An immigration reform rally (pbs.org)
On June 15, 2012, Kurt was interning at his mother's insurance brokerage firm in Long Island, having wrapped up a rigorous freshman year as a finance major in the Macaulay Honors Program at Baruch College. He got a text from his aunt saying, "Did you hear the news about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)?" Kurt went online and read about President Obama's immigration initiative that allows undocumented young adults who grew up in the United States a two-year deportation reprieve, work authorization, and the ability to obtain a driver's license. It was Obama's response to immigration reform stalling in Congress after the 2010 defeat of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.
"I actually started crying," Kurt said. "I couldn't contain myself. Now there will be so much opportunity that will open up to me."
A twenty-one-year-old Guyana native, Kurt came to the United States when he was five years old. He has been active in the New York State Youth Leadership Council, lobbying and organizing for the recently defeated New York DREAM Act. Kurt attended a DACA orientation sponsored by Atlas DIY, an advocacy group for undocumented youth, and asked it's executive director, Lauren Burke, to handle his application. He was her first approval. This summer he will have an internship with JP Morgan.
Kurt is representative of the first wave of college bound and college enrolled "dreamers" who are invested in immigration reform and rushed to apply for the DACA program when it was launched nearly two years ago.
Nationally, applications for DACA peaked in October 2012, with 116,222 applications that month alone, but they have steadily dropped since, dipping to a total of 36,309 for the final three months of 2013. In New York City, an estimated 79,000 people may be eligible for DACA, 16,000 of whom lack the necessary education qualifications, notes the New York Legal Assistance Group, which provides free legal services to DACA applicants. According to immigration analysts and advocates, misunderstanding about eligibility and barriers that many immigrants face in meeting DACA's requirements are behind the drop and have kept a large segment of the city's immigrant population from applying.
The latest version of the federal DREAM Act, introduced on May 11, 2011, would allow students who came to the U.S. at age 15 or younger and at least five years before the date of the bill's enactment to qualify for conditional permanent resident status upon acceptance to college, graduation from a U.S. high school, or being awarded a high school equivalency certificate in the U.S.
The conditional permanent resident status would last six years and count toward the residency requirements for naturalization. During that time, unrestricted lawful permanent resident status would be granted if the applicant had graduated from a two-year college or certain vocational colleges, studied for at least two years toward a B.A. or higher degree, or served in the U.S. armed forces for at least two years.
The educational requirements for DACA are broader than those of the DREAM Act and reflect the range of immigrants' educational experiences. The memo that created DACA says that to qualify, a person must show, among other things, that he or she is "is currently in school, has graduated from high school, or has obtained a general education development certificate." U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has interpreted the "currently in school" language to include literacy and job training programs.
Still, for many immigrants, DACA is equated with the DREAM Act, the main beneficiaries of which would be college students. "People who were extremely plugged into the pro-immigration movement had the most to gain from DACA," said Dr. Arianna Martinez of LaGuardia Community College in Queens, who specializes in local impacts of immigration policy. "People who fit the age and other requirements about how long they've lived here but don't have a high school diploma and are working don't see themselves as eligible for DACA."
Along with eligibility confusion, the steep application fee of $465 has been another barrier, particularly in homes where more than one person is eligible. "If there's going to be a fee, it was hoped it would go toward a permanent solution that would lead to a green card or citizenship," said Bridget Splain, Project Coordinator, Office of New Americans Opportunity Center at Mercy Center in Mott Haven, the Bronx.
It's this segment of the city's immigrant population, the under-educated and poor youth, that the New York City Council set out to reach through its January infusion of an additional $18 million into literacy education and high school equivalency (HSE) programs specifically for undocumented immigrants. The funds also cover the cost of legal assistance and DACA application fees, as well as outreach efforts by community organizations.
Betsy Plum, Outreach Coordinator for the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), is working with over 200 immigrant services organizations to get the word out about DACA. Where in the past immigrant services groups rarely connected with each other, NYIC is liaising to increase awareness of the range of services offered throughout the five boroughs.
"It's really wonderful to get adult education, legal providers and outreach providers all in one room and say, "How do you navigate the issues with someone who would legally qualify for DACA if you can get them into an adult education class?" said Plum. "It's making connections with different programs, knowing that program X is really great for individuals who work nights."
Reaching the "hard to reach" involves a mix of traditional and newer tactics such as posting flyers in native languages, advertising in the immigrant press and using social media. "We have a YouTube channel with 2 or 3-minute segments where we answer people's questions about DACA and it's utilized by a lot of older people who can't go to a workshop at 2 o'clock in the afternoon but they can access the internet 24 hours a day," said Atlas DIY's Burke.
There's also a lot of pavement pounding. Outreach workers who speak the target population's language and are often from the same country go to Mexican day-laborer sites, Chinese restaurants in Sunset Park and Korean churches in Flushing.
For education providers, the additional City funding has already made a difference in meeting the huge demand for free English as a Second Language (ESL) services and high school equivalency education that many foreign-born seek. The Highbridge Community Life Center in the Bronx has been able to add three additional ESL and HSE classes. "Where we're located in the Bronx, there's a large immigrant population and there is always more demand than what we can provide," said director Echo Shumaker-Pruitt.
The Chinese American Planning Council, located in the heart of Chinatown on Elizabeth Street has also been able to expand its ESL services. "Yes, we're offering more classes due to the City Council funding," said Simon Chiew, Director of the Workforce Development Division. "We can offer over 100 more slots this year."
Pruitt added that while they offer the necessary educational services to help individuals qualify for DACA, it's not up to the educational providers to determine eligibility. "We just take people that have the potential of being eligible because they meet the age requirement, then we refer them to legal providers who determine if they are eligible for DACA if that is something they're interested in pursuing," Pruitt said. "There might be some people who are interested in DACA but maybe they can apply for citizenship or a green card."
