'd do things differently.

Did you have any guidance during this process?

We hired a lawyer who claimed he had experience in helping restaurants and bars open and had been doing this forever. Turns out we should've hired a different lawyer. He was very quick to make promises, saying: "I can get you this, easy!" or "Yeah, I'll get you a liquor license in two weeks!" No one can get a liquor license in two weeks. It's going to take several months. Don't tell me two weeks. If I plan on opening a bar in November, I now have to wait until February. You're paying for these kinds of things and there's just no way of knowing if you're working with someone who really knows what they're doing.

We've since learned that there are many things we could've easily done on our own without having to pay somebody else to do it. Lots of people try to take advantage of you because you don't know what you're doing. But in this day and age, often you can just go online and file a form. You don't need to pay somebody $400 to do it. We just didn't know it at the time.

What has been your experience in dealing with government regulations? What could the government do to better support businesses like yours?

At the beginning, we had no idea we had to pay our taxes quarterly, which was a problem. Reminder notifications definitely would've been nice. The only notifications we ever got were late ones saying: 'You didn't pay your sales tax. Now we're going to fine you and you have to pay your sales tax.' And we're like, 'Our company only has $1,000. I hope we still have a company after we pay the fine.' But the thing is, we were collecting the sales tax. We just didn't know when to pay it.

And it wasn't clear what we were required to do when we had staff. Now we know more, but at the time, we were writing out checks by hand. I remember, for the first two or three weeks, we weren't taking out enough taxes. Our staff was getting overpaid and we owed the government X amount of money.

Those were the early days. Those sorts of things were trial and error for us. But we got better at all of it. I know it's easy to say and hard to do, but if there was a "You're starting a restaurant or bar in New York City! This is what you need to be aware of" guide, that would've been very helpful.

Have you worked with the City's Department of Small Business Services (SBS) at all? They provide such a guide along with other resources.

When we were starting Mainland Media, we reached out to SBS, but it was too difficult for us to meet with them. So we ended up doing everything on our own, which is what we're used to doing. Honestly, I didn't even think to go back to SBS when we were starting up the beer hall more recently. It didn't even occur to us that those services were around.

Any final reflections on your experience of starting up The Bronx Beer Hall?

We've been active in the Bronx and in the community for awhile, so we had a lot of people we could reach out to for help. But if we didn't already have a strong support system and experience building a business with Mainland Media, we would've been lost. So, if you're someone with a great idea in the Bronx or New York without that kind of support system, I don't see how you would be able to cut it.

***
Victor Wong is the Director of Business Outreach & GoBizNYC at the Partnership for New York City

@GoBizNYC
@GothamGazette

To make or discuss a submission for The Small Business Corner:

Reach GoBizNYC Director Victor Wong at vwong@pfnyc.org

Reach Gotham Gazette Executive Editor Ben Max at bmax@gothamgazette.com

The Small Business Corner is a bi-weekly column featuring the opinions and perspectives of small business owners and advocates from the GoBizNYC network on the range of issues that concern the city's small businesses.

To all New York City small business owners and advocates: we hope this new platform, The Small Business Corner, will better enable you to engage in the local policy conversation and we look to you to support us in this endeavor by sharing your thoughts, experiences, and voices. To learn more about how you can be a part of GoBizNYC and participate in this effort, visit GoBizNYC.org.

Categories: State/Local

March Shows Changing Climate for City Protest

Gotham Gazette - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 12:38pm

Protestors during Occupy Wall Street (photo: AP Photo/Louis Lanzano)

As illustrated by its slick subway ad campaign, and the participation of leading political figures including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, this Sunday's People's Climate March intends to make a dramatic statement.

Led by the environmental activist group 350.org, the event's organizers promise the "largest climate change march in history." With numerous labor and community organizations on-board, it's likely that the protest will reach its goal of bringing 150-200,000 people to NYC streets.

But the mostly low-profile route of the march suggests that the right to protest on the streets of NYC remains under assault.

Departing from Columbus Circle, participants will head down 6th Avenue to 42nd Street, then move along 42nd to 11th Avenue, where they will hold various activities. The route straddles, but does not proceed through, Times Square.