Another hurdle the DACA-eligible face is difficulty establishing continuous residency in the United States, something that is less an issue for younger applicants still living with parents. "As an undocumented person the number one thing you learn is you have to stay in the shadows and try not to establish a paper trail of your presence here," said Elisa Gahng, Staff Attorney with MinKwon Center For Community Action in Flushing. "Now in order to apply for DACA you have to prove your presence through documentation."
Finding documents that prove continuous residence can take some ingenuity. "We've used sonograms, mammograms, birth certificates of children born in the U.S. and children's vaccination records," said Splain.
The current policy is that individuals whose cases are under consideration for DACA will not be referred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The policy also covers the applicant's family members and guardians.
"One of our jobs is to make sure we inform people so that they really understand what this process is," said Splain. "Certainly people are anxious, but once they understand how the process works, I don't feel that fear is at the forefront. There's more hope than fear."
The extra City Council funding and the push by outreach and education groups to inform potential applicants is paying off. "There are just 21 counties throughout the country that had more than 1,000 applicants in the first months after DACA's 2012 launch, Martinez said. "NYIC told me they've screened 650 new people since the funding got rolled out just a few months ago. That's pretty good when I think about it in that larger context."
Although DACA recipients are ineligible for health insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act, NYIC sponsors workshops on how to access New York State Medicaid and other local healthcare resources. "It's not just you got your DACA, so now go about your business," said Martinez.
Martinez added that immigrant outreach organizations are working beyond DACA for more comprehensive immigration reform. "It's very important to a lot of community-based organizations that while they're trying to process more people into DACA, they're simultaneously pushing for the New York DREAM Act. There's concern about what happens when we've helped all these people move through ESL or the HSE and then we want to help them move toward higher education and they just can't afford it. It's important and connected." The recently defeated version of the New York DREAM Act would have expanded state tuition assistance to DACA recipients and undocumented students.
For 30-year old DACA applicant Angel, inability to afford costs without access to State aid caused his college plans to derail. "I had to stop attending college because I couldn't afford it so I was forced to work," he said.
The Dominican Republic native came to the United States at the age of 9 for what he thought would be a visit with his parents. Once here, his parents told him the U.S. would be his new home.
Angel said that during his elementary and high school years his parents encouraged him to study, but as he neared the end of high school, he realized that his immigration status was an issue that needed to be resolved.
Angel now works part-time off the books teaching martial arts to high school students in his Brooklyn neighborhood. He hopes to resume his college studies and major in architecture once his DACA application is accepted.
"DACA will give me work authorization and I'll pay taxes," he said. "That will be just a start. I'll be able to find a better job, get paid a little more, save money, go back to school, get a degree. I think that's perfect."
by Hayley Camacho for Gotham Gazette
CM Robert Cornegy Jr discussing his audible alarms bill (William Alatriste)
A few months into his first term as a member of the New York City Council, Brooklyn's Robert Cornegy Jr. has tapped into his experience in city government and community activism to embrace his role as chair of the Council's small business committee and pursue legislation to help those in his district and around the city. Recently, the council member, who represents Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights neighborhoods, introduced two pieces of legislation to the Council: an amendment to the new paid sick leave law to ease the burden on small businesses devastated by Hurricane Sandy, and a bill that calls for audible alarms on the outward-leading doors of schools housing students in pre-K to fifth grade or District 75 (special needs) students.
Council Member Cornegy sat down with Gotham Gazette to discuss these two pieces of legislation and much more. In part one of the interview, Cornegy discusses these two initiatives with Gotham Gazette's executive editor Ben Max:
Stay tuned to Gotham Gazette for the other parts of our interview with the council member on a wide range of topics.
New York State and the federal government have come to a deal to use $8 billion in Medicaid savings to, in part, help revive Brooklyn hospitals. Struggling hospitals will receive $500 million of the funds for short-term survival, while $6.42 billion will go to help hospitals and other institutions across the state find long-term solutions. Brooklyn hospitals including Interfaith Medical Center, Wyckoff Heights Medical Center and Brookdale University Hospital are expected to be saved by the funds. Mayor Bill de Blasio made saving Brooklyn’s hospitals one of his major campaign platform planks. Last summer, De Blasio was arrestedprotesting the closure of Long Island College Hospital, which is still open. A tentative deal on the Medicaid savings was reached between the feds and the State in February, but a final agreement was announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. "We will finally be able use the billions in savings we generated by reforming the state's Medicaid system to protect and improve health care services for millions of New Yorkers," Cuomo said in a statement.
The latest from Gotham Gazette
The Week Ahead in New York Politics A preview of what to expect this week from New York City and from Albany. De Blasio 100: What the Mayor Said, and Didn't Analysis of Mayor de Blasio's hundredth day speech, which was titled "On the Future of New York City" Kill Fee: The Price of Silencing Moreland A look at how much the now-disbanded Moreland Commission on Public Corruption cost New York taxpayers and what they may get for the investment.
Other Stories We're Following
Moreland Chair Defends Commission (Daily News)
Cuomo Staffer Wrote Moreland's Report (City & State )
Mark-Viverito Still Hasn't Opened Bronx Office (NY Observer)
Landlords to Repay Over $1 Million in Fees (NY Times)
Espaillat Picks Up Bronx Endorsements (NY Times)
Cuomo Accepts Pro-Charter Role (Times Union)
We've heard of Storm Recovery funds to help communities rebuild after events like Hurricane Irene or Superstorm Sandy.
Now, there are Pothole Dollars.
The funding stream is dubbed Extreme Weather Recovery and the Capital Region will get more than $2 million in the recently approved 2014-15 state budget to help rebuild the area's winter-battered roads.
That's the region's share of a $40 million addition to the state's $438 million road and bridge fund, called CHIPS or Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program.
The money isn't explicitly earmarked to fill potholes. But local lawmakers last month started pushing for the extra money because the unusually cold and snowy winter had turned many local roads to rubble.
"This past winter took its toll on New York's infrastructure, but the state is stepping up to help municipalities make necessary repairs," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in statement.
The decision to add the funding was made before the budget was finished, but the governor announced the breakdown of how much will go to the various counties, cities and towns in the state on Thursday. "These resources will go a long way toward helping local governments sturdy their infrastructure for future winters.''
The money is being allocated using the same formulas that distribute the regular highway funds.
Lawmakers are not in session next week.
Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk of Duanesburg earlier in the week said she's driven more than 20,000 miles in her 46th district, which runs from the Amsterdam area down past Kingston.
Local highway budgets, she said, "were already being wiped out by overtime payments for plow drivers, as well as the costs of road salt."
GOP Sen. Greg Ball, from the lower Hudson Valley urged people to list potholes on his website.
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A downstate lawyer has gone to federal court seeking an injunction against Tuesday's deadline for a key provision of the SAFE Act gun control law to take effect.
"We're not challenging the ban," Robert La Reddola said of the 2013 law that outlaws certain kinds of assault style weapons and sets an April 15 deadline by which owners must register such guns if they were "grandfathered'' or purchased before the ban took effect last year.
"But there is some really bad stuff in there that has come to light," La Reddola said of the law.
He believes the law and accompanying guidelines for its enforcement would allow local authorities to go to a home and confiscate non-assault weapons such as hunting rifles or shotguns if that person were to be denied a pistol permit or have one revoked, or if the owner had difficulty keeping the grandfathered assault weapons.
New York requires locally issued permits to own handguns under a law that has been in place for years.
But La Reddola believes the SAFE Act opens the door for allowing police to piggyback confiscation of so-called "long guns" like shotguns or hunting rifles if an owner loses a pistol permit.
That, he maintains, is a violation of due process rights because a gun owner should have a hearing or legal proceeding before those guns are confiscated.
"If you do register an assault rifle and already lost or surrendered a pistol license ... you are now subject to mandatory removal of all rifles and shotguns," La Reddola said in a web post on his injunction request.
"Some supervision by a court needs to take place prior to police enforcement.''
He has filed an application for a restraining order in federal Eastern District Court against the deadline.
La Reddola filed on behalf of Gabriel Razzano, a Freeport, Long Island, man who lost his pistol permit and numerous rifles that police took from his home after he had a run-in in 2007 with U.S. Rep Carolyn Maloney outside her offices.
Razzano, according to court papers, had 15 registered handguns as well as nine rifles and shotguns. He was member of the anti-immigrant "Minute Man" movement and kept a noose in his minivan.
The courts found that police violated his 14th Amendment rights to due process when they took his rifles and shotguns as well as his handguns after that license was revoked.
La Reddola stressed that his case focuses on due process rather than the Second Amendment.
Part of the problem, he said, stems from inconsistency in how handgun permits are issued in New York.
They are generally issued by judges upstate, but police oversee the permits in some downstate jurisdictions including Long Island's Nassau and Suffolk counties.
"New York state is a patchwork of local laws for pistols," he said, while the SAFE Act covers the entire state.
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State Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah, the man at the center of growing frustration over the state's failure to rule on a controversial form of gas drilling, is telling people he will leave his post in June, a state official said.
Shah, a Buffalo native, is leaving to become senior vice president and chief operating officer for clinical operations for the southern California region of the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, the official said.
Shah's pressing business will be handed off to Dr. Howard Zucker, who joined the Department of Health as first deputy commissioner in September after working as a professor of anesthesiology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a pediatric cardiac anesthesiologist at Montefiore Medical Center.
Zucker's portfolio will include the agency's 18-month review of the potential health impacts of the gas-drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking.
That review began in September 2012 with no set end date.
Shah's departure is said to have been in the works for some time, and he began notifying people of his decision on Tuesday night, the official said.
But news of it broke on the same day that Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino called on him to step down over the Health Department's alleged lax approach to inspecting abortion clinics and over Shah's refusal to say when the department's hydrofracking review will be complete.
Amid mounting frustration from pro-fracking interests who insist Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration is squandering the chance to capitalize on the economic boom of shale gas drilling, Shah has insisted the study will take as long as is necessary and will be transparent "at the end, not during" — a statement that only further incensed his critics.
Shah is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale School of Medicine. He was tapped for the post shortly after Cuomo took office in January 2011. He came to the job having studied ways to improve care by digitizing patients' medical records.
To that end, the state budget adopted last week by the Legislature includes $65 million to continue the development of a statewide electronic medical records system.
Howie Hawkins of the state Green Party is pitching himself as the only truly independent gubernatorial alternative on the left side of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who in recent months has received brickbats from some progressive advocates.
After four years, "I think there's a lot more discontent with Cuomo among certain constituencies," Hawkins said at a Wednesday news conference at the Capitol. "Teachers feel disrespected; state workers feel under attack; parents are really upset about Common Core and this whole agenda."
Hawkins' platform, a "Green New Deal" that's largely carried over from his 2010 run for governor, offers a sweeping progressive and environmental wish list. It ranges from a modern Works Project Administration-style job corps to fight unemployment and the implementation of a single-payer health care system to tuition-free higher education and a shift to 100 percent clean energy by 2030.
Hawkins also wants to see a "Clean Money" system for public financing of elections that goes a step beyond the plan pushed by Cuomo and other Democrats. While that plan creates a 6-1 public match of small-donor contributions, Hawkins' plan would make non-matchable private donations off-limits to candidates.
"The bottom two-thirds of us really have a hard time making ends meet, and our political representatives — representing the 1 percent, the big banks and the corporations — have utterly failed to solve these problems," said Hawkins, a longtime activist who maintains his day job as a worker at UPS in Syracuse.
Hawkins had a message for members of the state Working Families Party, another progressive party that's reportedly contemplating fielding a candidate.
"I think they should run against Cuomo," Hawkins said of the WFP. "I think they should nominate me."
He said this would require the Green Party to change its rules to allow him to accept cross-endorsement from a party that also cross-endorses Democrats and Republicans.