Flash-back for a moment to the June 1982 anti-nuclear protest, when nearly one million people descended on the Great Lawn. Over the last decade, the city has tried to insulate many of its most symbolic spaces from demonstrations, with the Bloomberg administration denying access to both the U.N. and Great Lawn for Iraq War protests in 2003-4.

Sunday's event coincides with the U.N. General Session that opens next Tuesday. With security procedures taking effect this weekend, a march ending at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza was not an option. Organizers thus aimed for the route to proceed through Times Square, enabling the protest to call attention to a global problem at "The Crossroads of the World."

Leslie Cagan, a main organizer of the Iraq War marches, led the negotiations for the People's Climate March. As she explains, the NYPD's representatives, made up primarily of commanders from Manhattan South, stated from the outset that Times Square was not an option—a position Cagan sums up as "just because."

Meanwhile, NYPD officials seemed in no hurry to finalize the route. According to Cagan, the "slow-moving" process took over four months after the first meeting in April.

Throughout the negotiations, leaders from various unions and community organizations participating in the march reached out to City Hall. Cagan says that the resulting meetings with de Blasio administration higher-ups showed that there was an "easier, friendlier" attitude towards street protest prevailing in the post-Bloomberg era.

Even so, the march route seems to lack symbolic value.

"We got most of what we wanted," says Paul Getsos, National Coordinator for 350.org. He stresses that the stretch along 42nd Street will enable participants to make their case at the entrance to Times Square.

Getsos also envisions that the stretch of 11th Avenue (from 42nd down to 34th) where the march ends will become a "celebratory, community-oriented" space, full of meet-up tables, artwork and various musical performances. According to Cagan, the NYPD raised no objection to organizers' requests for this area.

What's being billed as a history-making event thus ends at a nebulous location. And it's highly doubtful that by nightfall, the NYPD will allow the Javits Center and surrounding area to become anything resembling Zuccotti Park.

In part because they see the march as destined to be ineffectual, a variety of climate activists are planning "to flood Wall Street" on Monday. By denying access to places like Times Square for peaceful protest, city officials are thus spurring more disruptive direct action confrontations.

The current mayor may be more sympathetic to demonstrations, but the real problem is that his office doesn't control access to public space. While the NYPD decides what happens on city streets, the parks department has placed numerous restrictions on events at the Great Lawn.

One solution is for the mayor or public advocate to directly oversee the protest permit process, rather than let city agencies run the show. After all, if their voice is muted on the city's streets, the masses can at least hold elected officials accountable in the voting booth.

***
Theodore Hamm is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph's College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

***
@GothamGazette

Do you have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Send it to Executive Editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

Categories: State/Local

Gibson, Stefanik leading in 2 polls

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Thursday brought good news for Republicans running for Congress in two New York districts.

A pair of polls released Thursday evening show both Rep. Chris Gibson and Elise Stefanik leading their opponents. In the 19th district, Gibson is besting Democrat Sean Eldridge by 24 points, according to a Time Warner Cable-Siena College poll. In the 21st district, it's Stefanik with a lead over Democrat Aaron Woolf and Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello by 13 points and 36 points, respectively, according to a WWNY-Siena College poll.

The Gibson lead confirms polling released by the United Transportation Union, which has donated to Gibson in the past, from earlier in the summer that showed him cruising. Gibson, who was first elected in 2010, leads by 41 points in the Capital Region, according to the new poll.

"This is a district where enrollment is somewhat evenly divided," Siena College pollster Steve Greenberg said. "I would anticipate that this race will tighten, but 24 points is a big margin to make up."

Greenberg added that in the last election cycle, Siena polls showed Gibson leading by 16 points in September but by just five points shortly before the election. He eventually won by roughly as much.

In the 21st district, which includes pieces of Warren, Washington, Saratoga and Fulton counties, previous polling data had not been released. While Stefanik leads her main party rival Woolf by 13 points — the Republican enrollment advantage in the district — independent votes and moderate voters from both parties have played an important role in the previous three elections, which Rep. Bill Owens, a Democrat, has won.

Among independents and other voters, Stefanik leads Woolf 39-38 and leads Funiciello 39-12. There are 79,965 active blank voters, as they're called by the state Board of Elections, in the district.