"We're ready to talk" with the WFP, Hawkins said. "Unfortunately, I think their whole strategy is to be a lobby within the Democratic Party. ... It's going to be hard for some of their leaders to come out against Cuomo."
In the 2010 election for governor, Hawkins pulled almost 60,000 votes — enough to win his party a ballot position for four years — while the WFP followed its habit of cross-endorsing the Democratic candidate, drawing 155,000 Cuomo votes on its line.
Without naming names, Hawkins referred to third parties that engage in "political ventriloquism — where we say, 'Vote for the old parties on our line and we'll send them a message.' I think the message to the politicians is, 'We can take (those voters) for granted: They're going to vote for us anyway.'"
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Politicos are marveling at the fact that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing a problem he can’t make easily go away now that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has seized the files of The Moreland Commission on Public Corruption and made clear that he is willing to investigate the governor’s influence on the commission as well as broader legislative corruption. Capital New York writes that Cuomo won’t be able to disembowel Bharara like he has his political rivals in the Democratic Party because Bharara’s position is so powerful and independent of the governor. Members of Moreland continue to speak anonymously about the Cuomo Administration’s meddling and “bullying” and a group has launched an ad blitz attacking Cuomo for abandoning his fight against corruption. The trouble comes for Cuomo as he gears up for reelection and tries to keep the dissatisfied Working Families Party from endorsing a challenger on his left. Cuomo already faces the criticism of Republican opponent Rob Astorino and Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, as well as good government groups and other activists.New this morning from Gotham Gazette The Week Ahead in New York Politics A preview of what to expect this week from New York City and from Albany. ICYMI from Gotham Gazette De Blasio 100: What the Mayor Said, and Didn't Analysis of Mayor de Blasio's hundredth day speech, which was titled "On the Future of New York City" Kill Fee: The Price of Silencing Moreland A look at how much the now-disbanded Moreland Commission on Public Corruption cost New York taxpayers and what they may get for the investment.
Other Stories We're Following
Carneb Farina in Her First 100 Days (Capital)
Assault Weapon Deadline at Hand (Times Union)
Spano on State Board of Elections (Times Union)
The Mayor’s Next 100 Days (Crain's)
James Maney, executive director of the state Council on Problem Gaming, recalled a legislative hearing on casino expansion in which he was the 38th person to speak — and when his turn came, the session had been almost completely abandoned by the crowd of lawmakers who had been there when it began.
"Today I'm the second," he told members of the state Gaming Commission on Wednesday. " ... It's wonderful."
It might seem counterintuitive that a warrior in the fight against addictive gambling should praise the state panel that will be ultimately responsible for the addition of up to seven new resort casinos in New York state, but the kind words from Maney were echoed by many of the more than a dozen experts and advocates who attended the daylong hearing at Empire State Plaza.
Their collective message: Now is the time for the state to get it right.
Mark Gearan, the Gaming Commission's newly installed chair, began by saying that each new casino in New York — beginning with four upstate, including one in the Capital Region, that could be licensed as soon as the fall — will be required to implement a plan to address addictive gambling.
Gearan, also the president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, promised that the commission would show an "enhanced focus" on the problem, and would "foster a responsible environment for the gaming industry."
He said the expected revenue stream flowing into treatment programs from new casino development would move New York from the middle of the pack in terms of per capita state spending to become one of the top 10; among states with populations larger than 10 million, the Empire State is poised to move into the No. 2 spot, Gearan said.
In addition to two of Gearan's fellow members of the Gaming Commission, the hearing drew Arlene Gonzalez-Sanchez, commissioner of the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.
The leadoff witness was Sarah Nelson of the Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard Medical School, who offered a survey of research on problem behaviors related to gambling. While anti-casino advocates have predicted a flood of fresh cases as new casinos come online, Nelson said that the best research to date suggests that after an initial "novelty" phase, rates of addictive gambling settle back to around 1 percent of the total population — what researchers refer to as an "infection" model in which a population develops resistance.
It's a percentage that, as Christine Reilley of the National Center on Responsible Gaming later noted, doesn't seem to have grown appreciably despite two decades of gambling expansion nationwide.
There was much discussion of how to craft the best "self-exclusion" plan, in which problem gamblers can voluntarily have themselves barred from casinos. These programs vary widely: Some are casino-specific while others are statewide; a few exclusion plans carry legal consequences or forfeiture of winnings for self-barred gamblers who try to sneak back in to casinos; there has been debate over how long they should run.
But self-exclusion, Nelson cautioned, "should not be considered treatment" for the root problem.
Problem gamblers, she noted, are statistically more likely to be white, male, low-income and have ready access to gaming. They also tend to believe "in their ability to control random events," she said.
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Despite a major breakdown with paper tax return processing last year, the state Department of Taxation and Finance is standing by its contractor while sending it a bill for more than $6 million.
An audit by the office of state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released on Wednesday found that last year's handling of paper returns was far worse than the tax department had portrayed. Auditors said 91 percent of New York income tax filers got late refunds in 2013 if they went the paper route. The reason was extraordinarily poor performance by the state's vendor and weak oversight by the tax department, auditors found.
The "cascading" mess, in which filers waited months for refunds that should have been processed in days, widened because the state had not prepared a backup plan if its new contractor could not handle the processing tasks. The problem, in which the vendor used software unable to keep up with a greater-than-expected avalanche of paper returns, caused the state to go into "crisis mode," requiring its public employees to stop what they were doing, such as auditing, to open mail and enter data.
The vendor, hired by the department as a preferred source contractor, is New York State Industries for the Disabled. It relied on its business partner, called SourceHOV, to do most of the work. NYSID has a $16 million, three-year deal with the tax agency. Auditors found that 1.8 million paper filers received late returns in 2013. The problem was reported by the Times Union last year as tax department officials attempted to downplay the issue or dodge questions, even in the midst of the crisis.
On Wednesday department officials maintained that delays occurred in a "small percentage of overall returns in the 2013 tax processing year" because the department factors in electronic returns. Tax department officials would not detail how big the problem was when the Times Union inquired last year.
The paper returns represented 12 percent of all returns, department officials eventually disclosed to the newspaper. The department sharply underestimated the number of paper filers, according to data provided by Geoffrey Gloak, a spokesman for Tax Commissioner Thomas Mattox. The department projected 1.4 million paper returns for 2013, but 2.4 million arrived.
This year the department recalculated and estimated 2.3 million paper returns would be received.
It also assigned 17 state staffers to oversee SourceHOV workers to help the company improve from the disastrous 2013. Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's auditors found that in a sample of 100 returns, 80 filers waited more than a month for their refunds last year. Processing is supposed to happen in seven days.
"Department officials agreed that SourceHOV failed to meet the minimum standard of performance for timeliness from the very start of the contract," auditors wrote.
The company was processing about a third of the volume required. Besides the low production, the returns handled contained errors and inaccuracies a fifth of the time. The state could assess heavy performance-related penalties, but Gloak would not say if that will happen.
Representatives of the contractor did not return calls, but Paul Quirini, a NYSID communications specialist, sent a statement: "We have worked closely with the state to address the issues that occurred last year, and we are confident those issues have been resolved."
The contractor will pay for extra costs, including more than $6 million in overtime wages the department was forced to pay personnel brought in to reinforce SourceHOV, Glock said. He could not say how much in interest on late refunds was paid last year.
He declined to provide details on penalties and could not say whether the salaries of the 17 staffers overseeing the contractor will be paid by the vendor. A comptroller's office spokesman said the tax department likely won't bill for the oversight and it remains to be seen if the contractor will pay the regular pay of state employees diverted to processing work last year. Gloak would not say why the department didn't cancel the contract. Auditors said the tax department "did not adequately assess the risks or potential impacts of a new vendor taking over the processing of paper returns." They faulted the department for not setting up contingency plans.
According to a copy of the contract obtained under the Freedom of Information Law, the tax department was free to terminate the deal "for convenience" even if the contractor's poor performance was because of causes beyond its control and not for negligence. The contractor has been paid $234,000 to date, mostly for start-up costs.
Auditors credited the tax department for taking some "significant" steps to address the problem, including testing the vendor's software and improving equipment and work flow. The department neglected to test the software firsthand and may have discovered SourceHOV's limitations earlier, auditors said.
"The current version of SourceHOV's software is operating well, with no defects noted in returns processing," auditors reported.
Yet DiNapoli said the department must examine if it is wise to farm out the processing. The department set up an option for free Internet-based electronic filing with no income restrictions and has boosted its ability to process returns in-house by creating a paper return processing center at the Harriman state office campus in Albany. "However, a decision about the long-term future of the processing of paper returns is not finalized," the auditors said.
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More than 1,000 patients are treated at Ellis Hospital Emergency Department each year for asthma, at a cost exceeding $2 million, according to Schenectady County Public Health Director Joanne Cocozzoli.
With better management of the chronic condition marked by shortness of breath, few of them should end up at the hospital, health officials said.
"They shouldn't have to come to the emergency room if their asthma is well-managed," said Schenectady County Medical Director David Pratt.
The County Health Department Wednesday was awarded $25,000 by the New York State Health Foundation to implement a proposal, called the Schenectady Asthma Support Collaborative, to help remedy the problem. The collaborative will bring together existing efforts of the county, Ellis and the Visiting Nurse Service. A recent survey of Schenectady residents found high rates of asthma in the city compared to the rest of the state.
Patients who show up at the Ellis ER with asthma will be offered a care coordinator, who will assist them in getting services through the Asthma Care-Education Program and home visits from Visiting Nurses, Cocozzoli said. The Asthma Care-Education Program teaches them about managing their condition, including the right way to use medicines, said Leslie Bristol, the program's coordinator.
Some patients get confused about their prescriptions — some medications are meant to treat sudden, acute problems; others to curb more common symptoms and keep flare-ups from occurring, she said.
Small changes in a person's home can make a big difference in a patient's ability to manage the disease, Ellis and county health officials said. Visiting nurses might recommend a change as easy as having a parent who smokes do so outside instead of indoors near asthmatic children, said Ellis President and CEO James W. Connolly. Or they might suggest buying cleaning supplies to reduce dust or pests that can set off asthma, Bristol said.
A similar initiative spearheaded by Children's Hospital Boston resulted in a 64 percent reduction in emergency department visits and a 41 percent reduction in missed school days among 259 children in the program for a year, according to a 2011 report.
The county hopes to raise another $25,000 to support the asthma collaborative, Pratt said.
Schenectady County Public Health Services was among 17 organizations to be awarded a total of $500,000 in grants Wednesday from the New York State Health Foundation. The others are outside of the Capital Region.
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CLIFTON PARK — A 20-year-old Brooklyn man faces additional felony charges linked to the theft of more than two dozen credit and debit card numbers from a now-closed Bethlehem restaurant, State Police said.
Saihing Chan had already been charged late last month by authorities in Albany County with identity theft, possession of a forged instrument, grand larceny and fraud for allegedly using the card numbers skimmed from customers at Golden Town Buffet Hibachi & Sushi on 9W to make fraudulent purchases.
Chan now faces two additional counts of identity theft, possession of a forged instrument and petit larceny because troopers say he also used counterfeit debit cards created with the stolen information for transactions in Saratoga County.
He was charged Wednesday by State Police, arraigned in Clifton Park Town Court and ordered to return to court at 3 p.m. May 15. He was sent back to the Albany County jail where he is being held without bail on the initial charges.
Another Brooklyn man, Heng Li, was sentenced in December to up to seven years in prison for using the skimming device — which resembles an ordinary credit card reader — to steal diners' account information for two months after the restaurant opened.