Stefanik leads 43-29 over Woolf in Capital Region counties.

Greenberg said that while Owens benefited in his first two races by having a Conservative Party candidate who siphoned votes from his Republican challenger, Woolf now has a Green Party candidate that could be taking votes away from him.

"In order to close the gap, he's (Woolf) got to bring the Democrats back home and he's got to do a little bit better with independents," Greenberg said, citing the fact that while Stefanik has strong Republican support (68 percent), Woolf has 56 percent of Democrats in his corner.

The polls also offered a regional look of the race for governor. In the 19th district, which runs from the Capital Region through the mid-Hudson Valley, Gov. Andrew Cuomo leads Republican Rob Astorino 39-36.

In the 21st district, which mostly covers the vast North Country, the race isn't as tight. Forty-four percent of voters said they would elect Cuomo, while 35 percent said they'd vote for Astorino.

Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins took 12 percent in both districts.

The 19th district poll surveyed 609 likely voters in the November election. The 21st district poll surveyed 591 likely voters.

mhamilton@timesunion.com 518-454-5431 @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

'New York Now' discusses primary

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 1:07am

'New York Now' reviews primary

Don't miss a special post-primary edition of "New York Now," the award-winning co-production of WMHT and the Times Union. Among the highlights:

WMHT's Matt Ryan runs down the events of the week, including a stronger-than-anticipated showing from Democratic challenger Zephyr Teachout.

The Reporters Roundtable features Casey Seiler of the Times Union, Jimmy Vielkind of Capital New York, Karen DeWitt of New York State Public Radio and Ryan discussing what the primary means for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his challengers in November, as well as the delicate matter of control of the state Senate.

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

—Staff report

Categories: State/Local

Thruway Authority: E-ZPass overcharged 35,000 motorists

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 09/17/2014 - 1:07am

In a reminder that not all automated systems are foolproof, the state Thruway Authority on Thursday said it mistakenly overcharged about 35,000 E-Z Pass customers between Aug. 14 and Sept. 5.

Thruway spokesman Dan Weiller declined to say precisely how much the overcharges amounted to but said they would have affected people differently, depending on whether they were making a one-time visit or commuting.

The overcharges were for drivers getting on the Thruway, or I-87, northbound from Route 17 at Harriman.

The error did not affect other motorists who went through the busy Exit 16 toll barrier, below which the Thruway heads toward Rockland County, the New York City metropolitan area and New Jersey.

"The Thruway Authority apologizes for this inconvenience," officials said in a prepared statement released late Thursday.

Thruway officials added that the overcharges have already been credited to affected motorists and will show up on their next statement.

"Customers do not need to contact the Thruway Authority or E-ZPass to receive a credit for overcharges," the statement noted.

The exit leads to the popular Woodbury Commons shopping plaza.

Weiller said staff members identified the error and moved to correct it.

Thruway officials have said that eventually they would like to go to a fully automated toll system.

Motorists using tollbooths with toll takers and paying cash were not affected.

Teamsters who represent toll takers said the incident shows the value of having real people on the job.

"You would think that you would want to have people out there," said Martin Latko, president of Teamsters Local 72. The Thruway carried out layoffs last year, eliminating 8 percent of its workforce, or 234 of 2,968 employees, including toll takers.

Customers who believe that they were overcharged and do not see the credit on their next month's statement can contact the New York E-ZPass Customer Service Center at 800-333-8655. Or they can check their E-ZPass accounts online at http://www.E-ZPassNY.com.

rkarlin@timesunion.com • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Totals show decline of machine power

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Gov. Andrew Cuomo met the standard definition of a political rout in Tuesday's Democratic gubernatorial primary, scoring 62 percent of the vote statewide.

The Capital Region was a different story.

Here, it was challenger Zephyr Teachout and her running mate, Tim Wu, who walked past Cuomo and Kathy Hochul with little resistance. The slimmest margin between Cuomo and Teachout was in Schenectady County (16 percent), while the widest gap (32 percent) came from Saratoga County. On average, the four-county area opted for Teachout almost 2 to 1, or 60 percent to 33 percent for Teachout — a virtual flip of the statewide numbers.