Li worked at the Bethlehem restaurant, whose owners police said have been cooperative throughout the investigation.
A note in the eatery's window last month said it was closed pending a "management transition."
Mayor de Blasio announces his press team (nyc.gov)
What to look for in New York politics this week, via the city and Albany:
After another busy week in New York City politics highlighted by the introduction of a bill in the City Council to provide municipal identification cards to all New Yorkers, including undocumented immigrants, and Mayor Bill de Blasio's speech "On the Future of New York City," given on his 100th day in office, the week ahead will surely have its fair share of news.
On Monday afternoon, the mayor will be making an announcement from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Politicker is reporting that it is fireworks-related.
Speaking of fireworks, there have also been reports that the battle over the next head of the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment has become quite contentious. Whether or not a film commissioner appointment is made this week, look for at least one or two major administration appointments as the lengthy mayoral transition concludes. Many have at least one eye on the post of FDNY commissioner, perhaps the most high-profile appointment the mayor has yet to make.
Meanwhile, word came on Friday that Mayor de Blasio's new Hurricane Sandy response team had delivered the promised "new comprehensive diagnostic report," with "extensive recommendations to provide financial relief to homeowners, engage local communities, and build a stronger, more resilient New York."
The announcement from the mayor's office explains that the report will be unveiled at an event on Thursday, April 17th, the details of which have yet to be foretold.
The city at-large awaits further word on municipal union contract negotiations, but it is unclear when any might come. The clock is ticking, however, as the administration returns to the fiscal year 2015 budget after the mayor released his preliminary outline, the City Council held a month of oversight hearings, and the State came to terms on its own budget deal. New union contracts should be settled by June 30 at the latest, the city's comptroller, Scott Stringer, has warned, so that they can be accounted for as the City Council passes the budget that day.
Typically, the mayor releases his revised executive budget in late April, which prompts the next round of council oversight hearings leading into the end of June agreement.
The City Council itself has no full-body "stated" meeting or any committee meetings scheduled for the week as the Passover and Easter holidays arrive and council members attend to constituent services in their districts, continue budget discussions, and prepare for the next round of those meetings, which begin on the 23rd.
The city's Department of Education (DOE) has been busy of late as chancellor Carmen Fariña revamps things under her purview. The DOE announced significant organizational overhaul last week after several policy items of late, including heightening requirements for becoming a principal and reducing the role of standardized tests in the student promotion process. The DOE has said that further announcements should be expected soon.
And a few things to look for from Albany:
Legislators continue their long post-budget April break this week - the Senate returns to the capital on the 23rd, the Assembly on the 28th - but that doesn't mean all is quiet in Albany. The fallout from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's decision to abruptly end The Moreland Commission on Public Corruption continues. Last week, Manhattan U.S. District Attorney Preet Bharara issued a stiff rebuke to Cuomo when his office seized Moreland's files and Bharara slammed Cuomo's decision to end the commission in an interview with WNYC's Brian Lehrer.
Bharara indicated that he would be inclined to look into allegations that Cuomo meddled in the commission. Moreland commissioners continue to speak to the press about their frustration with the Cuomo administration's involvement in the commission, albeit anonymously. Expect to hear more about Moreland this week.
The Moreland debacle comes as two men vying to replace Cuomo have geared up their campaigns and unions and progressive groups have expressed exasperation with Cuomo's agenda.
Westchester County Executive and Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rob Astorino seized on the Moreland controversy to attack Cuomo and demand he investigate Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins began a tour touting the "Green New Deal" as a progressive alternative to Cuomo's right-leaning economic agenda. Hawkins earned a surprising 50,000 votes in his challenge to Cuomo four years ago. This race is only going to pick up steam as spring blooms.
The other recent controversy in Albany that is sure to make more news this week is the argument over a public campaign financing system, especially the pilot program for the state comptroller's race that was part of the state budget deal of April 1. Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has declared he will not opt into the program, railing against the process by which it was designed.
Meanwhile, the resignation of health commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah has Albany on alert for potential action on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Shah has been documenting a health study of the process for three years and faced tremendous pressure to make a recommendation for or against the process. Some expect Shah's resignation could indicate that a decision from the Cuomo Administration on whether to allow the process is imminent.
With things appearing relatively quiet in Albany and city government, look to some of the 2014 electoral races for a bit more action - especially the race in New York's thirteenth congressional district, where Rep. Charles Rangel is facing stiff opposition in his reelection bid.
by Ben Max in New York City and David King in Albany
Advocates for organ, eye and tissue donation — including several whose lives have been changed by such donations — gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday to thank state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo for instituting changes they hope will boost New York's worst-in-the-nation sign-up rate.
Currently, only 22 percent of eligible state residents (roughly 3.4 million people) are enrolled in the Donate Life Registry — a number that Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, called "shocking." Meanwhile, New York has the third highest number of patients waiting for life-saving transplant surgery.
The problem, lawmakers and experts say, is that the state Department of Health and the Department of Motor Vehicles — a primary portal for signing up — don't do enough to market the registry.
The budget legislation, passed last week, includes language allowing the administration of the registry to be handed off to a public-private partnership, following a model that's now in place in other states. The Health Department is soon expected to release a Request For Proposal, which will be open only to existing organizations.
"There is a lot that government does best," said Gottfried, who chairs the Assembly's health committee, " ... but running a consumer-friendly system like the organ donor registry, experience in other states shows, can be done a lot better with a nonprofit organization."
Aisha M. Tator, executive director of the New York Alliance for Donation, said that the state's current sign-up process takes as long as 20 minutes, as opposed to as little as 60 seconds in Texas and many other states where public-private partnerships are in place.
"That's a deal-breaker — you're going to lose people," Tator said. " ... Today, the easiest way (to sign up), unfortunately, is to fill out a brochure and mail it in. And that's just not the way we do business anymore."
The Alliance for Donation plans to submit a proposal to the Health Department once the process begins.