And the Capital Region wasn't alone in giving a majority of its support to Teachout, who won 34 percent of the vote statewide. Thirty counties outside of New York City supported the Fordham University law professor. In another seven counties, Cuomo won with an edge of 10 percent or less.

Theories abounded as to why Capital Region voters specifically showed discontent with the incumbent. Some said the region's large state workforce population played a key role in the regional upset. Public Employees Federation President Susan Kent proclaimed in a statement Wednesday that Cuomo should now better understand PEF members' worries about an uncertain future.

"We hope this learning moment for the governor will result in a true partnership with us, his professional workforce, and a more humanistic approach to the services we provide to the citizens of New York state," she said. Kent was elected largely as a result of members' anger over a 2011 austerity contract reached under former PEF President Ken Brynien.

That sentiment was backed up by former Gov. David Paterson, now serving as Democratic state chairman, who said public employees and teachers unhappy over Cuomo's championing of a new evaluations system were motivated voters in the primary.

"When less people vote, the most passionate groups have the loudest voice, and both the map and numbers showed exactly that," Paterson said in a statement.

The low numbers didn't necessarily come because of a lack of local Democratic institutional support. Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan was featured in Cuomo's nomination video at the state Democratic convention in May. She came out with Albany County Executive Dan McCoy and a slew of other local elected officials — including mayors of the region's other four major cities — to back the Cuomo-Hochul ticket last week.

Still, 11th-hour get-out-the-vote efforts appeared to be focused on Teachout and Wu, with a group of 20 or so backers standing on Monday evening at the intersection of Washington Avenue and State Street in Albany to drum up support for the progressives.

Such efforts, some local political observers noted, fill the vacuum left by the decline of the Democratic machine.

"A lot of people have said the issues are the division between the vote totals in New York City and upstate, but I think it has more to do with the machine being stronger in the city, and upstate people are more committed to their progressive values," Green Party gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins said Wednesday.

Political consultant Bruce Gyory said progressive candidates have done well in Democratic primaries in Albany County over the past 10 years. "The old machine does not have the ability to deliver the primary vote the way it once did," he said. "What we saw yesterday was a portrait of a low-turnout Democratic primary vote that is driven by highly educated liberal white voters."

Then there are the issues. Teachout picked up on opposition to hydrofracking and hit Cuomo on school funding, government corruption and campaign finance reform. She played to the public employee unions that have members across the Capital Region, and ended up winning in the Hudson Valley and pockets of the Southern Tier.

In the end, though, while Teachout was victorious in counties from Putnam through to the Canadian border and in some west toward Rochester, she didn't win the major population centers she needed, except Albany. Cuomo won commanding victories in New York City and its suburbs, while his attentions to Buffalo — including his selection of Hochul — paid off across western New York.

After making no appearances on primary night, Cuomo ventured to Buffalo for a rally with his running mate. Without mentioning his general election opponent by name, Cuomo hammered "ultraconservatives."

"We are moving forward ... and we are not going back, and you're not slowing us down, and you're not bringing your gridlock," Cuomo said to raucous applause. " ... You think the primary win was something? You wait until you see what we do in November."

mhamilton@timesunion.com • 518-454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

Casino workers union raps gaming firm

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

A large casino workers union has written to the state Gaming Commission complaining about Rush Street Gaming, the company trying to obtain licenses to run gambling houses in Schenectady and Newburgh.

The letter from Chris Margoulas, assistant to the president of Unite HERE, says that ongoing labor disputes with Rush Street's three domestic casinos, in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Des Plaines, Ill., are unresolved despite settlements made between the company and the National Labor Relations Board.

The letter asserts that workers at casinos run by the Chicago-based firm have reported "illegal harassment by casino managers including threats, surveillance and other intimidation."

Unite HERE has been trying to unionize Rush Street properties for years. Efforts began in Philadelphia in August 2011, at Pittsburgh in April 2011 and in Des Plaines in October 2013. The letter says workers have encountered several roadblocks considered improper, including firing some who spoke publicly about desiring better working conditions and fair process.

Lee Park, a gaming commission spokesman, confirmed receiving the letter. Unite HERE sent copies to members of the Gaming Facility Location Board, which will recommend projects for licensing this fall.