Those who took part in Tuesday's news conference spoke with emotion about how organ donation had touched them or their families. Rachael Adler, a Schodack 12-year-old, told how what initially seemed like nothing more than a stomach virus in the summer of 2012 devolved into what was diagnosed by Albany Medical Center as total kidney failure.
"I woke up three days later in ICU," said Adler, who tearfully described the ensuing months of dialysis. In January 2013, after spending only 12 days on the waiting list at Boston Children's Hospital, Adler received a kidney from a 17-year-old girl who had died. Adler wants to become a kidney specialist.
Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Chautauqua, told of his cousin's sudden death from a brain aneurysm several years ago. "Within days, she had donated both kidneys, her heart, her eyes, her skin," Goodell said. "The family ... received letters from the recipients telling them that their mother saved their lives."
"What about us?" he asked. "Are we willing to save someone else's life?"
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There's a growing national thirst for craft beers, artisanal wine and hard cider, but that appetite can be frustrating for entrepreneurs who must overcome bureaucratic hassles before pouring the first glass.
Take the state rule against hard cider "growlers" at farmers markets.
While sellers of beer or wine can fill the jugs many devotees use, cider makers cannot — a hurdle for Sonya del Peral, who with her son Alejandro recently opened Nine Pin Cider Works in Albany.
"We're looking for some tweaks in the law," said del Peral, who took part in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's second "New York State Wine, Beer, Spirits and Cider Summit." The event at The Egg began with politicians, regulators and those in the spirits industry raising a glass to some recent successes — figuratively speaking, though the real thing came later in the day.
They talked about how Cuomo, who has tried to foster the growth of food-and-drink tourism, has eased regulations. Participants noted that there are now wineries in all of New York's 62 counties, and the Empire State has more breweries than Belgium does. (To be fair, we also have more people: about 19 million vs. 11 million in the Western European nation.)
To keep the spirits business bubbling along, Cuomo said he planned to push for legislation this year that could clear the way for more winery, brewery, distillery and cidery growth.
One topic that didn't come up was the push to sell wine in grocery stores, which has been put forth by lawmakers in recent years but hasn't drawn enough votes for passage.
Cuomo rolled out several initiatives to help reach consumers, including a $6 million marketing campaign. "A lot of your business is about promotion," Cuomo said.
The governor also said he was putting forth plans to simplify the process of getting distilling or brewing licenses, modernizing shipping laws and increasing the number of outlets, including an expansion of the Taste NY program to publicize New York-made products.
Cuomo has held several summits since taking office, highlighting tourism and other bright spots in the state's economy such as the growing consumption of Greek-style yogurt, which has helped the state's sizable dairy industry.
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New York is directing health officials and hospitals to identify best practices for safely handling patients in an effort to reduce rough lifting and better protect staff from back injuries.
Legislation proposed by the Cuomo administration and approved by lawmakers in the state budget will establish a working group at the Health Department to review national data and demonstration programs, identify best practices and report by July 2015.
New York hospitals are required to establish committees, consider those measures and establish their own safe patient handling programs by 2017.
"I've worked on floors with patients that are a heavy lift," said Assembly member Aileen Gunther, a Middletown Democrat who is also a registered nurse. "There are a lot of burnout nurses. They hurt their backs."
According to sponsors, techniques like using mechanical lifts will reduce workers' compensation claims, while helping lift, transfer and reposition paralyzed or otherwise immobile patients more steadily and gently than nurses and hospital aides can. Gunther pointed to recently built Orange Regional Medical Center with lifts that one nurse can use to immediately move a patient over a stretcher without waiting for help.
"This does not have to involve elaborate expenditures," said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Assembly Health Committee. "There is equipment that can be very effective and is readily moveable."
In New York, Democrats and public sector unions have historically been joined at the hip. But you might not know it from watching recent developments between some of the state's major unions and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the de facto head of the state party.
A few months ago, the president of the Civil Service Employees Association — the largest public workers union — called the governor a "monkey" and a "moron" at a rally.
Then the head of the second largest state union, the Public Employees Federation, said she hopes Cuomo faces a primary challenge when he runs for re-election this fall.
The latest chapter unfolded last weekend, when the membership of the powerful New York State United Teachers voted out the union's president of nine years, Richard Iannuzzi, and installed challenger Karen Magee.
NYSUT delegates were angry over a number of issues, including the spending habits of top union officials, but there was also plenty of anger — as well as some booing and jeering — aimed at the governor.
NYSUT's upset is perhaps more nuanced than that of CSEA and PEF, whose members remain irate that Cuomo forced them into contractual givebacks three years ago under the threat of layoffs.
Teachers are angry over the implementation of the Common Core, the new nationwide learning standards for students, which includes tests that will be used to evaluate teachers. Unlike CSEA and PEF, which represent mostly those on the state payroll, NYSUT comprises employees in hundreds of school districts across the state.
Labor leaders and political observers readily acknowledge the tensions between Cuomo and public sector unions.
"It does not appear from the criticisms heard of the governor at the recent NYSUT convention or in the rough language used by the presidents of PEF and CSEA ... that things are getting any better between Mr. Cuomo and these statewide unions," said Lee Howard Adler, an instructor on labor relations at Cornell University who has ties to the labor movement.
"I would certainly believe that some of the policies that the governor has been a part of creating have angered the unions," said NYSUT's Magee, a teacher from Westchester County — where Cuomo lives — who was fielding questions and interview requests on Monday, her first full day as the union's new president.
NYSUT members have for years complained about the governor's 2011 property tax cap, which has put the squeeze on New York state's high level of education spending. With schools trimming budgets and laying off teachers and making it harder to get raises, the constraint on property tax growth has had a direct impact on the union's finances.
A year ago, the Times Union reported that the union faces a multimillion-dollar deficit.
Cuomo drew more ire from teachers unions in recent weeks by throwing his support behind charter schools, an especially sensitive topic among NYSUT's New York City affiliate/partner, the United Federation of Teachers. Magee's election represents a stronger alignment with UFT.