Rush Street is partners with Galesi Group in Schenectady on a proposed $330 million hotel and casino along the Mohawk River at the former American Locomotive plant site. It is partnering with Saratoga Harness on a much bigger project proposed for Newburgh.

In an unusual situation, Peter Ward, the head of the large New York City local of Unite HERE, appears in a video touting another Saratoga Harness project, a casino planned for East Greenbush.

A principal of Saratoga Harness extolled Rush Street on Tuesday, citing the "extraordinary reviews" the firm receives in the markets where it operates.

Asked about the union's complaints, Rush Street Chairman Neil Bluhm and CEO Greg Carlin said the company's record speaks for itself. During two days of presentations to the siting board earlier this week, the company emphasized it has won repeated best-employer awards at its three casinos for years.

"We certainly have disputes with companies all the time, but there is nothing like this anywhere else," said Martin Leary, gaming research director for Unite HERE. The union has 275,000 members in hospitality and food service jobs, including about 100,000 casino workers.

In a statement, Rush Street Gaming said:

"In upstate New York, Capital Region Gaming and Hudson Valley Casino & Resort have both entered into labor peace agreements with the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council. Rush Street Gaming has a proven track record of honoring its commitments; and if selected for a gaming license in New York state, looks forward to working with the Hotel and Motel Trades Council."

jodato@timesunion.com518-454-5083@JamesMOdato

Categories: State/Local

9/11 illness benefit arrives at last

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Jamie Hazan's 13-year quest to receive workers compensation payments for the illness he contracted while performing volunteer work at the World Trade Center following 9/11 ended Tuesday, when he received his first check.

It arrived via overnight mail, just two days before the 13th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

The check doesn't mark the end of his battle. Hazan plans to advocate for what could be hundreds of other volunteers who rushed to Ground Zero to help with rescue efforts, and were unwittingly hurt by the toxic fumes swirling around the mammoth pile.

Thursday marks the deadline for 9/11 recovery workers to register with a special fund set up by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers.

"It's sort of my duty, as one who has won this case, to speak to as many people as I can," Hazan, 43, said from his home in Jersey City, N.J.

Hazan's odyssey began hours after the terrorist attacks. The trained paramedic was living in Manhattan at the time and decided to pitch in. He went down to Ground Zero and helped organize and stack supplies, and performed other tasks as needed.

It wasn't until a few years later that he started noticing symptoms similar to those suffered by others who were at Ground Zero. Coughing fits, asthma-like breathing problems as well as "constant" sinus and lung infections started surfacing.

"You're not just coughing at work," he recalled. "For a few days you can't get out of bed. ... You learn that you're sick over a period of time -— it doesn't have an active onset."

Hazan became unable to work, and gave up what had been a growing web design venture he had started.

Hazan was initially rebuffed by the workers compensation system in 2010 when he went to seek help. State officials said he had not been "serving under the direction of an authorized rescue entity or volunteer agency," according to legal papers. A series of lawyers took up his plight only to fade away.

Eventually, Albany Law school professor and lawyer Michael Hutter took on the case through a pro bono legal program run by the state Bar Association.

Hutter successfully argued even that as an unofficial volunteer, Hazan should be eligible for workers compensation. An appellate court agreed, saying the Legislature didn't exclude volunteers not part of an agency or recognized group from the possibility of collecting compensation of about $400 per week.

"It seemed unjust in light of all the legislative action," Hutter said of the state's indifference to Hazan and volunteers in similar distress.

It's unclear how many other Ground Zero volunteers may have suffered exposure to toxins, but Hazan thinks there could be hundreds.

The Workers Compensation Board notes that people who worked at Ground Zero or the Fresh Kills Landfill that was the destination for a large amount of the debris, as well as the barges, piers and morgues that saw 9/11-related activity in the year after the 2001 attacks should sign up even if they aren't sick, to reserve their compensation rights in case they become ill at a later date. There is a special World Trade Center Registry for such people.

So far, 2,085 workers involved in the rescue, recovery and clean-up are receiving or have received a workers compensation benefit. Almost 42,000 people have registered their 9/11 service so far, according to the compensation board.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758 @RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local
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