Despite that, there is at least some indication that Cuomo wants to work with the teachers union on reforms to the Common Core program, which is being implemented by the state Board of Regents, which oversees the Education Department. Regents are elected by the Legislature, not the governor.
It was Cuomo who initially agreed to accept the Common Core standards as part of a U.S. Department of Education initiative that called for a teacher evaluation system in exchange for federal dollars.
Following completion of the 2014-15 state budget last week, the governor suggested a rethinking of how Common Core exams could be used in teacher evaluations. He noted that the budget includes a two-year ban on using Common Core tests results in determining if students should be promoted, or on their transcripts.
For the first time, the governor asked why that delay shouldn't also apply to teacher evaluations.
"That is an issue that we have not addressed, and we need to address before the end of the session," Cuomo said.
Such a delay or commensurate change to the evaluation structure "would be a great start for us," Magee said.
One unanswered question, though, is the extent to which Cuomo thinks he needs public sector labor support this fall.
With a heavy Democratic enrollment advantage, a $33 million campaign war chest and continued strong poll ratings, few observers are predicting Cuomo's defeat in November. And a third-party candidate, perhaps from the left-leaning Working Families Party, would be unlikely to derail the governor.
It could, however, send a message that progressives are unhappy, which if Cuomo ever seeks the presidency could become an obstacle in national primaries.
The governor could point to the support he receives from private sector unions and his progressive moves on issues like gun control or same-sex marriage.
But the ballot box isn't the only place continued anger by public sector unions could hurt Cuomo: There's also the Capitol, where many state lawmakers curry the support of the same labor groups.
Some unions, especially the large and well-financed NYSUT, could pose a headache if they are able to foment opposition among lawmakers or in localities, whose leaders remain upset over the tax cap.
"It could stir up opposition in the state Legislature," suggested Daniel DiSalvo, an assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York.
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The state Department of Health has found a new position for Jill Dunkel, the wife of a state contractor who was arrested in February for allegedly padding his expense account and filing other false charges.
The agency insists that Dunkel, who previously served as the assistant director of its Bureau of Immunization, was required to recuse herself from all matters, meetings and discussions concerning the Delmar-based chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics in New York, where her husband, George Dunkel, served as executive director.
DOH's seven-year-old contract with the organization to provide training and education on childhood immunization has been suspended.
George Dunkel was charged Feb. 28 with grand larceny and multiple counts of offering a false instrument after an investigation led by the offices of the state comptroller and attorney general concluded that he allegedly charged DOH at least $87,000 in bogus travel expenses, program material costs and fringe benefits including education credits.
Jill Dunkel joined DOH in August 2012 at a post within the Bureau of Tobacco Control. Three months later, she became the assistant director of the Bureau of Immunization.
Follwing her husband's arrest, Dunkel was reassigned to a DOH unit that has no connection to the work done by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
An AAP official directed questions about George Dunkel's status to its law firm, which did not respond to a request for comment.
The comptroller's office said the investigation is ongoing.
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State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli won't opt into the pilot program for public financing of campaigns cobbled together as part of last week's state budget agreement.
DiNapoli, a Democrat, has for years pushed for his office to lead the way as a statewide test for public financing; the state Assembly passed legislation in 2011 that would have created that system for this year's race. That bill was never taken up in the Senate, where Republicans oppose the use of taxpayer funds for campaigns.
The enacted budget calls for a public financing option for this year's comptroller race, a timeline that reform advocates have called unworkable. They also object to the plan's call for oversight by the state Board of Elections, an entity roundly criticized for its dysfunction.
In a statement released Monday morning by his campaign, DiNapoli called the plan contained in the budget "a poor excuse to avoid the real reforms New Yorkers deserve."
"At this point, I cannot participate in this pilot," he said. "I was always willing to have reform start with the comptroller's office, but I will not be a convenient sacrificial lamb. I hope that before the legislative session ends, there will be comprehensive campaign finance reform, as well as a reconsideration of the proposal I advanced, with realistic timeframes for successful implementation."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's spokesman Matt Wing released a statement expressing surprise at the comptroller's decision, arguing that the plan "was the comptroller's bill to begin with."
DiNapoli's office disputes that, and has distributed a chart comparing the two proposals.
"If he has specific concerns, we will modify the proposal," Wing said, "unless, of course, he just doesn't want to do public financing."
Cuomo proposed a broader campaign finance plan in his executive budget, but whittled it down in the face of opposition from Senate Republicans, who co-lead the chamber with five breakaway Democrats.
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U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara escalated his criticism of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's decision to shutter the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, which had only just begun. “It was disbanded before its time,” he said on WNYC's "Brian Lehrer Show." “Nine months may be the proper and natural gestational period for a child, but in our experience it is not the amount of time necessary for a public corruption prosecution to mature.” Bharara's office had a truck pick up documents from the commission yesterday, files full of "unseemly" information on elected officials. Bharara went on to stress the importance of independence in an investigative body, and said if there was interference into the commission's probes, it should be taken very seriously. Cuomo defended his actions, saying the commission was never meant to be a permanent body and that it produced tangible positive results. It was created after a rash of arrests of state lawmakers, brought on by Bharara's office.
New today from Gotham Gazette
De Blasio 100: What the Mayor Said, and Didn't
Ben Max examines the mayor's speech on "the future of New York City," noting some key elements included and missing.
ICYMI from Gotham Gazette
Kill Fee: The Price of Silencing Moreland
David King reports on the money spent by the corruption commission convened and disbanded by Governor Cuomo with minimal results.
De Blasio's Hundred Days, Then and Now
Ben Max outlines Bill de Blasio's first hundred days as mayor, as public advocate, and as a city council member, finding some common threads.
NYPD's Most-Sued Cop Taken Off Streets (Daily News)
Rangel and Challengers Meet in First Debate (NY Times)